In our new issue, Adam Lambert tells Rolling Stone how whiskey and David Bowie influenced his debut album, For Your Entertainment. American Idol's first real rock star also opened up about working with Muse and writing one of the record's most tender ballads. Here's more from Jenny Eliscu's conversation with the man RS dubbed a glam-rock sex god during his fantastic Idol run:
Tell me about the process of making this record.
We did some recording on tour, not that much, though. What we ended up doing was conceptualizing on the road, and then just collecting as many demos and ideas as possible. Before the tour started, I did write for like a month. Over the course of the tour, we collected a lot of different music and found what resonated with us. The cool thing about the whole process was that we took a lot of the songs from demos and really developed them and tried to tailor them to the vibe that I was going for on the album, which was to blend old and new, to take classic rock-sounding track and say, "How can we modernize this, how can we give it an electronic edge?" I think it went pretty well.
Going into it, before you heard a single demo, what were the things you were certain you wanted it to be?
I wanted to do somehow not a classic and Eighties rock thing, the stuff I got credibility for on Idol. I wanted it to be dance, I wanted it to be pop, I wanted it to be international — these were our check boxes. I really wanted to do a new pop glam thing. I didn't want to create an album that was cohesive, because that's not my personally, I wanted something that was all over the map, because that's the kind of music I like to listen to, and I like to sing a lot of different styles of music, and there should be something different for every mood you're in.
Do you think your look will go through different phases?
I love dress-up, I love costume, I love make-up and all that shit, so I have a feeling that I'm going to tailor a look for each song. I kind of think that for the first single, "For Your Entertainment," we're going to go for more of an old Hollywood look, like 1930s style, but influences of Berlin, kind of dark, black and white, opium den, old glam… I want it to look like Valentino, old movie star, like black and white, pencil moustaches — that kind of vibe.
You've spent a lot of time absorbing lots of music. Do you have a large record collection?
Yeah, I'm a freak with iTunes, I'm constantly fucking buying music. I love listening to whatever's new and fresh, and I'll go back and explore. I went through a period of time where all I was listening to was stuff from the late Sixties, the whole flower power fuckin' psychedelic hippie-type music, like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Beatles. I remember at one point I was listening to a lot of disco. I love disco music, anyone who doesn't love disco, I don't know…
Every generation has some kind of music they have baggage about.
Yeah. I love dance music, I've always loved dance music. I think anything with a good beat that makes you feel like getting ready for the evening, going to work, in the gym, it's inspiring, it makes you feel good. It makes you move and it makes you want to feel sexy and flirt with somebody and have a drink. There's a lot of that on the record, because I love that.
What was it like working with Lady Gaga? She brought you a demo from a few years ago?
We just talked about the direction of which way it would go, and she said, "I really want to make more current than the demo is, and dance it up, make it a little more disco-y, and I was like, "Yeah, let's do it." I think we accomplished it.
Did you do more work on it with respect to lyrics? How much did it change the song itself from the demo?
On American Idol, I tended to interpret things vocally, there's a lot of ad-libbing and stuff going on. It was a simple melody before, and we made it a lot more in your face and over the top.
What about "Music Again," the song Justin Hawkins from the Darkness contributed?
It has a classic rock riff to it that I thought was so sexy. Another band that was a major reference was Queen. You hear that influence in a couple different songs, and the chorus of that song, I wanted the harmonies to sound like Queen, I wanted it to be really full. Also, bands like Sweet used to do that with their vocals, glam bands. I just wanted to show people I had a sense of humor with this shit. It's fun, it's supposed to be kind of campy.
"Broken Open" is one of the album's big ballads. Can you talk about the record's slower songs?
There's three songs that are really emotional, a little bit slower, softer. One of them is a song that Muse wrote, "Soaked." That opens up with a real soft vocal, it's very tender, the lyrics are very vulnerable, then it goes into a soaring ballad-type feel. That was another example — we got the song from Muse, and I was shitting myself, I couldn't believe it, I thought, "This is incredible, I can't believe they're giving me a song." I'm a huge fan, and it, too, like the rest of the three that I'm talking about, have this real retro feel to it, melodically and even in the style of the production, very Seventies, at times very Sixties, almost like a Shirley Bassey song mixed with a Queen record. "Broken Open" you could put it in the same category as a downtempo Goldfrapp song or even like Radiohead, there's shades of that in there, very electronic but mellow, very ethereal. The lyrics are basically encouraging someone to feel safe in being vulnerable. "Lay here, it's safe here, I'll let you be broken open." It's about that moment where someone really opens up emotionally to you. I just wrote that from some experiences that I've had with certain people in my life, and I hope that it comes across that way.
The songs you write on your own, do you tend to gravitate toward ballads or sadder songs?
I like to write both, I just like to write something that means something. Even "Strut," it's not incredibly hooky, but it's a self-empowerment thing. Strut it out, work your shit, and feel good about yourself and let it all hang out, sooner or later you're going to find love and be happy in your life. So it's fun and it's lighthearted, but it definitely has some weight to it, as far as what it's trying to say. There's another one called "Aftermath" which is probably the most Idol-esque type song on the album. The cool thing is that the lyrics are basically about dealing with your demons. I think there's a universal message in it. It might be about coming out, it might be about self-acceptance, taking the chance of keeping it real and doing what you feel in your heart you have to do, even though it's scary, even though people might not like it. It might be about going to AA. Any sort of traumatic life moment, and in the aftermath of it, of making that decision and dealing with whatever it is you're dealing with, you'll find solace in it. It's another kind of empowerment-type anthem.
People criticized your album cover for its theatrical camp, but you'd argue that's actually where a lot of pop music is heading, correct?
I think that especially right now in the pop scene, theatricality is definitely back. Look at artists like Katy Perry and Lady Gaga, for example, two very kitschy, tongue in cheek artists. Even people like Rihanna, it's very theatrical, it's very dramatic, it's very fashion. All that's happening, and people like Madonna have been doing it for years, and Michael Jackson was the master of it. I just think that people want that again. I was fortunate that I got picked for Idol and people liked it, because that was the kind of music I wanted to do, add more presentation to it, a little more showmanship, not just about the voice.
When was the first time you hit one of those crazy notes and realized you could do it?
One of the real high crazy ones? That was in my twenties, I couldn't do it when I was a teenager.
Was it a process of training and training until it came naturally?
I kind of rejected voice lessons, in a way, I stopped taking voice lessons when I was 20, and I found my voice after that, when I wasn't being told what to do. I wasn't worrying about singing correctly. When you take voice lessons, you get kind of programmed to sing correctly, and when I stopped singing correctly, I had a cooler sound, I think.
When you were auditioning the guys for your band, what was the vibe you were looking for?
The guitar player is somebody I've been writing with and I've known for years, actually, Monte Pittman. I had a band together for a little while here in L.A., a short-lived band, and we had written songs together and we're going to keep writing songs together. I told him a long time ago, "You're going to be in my band." There's a loyalty there, and we have a working relationship that's really great. He's been playing with Madonna for years, he's great. The drummer has a really good energy, and he's an Aquarius like me. I get kind of dorky about the astrology, I hate to admit it.
Have you gotten any new tattoos recently?
No. I thought about it. I need to find something that I want first. I'm not sure what else I want to put on my body, but I'd like to.
More Adam Lambert:
- Adam Lambert in His Own Words: Sexuality, Kris Allen and Life After Idol
- How Adam Lambert Single-Handedly Saved American Idol by Rob Sheffield
- Rolling Stone's essential Adam Lambert coverage