British chanteuse Adele's voice belies her age
This post has been corrected. See the note at the bottom for details.
She's only 20, but her smoky voice and mature stylings are winning over American fans.
Adele Laurie Blue Adkins doesn't believe classic soul is necessarily making a comeback -- this despite the fact that she and her countrywoman, Duffy, another artist with a hankering for '60s-inspired R&B, are up for best new artist at next weekend's Grammy Awards. In fact, the 20-year-old, sitting at her room in the London hotel in West Hollywood, dismisses the very concept of retro soul with a wave of her hand and a drag on her cigarette.
She traces her accomplishments to one artist, and one artist only: The 2007 pop music phenomenon Amy Winehouse. "It's good that Duffy and I are doing well, but I think it's part of the Amy thing," Adele said. "The world just wants more Amy."
Such a hypothesis might carry some weight if Adele, who today will perform a sold-out show at the Wiltern, wasn't in many ways the antithesis of Winehouse. There are superficial differences. Winehouse can't stay out of the tabloids, and Adele is terrified of appearing in them, claiming she's giving up the party scene to instead "stay home, watch films and Google myself."
And while Winehouse's thinness is a matter of constant debate, Adele repeatedly has stated that she's perfectly happy with her non-Hollywood curves.
Then there's the music. If Adele gets lumped in with her vintage-loving peers, blame her vocals. While her chain-smoking might come back to haunt her, the young singer can lace a simple acoustic-driven number such as "Best for Last" with an old-soul, nicotine-scratched elegance.
Initially released on British independent XL Recordings and licensed to Columbia in the U.S., "19" is a showcase for Adele's versatility. She's just as adept at handing a guitar confessional ("Crazy for You") as she is a more snappy, bluesy number ("My Same"), and one always gets the sense that a jazzy improvisation might be just around the corner.
"It's very hard to find anything that is not influenced by black American music, in one way or another," said XL founder Richard Russell. "Everything is rooted back to the blues. What we've seen in the UK is an amazing wealth of talent shared by young female solo artists, and there's maybe an unspoken competition there."
There's also a shared history. As a pop music-obsessed teen -- she cites Britney Spears and the Pussycat Dolls among her first loves -- Adele attended the BRIT school in Croydon, the free performing arts and technology high school whose alumni include Winehouse, Kate Nash and Leona Lewis, among others.
"The first state high school I was at? Nothing against it, but . . . all of my friends from school have kids," Adele said. "Not because they didn't have things to do, but that's just what you did. It's rubbish. Things were looking quite bleak. Then I got to go to school with 400 other kids who wanted to be something."
For Adele, that something came quickly. She signed with XL three days after graduating, even though Russell had little to go on other than a MySpace page with some early cuts of the songs released on "19."
"She had an extremely strong idea of what she wanted to do," Russell said. "I don't think you get that from BRIT School. You get that when you have great instincts."
Adele is winning fans in the U.S., thanks in part to an appearance Oct. 18 as the musical guest on "Saturday Night Live," the night Alaska governor and vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin visited the show. After the spot, sales of "19" took off. Released last January, "19" sold 144,000 copies through Oct. 12, according to Nielsen SoundScan. In the first full sales week after her "SNL" appearance, "19" shifted 25,000 copies, and in the two months since, has added 195,000 more.
In addition to her sold-out show at the Wiltern, Adele scored a headlining gig June 28 at the Hollywood Bowl, where she will be backed by the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra Strings as part of KCRW's World Festival.
"To a certain extent, she's been made possible by the Amy Winehouses and the Duffys of the world, but this feels more genuine," said KCRW music director Jason Bentley. "She's a real talent. There are no gimmicks."
Adele has laid out a clear plan for her follow-up to "19," which she'll record this spring in Los Angeles. She cites "Raising Sand," the Grammy- nominated album from Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, as the template. Not that she's about to go country -- only that she has designs on a more cohesive, less genre-hopping record.
"I love the songs on ['19'], but I don't think they're the best that I can do," Adele said. "I've started writing new songs, and they've got more depth to them. This is a cliché to say, but I've grown up loads in the last year. I started as a child, but I'm almost 21, and I'm almost a full-fledged adult."
If she doesn't win a Grammy, that's just fine with her. Adele has long-term plans. "A Grammy is like an Oscar," she said. "You win an Oscar when you give the performance of your life. I hope this isn't the performance of my life."
GIVING CREDIT: “It’s good that Duffy and I are doing well, but I think it’s part of the Amy [Winehouse] thing,” Adele says. “The world just wants more Amy.” Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times
For the record: An earlier version of this post noted that Adele would be backed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic at her June 28 performance at the Hollywood Bowl. She will be accompanied by the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra Strings.