Adele, the singer with a room-silencing voice, has topped the charts in both Britain and America with her new album about a bitter bust-up with her boyfriend. Tom Lamont meets a superstar in the making.
For someone who makes their living from their voice, waking up one morning to find yourself mute must be rather alarming. Spending the following nine days in utter silence must be murder.
Especially when you're Adele, the 22-year-old singer from London, you're at the top of the American charts and have a new, highly-anticipated album due out. The health problem was so severe she was forced to cancel nine dates on her sold-out North American tour as well as several television appearances.
"It's never happened before. My voice went off, like a tap," she says.
Sitting in the lobby of a posh hotel in Manhattan, wrapped warm in a camel-coloured jumper, red hair pulled back and pinned, Adele orders hot water and honey from a passing waiter. Since her voice went, she's been banned from all the good stuff - like caffeine, cigarettes and alcohol in fun quantities. "I had to sit in silence for nine days, chalkboard around my neck. Like an old-school mime. Like a kid in the naughty corner. Like a Victorian mute."
She does this a lot: riffing, layering. Losing her voice must have been devastating. Watching EastEnders during the nine days' silence and recuperation, there was an episode so good she ran out of chalkboard and filled up a notebook.
It's difficult not to be charmed, in a hurry, by someone like Adele. She swears like a squaddie, doing impressions, talking about ... well, you're never quite sure where she'll go.
"I love a card. You know, cards? At birthdays? I collect them. There's this place in London, in Soho, does the best cards. Upstairs. My friend took me, she knows I love a card. Downstairs. A sex dungeon. Oh mah gawd, the toys. All my best mates are gay, they love it. I've seen things - nuffink like this. My eyes were watering." My original question, way back, had been about the difficulties of getting up early to sing on breakfast TV.
At live shows, Adele's on-stage banter has become justifiably famous and most of it is like this, generous and filthy, broken up by bawdy laughter and what-am-I-likes. It has helped distinguish her since she first emerged in 2007, when a combination of a hot performance on late-night TV and then a prize at the 2008 Brit Awards marked her out as important new singing stock. Four years on and she can still catch you by surprise: that wartime-landlady chitchat, then suddenly the dreadnought vocal.
"I get so nervous on stage I can't help but talk. I try. I try telling my brain: stop sending words to the mouth. But I get nervous and turn into my grandma. Behind the eyes it's pure fear. I find it difficult to believe I'm going to be able to deliver."
A few days earlier, back in London, Adele had most definitely delivered. One of a handful of artists booked to sing live at the 2011 Brits, she took to the stage at the O2 Arena and sang the closing track from 21 (her album sitting at No 1 in the charts in Britain and America).
On the record the song, Someone Like You, is a simple but affecting ballad about heartbreak: a solid 11th track. Sung live at the Brits, the only accompaniment a piano, it altered a career.
Whoops and shouts from 16,000 in the upper tiers stopped as soon as she got going; on the arena floor even the tables of fizzed-up music execs fell quiet as Adele - now with sad and doleful eyes, now sneering, now fighting back tears - hauled everybody through the mangle of a break-up. It was an astonishing performance, and at the song's end she turned away from the microphone, biting her thumb, trying not to cry in the face of a standing ovation. Glitter fell from the eaves, making her exposed shoulders sparkle. Thousands downloaded a live recording of the track when it was put up for sale after the show. More than 5.5 million watched a YouTube upload of the performance, links to it fired about over email for the rest of the week. I was one of those emailers. Subject line: Bloody hell.
"Shat myself," says Adele in the hotel lobby. "I was on in between Take That and Rihanna, the biggest productions of the night. All day I was thinking, this is gonna be a disaster."
By midweek the record was catching up with a Lady Gaga single at No 1. On our Saturday in the lobby, Gaga and Adele are roughly neck and neck. There are murmurs that the Brits was the night Adele's star was born.
But she is not there yet. As if to emphasise the fact, a bona fide superstar cuts through the lobby. I'm first aware of it when Adele widens her eyes and starts urgently whispering something that sounds like "porter, porter". It's Natalie Portman, sweeping through the room and out into the blistering wind.
The lobby bristles in her wake. Adele looks quite star-struck. "Do you ever get that, the heart flutter? I turn into a wreck. Go all light-headed." She crosses her eyes and mimes wooziness, but quickly she is back. Portman, she reckons, owes her some nights' sleep: Adele saw Black Swan a few weeks ago and is still going to bed with the lights on. Tonight she plans to watch lighter fare, an action movie perhaps. She might get her nails done. Otherwise she'll be catching up on sleep.
That won't happen. Before dawn she'll be woken by her manager who'll tell her that she's beaten Gaga and gone to No. 1 in Britain for the first time in her career. She'll cry and call her mum. Then she'll find out that the Brits performance so jolted the public that her previous single, Rolling in the Deep, has moved up to No. 4, that her album, 21, has held fast at No. 1 in the album chart, and that the album she released three years ago, 19, has reached No. 4. She'll end the day with two albums and two singles in the top five, the first time such a thing has happened for 50 years.
Assume, by the way, that Adele is swearing at all times. Between words, between syllables, she effs as easily as she laughs, and it would not be easy putting Adele, as Adele speaks, into print.
A few days later, we are backstage at the Ed Sullivan Theatre in Times Square, where The Late Show with David Letterman is filmed. Half a dozen people are crammed into Adele's small dressing room, and everyone is being driven to fury by a voice crackling out of a grille in the ceiling, calling members of cast or crew to the stage. "But you can't complain about your dressing room," sighs Adele, "or you look like Celine Dion."
When we'd spoken in the hotel she'd made repeated reference to her team, her gang. They were the ones who kept her sane, she said, who would tell her, one day, when it was time to pack it in. "Who'll f****** tell me, babe, nobody cares." Here they all are: manager, British and US publicists, hairdresser, makeup guy, someone they've started calling "Colonel Sanders" because he's the only one who knows how to mix hot water and honey the way Adele likes it.
Outside in the corridor, a sitcom actress - due to be one of Letterman's guests on the same show - passes by the open door. She's barefooted, gushing thanks to a lackey for cleaning some item of clothing. An earlier glimpse inside her dressing room revealed a scene of grave calm: dress neatly on its hanger, makeup artist poised with tools.
In Adele's dressing room a laptop sits in the corner showing an internet feed of a football match. The gang are debating, at shouting volume, the size of a major Hollywood actor's penis. Everybody claims to know someone who's seen it. "Big!" "Small!" "Massive!" "Tiny!" Soon after this, one of the publicists approaches and asks me if I've got a "delete button" in my brain.
With half an eye on the football, Adele's manager, Jonathan Dickins, explains what's been happening at home. "On Thursday we were 20,000 sales behind Gaga. Friday, 125 behind. You knew it was gonna be close." In the end, Adele won by 30,000 copies. As for the achievement of having two records in the top five of both the British single and album charts, "the last act to do that were the Beatles", says Dickins. "Sometimes the stars just align for you."
It all started for Adele on TV with a Beatle. Some of her early songs caught the attention of producers on Later ... with Jools Holland in summer 2007, and without a release to her name she was plopped on an episode to sing next to Paul McCartney. Heart-flutters, light-headedness - but Adele delivered and, not for the last time, charmed an audience meant for someone more famous.
A buzz picked up around her: killer voice, that cherubic face and unapologetic size-14-ness, her oozy sass. When it was announced that she'd won a newly minted Brit award in late 2007, something vaguely titled "the critics' choice award", her début album was still weeks away. But she'd released a single, Hometown Glory, the cover of which showed Adele looking soulful in a cafe and sharing foreground space with a bottle of vinegar. A certain tone had been established.
She grew up in London the only child of an 18-year-old mother, Penny. "She fell pregnant with me when she would have been applying for uni, but chose to have me instead. She never, ever reminds me of that. I try to remember it." Penny took Adele to her first gig at toddler age - the Cure - seeding an obsession with pop music that never went away.
As a pre-teen she queued for hours to get into recordings of Saturday morning show CD:UK, and listened keenly to the Top 40 while doing Sunday shifts at her aunt's cafe. At school she faked an eye injury to justify wearing a sequinned eye-patch in homage to popstrel Gabrielle.
In the late 90s she was passing through a dog-collared American rock phase, trawling the local HMV for Korn and Slipknot CDs, a little forlorn in her baggy jeans and not quite sure it was the fad for her, when she noticed an Etta James record. She quite fancied a switch to James' glamorous haircut, and bought the record to show her hairdresser the picture.
Somewhere between a few more obsessions (the Spice Girls, Jeff Buckley, Will Young) Adele popped Etta James in to the CD player, and thought: "Oh, I can do that."
In 2003, aged 14, she enrolled at the Brit performing arts school. As part of her course she recorded some demos, and a pal uploaded them to MySpace. Emails from record companies trickled in. "I made my guitarist, Ben, come along to my first meeting with XL Recordings. He's puny, Ben, looks like a dwarf, but I'd never heard of XL so I thought I might be on my way to meet an internet perv or summink." XL, they found out, had the White Stripes on their books, and wanted Adele too. "That was when we got excited."
Guitarist Ben is present today, tuning up on the Letterman set. Most of Adele's gang joined her early. She met one of the publicists as a teenager in a club ("You should 'ear me," she told him.) She signed with manager Dickins because he made her laugh, "literally stomach cramps the day after".
In the dressing room Adele is telling a story about David Letterman, how he can recognise his female guests by their perfume. Dickins interjects: "It's only because you wear Brut. He knows the classics." There seems to be a tacit understanding among the gang that the best way to counter Adele's rising nerves, performance hour approaching, is teasing. That, and gentle libel. They while away some time on the drinking habits of a TV personality, then a bit of who's-going-out-with-who.
For years Adele's been asked about who she's going out with, who her wounded love songs are about. "Who cares?" she says. "Nobody famous, just old boyfriends. I don't date celebrities. I ain't f****** Taylor Swift, dyouknowhatImean?" She has a very unprintable way of describing a tabloid newspaper when I tell her it recently printed an appeal for information about any boyfriends. She's single, but "I'd double what the papers pay, anyway. Maybe have someone killed."
Boyfriends are a line of inquiry that seem rather beside the point with Adele. Just like past focus on her body shape, that hint of "Yay us!" triumphalism showing itself from time to time because even though this singer isn't typically thin, we like her anyway. The Brits gig has returned focus to what Adele was always really about. Those room-silencing pipes.
When I first saw her perform in 2007, in the sweaty and densely packed Scala in King's Cross, she was an appendage name on the bill, unknown - performing a couple of songs after a rapper called Lethal Bizzle. The crowd were agitated and noisy and, truth be told, quite bored after 20 minutes of being exhorted to shout "Lethal" whenever Bizzle shouted "Bizzle". Then Adele walked on stage with an acoustic guitar and a beer and tamed the belligerent room in an instant. "I love hearing my audience breathe," says Adele - but not many artists, you suppose, have.
At Adele's dressing-room door the sitcom actress knocks and enters, come to say hi. The actress's name, improbably, is Cobie Smulders, a star of US sitcom How I Met Your Mother, and she tells Adele she likes her music. Adele replies she likes Smulders's sitcom, and making small talk asks if Smulders has got any other interviews coming up. The actress stares smilingly for a moment (translating the accent) before replying that, yes, they've just started filming the next series.
When Adele appeared on a different American TV show, Saturday Night Live, back in 2008 to promote her first album, her dressing-room stablemate was no such benign presence. The celebrity who came knocking to declare herself a fan was Sarah Palin.
That was during the presidential election campaign, at the height of SNL's popular lampoons of the Alaskan governor, audience figures for the show unusually huge as comedian Tina Fey delighted the nation with her Palin impressions. Adele ended up performing in front of 17 million viewers. "She wanted to go on stage wearing an Obama badge," recalls Dickins. "I told her I'd cut her hands off if she did."
Within hours of broadcast, 19 sold an extra 10,000 copies. Two big US tours followed, and at the 2009 Grammys she was the surprise recipient of two awards: best new artist, and best female pop vocal. America had fallen for a girl who's Grammy win was so unexpected she'd removed her shoes and belt before her name was called.
But she never managed to get to No 1 in the American album chart, really lodge herself in cultural consciousness. In the fallow period after 19, Lady Gaga rose to rule pop; Katy Perry tricked a global public into believing she could sing; Florence Welch and La Roux crossed over as newer British redheads to win American hearts. Today's Letterman appearance is meant to remind a nation about that Grammy-worthy vocal.
No wonder she's nervous. "When I hear artists say, 'performing is what I'm meant to do', I think, whaaaat? This ain't what you're meant to do. It ain't normal." A crackle from the loudspeaker, and Adele is called to the set to perform. Off she goes, tense and practising bits from tonight's song, Rolling In The Deep.
Alarmingly for everybody left behind, the song features a swear word in the opening verse. "We always tell her, no cursing on air," says the US publicist, but Adele has forgotten before. In an interview with Fox in 2009 she managed to flash an illustrative middle finger as part of an answer to the very first question.
Everybody stares anxiously at the dressing-room TV as Adele, on screen, is introduced by David Letterman. "Don't say shit, Adele!" shouts Dickins. "Don't you say it!" The song starts. The danger lyric comes, goes. She doesn't say shit. Now Dickins is bouncing a knee to the music, concerns forgotten. "Force of nature, this girl," he says.
The song crescendoes, ends, and the cheers of the crowd suggest it went pretty well. Adele beams in relief as Letterman moves across the set. "Man," Letterman says, shaking his head. "If I could only sing like that."
Later, when Letterman and the audience have gone home, Adele plays a small gig in the Ed Sullivan Theatre for local fans. She starts with Hometown Glory, invoking a London of cracked pavements and familiar smells where her family and friends are waiting to give her a proper celebration. Both her single and her album hold fast at No.1 in the British charts the following week, and then for a further month after that, indenturing Adele a new status in British music, prompting the chief of the Official Chart Company to gush, "We are witnessing a superstar in the making."
After Hometown Glory she sings Lovesong, a cover of the Cure in tribute to her mum and a nod to that early gig they went to.
Before singing Someone Like You, she tells the audience: "This next one just became my first ever UK No. 1. I've had a No. 1 before, but that was in Norway. Think it was 500 sales, don't take a lot. Still counts! Got a plaque on mah wall." She spins on guitarist Ben, eyes bright. "I dunno why you're laughing. We're starting our tour there next week."
Always a big deal in Norway, now a big deal in Britain, soon a big deal in the US. The following week her album will go straight in at No. 1 in the American chart. Outside the Ed Sullivan Theatre, camped in the snow, a two-tiered row of paparazzi wait to get a picture of her. Word about the Beatles link has spread.
But, at the tipping point, she is still a singer who will dedicate a song to her pet dog, as she does before a Bob Dylan cover. Still a singer who'll then keep talking without thinking until she's making a joke - of all things - about having sex with animals. There are gasps from the audience.
"Sorry," says Adele, "there are children in the room." She takes a flustered slug of honey and water, hoots nervously. "I can just see it in the papers tomorrow."
Her band intercede with the song's opening chords, and Adele mimes zipping up her mouth with her fingers. No more talking. There's a way to win this lot back.
Adele's new album, 21, is out now.