The voice, the passion and the making of '21': Inside the biggest pop-music story of our time
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."
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"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.
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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).
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."
As soon as 21 wrapped up in the summer of 2010, Adele and Sony went to work making sure it had maximum buzz. At an industry show in Los Angeles, she sang a few of the new songs to an audience that included Zach Galifianakis and movie licensing execs – one of whom chose "Rolling in the Deep" for the trailer for I Am Number Four, which introduced the song to U.S. audiences in a big way. With its earthy roar and primal stomp – Epworth says Adele was pounding on a wooden step with her Chanel pumps in his studio – "Rolling in the Deep" connected with listeners at an almost unheard-of pace. "When we tested it, within 10 seconds, people loved the song," says JB Wilde, former program director of the Atlanta dance-pop station Wild 105.7. "Usually it takes a song a few hundred spins to become familiar with the audience." Thanks to that initial single, 21 sold 352,000 copies its first week of release, in February 2011.
Everyone knows what came next: Number One singles, awards, rapturously received sellout shows and pop ubiquity, including a hilarious viral "Shit Adele Says" clip that brilliantly satirized her pop-working-girl image. A year-plus after its release, 21 is still moving about 20,000 copies a week; other albums released around the same time, like by Avril Lavigne, Britney Spears and R.E.M., have long disappeared from the charts. After a decade of female pop-star glam, Adele brought the idea of a diva back down to recognizable, accessible earth. Fans didn't simply relate to the torn-up emotions in her songs; they related to an unapologetic midsize girl who chatted up her audience onstage between tunes and mocked her own semifrumpiness. "I can't dance to save my life," she cheerfully told a New York crowd. "It sounds authentic coming out of her," says Santigold, who has covered the 19 ballad "Hometown Glory."
"I read an interesting thing: 'Would Adele be as successful if she wasn't plus-sized?'" Adele ruminated to Rolling Stone, reflecting on the attention sometimes given to her figure. "I don't know if I would be. I tried going to the gym. I don't like it. I like eating fine foods and drinking nice wine. But even if I had a really good figure I don't think I'd get my tits and ass out for no one. I don't rely on my figure to sell records."
Perhaps despite herself, Adele's life has been perfect fodder for a tabloid age. Starting with 19, which detailed the rise and fall of a previous relationship, she lived out her life in song. Her ups and downs – her breakup, her vocal-cord problems, her issues with her father, who sold his own story to the tabloids – turned her into a walking-talking reality show. "I'm a drama queen," she told Rolling Stone, and indeed her life in the past few years has had as much tumult as a VH1 reality series. "People have this feeling she's telling it to them straight," says Wilson. "You're going to get a journalistic report from where she's at in life."
At the same time, Adele has been almost MIA for a star of her magnitude -she hasn't plastered herself all over TV or toured nonstop. Some of that absence is for medical reasons: Thanks to the vocal-cord hemorrhage that forced her to undergo surgery last fall, she canceled a major U.S. tour in 2011. A potential 2012 tour was derailed after she and her boyfriend, Simon Konecki, a co-founder of the British charity Drop4Drop, announced this summer that she was pregnant. Her manager and label also decided they didn't want to oversaturate the market, so they made only two videos for 21 and avoided appearances on American Idol and its ilk.
Intentional or not, Adele's relative absence has created something rare in pop in the 21st century: a sense of mystique and a focus on the music. Years ago, especially in the pre-Internet era, pop stars weren't in our faces on an hourly basis. We didn't see them in commercials or television shows or in grainy TMZ clips. We knew what they looked like, but we related to them largely for their songs and records. Adele harks back to those days, and not merely with her Dusty Springfield bouffant. "She knows less is more," Stringer says, adding with a slight sigh, "We've lost our sense of aura, like we had 30 or 40 years ago. It's gratifying to know we can get across to people with just the power of music."
Adele's air of mystery may continue whether she wants it to or not. By the end of the year, she'll have a baby, and everything else will come to a halt for a while. Dickins says Adele might be working on new material at home, but the manager can't say for sure. Epworth met with her in London a few weeks ago and came away with the impression that making a new album isn't exactly high on her priority list. "I get the feeling she's not in the head space about making music at the moment," he says. Tedder has sent her a few new ideas for songs but isn't sure what will come of them, either. (At press time, Adele was rumored to be singing the theme song to the upcoming James Bond film, Skyfall, but a representative at Sony says such stories are "speculation.")
In other words, the follow-up to one of the biggest albums in recent memory will have to wait – Dickins expects at least until 2014 – during a social-media-driven time when long gaps between albums are viewed as career suicide. "She decides when and where," says Sony's Barnett as cheerfully as he can. "And that's her call." For the moment, Adele isn't commenting, but consider what she told RS last year: "I'm really happy to be me, and I'd like to think people like me more because I'm happy with myself and not because I refuse to conform to anything." All of which sounds pretty punk rock.
This story is from the October 11th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.