With her commanding voice and heart-wrenching approach to lyrics, the young singer won two Grammys following the release of 19, the debut album named for her age at the time. One of the Grammys was for best new artist (edging out Lady Antebellum), while the other was for “Chasing Pavements,” a gripping breakup song that won for best female pop vocal performance. Both the album and the digital single were certified gold in 2009.
Two years later, she’s returning with a new project, 21, due Feb. 22. (Her live rendition of “Need You Now” with Darius Rucker will be on the Target deluxe edition.) Calling from her label’s offices in New York City, she quickly chatted about one of the album’s most brutally honest songs — “Don’t You Remember” — as well as the inspiration she finds in country music.
CMT: What prompted you to write “Don’t You Remember”?
Adele: It’s got quite a country tinge to it. What gave me the courage to try to do that musically was “Need You Now.” When I was in the studio in Malibu, this was the last song I wrote while I was recording, and “Need You Now” was everywhere. You could not even change your radio station without it being played. You couldn’t escape it and, luckily, I loved it! (laughs) Or it would have been awful! But the feeling the song gave me, I was trying to channel it in my own song.
Unlike my first record, when I was writing how “your life is going to suck without me and I’ll be fiiiine,” you know, it suddenly dawned on me that my ex was actually pretty incredible. I wanted to write a song about how it was such a shame that we fell out of love, and we can’t even remember why we loved each other and why we fell out of love. It seemed like a perfect subject, like this emotion could be in a country song.
Were you blindsided by that breakup? It sounds like it in the song.
Oh, absolutely. Absolutely.
What is it about “Need You Now” that appeals to you so much?
It’s just one of those songs. The amount of the times I’ve made a drunk f—ing phone call! (laughs) It’s just one of those songs, the minute you hear it … “a picture-perfect memory scattered on the floor.” Oh, my God, there we go! (laughs) It’s one of those songs that everyone loves and everyone can relate to. It’s one of those timeless songs. I’ve never heard two voices work so brilliantly either. It was incredible. I saw them live in Minneapolis about a month before the CMT [special], and it was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen.
You’ve said your bus driver helped turn you onto country. How did that come about?
We were on the bus doing an American tour. I don’t smoke anymore, but I used to smoke at the front of bus, and he’d be up there driving and listening to all this incredible music that I’ve never heard. He could see the look on my face. I was like a child — a 3-year-old in a candy store. For example, I would say, “Who’s this?” And he’d be like, “It’s Garth Brooks.” And I’d say, “Who’s Garth Brooks?” And he’d be like, “What?!” (laughs) So he started making me all these compilations and asked other people to do it, so my tour manager started doing it, too.
How has country music influenced your own music?
What I like about country is that it’s not fussy. It’s not trying to be trendy, it’s not trying to be clever. Straight away, you know exactly what it’s going to be about. It’s just stories, which to me is what music is about. It’s about having something to relate to and something that resonates with you, rather than nine minutes into a song, being all “What the f— is this song about?” (laughs) It’s something that has totally rubbed off on the way I write now and this new record. It’s so articulate, as well. It’s amazing. Before, I was always a little bit vague, even though I was being very honest. I was always trying to come up with a phrase like “chasing pavements” or something, which doesn’t make sense at all! It made me a bit brave to tell it how it is.
Wanda Jackson has been getting a lot of press lately. I imagine that you love her, too.
Yes, she’s one of my new favorites. She’s like my rockabilly Etta James. I love her. A friend of mine who lives in New York sent “Funnel of Love” to my friend who’s on tour with me, and I heard that. And I’m a massive fan of Phil Spector, and even though he didn’t produce it, it just had that sound about it. So I was listening to that non-stop, like 20 times a day. … I love how she’s so fierce and you wouldn’t want to f— with her, but she’s so vulnerable, as well. It’s the story of my life! (laughs) I put on this front, and I’m actually melting and crumbling the whole time. I just love her. She went out with Elvis! She’s fierce. She’s one of the first divas. Etta James is my favorite ever, and there’s so much about her in Wanda Jackson — that kind of vibe.
When people hear the new record, what do you hope they take away from the experience?
A bit of comfort in it. I always feel like I’m the only person who feels like I do. Even though I know it’s not the case, and there are millions upon millions of people my age — older, younger, from different backgrounds and situations — who feel exactly the same. If my record can comfort one person and remind them that everyone else feels, or has felt, or will feel exactly how you feel now … if it can do that, then brilliant. And also, I want to make records forever. I want people to come along on a journey with me. I think this record is a massive step up from 19, and I hope I get the opportunity to make a third record and a fourth and a fifth. I think one day I’ll deliver a record that is my record — a record that everyone will refer to. I’d love it if people came on that journey with me.