Ah, the breakup record, a time honored tradition of the tortured musician. On 21, the follow-up to her Grammy-winning debut 19, British songstress Adele follows in the path of some of music’s greatest jilted lovers, devoting the entirety of the record to a failed relationship. “I was really gutted that we didn’t manage to recover from our kind of boredom of each other,” says the 22-year-old Tottenham native of the chap who inspired the opus that’s already topping the charts in the UK (it comes out Stateside on February 22). Here’s Adele on her numbers fixation, buckling down to record a second album, and the devastation of lost love.
Were you surprised by the success of 19? I was completely blown away. I thought it might be a London thing, but I certainly didn’t think it would travel anywhere else. Everything that has happened has surpassed any expectations I had, and those of everyone that works with me. Even my mum was like, ‘No!’
Was it difficult writing new material after promoting and touring 19 for two years? I told everyone not to call me for six months as I was turning my phone off. I wasn’t even going to have a Blackberry; I was going to have a Nokia pay-as-you-go. But within a few days I was like, What am I meant to be doing? It was really weird going from being so busy and having a schedule to having to rely on yourself again to organize things. But it was really exciting to be back in the studio making music again. I actually forgot about the last album. And everyone who works with me knows not to put pressure on me because if they do they know I won’t deliver. I’ll just be stubborn, and because I write about my own experiences, life has got to happen. You can’t hurry life.
After 19, you’re continuing the number theme with 21. I wasn’t originally going to do that. When I was doing interviews for the first album, people – especially the Americans – were like, ‘Is your second album going to be called 21?’ and I’d be like, Fuck off, no! I’ve got more imagination than that! As I was wrapping up this record, I was going to call it Rolling in the Deep, but that’s a bit of a mouthful and the Europeans would be totally baffled by it because I’m baffled by it. I’ve changed and really grown into who I’m becoming so much since my first album, not just in my career but also my personal life. Obviously in America, 21 is the legal age, but for me, it’s like, That’s it, you’re on your own now. When you’re 21, you’re just out of being a teenager and you’re now a fully-fledged adult. You’ve got to provide for yourself and whatever you want, you’ve got to make it happen. 21 was a very obvious title, but it was the only thing that fitted.
But you’re 22 now. The relationship that I wrote about on the record is very much in the past. I was 21 when I wrote and recorded all the songs. I was very upset about it then, but it’s got nothing to do with me now. Will I carry on with the age thing? I don’t know. Something poignant has to happen in order for me to stick with it because if nothing really great or real happens in between this record and the next one – like if I’m constantly on a tour bus – then that’s not normal, and no one can relate to that. It has to be something that’s like all or nothing, and then only if it’s relevant. 21’s recording was split between Rick Rubin in Malibu and Paul Epworth in London. Was it difficult establishing a sense of continuity? We managed to get a good balance. It’s all tied together by my voice and the songs, which have all got a bit more of a bolshy blues kind of timbre to them. I don’t have a definitive sound. I have no idea what I sound like yet, so until I do, all my records will have a kind of mix-tape vibe going on. But this one has a bit more definition to it than the last one, which filled in the cracks in the sense that it was a kind of patchwork record.
You describe 21 track “Rolling in the Deep” as a dark bluesy gospel disco tune. I’ve really gotten into that kind of stuff over the last couple of years. One of my American tour bus drivers was from Nashville, and he would make up compilations of all his favorite country, blues, bluegrass, and rockabilly songs. With “Rolling in the Deep,” I was trying for a kind of Odetta meets Wanda Jackson vibe, although it’s not like I’m going to go and write a song like Christina Aguilera’s “Dirty.” There’s something sort of dangerous about blues that I just love. It makes me feel really on edge, but it’s really comfortable at the same time, which is kind of what I felt like in my relationships. It was the only way that I could be like, I’m really pissed off so get the fuck out of my house, and then back it up with the songs and the music.
“Someone Like You” in the polar opposite to that. I got so exhausted from writing all these bitch songs, and when I was listening back to them, I started feeling really guilty and regretful because my ex-boyfriend, who the record is about, is not a prick at all. We just fell out of love with each other. No one did anything really bad, but I was portraying him as this complete cunt. I was really gutted that we didn’t manage to recover from our kind of boredom of each other. We couldn’t remember why we loved each other. It really upset me, and I’d never really experienced that before. Even on 19, it was a young love thing. It wasn’t a big deal, whereas with this one I thought I was going to die, because when a relationship gets to the point of no return and you can’t mend it, it’s really devastating. I overcame my bitterness and was thinking about how he’d changed me. I was at peace with it and really wanted to call him, just to check that he was happy. Then I found out that he was engaged, and “Someone Like You” came out of that. It’s heartbreaking, that song. Even though I wrote it, I can’t help but cry every time I hear it. I played it to my Nan, and it reminded her of my granddad, who died. It’s a song about loss. It’s my favorite song that I’ve ever written, because it’s so articulate. It completely sums up how I felt then. It’s a hopeful song as well as a sad song.