dele is back and breaking hearts with her sensational third album and an upcoming world tour. Hamish Bowles talks to her about fame, family, and fabulous frocks.
On a dewy winter’s morning in Oxfordshire, the sun is fighting through rain clouds, and a phalanx of industrial heaters is being employed to warm the chilly, cavernous rooms of a poetically crumbling castle where Annie Leibovitz has decided to photograph Adele Laurie Blue Adkins as a Pre-Raphaelite damsel. “It’s been six years!” exclaims Adele, who was last photographed by Leibovitz for Vogue in 2009, in the wake of the release of her soulful, self-penned debut album, 19, in “me messy hotel room in L.A. with my boyfriend’s boxers hanging around!” as she gleefully recalls.
Adele, then 20, was a blissfully unprocessed girl whose incendiary talent had propelled her from the hardscrabble London projects of Tottenham and Brixton to the cusp of international stardom. At her tough inner-city high school, “my music teacher was shit. Unencouraging,” she remembers, but at fourteen she successfully auditioned for the performing-arts Brit School, singing Stevie Wonder’s “Free” and playing “Tumbledown Blues” on her clarinet.
The experience was liberating. Tony Castro, the head of the music department at the time, insisted on his students writing original songs, so Adele dutifully sat down for the first time to do so. “If it wasn’t for him,” she says, “I probably wouldn’t have written ‘Hometown Glory’ and ‘Daydreamer.’ I think being a teacher is one of the most important jobs in the world. If my career stopped, it’s what I’d do.”
Her vocabulary then was spangled with profanities and constantly interrupted with peals of cackling, corncrake laughter. Adele is older, wiser, and more thoughtful now, but her drollery and “dirt mouth,” as she calls it, remain keystones of her persona.
Soon after she signed with XL records in 2007, she was introduced to her inspired manager, Jonathan Dickins, with whom she has been working ever since. Dickins insists on bringing her into every meeting and keeps her involved in all aspects of the business. “That’s why I’m not afraid,” she says. “One of the things I enjoy most about my career now is that my main team is the same, so we’ve all had this experience together, which makes it really special. It can be quite lonely just getting bigger and bigger—but not when I’ve got everyone around me.”
When I escorted Adele to the 2009 Grammy Awards, she was more or less ignored on the red carpet—at one point the photographers shouted at her to step aside so they could capture Kate Beckinsale in her lavishly trained black satin mermaid gown—but she electrified the power audience with her eviscerating rendition of “Chasing Pavements,” won Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, and beat out the Jonas Brothers for Best New Artist; she was so surprised that she came onstage barefoot, having long since kicked off her Manolos, with the belt of her custom Barbara Tfank dress undone, and chewing a mouthful of gum.
The rest, of course, is history. And after the release two years later of the wrenching 21, which sold 30 million copies and for which she won six Grammys on an evening where it is safe to say that she was not overlooked on the red carpet, her life changed.
She had recently met Simon Konecki, an Old Etonian former investment banker with the scruffy, bearish looks of a Williamsburg hipster, who is now the CEO of Drop4Drop, providing sustainable clean water to communities around the world. Adele, who had been “singing hard every day” since she was fifteen, suffered a vocal hemorrhage and canceled most of her planned appearances to promote 21 as a result. She credits Konecki with getting her through her recovery from surgery, which included six weeks of total silence followed by slow vocal rehab.
“When I met Simon, I knew that something was going to happen,” she remembers. After the world-class losers whose bad behavior became the fodder for some of the most universally powerful songs of our time, Adele had finally found herself a winner. Their son, Angelo, was conceived, she tells me authoritatively, “the day the last Vogue cover came out!”
I was just shocked that all of a sudden I was 25!” Adele says. “But actually I like myself more than ever. I feel so comfortable in my own skin. I really like how I look, I like who I am, I like everyone that I surround myself with
The two new men in Adele’s life transformed it completely. They have eradicated the need for much of the drama that she used to thrive on. “I can’t have any other junk in my head to worry about as well,” she tells me. Angelo, meanwhile, “makes me very proud of myself. When I became a parent, I felt like I was truly living. I had a purpose, where before I didn’t.”
Adele took time off to be with her new family before she even thought about putting her third album together. “My main thing is Mum, then it’s me, then it’s work,” she says, adding, “I think I had to take the right amount of time off to let people miss me.” (Unsurprisingly, she cites the reclusive Sade as a performer she admires, and Kate Bush, whose sixteen-year-old son persuaded her to stage a comeback tour with him after 35 years out of the public eye.)
In her euphoric new mood, Adele looked to Ray of Light, her favorite Madonna record and one inspired by motherhood, and to Moby’s Play, with its powerful gospel samplings. But her new material didn’t make sense to her. “I just didn’t really know what I was going on about,” she remembers. “How could I ever try and fool anyone by putting the record out and expect them to get it if I didn’t get it? It seemed a bit lazy.”
Dickins, who became a parent around the same time she did, was wary too. “He was watching me from a distance, making sure that I was getting my balance right,” remembers Adele. “He saw how full-on it was for his girlfriend, and so he sympathized with me and gave me my space. I’ve always said you’re only as good as your next record,” she continues, “and he said that when I first met him at eighteen.”
Numerous songs about Angelo were put aside when she decided her fans wouldn’t be able to relate to them as she did. (Angelo can actually be heard on “Sweetest Devotion,” however.) Adele felt that her relationship with Konecki was also too private to explore in her music, although “Water Under the Bridge” is about him. The breakthrough came when she turned her scorching light on herself, reflecting on the seismic changes in her life and looking back, with aching poignancy, to the responsibility-free days of her adolescence.
Adele worked on the album with a roster of collaborators, from established hitmakers to relative unknowns. She discovered Tobias Jesso, Jr., online, and they worked together on “When We Were Young.” It is her favorite song on the album, one that she describes as “a bit of a letter to myself. It’s really about regrouping,” she explains, “because naturally me and my friends have dispersed. We all love each other still, but we don’t have time to be unconditional and 24/7. . . . My eyes were so cloudy for a year after I had my child, and I thought I would never regroup with myself, ever.”
Her collaboration with the legendary producer Max Martin, producer of Taylor Swift’s “I Knew You Were Trouble,” resulted in the infectiously perky “Send My Love (to Your New Lover),” which she has admitted is “poppier than a lot of pop songs I’ve even heard.” The writing came in fits and starts. “Hello,” with Greg Kurstin, for instance, took almost four months to complete, while “All I Ask,” written with Bruno Mars and inspired by the power ballads of “divas from the nineties,” like Whitney Houston—“where the artist is really showing off their vocal range,” as Mars tells me—took a bare 48 hours. “We all crowded around the piano until we found something that sparked,” Mars remembers, a process that took “a day, and maybe one more day to make sure we weren’t tripping out and we actually had a song. It makes me very jealous because it doesn’t happen like that all the time!”
“I’ve always been a really big fan of Bruno,” says Adele, “but when we worked together he was beyond. He can do anything, literally singing the best vocals you’ve ever heard live in your life while he is playing a drum or a bass or doing some mad percussion riff. I think he definitely will be the biggest, biggest, biggest artist in the world.”
A sense of what did not make Adele’s scrupulously exacting cut can be gleaned from her fruitful collaboration with Sia. Although their songs did not land on Adele’s album, “Alive” became a powerful hit single for Sia herself.
Adele still writes her lyrics the old-fashioned way, in a notebook. The first thing that she does is to annotate her age on the front page with a Sharpie pen. When it came time to write “25” on that page, Adele was brought up short.
“I was just shocked that all of a sudden I was 25!” she says. “But actually I like myself more than ever. I feel so comfortable in my own skin. I really like how I look, I like who I am, I like everyone that I surround myself with. Obviously I have insecurities,” she continues, “but they don’t hold me back.” Adele’s endearing self-deprecation is famous. She laughs about her “bum chin,” her “intense” forehead, and her “potato fingers.” She swears by Spanx for her public appearances but describes putting them on as “like pumping a sausage bag full of meat!”
In truth, however, Adele is healthier than she has ever been. As well as the litany of foods and drink she has to avoid to protect her throat, she has given up the Marlboro Lights that she used to more or less chain-smoke, and has almost given up alcohol—this is the woman who admits that she could once put away a bottle of wine a day. “I was trying to get some stamina for my tour,” she says, “so I lost a bit of weight. Now I fit into normal, off-the-shelf clothes—which is a really big problem for me!” she adds, laughing as she describes a newfound shopping habit.
She still works on custom dresses with her unassuming long-term stylist, Gaelle Paul—by designers including Armani, Valentino, and Burberry’s music-savvy Christopher Bailey (who “has been really hands-on ever since I started showing an interest in fashion”), but she also does damage at places like Joseph and Chloé. In fact, she is such a fan of Chloé’s Clare Waight Keller—and her successful juggling of work and motherhood—that she invited her for tea, and they struck up a friendship. With Paul, she has developed a strong, iconic fashion image that owes a debt to the concert gowns on the covers of the Etta James and Ella Fitzgerald CDs Adele found in the two-for-one bargain box at her local HMV when she was fourteen—and that have influenced both her music and her style ever since. Adele happily calls them her “June Carter clothes.”
In 2013, when she was presented with the MBE by Prince Charles, she wore a Buckingham Palace–appropriate inky brocade Stella McCartney dress and a Philip Treacy net fascinator, adding the Tottenham-fabulous flourish of miniature crowns on her nails. (She mounted her ribboned medal in a pretty nineteenth-century giltwood frame, and it now hangs in her powder room at home, above the toilet “next to me Aesop poo drops!” as she gleefully tells me.)
Meanwhile, the jet-glittered gown that the London designer Jenny Packham made for her to wear the night she won the 2013 Academy Award for “Skyfall,” her instant-classic Bond song, is enshrined, Streisand-style, on a dress form in a glass case in her dressing room, alongside the aureus award itself. (“It’s so excessive that I feel terrible,” says Adele of this glamorous, crowded room in her house. “But I totally intend to share those dresses.”)
For a day of shopping, Adele is essentially wearing the uniform of the London projects: leggings, sneakers, big gold hoop earrings. Her Balenciaga bag, a double-face shearling caban, and her “Adele” face, however, add diva luster. “I’ve made an effort for you today,” she says. “I don’t go out like this. I look like a bedraggled mother; I look like anyone else. When I’m with my kid I’m in leggings and a jumper and a pair of Converse because the grubby little hands are going to mark anything nice.”
She credits this self-presentation for her ability to have kept a low profile these past three years, but she also carefully disdains many of the conventional trappings of success. When someone suggests London’s latest see-and-be-seen restaurant, Adele shrieks, “Don’t let anyone take me there; it’s like a celebrity hangout! It’s like something from Zoolander!”
Our retail odyssey begins at Argos, a store that is far from a celebrity hangout. Goods are now ordered up on computer instead of from the company’s classic catalogs. “I’m an absolute germaphobe,” Adele says, wincing. “Because of my surgery,” she explains, “I can’t sing at all if I have a sore throat. This is my worst nightmare, to touch the screen.” Along with electrical goods and children’s toys, there is a cabinet filled with charm necklaces bearing inscriptions like “nan” or “best mum in the world.” “I used to buy my jewelry from here,” Adele confides. “I couldn’t wait to have a mum necklace.”
Leaving Argos, we move decidedly upmarket to hit the lavishly displayed food emporium at Fortnum & Mason. “It reminds me of Home Alone,” says Adele, a film aficionado with an encyclopedic memory of the five or more features she watches every week. After acting herself for the 26-year-old Xavier Dolan on the “Hello” video (“He’s a little punk arse,” she says approvingly), she is keen to work with another movie director on “When We Were Young” and is intrigued by the idea of Todd Haynes. “I loved Carol,” she says. “I loved the way it looked, and I loved the awkward silence in it—I’d like to have some awkward silence in the music video.” While her strapping bodyguard hovers by the entrance doors to avoid drawing attention to her, fellow shoppers take furtive cell-phone photographs as Adele dithers over her food purchases. By all accounts, including her own, she is a very good cook.
“Mum went to Italy for a few months just before 21 came out, so I was left to fend on my own,” she remembers. “I got really bored of takeaways, so I thought I would learn how to cook. I actually started from Jamie’s 30-Minute Meals.” She specializes in pan-global comfort food, “but right now it’s boring,” she says. “It’s just panfried sea bass and spinach!”
To recover from our shopping adventures, we collapse over dim sum in a moodily lit basement restaurant in Soho. Having returned to England two weeks earlier, Adele is still on a post-Manhattan high. “It sounds so cheesy, but it was a real homecoming,” she says, crediting her 2008 appearance on Saturday Night Live, to promote 19, with jump-starting her career in the U.S. (Sarah Palin showed up that night, and 17 million people tuned in.)
My main thing is Mum, then it’s me, then it’s work,” she says, adding, “I think I had to take the right amount of time off to let people miss me
“I didn’t miss being in the spotlight,” she confides, “but I really missed that side of myself. I was happy to be lost in the wilderness for a while, but I was a bit frightened that I was never going to get back. I suppose there was lots riding on what to follow 21 up with. Once ‘Hello’ came out, I felt like I’d got nothing to prove. I’m just going to sing now because I want to, and I’ll make records when I want to and not because someone is forcing me to do it. Not that anyone ever has,” she adds, with a wicked twinkle in her eye. “I’d fire them if they tried!”
The New York trip in late fall was a startling lesson in losing the anonymity she has carefully cultivated between her last two albums. When she left her downtown Manhattan hotel, she was mobbed by fans: “It looked like the Backstreet Boys,” she tells me. “I was cracking up. I live a very different life when I haven’t got music out.” The paparazzi, however, who courted her by playing—and even singing—her songs, were a disquieting presence. They bother her less at home, where she and Konecki successfully sued the intrusive British photographers to keep them away from their son. “We need to have some privacy,” says Adele. “I think it’s really hard being a famous person’s child. What if he wants to smoke weed or drink underage, or what if he’s gay and doesn’t want to tell me, and then he’s photographed and that’s how I find out?”
At Radio City Music Hall, her concert was electrifying. She shucked off her teetering Louboutins to plant herself firmly on the stage, her Jenny Packham concert gown (specially beaded to complement the auditorium’s Deco Moderne glamour) pooling at her feet. And then she sang, and a whole new, otherworldly Adele was born. The voice is smoother now. After the successful throat operation, her magnificent contralto gained four notes.
In recent months she has started daily voice exercises that give a rhythm to her days and help to focus her pre-performance nerves. Right now she is preparing herself for a nine-month tour, kicking off in Belfast in late February and culminating (per the schedule thus far) in Mexico City in November. “I’m only touring for the fans, to see the people that changed my life,” she tells me. “There’s no need for me to tour. I’ll always be nervous, worrying whether I’m going to be good enough. And the adrenaline is so exhausting.”
But as a fan herself, who was first smuggled into concerts by the Cure and the Beautiful South at the age of three in her mum’s coat, and taken to the Prodigy set at Glastonbury when she was eight, Adele understands how important it is to see and hear your idols live. Her childhood highlight came when her mum managed to get some costly Spice Girl tickets. “People always think I joke about this,” she says, “but the Spice Girls blew up when I was seven. And seeing them coming from a humble background—there was hope in it. It was really a massive part of my life when the whole Girl Power thing happened.”
Since then, as she says, “any record that’s ever moved me, when the artist is alive, I’ve seen them live. I’d get pissed off if that artist was still alive and I never saw him.” Nevertheless, “the whole tour is revolving around my baby,” she says. She will be home in London when his nursery school begins.
Although she has a nanny, Adele is an exceptionally hands-on mother. She has had a hectic week, with appearances in Italy and Germany, but she always gets a day flight so that she can put Angelo to bed at night, and keeps in constant contact with him through FaceTime when she is not around. In New York—where her punishing schedule included appearances on The Tonight Show, Today, Saturday Night Live, a standing-room-only concert for 199 fans at Joe’s Pub (where she made her U.S. debut in 2008), and Radio City Music Hall—Adele says that she was “probably getting two hours’ sleep a night.” She had asked fellow performers how they coped. “Pink was honest,” she tells me. “She said, ‘It’s bloody hard work.’ ”
Nevertheless, she admits, “The whole thing about me feeling good about myself comes down to Angelo. I can’t wait till I meet his best friend,” she says. “I’ll make his room a shrine when he goes to university!”
On set for her Vogue portraits, Beyoncé’s hauntingly breathy “Crazy in Love” remix from Fifty Shades of Grey set the scene. Later, it was Lana Del Rey’s “Salvatore” on the sound system. “I’m obsessed with her,” says Adele. “Her lyrics are fierce. The chorus of this song makes me feel like I’m flying, like that bit in your life when it goes into slo-mo. When you’ve got nothing to do and you’re staring out of the window and your mind goes to magical places.” Adele scoffs at the idea of listening to her own music.
I’m only touring for the fans, to see the people that changed my life,” says Adele. “There’s no need for me to tour. I’ll always be nervous, worrying whether I’m going to be good enough
“What? For like ‘Ooh, let’s get in the mood’?” she asks, genuinely appalled. “No, I couldn’t imagine! Never.” At home with Angelo she’s more likely to find herself singing “Let It Go” from Frozen. When she recently listened to 19 again, she was struck by how, well, like a nineteen-year-old she sounded.
Even now, Adele’s youth brings one up sharply. “You know how I discovered Barbra Streisand?” she asks me, incredulous. “When Will Young on Pop Idol sang ‘Evergreen’!” She loves the enduring aura of Streisand and Bette Midler. “Because of how fast everything is now. I’m not sure that anyone can remain like that anymore.” Yet Adele, of all people, is one who bids fair to stay true to herself. Although she has deep respect for the chameleon talents of stars like Madonna and Taylor Swift, “I don’t have it in me to reinvent myself a lot,” she has said, “to flip in and out of genres and styles and trends.”
She has even resisted the contemporary platforms that most performers of her generation use to communicate with their public. “There have been moments over the last three years when I wanted to become quite aggressive on social media,” she confesses. “I felt I needed the comfort of people’s reassurance. But then for me it was all about having to do what no one else does in order to stand out. So I just bit my tongue and held off.”
Instead, she seems to be absorbing the lessons of the legendary performers she so admires. Adele brought the intimacy of a small venue to the epic grandeur of Radio City, and the same at the Wembley arena, where we go for our final outing as she performs on the season finale of Britain’s X Factor.
The U.K. version of Dancing with the Stars may have double the ratings, but this show has a special place in Adele’s heart. “It was always the pinnacle of my week,” she remembers. “My first sleepover was on a Saturday, and I got to watch X Factor with my friends. My first kiss was watching X Factor at a party.” The venue, built as the Empire Pool in 1934 and used for the 1948 Olympics, also has a resonance for her. “I saw Spice Girls here, I saw East 17, I saw Backstreet Boys!”
The dressing room, however, repurposed from the Deco industrial changing rooms designed for the original swim teams, is sauna-hot, and there isn’t a terry-cloth robe in the joint (a hapless runner returns with one of the satin kimonos that the pro boxers use between bouts). There is a Santana poster on the wall, a battered white leather Chesterfield sofa, and a boom box that “looks like something from my bedroom circa 1982,” laughs Adele’s London-cool p.a., Laura. But the diva trappings are here, too—the room is scented with Baies Diptyque candles; Chris Martin and Harry Styles (performing with Coldplay and for One Direction’s last appearance, respectively) come to pay their respects; and Simon Cowell has sent an arrangement of white phalaenopsis orchids so enormous that it takes two strapping men to carry it in.
Adele’s miniature dachshund, Louis Armstrong, scampers underfoot (“Pets don’t talk back,” she observes knowingly), and the dress rack bears a grand midnight-blue beaded Jenny Packham dress (“Off the rack,” marvels Adele. “How great is that?”), and an edgier Burberry dress pierced with punkish steel rivets. “It’s a bit funky, isn’t it?” she asks, and opts for this one as a good fit with “my new hair,” the choppy shoulder-length bob she just had cut.
“It needs to be perfectly in between ‘done’ and ‘not done,’ ” Adele instructs as she submits to hair and makeup. She has dubbed her performance look “borderline drag”—when we first met, she playfully described it as equal parts Dusty Springfield and Lady Bunny, but now the Dusty dos are out. “Can you see the amount of paint going on?” she asks, laughing, as she purses her lips to define the cheeks for the blusher. “It’s basically Boy George with his black chin!” she adds, referring to the singer’s celebrated 1980s contouring tricks.
Her transformation is a hypnotic two-and-a-half-hour process, and Adele nods off several times. “It’s a real pleasure for like an hour,” she admits, “then your bum goes numb and your back starts to ache!” False lashes are still an integral part of her look (Adele can’t apply her own; “They’re so wonky,” she says, “that they look like the end of the night at the beginning of the night!”). She admires the final effect in her mirror. “More contour? More lashes?” she asks. “Joking!”
She has requested a teleprompter tonight. “I always think I’m going to forget my lyrics,” she explains. And, right on cue, 45 minutes before Adele is called onstage, those legendary nerves begin to kick in. Everyone is bidden to leave her dressing room, and the corridor outside trembles to the reverberations of her vocal exercises.
Her performance onstage is word-perfect, and she needn’t have worried about the teleprompter: I am aware of a soft, mellifluous buzzing all around me, as though I were listening to “Hello” in Sensurround sound—and I realize that the twelve-and-a-half-thousand people in the auditorium are quietly singing along with her.