'You Can't Prepare Yourself': A Conversation With Adele
Adele's career so far has been a story in numbers — and not just the ones in her album titles. Her latest LP, 25, has sold more copies than any other album in its first week of release — more than 2.4 million so far — and the week is only half over. Its first single, "Hello," has been the No. 1 song on the Billboard Hot 100 chart since it came out four weeks ago. It's quaint to think that, before 25 was launched upon an adoring public, Adele was expressing concern that her fans might have forgotten about her in the nearly five years since 21, a record-breaker in its own right.
While "Hello" might have come off like a reintroduction, the album plays to Adele's established strengths. Named for the age the singer was when she wrote its songs, 25 is full of ballads that track personal regrets, broken relationships and dashed expectations with the same crushing emotional power familiar to the 30 million fans worldwide who bought 21. But in the years since that breakthrough, Adele has grown, birthed a child and spent time away from the recording industry. She returns to the studio flanked by a mix of familiar names (like Paul Epworth, who produced her megahit "Rolling In The Deep") and new collaborators (like Max Martin and Shellback, of nearly every song on pop radio for the past decade).
"The reaction's been ridiculous. I'm pretty overwhelmed, to be honest," Adele said when she sat down to speak with NPR's Ari Shapiro to talk about the making of 25 and its release. The singer talked about writing songs for her son, her abiding love of pop music and finding ways to break the ice with overwhelmed fans. You can hear an edited version the conversation at the audio link on this page, or read the full transcript below.
Ari Shapiro: You've lived a life relatively out of the spotlight for the last few years, and so to suddenly be plunged back into this machine has got to be a bit bracing, I would imagine.
Adele: I mean, I was prepared. I wasn't going into it blind, you know. I know the difference between my two lives — and by two lives, I mean "mummy," and then me — so obviously, I was kind of braced for it. Not on this level, 'cause it's never even been on this level. 21 was pretty mad, but this is just insane.
But I've got to be honest with you: My kid comes everywhere, and he is so grounding. I was saying the other day that doing it again with a kid this time, it's making me more tired than normal, but on the other hand, he just brings me back down to earth. So I'm feeling pretty balanced about it, actually, and I have only him to thank for that.
Your son is 3 years old; I would imagine that by now he's probably singing some songs. Does he sing your songs?
No. He likes "Twinkle Twinkle," "Row, Row, Row Your Boat," "Batman," stuff like that. He's not interested in what I do. He knows I'm a singer and he loves it, and he's proud. He knows that it's going well. But, yeah, he's not — he wouldn't buy my record if he could.
Listeners have such a personal connection to your songs — I imagine they must want to not just take selfies with you, but, like, cry with you. How do you handle the intensity of all that emotion, especially from total strangers?
I take it as a huge compliment, really. You know, I listen to music as a fan, for the outlet of my emotions and stuff like that. So the fact that people seem to be listening to my music for the same thing, or react to it in the same way I do with certain artists and bands, it's really wonderful, and that's why I like to put my music out there. Obviously, I hope that I bring joy to people's lives, not just sadness. And I find that most people feel quite relaxed around me. I've met a couple that, have been a bit hysterical — like, uncontrollable shaking and stuff like that. But I'm like, "C'mon. Stop it. It's just me. I'm not Britney. What're you doing?"
You've outsold Britney, though! I hate to break it to you.
Britney is the queen.
I'm sure she'll be thrilled to hear you say that.
I love her. So yeah, sometimes it is a bit intense. But I usually crack a joke, and then it breaks the ice.
There is a lot of joy on this album; even songs about nostalgia seem to take almost a joyful approach to nostalgia. Tell me about "Water Under the Bridge."
"Water Under The Bridge" is just about being strong enough in a relationship to overcome every obstacle that's thrown in your way. In my past relationships, anything that's gone wrong kind of puts a bullet into the relationship, and that's of the end of it. Whereas this time, the relationship that I'm in is so strong and we have great foundations. Overcoming everything is actually what makes us so great and so powerful, and makes our love so deep. At first, I think some people thought it was like a breakup song, but it's the complete opposite. It's like, "If you're not the one for me, then how come? It doesn't make sense." And I feel superpowerful: My relationship makes me strong in every aspect of my life. I appreciate it more than anything.
It sounds like a lot of the feelings on this album resonate with the feelings that were on 21 — the nostalgia, the looking backward, the when-we-were-young — but it filters them through a very different lens. Is that because you now have this relationship and this child? You also have more years under your belt — you're 27 years old.
I think it's all of those things. I'm older. I look at things differently. The way that I told everyone what 21 was about, I'm glad I did it like that, and I'm glad I was so candid and honest. But that information went everywhere — know I mean? I had a lot of time to reflect on all of that while I was out of the limelight. And I think, in some ways, my attitude towards my ex-boyfriend when I was writing 21 was a little immature. But I was a kid. I was 21.
And now that I'm a mom, I feel like everything I do, I'm making a legacy for my child. So I try and be proper and professional with all of my life, not just my career. I think it's really important that I'm very articulate with my feelings going forward, because he will read all about this one day, and I want him to know that I cared about how I was portrayed when he existed in my life, that I wasn't flippant with those things. I don't want to be a baby raising a baby.
I understand the first song you wrote for this album, "Remedy," was a song for your son. Is that right? You had been on a hiatus from writing for a few years before that — what was it like when this song suddenly emerged?
It was a massive relief. I had tried a few other things and a few other ideas, and nothing had really come from it. Everyone that I had hung out with or tried to work with before that were fantastic; I just wasn't ready. I'm a very hands-on mum, and that's my reality. And he'll last forever, whereas my career might not, so I think it's important that I get my priorities right with that.
[But] I remember doing the vocal and just feeling really alive again, and fitting in my own shoes rather than my mummy shoes. My hours were a bit different then — I'd hang out all day with the baby, and then I'd go to the studio like once he went down — so it was like 2 in the morning when I was doing the vocals, but it was a great feeling. That's how I know when I am willing to let a song be heard by people that I don't know, when I am moved by it.
There is a supercatchy pop moment on this album, "Send My Love To Your New Lover." It's probably more poppy than anything I've ever heard you do.
I totally agree. It's poppier than a lot of pop songs I've even heard.
This was a collaboration with the Swedish superproducer Max Martin. He worked with Taylor Swift, a lot of other big names. Tell us about the process that led to this song.
I was in New York, writing "Remedy" with Ryan Tedder. We were having lunch, and "[I Knew You Were] Trouble" came on the radio — Taylor's song that she did with Max and Shellback. I was like, "Who did this?" I knew it was Taylor, and I've always loved her, but this is a totally other side — like, "I want to know who like brought that out in her." And he said Max Martin. I was unaware that I knew who Max Martin was. I Googled him, and I was like, "He's literally written every massive soundtrack of my life."
So I got my management to reach out. They came to London, and I took my guitar along and was like, "I've got this riff," and then "Send My Love" happened really quickly. Max Martin, I just could hang out with him forever. He's so beautiful and lovely and funny and generous and warm and caring. He's a really amazing man.
The last time we talked to you on this show, a few years ago, you talked about listening to Etta James and Ella Fitzgerald and the way those voices influenced you. This time, we're mentioning Britney Spears and Taylor Swift. Are you trying to sound like a wider range of things than the kind that inspired your previous album?
No, not at all. The music that truly moves my soul is Etta and Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan and stuff like that. But the music that has soundtracked my life since birth is pop. That's what happens at school: The stuff that is massive and all over the radio, that's the stuff you listen to with your friends, and how you make friendships early on. Like, my favorite band is The Spice Girls. I just remember seeing Geri Halliwell and being like, "F*** it, I'm going to do that. I want to be Ginger Spice." And I remember where I was when I first heard "Oops!...I Did It Again." The whole girl power movement really inspired me and made me feel really fearless.
So it goes deeper than just their little witty songs. Like, they really mean the world to me. I will never make a bubblegum pop record, but in terms of what I listen to for no other reason than just to listen to music, I listen to pop. And then when I want to access myself and feel my soul bubble and boil, there's the music that I'm truly inspired by and that has depth in my life. But the stuff that skims the surface is the soundtrack. It soundtracks our lives, whether we like it or not.
You've said that these three albums you named after ages — 19, 21 and 25 — are sort of a trilogy, and that 25 is going to be the last album that you name after an age. When you look at the arc of these three records, what do you see as the story they tell over time?
Just growing up, I think. I listened to 19 and 21 when I finished 25, and I couldn't get over 19 — I was like, "I sound totally different." 'Cause I don't listen to my own music.
I know a lot of musicians who do.
What? To like, hang out and like chill out and listen to your own music? C'mon.
They put it on in the car, top down, driving around, blasting their own music. I'm not naming names.
I'm not having that. That's ridiculous. I listen to my music for mixes, and to sign off on things once I've done them, but no way would I ever listen to my own music. That is so weird.
So what was it like after all those years to go back to 19, having not heard it?
It was — I don't know. I feel like I was very much 19 on that. And then the experience of my relationship when I wrote 21, it felt like a coming-of-age record — but I feel like you always think that when you turn 21. All my friends felt like they were coming of age when they were 21, but nothing really happens other than you're legal to do a few more things. Now I have a kid, and I'm someone's mum forever. So I feel like this album really is my coming-of-age album. I'm sure I'll say that every album, but right now that's how I feel.
You'll be 57 years old, talking about coming of age.
On an album that's called Adele.
You did not tour for the past few years, and as you were recording these songs, you were not performing them live. How do you own a song, and make it yours, when your only experience of it is in a studio? When you haven't tried it different ways in different cities?
I live to be in the studio. And I do try it lots of different ways when I'm in the studio. In terms of like making it your own live, I get so nervous with live performances that I'm too frightened to try anything new.
Oh my God, yeah. It's actually getting worse. Or it's just not getting better, so I feel like it's getting worse, because it should've gotten better by now.
Well, Barbra Streisand has apparently had stage fright her whole life. That must be a little reassuring.
I don't think stage fright is important, but I think it's really important that you don't think you're great. Because once you get to that point, you just f*** everything up. You think that everyone's going to think you're great all the time, and that's rubbish. Artists and bands that I've grown up loving, they get a certain amount of success and they're like, "Oh, this is easy." And I'm like, "I don't like you anymore. I like your music, but I don't like you." And if you don't like the person, why are you going to let them into your life? It's a whole package, which is what I think an artist should be.
With my stage fright, I just don't want to let people down. I get so nervous onstage that I don't have the guts to improvise or anything like that. But also, you know when you go to a show of someone that you love, and they play a record that you absolutely love, but they play it so many different ways that you can't even sing along? One of my favorite things about going to a gig and, doing a gig, is the singalongs — the crowd gets to sing with you and you get to sing with the artist. Like, that's one of my favorite things personally. So I would never want to perform a song completely differently. I mean, imagine if I started doing a bashment version of "Hello." Everyone would be like, "What?"
Can we talk about the song "River Lea"? That's a real river that runs through London, and the way you describe it, it sounds like this beautiful, wild, rolling country river. That's not actually what this place is like.
Oh, no, it's a filthy river. My experience of it was, whenever I was in our version of the projects, the river ran through it — so it ran through all my aunties' houses, stuff like that. And we'd go down there and have little adventures, and sort of pretend like we were in the movie Stand By Me. A lot of my life was spent walking alongside the River Lea to go and get to somewhere else. It linked quite a lot of estates to each other, so that's how you'd meet up with your friends. But the idea of the song is that, especially since I've become a parent, let alone writing this record, I'm dealing with myself for the first time. And I have a lot of bad habits. And rather than admitting that I have bad traits in my actual character, I blame it on where I'm from.
You know, I went to the school of life. I'm not particularly smart in terms of education. I'm a smart lady, though — I like learning about things, and I make decisions based on knowledge rather than on a whim. But sometimes I feel a bit out of my depth, and I blame that on where I'm from — and, you know, it's not that. I'm very proud that I'm from Tottenham. I don't live there anymore, and I don't go back that often, but I'm very proud that I'm from there. It's completely made me who I am, and I think it's one of the reasons that I've managed to hold on to myself and keep myself together. We're very humble in Tottenham.
It's funny to think about how different your son's upbringing is going to be.
Yeah. Very. But I have the same morals that I've always had, and his dad is a really wonderful man. You know, we believe that our children should have opinions, and that they should have a choice, so we're kind of instilling that now. He will always know why he gets to live such a wonderful life, 'cause I don't want him thinking that it just happens. And he will always know about my upbringing and the struggles that my mum had and that my aunties had. I have struggles too, which are very different to the struggles that my family had, but I don't want him to only know my struggles. In terms of the most things that people worry about — which is being able to support themselves — I don't want him thinking that comes for free.
Let's wrap up with the song "Sweetest Devotion," which I believe actually begins with the sound of your son's voice. Is that right?
Yeah, I recorded him. "I want to sit next to my mummy." You know, I was always looking for the feeling that he gives me, and I was looking for it everywhere in the wrong places, having no idea that I would find it in having a child. I thought I'd have a kid in my 30s, to be honest. And I think everyone thought I was crazy for having a baby when I did, but I feel like he was my little angel, and he came down to save me. And he did — he hit me like an explosion. It's the most shocking thing when you have a child; you can't prepare yourself. It's like, "Oh my God. What have I done?"
You know, I asked on social media what people wanted to ask you, and everybody said, "Motherhood, motherhood, motherhood. How does it change you as a singer? How does it change you as a songwriter? How does it change you as an artist?" And just judging from this conversation with you, it changes everything. It's what you've talked about more than anything else.
Yeah. Everything. It's really hard; when I was like gearing up to start doing interviews again, I was like, "OK, I'm not going to talk about my kid" — because obviously we live such a private life.
But it's the biggest part of my life, so it's impossible for me to talk about my life without talking about him. The love I feel for him is so poignant and overwhelming. It takes my breath away that I am able to love someone that much, and that's what I've been looking for my whole life. I have it in my partner, and I'm lucky for that. But I'm going to be a mom forever, no matter what happens, and that love is always going to be there.
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