Adele, the much buzzed-about British pop-soul singer, wasn't even old enough to buy her favorite lager in an American bar when 19, her debut album, became a hit last year in the United States. Named for her age at the time, the CD was a much bigger smash in her native England, where it topped the charts and quickly went platinum.
Critical acclaim for her elastic, strikingly mature vocals has abounded on both sides of the pond. Next month, the 20-year-old artist born Adele Laurie Blue Adkins will compete for four Grammys, including nods for best new artist and song of the year.
"It's a world I didn't think I would be included in," Adele says of the Grammy nominations. The singer-songwriter headlines the 9:30 Club in Washington on Saturday in a sold-out show. "When I got the news, I cried. I locked myself in the toilet and I was just crying. It was all so surreal."
The songs on 19 are often spare and surging with straight-no-chaser lyrics about love gone bad. Adele's delivery is powerful. Plunging, swooping, soaring or just gliding on a memorable melody, her voice gives emotional heft to her sometimes-banal, high school-journal-like lyrics. Still, 19, one of several acclaimed albums to come from the recent British invasion of soul-loving female singers (Amy Winehouse, Lily Allen, Duffy, Estelle), is perhaps the most promising of the bunch.
However, U.S. sales of the CD were slow when it was released in the United States in June. An appearance as the musical guest on the highly watched Oct. 18 episode of Saturday Night Live, which also featured Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, changed Adele's fortunes. Her performances of "Chasing Pavements" and "Cold Shoulder" on SNL led to a spike in album sales. The day after her appearance, 19 topped the iTunes charts. By the next week, the album was at No. 11 on Billboard's pop album charts, jumping 35 places from the previous week.
But long before the SNL appearance, 19 was an immediate critical hit. Adele's blues-dipped soulfulness drew comparisons to the famously troubled, multi-Grammy-winning Winehouse, the most successful of the new Brit soul clique. The two are graduates of the Brit School, the same performance arts school attended by Leona Lewis, Imogen Heap and Kate Nash.
"Everybody was so excited that somebody from the Brit School did so well," Adele says of Winehouse. "But I don't mind being compared to her. I'm a big fan."
The comparisons are misleading. The two have worked with the same producer, the creative Mark Ronson. But Adele's approach is nothing like Winehouse's. Where Winehouse is all swagger with a salty wit and defiance reminiscent of Dinah Washington, Adele surrenders to the song the way Carole King and Roberta Flack did in their early '70s heyday. There's a sense of transcendence to such open-wound cuts as "Chasing Pavements," one of the highlights on 19. Also unlike Winehouse's and Duffy's, Adele's sound isn't a self-conscious throwback to the days of transistor radios and civil rights marches.
"My music is contemporary," she says. "I'm a proper pop girl. When I was growing up, all I ever knew was Top 20."
Adele says she has been singing since age 4. By her teens, she discovered the music of Etta James by accident and knew what she wanted to do with her life. After graduating from the Brit School, Adele started recording rough demos of songs inspired by a broken relationship.
"It was a great thing to be productive that way," the singer says. "I had so much love and so much hate for this boy. It was great to get those feelings out in songs. It was therapeutic."
She posted them on her MySpace page, where the songs garnered considerable attention. Eventually, the British label XL contacted her. But Adele initially dismissed it as a joke until a friend told her the company was legit.
She soon signed with the label, which released 19 in England in February. The next month, XL partnered with Columbia Records to release the album in the United States.
Now in the throes of touring the States and awaiting the Grammy Awards ceremony next month, Adele says she works hard to balance the fame with everyday life, and that benefits her music.
"The writing comes and goes, but I'm feeling inspired again," she says. "I just have to make sure I do normal stuff, like going to the movies instead of a celebrity party. I stay in. I mop my floor. I play Monopoly. I just don't want to peak with my first album. I want to do more. I have to have a normal life to help with my music, you know."