Adele: the 'regular girl' who became a singing superstar

Adele

Since announcing her comeback via a 30-second ad during the X Factor a fortnight ago, Adele has occupied a great deal of newsprint and bandwidth. Yet little has been with the participation of the singer herself.

There have been a handful of interviews and appearances, and a televised chat, Adele at the BBC, will air in November.But the singer has largely been avoiding the promotional grind as if she didn’t have a single entering the chart at number one this week, followed by an album, 25, being released next month.

The album, whose title marks Adele’s age when she began writing it – she’s now 27 – has its work cut out. Its predecessor, 21, which sold 30m copies, was the top-selling album in the world in both 2011 and 2012; in Britain it was the fourth biggest album of all time.

So it is not just Adele’s fans who are excited at the prospect of her new record – the music industry also has high hopes. “The talk is that she might single-handedly be able to turn around the 20% plus fall in album sales in the UK this year,” reads an article in music magazine Record of the Day. “Projections that the album will do [only] 500,000 in its first week in this country alone are now being ripped up.”

In fact, some retailers think 25 could sell half a million copies in its first day – putting even guaranteed super-sellers Justin Bieber and One Direction in the shade. Both were rumoured to have changed release dates to avoid clashing with Adele – something denied by their labels.

It is the sort of hysteria that should normally be taken with a barrel of salt – but with the single Hello entering the chart at number one this week, Adele has a clear run at dominating sales and streaming figures through Christmas and beyond.

Hello’s chances are hardly hurt by being a lustrous, emotive ballad in the vein of Someone Like You, the 2011 single that launched the singer’s imperial phase. If 25 ends up selling a mere 20m copies, some will be disappointed, but it will still be a triumph, both for the battered British music business and for XL Records, the Wandsworth indie label that signed Adele four months after she graduated from the Brit School performing arts college.

Yet throughout the hype, Adele remains only semi-present. At a time when it is commercial folly for a star not to share pictures of their breakfast, she only created an Instagram account last week, and she rarely tweets. The last 10 days have seen a whirlwind of three posts, the most recent saying: “Throwing it back with this! Thank you for all the love, I am so blown away” above a photo of her as a child.

Public sightings are as infrequent as ever, and interviewers have had to sign non-disclosure agreements. “I can’t even tell you what mood she was in,” one said.

That Adele guards her privacy zealously is perhaps unremarkable – most artists at her level are unreachable, protected by layers of label and management. What is unusual, however, is that the singer has done so from the beginning of her career, even before debut album 19 was released in 2008.

When I interviewed her for the Guardian in late 2007, she said: “If I don’t like [success], I’ll walk away. You don’t have to lose your privacy. If you’re in control of your career, you won’t get followed. Just don’t go to celeb hangouts.”

She did interviews at home then, in the south London flat she shared with her mother. We were in the kitchen, where she was winding down after a photo shoot outside on the communal walkway.

With a roll-up in her hand (“Smoking is my favourite thing to do in the world,” she said in 2011 after a polyp on her vocal cords forced her to quit) and a packet of Garibaldi biscuits on the table, at that stage there was nothing notable about Adele beyond the clarity of her mezzo-soprano voice and a confidence that was more than just teenage cockiness.

But even then she’d mastered the art of appearing open in conversation while giving away nothing personal. Her songs are where she lets her real feelings rip, her heartbreak transmitting itself as luxuriant pop-soul. The winner of six Grammys and two Brit awards, 21 was the dark, furious break-up album, while 25 is “a make-up record … I’m making up with myself, making up for lost time,” she has written.

Recent Adele collaborator Damon Albarn has called her music middle of the road. (He has since claimed he was misquoted.) But if middle of the road means that Adele and her music speak to people beyond the demographic that buys Albarn’s usual genre-bending experiments, that’s hardly unforgiveable.

As she prepared for the launch of her first album, Adele appeared the unaffected working class homegirl – an image that’s stuck despite her anger in 2011 at owing £4m in tax after 19 sold 7m copies. “I’m mortified to have to pay 50%! Are you having a laugh?” she complained, seemingly invoking the scorn of the entire internet.

My abiding impression, though, was of a woman warily weighing up whether success would be worth the sacrifice of privacy. Already sensing an invasion of it, the singer insisted the interview be done in the kitchen at the front of the flat, rather than allowing journalists to venture further inside.

Ever since, she’s maintained a buffer zone between herself and the public. She didn’t announce her pregnancy with son Angelo, now aged three, until four months before she gave birth. She is rarely seen in public with her partner, Simon Konecki, a former banker who now runs a charity called Drop4Drop, which funds clean-water projects in deprived areas.

At a time when top-flight artists count live gigs among their biggest sources of income, Adele has never done a world tour, and recently said that playing Glastonbury – a muddy rite of passage for nearly all first-tier artists – was out of the question because crowds made her nervous.

She even skipped the premiere of the Bond film Skyfall, for which she recorded the theme. It did her career no harm at all: Skyfall proved one of Adele’s biggest successes, winning an Oscar and cementing the perception of her as a polished chanteuse whose craft owes as much to Dionne Warwick as childhood heroes Lauryn Hill and Alicia Keys.

“She flips between being a regular girl and Adele,” says Alison Howe, producer of Later … with Jools Holland, who booked the singer for her first TV appearance in early 2007.

“She’s like every other girl from London, she’s just got more money. But she’s also a woman who knows exactly what she wants her music to do and how she wants it to make [listeners] feel. She completely knows – that’s what makes her special.”

Howe was among the first to hear the 21 album. “She played me some of the second record and I thought it was more of the same – I mean, more of these beautiful songs, but bigger and bolder.

“They sounded great, but I never really forgot this one song, Someone Like You. She did it on the last [Later] show of 2010, and then the same song at the [2011] Brits, and the rest was history.”

The Brits performance, where Adele sang her about-to-be signature tune accompanied only by a pianist, was the moment that transformed an already successful artist into the UK’s top singer. “She brought the ballad back to being number one, which disappeared for a while in the midst of dance music,” says Jan Younghusband, the BBC executive who commissioned Adele at the BBC.

Ballads and chat are Adele’s forte, Younghusband says, and apparently the programme, which will be recorded this weekend, will feature plenty of both. “She’s spontaneously funny and really makes the audience laugh. She’s so down to earth – the person you hear in the songs is the person you meet in real life.”

But it always comes back to the ballads, she adds. “Songs about real life, friendships, relationships … they’re universal themes which transcend language, hence her global success.”

But can Adele arrest the 20% decline in UK album sales, as predicted by some intemperate industry figures? That’s the kind of task you wouldn’t wish on even your least favourite artist, but if any single British singer can do it, Adele is probably the one to put your money on.

Potted profile

Born Adele Laurie Blue Adkins, 5 May 1988, in Tottenham, north London. Her parents, Penny Adkins and Mark Evans, split up when she was two

Career XL Records signed her when she was 18 after she posted a demo on MySpace. Debut album 19 was an instant success and 21 is the top-selling British album of this decade. Writer’s block held up progress of 25, expected to be this year’s biggest album

High point 21 breaking the record for most weeks at number one in the US album chart by a woman (23)

Low point Attracting wrath by bridling at having to pay 50% income tax

She says “I’m uncomfortable with [celebrity]. Me being photographed in Waitrose is being famous for no reason and that is something that I am not up for and I will not stand for, for myself”

They say “She’s a genuine artist. When you watch her live on stage and hear her, she’s the real deal” – Dizzee Rascal

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Caroline Sullivan, for The Guardian on Friday 30th October 2015 16.54 Europe/London

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