The 20-year-old British soul sister known simply as Adele wrote her debut album, 19, when her main ambition was to land an occasional club gig. At the time, she was going through a breakup that would colour many of the songs, and even though a painful chapter in her life has now become an open book for her fans, the singer figures there’s not much she would have done differently.
“I have to write what I know,” Adele says, on the line from a Dublin hotel room. “What happened was that, after I broke up with my ex-boyfriend, I started writing songs to get him off my chest. Within a month, I had an album. What’s been weird is that I now have to spend all this time talking about him. I don’t regret what I wrote, but I do kind of go through phases of being grateful and being bitter. As well as things have been going, there have also been so many rumours and so much gossip, which is a nightmare when you’re 20 and trying to have a normal life.”
The singer’s personal business became public almost by accident. Last year, Adele scooped the BRIT Awards’ Critics’ Choice prize, which goes to an artist who’s built a buzz without having released an album. Partly because of that high-profile boost, and partly because Adele traffics in a brand of neo-soul that’s drawn comparisons to Amy Winehouse, 19 became a platinum smash in the U.K. All of this has meant that highly personal songs written for small-scale stages are now out there for the world to dissect.
“I never, ever, thought that I would ever have a record deal,” Adele says. “I’ve always wanted to be a singer, but so do a million other people and it never happens.”
With 19, the woman known to her mom as Adele Laurie Blue Adkins was in the right place at an opportune time. When Winehouse’s Back to Black hit big time in 2006, record labels predictably began scrambling for sound-alikes. There are indeed moments on 19 when Adele sounds like a kindred spirit to everyone’s favourite music-business car crash, whether that be on the splendidly orchestral “Chasing Pavements” or the chill-out-tent–tinted “Cold Shoulder”. But the singer also does her own thing with tracks like “Crazy for You”, where she gives ’er, Soul Train–style, while back with an acoustic guitar.
“Sometimes I like to play my songs like I write them, and the way that I play them to my mom in the kitchen,” Adele says. “I think that’s important, and it’s charming for me. This business can be quite repetitive and boring, so if you mix it up, that keeps it kind of fun.”
Which isn’t to say that being a breaking artist has been nothing but nonstop laughs.
“I haven’t quite figured out yet how to separate my personal life from work,” Adele says. “But I think that’s maybe because my songs are so personal. I mean, I still see the boy that my album is about. So if I have a really bad day with him, I’m going to be in a really shitty mood.”
Of course, the upside is that, should Adele be willing to go there again, it sounds like she already has another 19 in the making.
Adele plays the Red Room on Sunday (May 25).