"Aw, Louis!" Adele groans. "Don't roll in the shit!" It's Saturday, around 2 p.m., and she's zipping through a small park along Alster Lake in Hamburg, Germany, yanking the leash of her constant companion, a two-year-old wiener dachshund, Louis Armstrong.
It's only a few days into Adele's European tour, but she's a bit out of sorts. We have descended from the penthouse bar of her hotel, where she drank two mini carafes of red wine. Now she's feeling "fluffy." "It's gone straight to my head!" she says. She's not wearing any makeup, and her dirty-blond hair is pulled back in a messy knot.
In a year of sex bombs and art projects on the pop charts, the biggest surprise hit of 2011 is a breakup LP that could have been recorded in Muscle Shoals, Alabama – the work of an earthy, full-figured 22-year-old whose go-to outfits are billowy turtleneck sweaters. (She's wearing a black one today, which she calls "my shield, my comfort," along with black leggings and leopard-print ballet flats.)
Adele's second album, 21, debuted at Number One in the U.K. and U.S., and has sold 3.5 million overall, a development she calls "pretty intense." She recently started smoking again – she claims she's back to only seven cigarettes a day, but over a few hours, she smokes at least that.
To compound matters this week, her fathis, Mark Evans – a recovering alcoholic who left Adele's mother and her when she was three – sold a story to the U.K. tabloid The Sun, telling them that he felt guilty about not being there for Adele when she was growing up. Adele's eyes narrow when she talks about the story. "I never knew my dad," she says. "He has no fuckin' right to talk about me." The day after her dad's story, another one appeared, this time about Adele's childhood; the reporter had ambushed her grandmother at a bus stop for an interview. "That's when I started smoking again," Adele says.
Adele has one of the great voices of the past few years – a mix of soul power, tender sweetness and scary emotional transparency. Songs like "Someone Like You" – in which she says goodbye to an ex-boyfriend who has married – are messy, conflicted, sometimes explosive. "All of her songs are based on real events and real people," says her bassist, Sam Dixon. "It can be hard for her to sing them; that's happened a few times now." At the Brit Awards in February, she was close to tears at the end of her performance of "Someone" and had to turn away from the cameras. "It's not a pose or a stance," says Rick Rubin, who produced four of 21's songs. "When you hear someone bare their soul, it resonates."
In person, Adele is just as unguarded. Walking through the park, she tells of once going onstage with "a tampon on my thumb. It was awful!" She says it was to cover up a broken nail. ("You make it hollow and put it on your finger. I do it all the time.") She talks fast, uses different voices, tells filthy jokes onstage ("What do you call a blonde standing on her head? A brunette with bad breath.") She cops to signing up for an Internet dating service last year. "I was drunk, upset and listening to Sinéad O'Connor's 'Nothing Compares 2 U.'" (She quit after trying it once.)
She loves shock rappers Odd Future. "They're refreshing," she says, but "my fans weren't happy when I posted their video on my blog." (Sample line: "I'll stab Bruno Mars in his goddamn esophagus.") Lil' Kim once heard a rap of hers:."She said I was nasty!"
Adele Laurie Blue Adkins was born in Tottenham, a north London district with some of the highest unemployment in the U.K. Her mother, Penny, was in her teens; she worked as a masseuse, a furniture-maker and an office administrator, and they moved a lot, often living in government-subsidized housing. Adele "loved moving," she claims. "I think that's why I can't stay in one place now. I don't think of my childhood like, 'Oh, I went to 10 different schools.' My mum always made it fun."
Her mother is still her closest friend, and current roommate. Adele credits her with turning her on to Mary J. Blige, Lauryn Hill and Alicia Keys – she calls The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and Songs in A Minor "life-defining." The other big influence was Etta James, whose music she discovered in the bargain bin of a record store. "She was the first time a voice made me stop what I was doing and sit down and listen. It took over my mind and body."
As a child, Adele loved singing and playing guitar and clarinet; by 14, she was impressive enough to successfully audition for London's BRIT School, a public performing-arts high school that artists such as Amy Winehouse, Leona Lewis and Kate Nash also attended. "It was like Fame," she says. "There were kids doing pirouettes in the fuckin' hallway and doing mime and having sing-offs in the foyer." Her classmate and current guitarist, Ben Thomas, says Adele never seemed driven to get into the music business. "There were some people at school who really pushed hard," Thomas says. "You could tell they really wanted it. Adele never really had that. But she was a great performer and everyone would be completely silent and in awe when she performed."
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