“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.
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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.”
She almost got kicked out because she had issues with punctuality. “I’d turn up to school four hours late,” she says. “I was sleeping. I wasn’t doing anything. I wasn’t bunking, I just couldn’t wake up.” One, day, a group of teachers selected 20 of the most promising students to go on a trip to Devon to perform at a festival, and Adele overslept. The moment she opened her eyes and realized she was too late, she says, “My heart exploded in my chest. It was pretty horrible. I almost did get kicked out of the school for that. But now I’m always on time, and if I’m late it’s always someone else’s fault.”
In her last year at BRIT, a friend posted on MySpace a three-song demo that Adele had recorded for a class. Several labels e-mailed, asking to meet her. She was unimpressed. “I thought it was some dirty Internet pervert,” she says. “I saw there were e-mails from Island and XL, but I’d never heard of them so I didn’t call them back.” Finally, at the urging of her mother, she met with an A&R guy from XL – the indie-label home of M.I.A. – who signed her nearly on the spot.
Adele’s 2008 debut, 19, was a modest success in America – it debuted at Number 56 on the album chart and then dropped – until she landed a spot performing on Saturday Night Live, in the middle of the 2008 presidential campaign, on the night that Sarah Palin appeared on the show. “I was sitting in my dressing room having my makeup done,” she says, “and I thought, ‘If you nail this, this could be one of those moments in a career.'” More than 14 million people watched as Adele performed “Chasing Pavements” and “Cold Shoulder.” “When we did the performance on SNL, we were at Number 40 on iTunes,” says her manager, Jonathan Dickins. “The following morning, we were at Number Eight. When I got off the plane in London, we were at Number One.” She would go on to win Grammys for Best New Artist and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance.
It was around this time that she met the guy who would become the inspiration for 21. He was 10 years older than her, and he got her interested in traveling, reading fiction like Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and writing poetry. “He made me an adult. He put me on the road that I’m traveling on,” Adele says. “Most of my life was my career, but I had this little side project that was us. And it made me feel really normal again, which is just what I needed. Because I was becoming a bit doo-lally – a bit fuckin’ crazy.”
They lived together for almost a year at her place in London before things started to fizzle. “It just stopped being fun,” she says. He was artistic, “but not romantic. He never took me to Italy. I took him to Italy.” She laughs. “I booked it all and took us to a nice hotel in Milan.”
Toward the end, “We’d just bicker over a cup of tea or the fact that my lighter wasn’t working.” Her friends were happy to see him go. “They all thought he was shitty,” she says. “All my friends, everyone I worked with, no one liked him, because I acted different when I was around him.”
The morning after things officially ended, she was in the studio, sobbing while making “Rolling in the Deep.” Paul Edgeworth, who produced that song, says, “She was obviously quite fragile and very open about what had happened. But she had fire in her belly.” Midway through the album, she found out her ex was engaged. “I was absolutely devastated.” She hasn’t seen anyone since it ended. “I’m not ready to,” she says softly. “I think I’m a bit flimsy right now. I’m not in love with him, but I love him still, ya know?”
“I have the shakes,” says Adele. It’s 7:30 p.m. and she’s in the basement dressing room of a 1,200-capacity club near Hamburg’s red-light district, wearing the same black turtle-neck sweater. She’s been drinking coffee with Louis on her lap and smoking another cigarette. As always, she’s got some stage fright. “I’m scared of audiences,” she says. “I get shitty scared. One show in Amsterdam, I was so nervous I escaped out the fire exit. I’ve thrown up a couple of times. Once in Brussels, I projectile-vomited on someone. I just gotta bear it. But I don’t like touring. I have anxiety attacks a lot.”
How does she get herself onstage? “I just think that nothing’s ever gone horrifically wrong,” she says. “Also, when I get nervous, I try to bust jokes. It does work. I chat a lot of fucking shit, though.” For most people who get stage fright, the nerves go away once the show starts, but for Adele, things get worse. “My nerves don’t really settle until I’m offstage,” she says. “I mean, the thought of someone spending $20 to come and see me and saying ‘Oh, I prefer the record and she’s completely shattered the illusion’ really upsets me. It’s such a big deal that people come give me their time.”
She also has an alter ego she uses to pump herself up, called Sasha Carter – a composite of Beyoncé’s Sasha Fierce and June Carter. “I was about to meet Beyoncé,” she says, “and I had a full-blown anxiety attack. Then she popped in looking gorgeous, and said, ‘You’re amazing! When I listen to you I feel like I’m listening to God.’ Can you believe she said that?” Later, “I went out on the balcony crying hysterically, and I said, ‘What would Sasha Fierce do?’ That’s when Sasha Carter was born.”
One thing that Adele says she isn’t anxious about is her weight. It’s fluctuated throughout her life, but she says she doesn’t diet or work out. “My life is full of drama, and I don’t have time to worry about something as petty as what I look like,” she says. “I don’t like going to the gym. I like eating fine foods and drinking nice wine. Even if I had a really good figure, I don’t think I’d get my tits and ass out for no one. I love seeing Lady Gaga’s boobs and bum. I love seeing Katy Perry’s boobs and bum. Love it. But that’s not what my music is about. I don’t make music for eyes, I make music for ears.”
She leans down to Louis and holds out a treat. “Lady Gaga!” she commands. “Put your paws up!” He sits up on his legs with his paws up. The topic turns to Mumford & Sons, whom she loves. “They’re closer to how I feel about Etta James than anyone,” she says. “Such articulate voices.”
At 8:40 p.m., Adele stubs out her cigarette and stops playing with Louis, stands on the edge of the stage and begins singing “Hometown Glory,” a gentle love letter to London from 19. The audience can hear but not see her. Soon she takes her place on the wooden stool at center stage. With English-language audiences, Adele can be “Bette Midler funny,” but tonight she focuses on the songs, sometimes singing with a hand in the pocket of her jumper. She runs through songs from both her albums and a cover, “If It Hadn’t Been for Love,” by a Nashville band called the Steel-drivers. She introduces it by saying, “It’s a song about shooting your wife. And I feel like shooting my ex.”
In between songs, Adele tells the crowd, “My dog is on tour with me. He’s a dachshund. I have a German dog! He loves it here. He’s in the homeland!” There’s a sprinkling of laughs in the audience. She closes with a loud, powerful, stomping “Rolling in the Deep,” and even though she walks off and the lights come on and someone else’s music starts playing from the house speakers, the crowd just stands there. They cheer, clap and chant her name, but she’s done. “Always leave them wanting more,” she says in the dressing room, cigarette in hand, wine nearby, Louis on her lap. “That was an emotional show!”
With the show behind her, Adele is finally at ease. She jokes about what would happen if she were in a happy relationship. “No music!” she says. “My fans will be like, ‘Babe! Please! Get divorced!'”
She laughs. “Don’t worry. My bubble always fuckin’ bursts.”
This story is from the April 28, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone.