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

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."

Frustrated with the rigidity of her singing lessons, a then-14-year-old Adele started "listening to Etta James every night for an hour" and, in the process, she was getting "to know my own voice."

Adele attended the Brit School, a performing arts academy in London, which also spawned Winehouse, Lewis and Kate Nash. She wrote her first song, "Hometown Glory," when she was 16. Her friend posted it on MySpace in 2004 and, in 2006, labels started coming around. She eventually signed with XL Recordings. She is on XL/Columbia in the United States.

Raised by a single mom who had Adele when she was a teenager, Adele learned at an early age to be independent. That spirit helped when she recorded "19." "People kept trying to put me with writers. I was like, 'I'm better than that!' so I thought, 'I'm writing on my own.' "

Success's dazzling speed has left Adele a little breathless, as if she feels she should still have her nose pressed up against the glass at events instead of being the guest of honor. Despite having been ratted out by friends to the paps ("I don't talk to them people no more"), she remains unguarded. She is forthcoming and hilariously profane. With her timeless music, her kohl-lined eyes, Cockney accent and often retro dress, she seems like a character out of "To Sir, With Love."

So it's only appropriate that she sounds like a shy schoolgirl when she talks about being near her musical heroes. "I was sitting about five rows from [Etta James] at the Fashion Rocks [concert] in New York -- nearly died, nearly fainted," Adele recalls. "Justin [Timberlake] was about two rows in front of me and I could smell him, and he smelled amazing. Rihanna was really nice about me in a British interview she did, so I was going to walk over and say, 'Hi Rihanna, I'm Adele,' but I got too nervous. I've got the biggest crush on Chris Brown and he was all oiled and all moisturized, he looked so perfect. I didn't say hello to anyone."

"19," which she is touring behind now, still has legs in the United States, and will get a bigger boost if it earns some Grammy love. But Adele is already looking ahead to her next CD. The songs threaten to be upbeat if a certain relationship goes her way: "My lyrics are better, they're sharp and they're witty now. I'm actually doing all right at the moment, but that could be because I'm falling in love again."

Remind her that most songwriters are more prolific in pain than in pleasure and she backpedals: "Well, I'm not in a relationship yet; I'm almost in it. I just got kind of over the fear. I can still really pick away at things and find a bit of drama if I want to."

Spoken like a true artist.

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