Amy Who? Now, Adele's the One With the Buzz

(Lauren Dukoff)
By Melinda Newman
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 1, 2009

Britney and Lindsay, listen up: Adele, the British songstress and Grammy Cinderella story, has found a fail-proof, if possibly felonious, way to deal with the pesky paparazzi.

"There was one guy a while back. I'd gone to the shop for bread, milk and cigarettes. I came back and he's on my doorstep taking a photo. I nearly beat the [expletive] out of him," she says. She stops and waits a beat: "Since then I haven't had the paparazzi at my house."

So far, the "paps," as the feisty singer calls them, have largely left her alone here in the United States, but that may change if she sweeps the Grammys on Feb. 8. With little fanfare, she (and R&B singer Jazmine Sullivan) broke through the clutter to be the surprise names when the Grammy nominations were announced in December. With many eyes on fellow British newcomers Duffy and Leona Lewis, it was Adele who walked away with the most nods in the top categories. The working-class girl (full name: Adele Adkins) from North London is up for four awards, including best new artist and the coveted record and song of the year for her breakthrough hit, "Chasing Pavements."

Like much of her debut album, "19," "Chasing Pavements" deals with a devastating breakup. The inspiration for "Pavements" came after she confronted (okay, punched) her cheating boyfriend in a club and security threatened to toss her. "I was running down Oxford Street. I get cabs everywhere, right?" the 20-year-old recalls. "So for me to be running is a big thing; it's never going to happen again. And I thought 'What are you doing? You're just chasing a road.' And then I thought, 'Oh, chasing pavement. I like that,' and went home and wrote it."

Released last January in the U.K., "19" came in at No. 1, and fame, in that way that seemingly happens so often in Britain, was instantaneous. Seven months after its June U.S. release, "19" has sold a solid, if not spectacular, 374,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Adele's North American tour has also gone well. Her mid-January date at the 9:30 club sold out well in advance.

In both U.S. airplay and sales, Adele has often been overshadowed by the aforementioned distaff singers, who collectively have been dubbed by the music press as the "post-Amys" in the wake of Amy Winehouse's success (and subsequent meltdowns). But slowly, listeners and critics have realized Adele stands apart. Her dusky, rangy voice is powerful, soulful and clear as she sings about the hurts, rages and triumphs of love and life in a way that seems world-weary and wise beyond her years.

All Music Guide wrote: "Adele is simply too magical to compare her to anyone." Newsday called her "a unique showstopper, who jazzily plucks pretty notes out of the air or bends them to fit the emotion she's trying to convey."

Her coronation as "next big thing" was aided when she fortuitously appeared as the musical guest on "Saturday Night Live" in October -- alongside Sarah Palin. "I think she's quite mad when she's talking about politics," Adele says of the former vice presidential candidate, but "I met her backstage and she was really nice. She seemed like a mum to me."

Because of Palin, "SNL" scored its highest ratings in 14 years. Within the week, Adele's album climbed to No. 1 on iTunes. The timing was perfect: The "SNL" appearance caught the attention of Grammy voters before voting closed.

By Dec. 3, she'd forgotten the nominations were being announced and was Googling the results only to find out how her idol, Leona Lewis, had fared. That's when she received a text from celebrity blogger Perez Hilton telling her she was nominated for three awards. Then her publicist called to tell her about the fourth.

"I was screaming. I had to put the phone down. It was the proper death of me," she says. "I didn't think anyone would ever really care until my third or fourth record, so I wasn't bothered that [my label] thought it was a long shot. My manager came over to my house at, like, 4:30 in the morning with a bottle of champagne that I'd bought him in September for his birthday because he's . . . cheap."

Part of "19's" appeal is that, despite contemporary production, it is steeped in the gutted heartache found in the songs of two of Adele's obvious influences, Etta James and Ella Fitzgerald, both of whom she discovered by accident. "There was a bargain bin in the jazz section [at the store] that was, like, two CDs for like $10, and I loved Etta James's big catty eyes and her blond hair," she says. "And Ella Fitzgerald, I loved that she was, like, you know, a big girl. As soon as I heard Ella Fitzgerald, I knew that I'd heard her voice before, but Etta James I'd never heard."

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