The second album was going to be different. On tour in the States to promote 19, Adele had been introduced to American roots music thanks to her Nashville bus driver (who asked her if she'd ever heard of Garth Brooks and was shocked to hear she hadn't). The new album would be tougher, more rhythmic and ballsier than 19. "You listen to the radio here and you realize tempo is important," says Columbia co-chairman Steve Barnett of his conversations with Adele during this time.
Adele began meeting with outside songwriters, including Tedder, British producer Paul Epworth (whose resume by then included Babyshambles and Bloc Party) and ex-Semisonic frontman Dan Wilson. The plan called for all of them to write songs, record rough demos and then have Rick Rubin, who was then co-head of Columbia, produce finished versions. The sessions couldn't come fast enough. "I didn't have to keep having these A&R meetings about 'what direction do I want to go in' and 'what's the next step for a Grammy Award-winning artist?'" she told RS. "I got to just kinda get on with it, and I didn't overthink it."
Almost from the start, emotions ran high. At Epworth's own studio in northwest London ("A cupboard with speakers," he says), Adele arrived distraught: She'd just broken up with her boyfriend, a photographer named Alex Sturrock who was almost a decade older than her. Epworth played some "jazzy piano chords," and after listening for an hour, Adele broke into what became the verses of "Rolling in the Deep." "My favorite songs are like, 'Get the fuck out of my face,' and he wanted me to have my own song like that," she recalls. In a few hours, they'd written and recorded an early version of "Rolling in the Deep" – a phrase, she says, that means "always having someone have your back, always rolling with someone, never get hurt, never get in trouble because you always got someone to back you up." Around the same time, U.K.-pop producer Fraser T. Smith laid down a sweeping, piano-fueled demo of another new song, "Set Fire to the Rain." (Adele told Smith the title was inspired by the time she'd had one last fight with her boyfriend and stood outside in a downpour fruitlessly trying to light a cigarette.) The producers were told not to work too much on their songs, since Rubin would handle the final takes in California.
Meeting for the first time with Wilson in a cozy Los Angeles studio, Adele began raving about Wanda Jackson – the spunky rockabilly queen whose career was later resurrected by Jack White – and playing Wilson some of Jackson's music on her computer. Getting down to business, Adele, swathed in a "sweater-y scarf-wrap knit thing," began telling Wilson about her breakup. "I didn't pry for details," Wilson says. "I didn't ask his name. But most of the things we talked about ended up in the lyrics. It feels like it's all there." She went out for a cigarette break "about every 25 minutes," Wilson says with a laugh. The completed song was "Someone Like You," her bittersweet kiss-off to her lover. By the end of their second working day together, the two had cut a raw voice-and-piano take on the song; the schedule was so tight that Adele had to rush off to a meeting with label execs.
For Adele, the sessions were cathartic. "We broke up mutually, and I was desperate to write about it," she says, "'cause I can't talk about my feelings to anyone. To my mum, to my therapist, to friends, to myself in the mirror – I can't really do it. I've always written down how I feel."
Finally, in the spring of 2010, Adele, Rubin and Rubin's handpicked crew of musicians – including Roots keyboardist James Poyser and guitarist Matt Sweeney (Zwan, Chavez) – converged at a Malibu studio to record Adele's fresh material. Over the course of two weeks, they cut versions of most of the songs, including a gospel-tinged take on "Someone Like You." Laughing, chatty and smoking during breaks, Adele bore down on her singing when it came time to record. "The first time we did 'Rolling in the Deep,' I had to check to make sure it was really her I was hearing coming through my headphones," says former Beck guitarist Smokey Hormel, also part of the band. "It sounded like a record as soon as it came out of her mouth. It sounded so perfect. And every time she went back in to do it again, her performance was even better. You'd think, 'What the hell?'" (They also recorded a cover of the Cure's "Lovesong," which Rubin had originally conceived for a possible Barbra Streisand project.)
The album should have been done – but it wasn't, at least in Adele's mind. Listening to the Rubin tracks, she felt something was missing: the exposed-nerve emotional edge heard in the early versions of "Rolling in the Deep," "Someone Like You," "Rumour Has It" and "Set Fire to the Rain." "It's hard to re-create that emotion nine months later," says Epworth. In the end, she made a tough choice: to scrap most of the Rubin sessions, only using four of them, and replace them with the earlier takes. "It took a lot of guts," says Abbiss, who received a call from Adele after her work with Rubin. "She wanted to try to recapture a simplicity from the first time around." They cut "Take It All" and "Turning Tables" in less than a week, on deadline.
Rubin admits to being somewhat taken aback by Adele's decision. "I was surprised because she had been so clear about wanting it to sound like it came from one place," he says. "She wanted it to have a consistent band feel so that from track to track, it would sound like the same group of people in the same place – a unified album. I also understood she had been listening to some of the demos for a long time, and that when that familiarity builds, sometimes that trumps all." Rubin compares the situation to his first experience recording with Johnny Cash. "We recorded demos over a long period of time, then tried recording the songs several different ways," he recalls of that album, "but in the end, we decided to release the demos as the album." 21 sounds unified anyway: a nearly perfectly produced and arranged album, gliding back and forth between huffy indignation and tenderness, gossamer piano ballads and retro R&B, wailing beats and bare-boned intimacy.
Dickins says Adele was especially protective of "Someone Like You." "That was a very conscious decision by Adele," he says. "She was absolutely adamant, more than anybody else, that the song be stripped down." Columbia CEO Rob Stringer and Barnett didn't hear any of 21 until the finished album was played for them. While listening to the record in Dickins' home, Adele's dog Louis kept leaping over Stringer. If Stringer had listened closely, he might have also heard Louis – according to Smith, the dachshund was howling on Adele's lap in the studio throughout "Set Fire to the Rain."
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