ADELE: Up close and personal
Following years of cute-boy-band and dress-down indie-guitar wilderness, few could have predicted the long-overdue late-Noughties return of UK music to a bona-fide global stage would emanate from a new generation of white female soul-oriented singer-songwriters.
Nevertheless, with troubled tabloid queen Amy Winehouse and Welsh retro-chic blonde Duffy both having in the last 12 months firmly conquered sales charts and radio airwaves worldwide, 20-year-old Londoner Adele Akins is also now making her considerable musical presence felt on the international market with global sales of her UK-chart-topping, Platinum-selling debut LP '19' currently approaching the million mark; while simultaneously earning praise from such `cred` contemporary music icons as Kanye West and Beyonce.
Released on respected London indie XL (home to one-off, defining acts like rockers White Stripes and rapper Dizzee Rascal) and boasting production input from noted studio bods Mark Ronson, Eg White and Jim Abbiss, the melancholic, atmospheric beauty of '19' incorporates personalised moods ranging from the hauntingly acoustic 'Daydreamer' (a tale of Adele`s short-lived relationship with a bi male) and string-laden, big-production soulful smash single 'Chasing Pavements' to the beat-driven groover 'Cold Shoulder'.
Dubbed in some quarters “the New Queen of UK Soul” while in others “a gobby, funny yet extravagantly talented 20-year-old”(!), there`s no questioning the enormity of either Brit-winning Adele`s musical skills or her Force 10 personality. As, after taking time out for a much-needed “fag” outside, an exuberant, disarmingly honest, effortlessly funny and - above all - totally-devoted-to-her music Ms. Adkins - in between cockney-barmaid cackles while enduring a mother of a hangover! - sits in her PR`s West End office and fills `B&S` in on her debut LP, her background and her new single 'Hometown Glory'. Which originally surfaced on limited-edition seven-inch vinyl through her friend/urban poet Jamie T`s independent Pacemaker Recordings last October.
What`s the background to your forthcoming single 'Hometown Glory', which has been described as a dark, brooding love poem to London?
"I wrote 'Hometown...' on the guitar - it`s just four chords pressing one string - and it was actually the first song I ever wrote from start to finish. It was kind of about me and my mum not agreeing on where I should go to university. Because, though at first I`d wanted to go to Liverpool, later I changed my mind and wanted to go to university in London. But, because I love being at home and I`m really dependent on my mum, she still wanted me to go to Liverpool. So that I`d have to learn how to do things on my own, rather than still be coming home for dinner, having her do my washing and stuff like that. So in that way it was a kind of protest song about cherishing the memories - whether good or bad - of your hometown. Whereas - having only been to Liverpool about twice - there`s nothing there that comforts me, here in London - even if I`m having a really shit day - there`s still something I love about the place. So really yeah, in general it is an ode to the place where I`ve always lived."
Why is its B-side a brand-new cover of the Etta James song 'Fool That I Am', which was recorded at your recent gig in Cambridge?
"Etta James is my favourite singer. I`ve loved her ever since I was 15. Initially it was because I loved the way she LOOKED - the big kinda white-woman weave and her beautiful, catty eyes! But then, once I actually listened to her, though she didn`t really even write any of her own songs, I found that her delivery was just so sincere that she really could convince me she was singing directly to me. Which is something I`ve never ever found in any other artist. So because - with me only having one album - I felt I needed to beef-up my live set by introducing covers, I decided to include 'Fool That I Am' in my show. You know, it was a song that just changed everything for me. It inspired me to want to write my own songs, to be honest and to try and touch people. Basically I think it`s a beautiful song, I love singing it... And so I thought it would be nice for my fans if I included it on this single."
So why title your debut album `19`?
“Because I couldn`t come up with anything else! I always think debut album titles are really important. The best ones for me are 'Debut' by Bjork and Lauryn Hill`s 'Miseducation'. They`re ones that everyone just KNOWS, that don`t make you think TOO much, and are just quite obvious. And to me this album does very much represent my age. I was only 19 years old when I was writing it, and I just kinda remember becoming a bit of a woman during that time. And I think that is definitely documented in the songs. So, while some people think I was trying to use my age as like a selling-point, I really wasn`t AT ALL. You know, when I was signed at 18, I only had three songs to my name. But yet, literally within a month of turning 19, a load more just suddenly came out of me. Which really reflects how I was feeling at that age.”
What did you want to achieve musically?
“I had no specific plans for my album. In fact, I STILL don`t know exactly what kind of artist I want to be! You know, for me the album was just about making a record of songs to get a boy off my chest and include all the different kinds of music that I love. So there`s pop; there`s a bit of electro; there`s jazz; there`s folk; and of course there`s SOUL... But, at the same time, while there are those obvious elements of soul in my music and certainly in my voice, I never at any stage thought `Ooh, I`m gonna be a white soul girl!`! You know, the album genuinely did just come together very naturally and very organically.”
“It was simply that I got into a relationship that went very sour. And, if I`d been in the same frame of mind as I am when I`m talking to you now - i.e. sober! - I probably wouldn`t have written ANY of it! But yeah, as cheesy as it sounds, I did write to kinda cleanse myself and get it all out of my system really. You know, I hate - I`m actually OFFENDED by - literal easy lyrics that have no thought behind them and are purely written because they rhyme. So I do always want my lyrics to be mature and thoughtful. And, while I`ve personally now stopped listening to my album because I sing it every day, ultimately I do think it is SINCERE. Apart from 'Hometown Glory', 'Daydreamer' and 'My Same' - which were all written earlier, when I was between 16 and 18 - the whole album is all about one boy. So I was very sad when I wrote it. And I think that genuinely does come through in the music.”
So how did Mark Ronson get involved as a producer?
“When I first played the song 'Cold Shoulder' to XL it had no beats. It was just vocals and keyboards. But, while they really liked it and thought it was charming, I was like `No, you`re WRONG! Right now my album lacks RHYTHM! We need something FAST on it!`... And, because I knew Mark Ronson did beats and I`d been a huge fan of his since his (2003) `Here Comes The Fuzz` album, I asked Richard Russell (head of XL) to get him in to produce that song. So, as Mark likes to meet people before he works with them - to make sure he clicks - we set up a meeting. But, with Mark forgetting about the meeting, by the time he turned up I was pissed off my face, smoking cigarettes and watching `Jerry Springer`! So it was just the most awkward meeting EVER! But we ended up making a great track together. And, while most people think I worked with Mark simply because he was `Mark Ronson`, the fact is I met him the same day his 'Version' album came out in the UK. At a time when NO-ONE was expecting it to do that well and not even Amy`s record was that big. It was purely because I think he`s amazingly talented and he`s got a real ear. And personally I just think he`s got nicer with his success and completely deserves all the acclaim he gets. Particularly when, to me, in 'Back To Black' he`s produced one of the greatest albums of all time.”
What was the story behind 'Chasing Pavements' becoming your album`s massive lead-off single?
“I wanted to work with (the producer) Eg White when I heard what stuff he`d done, because I wanted that radio song. I wanted that big kind of commercial tune to get me NOTICED by people. Because, while personally I`d happily still sing to 10 people in a pub like I used to, I do want as many people as possible to hear my music. Not so they`d buy my album, but because I do wanna be known as a MUSICIAN. So in that way 'Chasing Pavements' was quite intentional, though the way the song itself came about definitely wasn`t! The night before I wrote it was the same night I actually met the boy the album`s written about! We actually had this fight the first night we met. And I went to Eg`s studio the next morning with these couple of shitty chords I`d figured out earlier that same day - and then he took those two chords and a chorus and made it into 'Chasing Pavements'! And, while I thought I`d be best known for more acoustic songs like 'Hometown Glory' and 'Daydreamer', the fact I`m famous instead for this big Burt Bacharach-tinged, almost middle-of-the-road song is a bit surprising! But, having said that, I think 'Chasing Pavements' was a great set-up. I`m very proud of that song, And I think the way people have connected with it is amazing.”
Can you fill us in on your early background?
“I was born in Tottenham and was raised by my mum as an only child. And it was after we moved to South London - when I started secondary school - that I got into the R&B-pop of the day like Destiny`s Child and Mary J. Blige. Then from that it was like a natural progression for me to get into the more classic soul artists. Because, while I always knew who Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye were - I think they`re part of everyone`s DNA really - it was when I first went to the jazz section of HMV in Oxford Street that I became more seriously interested. You know, it`s this glass room - a bit like your grandparents` room that kids aren`t allowed in - and it was in there I saw this 'Best Of Etta James' CD that I bought. And, once I heard 'Fool That I Am', everything changed! You know, at five I`d been singing Gabrielle`s 'Dreams' at my mum`s dinner parties and at 11 having Destiny`s Child sing-offs in the playground. Then, when a friend of my mum - who was this amazing Faith Evans-type singer - said I was really good and should pursue my singing, everything kind of all fell into place. Which is when I moved from the secondary school I was at - they weren`t really trying to help me find a musical direction - and started going to The BRIT School.”
So how did attending the Selhurst-based BRIT School (which also fostered Amy Winehouse and Leona Lewis) help mould you into the artist you are today?
“While at first I was very like `I ain`t goin` `ere! It`s a stage school! I can do it on my own!`, I think I do owe it COMPLETELY to The Brit School for making me who I am today, as cheesy and embarrassing at it may sound. Because, while my mum is the most supportive mum on EARTH, she wouldn`t have known how to CHANNEL me. With her I`d probably have gone down the classical music route, or maybe Disney, or musical theatre... But at The BRIT School I found my DIRECTION, because the music course was really wicked. It had free rehearsal rooms with free equipment, where I was listening to music all day for years. It`s not your typical stage-school full of kids that are pushed into it by their parents. It`s a school full of kids that will dance at a freezing-cold town hall barefoot for eight hours solid. And, whereas before I was going to a school with bums and kids that were rude and WANTED to grow up and mug people, it was really inspiring to wake up every day to go to school with kids that actually wanted to be PRODUCTIVE at something and wanted to BE somebody.”
How do you feel about being bracketed-in with the current crop of `Brit-soul girls` and even occasionally being dubbed “the new Amy Winehouse”?
“I love all the girls that are out right now. I love Amy, I think Duffy`s great... I`m a huge fan of theirs; I buy their albums; I go to their shows… The only time it gets annoying is when they run an article about me and put a picture of Amy with it too! But, having said that, yes I am completely inspired by Amy Winehouse. Despite what`s going on at the moment, she`s a proper ARTIST. She`s made an amazing first album; a phenomenal second one; and eventually I think she`ll make an outstanding third album as well… And it`s exactly that kind of longevity that I want too. Then, as far as comparisons with those girls in general go, I think I`m less of a PRODUCT, and there`s probably less to buy INTO with me. I don`t have a style; I`m not a fashionista... With me it`s just music, and I don`t think I`m as quirky as the others.”
What are your thoughts on the UK music industry being branded “racist” by some, who claim they`re currently only backing white soul artists?
“I think it is a very valid point and, if it is the case, I think it`s disgusting. But, having said that, I don`t think it IS the case. I think if you`re good, you get heard. Whether you`re black, white, Indian or whatever, I think if you make a good enough record that people believe in, they will push it. And then, if THOSE people believe in it enough, everybody ELSE will start to believe in it too. To be honest, I really don`t know why right now there`s like a Jewish girl, a Welsh girl and a ginger girl all doing so well in soul music here in the UK! It is very weird! But, at the same time, I really don`t think it`s because we`re all white.”
So what is the importance of soul music to you as an artist?
“What I particularly like about soul and blues is it honesty, sincerity and depth. While with pop, though you do have the entertainment factor, when you scratch away the surface there`s very little underneath. Whereas with soul you can constantly trawl through it and find great new things. To me the most important thing, it terms of longevity is to be REAL in your music. And soul and blues are filled with real, proper emotions. Like every time I hear Lauryn Hill`s voice, she makes my cry. Plus I love the fact that - unlike pop artists, who are basically told what to think and what to say - she`s OPINIONATED. I mean, even Estelle - while she may bitch about me and Duffy - is OPINIONATED! Which I think is ballsy and important in an artist. Then, in terms of the singers who`ve most influenced me, legend-wise I`d have to say Etta James. While of the contemporary artists it`s definitely Amy Winehouse, Lauryn Hill and Mary J. Blige.”
Finally, with Amy Winehouse and Duffy having both conquered the US Top Five, are there plans for you to break America?
“I`ve just spent five long weeks out there, and then we go back in August and September again to tour and do some more TV. I`m actually signed to Columbia in America, and my album came out over there about three weeks ago. I actually feel it`s not that hard to break America. It`s just a case of you have to BE there and have the stamina to keep going back and forth. Because, if you`re there and you show commitment, then everybody wants you - the TV, radio... And I actually think the reason why a lot of people don`t break America is because they can`t be away from home for that long. So I`m definitely looking forward to seeing whether I can! I know that for me America is definitely going to be a slow-build situation. Because my first song doesn`t fit all radio formats, and 'Chasing Pavements' is a very English phrase that a lot of Americans don`t get. A lot of people have even suggested I change the title to 'Chasing Sidewalks'! But I`m like `Fuck off! I ain`t changin` for YOU! I`m from LONDON!`!”
The single 'Hometown Glory' is released July 21. The album '19' is out now, both through XL Recordings Limited
Words PETE LEWIS