A star is born: But is Adele worth all the hype?
Her debut album has shot to No 1, critics can't get enough of her, and like all the best pop stars she only goes by her first name. But has 19-year-old Adele got what it takes to stayat the top? Elisa Bray charts the rise of Croydon's latest soul sensation
Tuesday 05 February 2008
The first night of the Electric Proms, October 2007. At the festival organised by celebrity DJ and superstar record producer Mark Ronson, it wasn't stellar performances by The Charlatans' Tim Burgess nor the Kaiser Chiefs' Ricky Wilson everyone was talking about. Neither were the no-shows of Amy Winehouse – whose massive hit album Back to Black he produced – and Lily Allen the top subject for post-gig discussion. The news was a little-known soul singer called Adele.
Ronson had brought the 19-year-old – his latest "project" – out on to stage at the Roundhouse in north London and, in effect, anointed her in front of his fans.
She performed "Cold Shoulder", the song on her debut album 19 that Ronson had produced. It was here that Adele captured the attention and hearts of those watching. The strength and depth of her voice immediately drew the comparisons with Winehouse that would become increasingly common.
Click the arrow to listen to a clip of Adele's debut single 'Chasing Pavements'.
But, even before that night, Adele Adkins had already made her impression on the music scene. She started gigging in 2004 with just four self-penned songs under her belt, and by 2006 record labels had started to take notice. At the age of 18, she struck a deal with the independent label XL, home to The White Stripes, Dizzee Rascal and Radiohead. Without a single to her name, and before she had finished recording her album, in June last year she made her TV debut. Playing on a bill alongside Paul McCartney on Jools Holland's show, she performed an acoustic version of "Daydreamer".
This promising start turned into a spectacular rise when, in December, the singer won the first-ever Critics Choice prize at the Brit Awards. In some quarters, there were snide comments that the hype around her was so overblown that the new prize had been invented especially for her. Then, a month later, she came top of the BBC's Sound of 2008 poll, beating the singer-songwriter Duffy to the top spot.
The biggest compliment a music act can be paid is to be called a "band's band". What Adele's many supporters highlight is the praise she has garnered from her musical peers. This proves, so goes the argument, that her success is not simply the result of the media hype machine.
The video for 'Chasing Pavements'
The first star to champion the singer was Ronson, who not only takes credit for the retro sound of Back to Black but also produced part of Lily Allen's album Alright, Still. Since he and Adele collaborated on "Cold Shoulder", the pair have become close friends, with Ronson gallantly showing Adele round the bars and venues near his home in New York City.
She might need the education: Adele still lives with her mum. Recently, she has talked of the possibility of moving to New York. She describes Ronson in the tones of an ingénue, recently cooing to one music hack: "Mark is so funny. I always think he's about 24, but he's 32. He's old!"
It also helped that, when producer and rapper Kanye West posted the video to her new single "Chasing Pavements" on his blog with the comment: "This sh*t is dope!!!!!!!" She has been friends with the south London singer-songwriter Jack Penate since the pair met in 2006 at London's 333 club night Troubled Mind, and they're touring together in Japan this month. Mercury-nominated Jamie T is a fan – he released her first single on his label. Even Beyoncé has touted Adele as the "new British singer".
But look more closely at these connections. Adele first came to meet Mark Ronson at the XL offices; Jools Holland went to see her perform at Pop, a music venue, in Soho after hearing of her through XL. Penate is also on XL. And perhaps it is a coincidence that she and Beyoncé share the same British PR.
But it may be that the romantic version of Adele's rise from the BRIT performing arts school in Croydon – the raw young talent following in the footsteps of Amy Winehouse and Kate Nash – isn't as rosy at it seems. For all the current debate about whether we can do without record labels, here's one example of a label propelling its artist to stardom through its power within the industry.
The founder of XL, Richard Russell, denies that Adele's success is just down to the label's connections. "If we were able to make things like this happen, we'd do it a lot more often. The thing we're able to lend artists is that people can trust us musically. We put out records that have varying levels of commercial success." This is the first time, Russell says, that XL has had a No 1 album from a debut artist. But he also concedes that it's partly due to the fact that, in the iTunes and MySpace age, "things can happen quicker".
So what is it about Adele? "There's something about her voice. It connected to you very directly. Her subject matter – being hurt – she talks about it in a way that's so easy to relate to. It's very honest. She's incredibly focused. She's got very strong ideas about what she wants to do and strong ideas about what she wants the result to be. That focus is only as useful as it has been to her in combination with the talent you're born with," Russell says.
But success hasn't been handled to Adele on a plate. She wasn't blessed with the musical gene pool and background in which Ronson, or Allen, for example, were raised. Adele Adkins' parents are strictly non-musical. Her mother, who bore Adele in her teens, is a freelance masseuse and furniture-maker, while her father (whom she has described vaguely as a big Welsh guy who works on the ships) was never in the picture.
In spite of this lack of a musical upbringing, it was at home that Adele was encouraged to express her love for singing, beginning with precociously confident renditions of Gabrielle for her mother's dinner-party guests. She has said: "It all comes from impersonating the Spice Girls and Gabrielle. I did little concerts in my room for my mum and her friends. My mum's quite arty; she'd get all these lamps and shine them up to make one big spotlight. They'd all sit on the bed."
Her realisation that she would go on to become a professional singer came at the age of 14, when she first held a microphone; a friend of the family, a dance producer, had invited her to record a cover of "Heart of Glass". She soon took up playing the guitar, aged 15, and went on to play bass and a little piano.
Her school years were not as encouraging. Born in Tottenham, north London, she was about the only white pupil in the class at her primary school. When she moved to south London with her mother and stepfather, aged 11, her rough comprehensive school did little to encourage her ambitions. She has said: "The teacher was a bit rubbish. They gave me a really hard time, trying to bribe me, saying that if I wanted to sing, I had to play clarinet to sing in the choir. So I left."
But it was here and through her classmates that she picked up R&B and would spend her lunch breaks singing R&B songs. At 13, she bought greatest hits albums by Ella Fitzgerald and Etta James, though she has admitted that it was more to impress classmates; she didn't actually listen to them until a few years later.
Adele's emergence as a young soul singer-songwriter, and her smoky soul voice, have led to the inevitable comparisons with Winehouse. Adele has emerged at the same time as Kate Nash, Duffy, Amy Macdonald and the rising Norwegian singer Ida Maria. She's part of a group of female artists who write their own songs and play a guitar – and she has personality to spare.
What shines through with Adele – in her live performances and interviews and in the sheer force of her deep soul voice – is her strong personality. She does not seem to be proving a point, nor waging a personal war on anyone who doubted her ability to succeed. She said of her album: "It's like a child's view on love, which I think is really interesting. Some people might find my music boring as it's quite slow and ballady, but I'm not a trendsetter – I'm a singer."
There's something normal and well-rounded about this teenager. She claims never to have taken an illegal drug, and her one vice appears to be smoking 20 cigarettes a day. She's also happy to talk about her size, saying that she has been anywhere between a size 14 and an 18. "I'm just not bothered. It doesn't bother me. I'm not naive, I don't believe I need to look like that. I'm very confident, even when I read people saying horrible stuff about my weight. Until I start not liking my own body, until it gets in the way of my health or stops me having a boyfriend, then I don't care.
"I'm fine. It's never been an issue in any of the relationships I've had. None of my friends, girls, are obsessed with weight. In fact, it's more my boys, who are friends, they're like, 'I'm not gonna eat pasta.' And they're not even gay, they're straight! Trying to be skinny indie boys, yeah, but that's too skinny!"
On being called the new Amy Winehouse, she said in an interview: "Everyone asks me if I think I'm gonna end up like Amy Winehouse. First of all, I don't know how she's ended up because no one does, I'm sorry. I might see her looking really sad on the front page, but I just put my iPod on and listen to Back to Black and remember that she's amazingly talented. I'm always like, 'Well, of course, I'm not,' but if Amy got 'You gonna end up like Billie Holiday?', I'm sure she said, 'No.' I don't think anyone asks for it. But you never know."
Adele's most recent show, at the Bloomsbury Theatre in London, was showered with praise. "The breathtaking assurance of Adele's live show at the Bloomsbury Theatre suggests that such obliviousness to the cares of previous generations might be the prerequisite for a new kind of originality," wrote The Sunday Telegraph. "A rare and proper talent," said The Daily Telegraph. Her album had more mixed reviews, and met with slightly less excitement than her live shows, getting anywhere between two and five stars, but mostly middling reviews. "There is scant emotional heft behind Adele's prodigiously rich voice, little bite to her songwriting," said The Guardian.
Amy Winehouse has proved herself to be substantial talent, with numerous awards and a second Top 20 album to her name. Mika, however, last year's next big thing, seems to be lying low.
The instant success that the hype surrounding Adele brings could work to her disadvantage. Unlike those artists who have built up success more slowly and established a loyal following over years, Adele has only a relatively newly acquired fanbase. It could be that her voice has the kind of timeless soul quality that makes her not only an instant success, but also an enduring classic. Her album is now No 1 – but will she stay at the top?
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