The Triumph of Adele

The voice, the passion and the making of '21': Inside the biggest pop-music story of our time

October 11, 2012
adele 1167 cover rolling stone
Adele on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Simon Emmett/Trunk Archive

I wanna do something mean!" said Adele. It was the day after the 2010 Grammys; she hadn't been up for any awards the night before, but that hadn't stopped her from "celebrating." She showed up at a Hollywood studio hung over and "pissed off," in the words of OneRepublic's Ryan Tedder, her collaborator that day – grumbling about the way her girlfriends were talking about her based on what they'd read in the tabloids. "My friends all read gossip shit, and they're like, 'I heard you're going out with blah blah,' and I haven't even met these people," she told Rolling Stone last year. "It's bullshit."

* * *

"She wanted to stir things up," says Tedder, who began playing a guitar part inspired by Jonny Greenwood's riff on Radiohead's "I Might Be Wrong." The phrase "rumor has it" sprang up, and before long, they had the basis of a stomping, pissy song. When they started recording the next day, Adele – still recovering from her Grammy partying – couldn't hit her usual high notes, but still managed to nail the vocal in one take. A disbelieving Tedder turned to the engineer:

"Umm, did I hear that right?" he asked. "Did she miss a note?" Adele piped in: "Is that good? I can do it again." "Adele, I've never had this happen before," said Tedder. "She didn't warm up at all," he remembers. "Her warming up is her talking, laughing and cackling."

As Tedder and many others have learned, Adele, 24, routinely dismantles what it means to be a modern pop star. She smoked and drank her way through recording sessions – half a pack a day, by her own count, during the making of her massive album 21. She talks openly to the press about her private life, weight issues and love of a good drink. She'll record an entire album with one of the biggest producers in the business, who also happened to run her label at the time – then ditch most of it and opt for much rawer early takes. She turns down offers to plaster her name on products or play superlucrative gigs for the one percent. On tour, she simply stands and sings – no Auto-Tune to help correct her voice, no choreography with backup dancers.

"She's got this very much fuck-you attitude," admits Adele's manager, Jonathan Dickins, who's been working with her since 2006. (Once, when she was cut off while accepting a Brit Award, she flipped off the organizers.) In the meantime, Adele's career has only exploded. 21 has now sold more than 9.7 million copies, spending more weeks in the Top 10 than Thriller. By the end of the year, it will most likely hit 10 million, which only about 100 other albums in history have accomplished. (By Eighties or Nineties standards, 21 would probably have sold nearly 20 million copies, akin to Whitney Houston's Bodyguard soundtrack, according to chart analyst Joel Whitburn.) 21 has also produced three Number One singles and garnered six Grammys, including Album, Record and Song of the Year. It's even single-handedly propping up the CD, since about three-fourths of 21's sales are in that format.

She is beloved by everyone from lovelorn teenagers to Outkast's Andre Benjamin, who gave props to Adele's massive ballad hit "Someone Like You" in his verse on Drake's "The Real Her." "I listened to 'Someone Like You' on repeat for at least a week," Benjamin says. "She perfectly captured the weird limbo space of a breakup." Even the Queen of Soul herself is a fan: "It's been a long time since an artist like Adele has come along," says Aretha Franklin. "Carole King is the last person who wrote the kind of lyrics women immediately could relate to. I love to hear a schoolgirl on the school bus yellin', 'We coulda had it alll!'"

"Every generation needs one of her," says Tedder. "We didn't have one, and now we do." Adele has rewritten some of the rules of the business – for one, killing off the melisma overload of the past decade. (Adele also claims she cut a rap so "nasty" it made Lil' Kim blanch.) One exec who's worked with Adele refers to her as "the punk-rock Barbra Streisand." She's something we've been wanting for a long time: a pop diva with a rock & roll heart.

* * *

Adele was already a star when she started recording 21 two and a half years ago. The child of a broken home whose alcoholic father left her and her mother when Adele was three, she attended the BRIT school outside London (similar to Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School in New York, which inspired Fame), where her music teacher would often see her "sitting in an alcove with a hardback book, writing lyrics." She landed a deal with XL Records in 2006 after a friend posted one of her class-assignment demos on MySpace. (She was so young that Nick Huggett, the A&R man who signed her to the label, remembers picking her and a friend up at a London tube station for her first meeting.) Florence Welch of Florence and the Machine shared a bill with Adele at a small London club when both were launching their careers. "She was there with her bass guitar and this incredible voice," Welch recalls. "Already, that voice. Something changed in the room when she started singing. That was an amazing moment, seeing her."

Adele's powerful instrument was showcased on her debut, 19, released in early 2008. A tasteful set of unplugged folk pop and British soul (the latter provoking comparisons to Amy Winehouse), the album largely chronicled an early romantic breakup and was the work of a girl who was "full of life, a normal London girl," says Jim Abbiss, one of its producers. Although 19 wasn't a blockbuster hit in the U.S., it landed her on Saturday Night Live (and one of its songs on Grey's Anatomy), and she walked away with two Grammys the following year. At the ceremony, she was so overcome with emotion that she started sobbing; Neil Diamond, standing nearby, gave her a comforting hug (and began sending her notes by way of their mutual label, Columbia, "to give her a little encouragement," he says).

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