After Adam Lambert left his contract with RCA Records, the former American Idol contestant and acting Queen frontman took a break to figure out the direction of his music, and the best way to put his powerhouse pipes to use. “I was taking the opportunity to, without anybody’s input, experiment in-studio and work with some songwriters,” recalls Lambert. “I started working with Axident and John West, and I recorded a song with them called ‘The Original High.'”
“High” is a tense meditation on lost moments that splits the difference between disco and EDM, with Lambert showing off a softer side of his falsetto on the chorus. The song is the title track for Lambert’s third full-length, which is due out June 16.
“The lyrics [to ‘The Original High’] sum up, in the most beautiful, simple way, what I had been noticing about myself and my friends and the circle I’m in here in Los Angeles,” says Lambert. “There’s this underlying sense of longing that I’ve noticed that I feel and that a lot of my friends feel. It’s hard to even put your finger on what it is that you’re longing for.
“We spend a lot of time chasing that first-time feeling,” he continues. “You’re never going to get your first experience back with something. It’s really hard to recreate the first time, and that’s what we’re longing for — that novelty, that discovery. You’re in a big city like this that’s full of dynamic people, and you tend to kind of always look for the next thing. It makes it very hard to be content and to be satisfied with life.”
Lambert, who was thrust into the global pop spotlight in 2009 after his torrid Idol run and subsequent coming out, says that while the lyrics to “High” and the brooding lead single “Ghost Town” can resonate widely, they also caused him to reflect on his recent past.
“I’ve been out here since 2001,” he says. “And that’s the thing: There’s a very fine line between the temptations and the excesses and the pure joy of being an adult in a city full of very competitive, creative people. I’ve been on both sides of it, where it’s blown up in my face and been painful, and I’ve also had wild adventures out here.”
Lambert signed to Warner Bros. last year and re-teamed with pop super-producer Max Martin, who helped write Lambert’s first post-Idol hit, “Whataya Want From Me.” This wasn’t a simple reunion, though; Martin and co-producer Shellback had definite ideas about where Lambert should take his artistry next.
“When I brought [‘The Original High’] to Max and Shellback, they got really excited by it — they loved the sound, the feel, they liked the way I was singing it,” says Lambert. “‘We’re used to hearing you go over the top, but it’s really interesting to hear you pull back and do something more intimate,’ they said. I think that was what made them want to do an album with me. They said, ‘This is a new color of your voice that we want to dig into a little bit more.'”
On Idol, Lambert was known for his over-the-top takes on songs like “Ring of Fire,” and his dance-diva turns on “Shady” (from his 2012 album Trespassing) and “Lay Me Down” (from Avicii’s True) showed how he could use his voice at full throttle. But here, he’s pulling back slightly while still giving full emotional weight to his performances.
“One of the things I’ve learned over the last six years, with Max and Shellback’s help, is that sometimes in order to affect the listener emotionally, less is more,” he says. “When I was younger, even on Idol, I was a bit more raw in the sense that I would get my original high — my spike of adrenaline — from performing. I would get so charged up and so excited in front of the audience that it would throw my energy through the roof. That’s why I tend to be an over-the-top kind of performer. Figuring out how to channel it a little differently is interesting, and I’ve been trying to do that more lately. Internalizing it more, letting it settle and being more grounded.”
Swedish singer Tove Lo, the first of the album’s two featured artists, worked with Lambert early in the sessions and recorded “Rumors” with him even before her “Habits (Stay High)” became a Top 10 hit. The second guest, Queen guitarist Brian May, dropped by the studio after Lambert toured with the pomp-rock legends last summer.
“Brian and I get along really well and trust each other,” says Lambert. “I said, ‘Look, I have this song we’ve worked up, and it has a hip-hop beat on it but it’s still a rock song, and I think you would kill it.’ It’s sort of a ‘Dirty Diana’ type of record, and he killed it. He came in and had a great riff that he added to it. And of course, there’s no feature with Brian May without one of his killer solos.”
Introducing the Queen guitarist to the man behind pop blockbusters like “…Baby One More Time” led to an accidentally awkward encounter — a lighter moment amid the restless self-reflection.
“He walked into the studio and didn’t realize Max Martin was Max Martin — they hadn’t met before,” Lambert recalls. “And Max is so chill, devoid of any ridiculous ego and down to earth. At first Brian didn’t know it was him, and I didn’t realize I was supposed to introduce them. We’re sitting there for about 10 minutes talking, and Brian says, ‘Where’s Max?’ And I said, ‘Uh. . . ‘ And Brian laughed, and Max laughed. You would think a big pop producer would act like a big pop producer, but that’s one of the reasons Max is amazing.”