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The life and times of Adele

Sean Smith’s biography of the acclaimed singer is a colorful read

The life and times of Adele

Book review

Sean Smith, a bestselling author, who has written biographical accounts about the lives of Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears, J.K. Rowling and several others, has finally penned a book about one of music’s biggest selling artists, Adele, and it is a riveting read.

Published first in 2016, the biographical book not only covers Adele’s incredible rise to the top of the music world and her most recent endeavours but also covers in great depth fractions of her life that we know little about. Divided into three parts, the book not only traces the life story of Adele and quotes her but also speaks to those who have played a part in her life, either in a professional capacity or personal or in some cases, both. From industry experts to teachers to Adele herself, the book is an easy read that does justice to its subject by investigating carefully and sincerely.

Though the book’s opening pages are dedicated to the story of Adele’s mother and grandmother, both of whom remain a strong influence on Adele throughout her life, it’s the early years of Adele, told with great clarity that are perhaps the least known and therefore make for a terrific read.

Part One: When She Was Young

Adele Adkins, known simply as Adele around the world, may have begun her global dominion with the album 21 and the song, ‘Rolling in the Deep’ but her musical life actually begun at The BRIT School for Performing Arts & Technology, which counted George Martin, the producer of The Beatles, as its godfather. As Smith tells it, Adele who was forthright from an early age initially had no desire to join the school that would change her life. In fact, she was considering joining the Sylvia Young Theatre but that was not to be as it was an expensive undertaking, one that her mother could not afford.

Supported by her mother, Penny Adkins, who raised Adele to believe in herself and do what her heart desires, she applied to the school and despite fierce completion secured one of the twenty-four spots by beating out hundreds of other applicants. At the age of just thirteen, she managed to surprise her teachers at the BRIT School with her dedication to music and the way with which she articulated her views. The precocious thirteen-year-old described herself as “someone who is dedicated to music purely through love and passion for it”. She also stood out because she told the school that she was interested in arranging music as it would help her “build on my songwriting both musically and lyrically”, a view that was not common to most students at such a young age. Suffice it to say, her impressive hold on her teachers was just the beginning.

Shifting to West Norwood, a sleepy district in London, Adele quickly rose to prominence in her school. Liz Penney, a teacher at BRIT school also noticed her commitment to music. As Smith notes, it was also curious for her educators to learn that not only was she a fan of Eminem but she was also a fan of Billie Holiday.

At school, she made friends with ease and with students who were older than her.

The school, which taught her so much, was a place that had plenty of other students who were stars in the making such as Kate Nash and Adele got along with many of them and revered others such as Amy Winehouse.

cov2Adele-book-coverWhile still at school, a trip to a concert featuring American singer, Pink at the Brixton Academy, proved to be an eye-opening experience for the budding singer. Another eye-opening experience, writes Smith, that would go on to influence Adele the most as an artist, emerged when she bought CDs of Ella Fitzgerald and Etta James from her weekly pocket money of ten pounds. Adele finally got around to hearing these musical giants when she turned fifteen, nearly a year after she first bought the records.

“I found that her delivery was just so sincere that she really could convince me she was singing directly to me. Which is something I had never found in any other artist,” Adele said later about discovering Etta James. It became an obsession for her and years later Adele almost earned a chance to perform with James at the Hollywood Bowl that was canceled at the eleventh hour after James pulled out. Upon her death in 2012, Adele wrote a thank you letter to the singer, noting sharply: “I feel her pain.”

As a teenager, Adele was intrigued by fashion and would spend time looking for the perfect bargain and though she enjoyed fashion, she ultimately always opted for comfort over style.

It is also true that many of Adele’s most hit songs were written while she was still studying at the BRIT School. The early drafts of songs like ‘Hometown Glory’ and ‘Daydreamer’ were products of Adele’s teenage emotions.

As Adele grew to learn more about music, her reputation as a songwriter and performer gained traction in just the right circles. While at school, she recorded a demo of three songs that was posted online on MySpace as Adele understood from an early age that the Internet was the future and she would use it to be noticed.

Part two: Sometimes It Hurt

Adele was just seventeen years old when she was approached by a record label executive. However, her true coming out party to music occurred when she turned eighteen. Playing at a pub in Brixton, Adele played to an audience that consisted of friends, family and “important people” from XL Recordings, a company that backed artists like M.I.A, Radiohead and Jack White. Signed by XL, Adele didn’t receive a massive signing fee right away but was surrounded by people who created just the right buzz around and about her.

Surprisingly enough, even as her debut album 19 released to great acclaim, it didn’t jump to the top of the charts in America. But Columbia Records Chairman Rob Stringer had high hopes for Adele and used his considerable clout to secure a spot for her on Saturday Night Live in October 2008, a night that Adele admits was a game-changer. After Adele’s appearance on the show, the next morning her debut album went from number forty on the iTunes chart to number eight. While in America, she met the acclaimed music producer Rick Rubin, Justin Timberlake, (on whom she had a massive crush) shared a table with David Bowie and sang a duet with Alicia Keys. And just a few weeks later, Adele received a text that told her that she had been nominated for the 2009 Grammys and had landed four nominations.

Part Three: Feel My Love

If the first two parts are dedicated to Adele’s early years including the days she spent studying music at the BRIT School, the third and final part of the book is dedicated to Adele’s universe post-success and how the heartbreak of a relationship led to an album that was embraced by listeners in dozens of countries.

After 19’s Grammy victory, many around Adele were dreading whether she would fall into the trappings of “DSAS: Difficult Second Album Syndrome” but thankfully Adele realized that she needed help and couldn’t produce the album on her own. In 2009, she also learnt that the man who had broken her heart was engaged. That experience of conflicting and powerful emotions led to the creation of ‘Rolling in the Deep’, a song that she and producer Paul Epworth finished in just under three hours. When the album containing this song released in January of 2011, it went to the top of the table in sixteen countries, simultaneously.

“Adele began the song a star. She ended it a superstar,” Smith notes. But even as Adele’s career rose, trouble was on her doorstep. Towards the end chapters, the book traces at length the upward downward spiral that greeted Adele in 2011. While on one end her album became the biggest hit of the millennium, she was forced to cancel shows on multiple occasions due to a vocal cord injury that almost wrecked her career.

Packed with well-researched information, in the end, the book is a thoroughly entertaining read that captures the many facets of the singer’s personality beautifully and therefore should appeal to anyone who is remotely curious by the phenomenon that is Adele or just the music business.

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