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Revisiting Adele's Breakthrough: '19' Turns 10
On Oct. 18, 2008, 17 million Americans tuned into "Saturday Night Live" to watch then-vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin make a highly anticipated appearance on the show. The musical guest that evening was an under-the-radar, 20-year-old British singer-songwriter who was introduced by guest host Josh Brolin by just a single name: Adele.
Standing center stage before her band and half a dozen string musicians, Adele Laurie Blue Adkins hid behind a thick layer of forehead fringe and a low-key dress perhaps more suited for a trip to the corner market. But when she opened up her mouth to sing, her extraordinary vocals suddenly commanded the room — soaring, yet vulnerable; rich in tone, yet husky with emotion.
On the jazz-inflected "Chasing Pavements," she yearned for a boy who broke her heart. On "Cold Shoulder," she channeled vintage R&B, while confronting her beloved's indifference with barbed lyrics and a dash of sass. And when those two performances were over, and the studio audience had erupted into enthusiastic applause, the industry's newest singing sensation hopped around on the stage like a gleeful bunny rabbit. America was charmed.
"I remember seeing her, and just being blown away, and realizing that I had not paid the attention to her that I should have," recalls Billboard West Coast Editor Melinda Newman. "I think I had that realization with several million people at the exact same time. She had a strong command of her singing craft and of her songwriting craft, and she just came on the scene personality-wise saying, 'Take me as I am.' There were no apologies with her."
The day after her "SNL" performance, Adele's debut album, 19, catapulted to the top on the iTunes download chart, nearly nine months after its January 2008 release. The disc would go on to peak at No. 4 on the Billboard 200 and earn triple-platinum certification by the RIAA.
Named for her age when she penned most of the songs, 19 was already a smash in the U.K., where it earned the Critics' Choice trophy at the Brit Awards just three weeks after hitting the street.
"It was never my intention to make a record," Adele told Premiere Networks. "I thought, 'What's the point of daydreaming about something that's never going to happen?'"
Although she graduated from Amy Winehouse's alma mater, the BRIT School for Performing Arts & Technology — where she studied music alongside fellow singers Leona Lewis and Jessie J — Adele never dared to believe she could earn a living as an artist.
"I always assumed I would be behind-the-scenes, and be in A&R, or be a manager or whatever — be an assistant," she said.
But after posting some of her music on Myspace, she discovered a few emails from Nick Huggett, then an A&R man with XL Recordings, waiting in her inbox.
"I had never heard of XL, I had never heard of Nick Huggett. I was like, yeah, some creep on the internet," she recalled, her giggle morphing into a conspiratorial cackle. "But I went in, and literally, I got offered a record deal…and then I got writer's block straight away."
At first, she tried to wriggle out of her contract.
"I was thinking that I should just go in and say, 'Well, you should just drop me. I'm not ready to write records yet.' And then I fell in love with a boy. He really wasn't in love with me … and then the record just poured out."
Producer Jim Abbiss, best known at the time for his work with Sneaker Pimps, Kasabian and Arctic Monkeys, recalled meeting Adele when her labelmate, Jack Peñate, needed someone to record a few backing vocals.
"He said, 'I'm actually going to call a friend of mine,'" Abbiss said in an interview with Walden Voices. "I was kind of unsure about it, and she burst in about an hour later. A really funny girl. She did the [background vocals] in one take. I really couldn't believe how incredible her voice was."
A few months down the road, Abbiss received a call asking if he'd work with Adele on her own album. They collaborated on eight of the record's 12 tracks. For the remaining four numbers, Adele worked with Eg White and Mark Ronson — White on "Chasing Pavements," "Melt My Heart to Stone" and "Tired," and Ronson on "Cold Shoulder." The result was a soulful patchwork of pop, jazz, folk and R&B that managed to be retro, modern and timeless, all at the same time.
Adele wrote or co-wrote every song on the album except for one: a show-stopping cover of Bob Dylan's "Make You Feel My Love," from the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer's GRAMMY-winning 1997 LP, Time Out of Mind. While Dylan's craggy vocals lent a world-weary grit to his rendition, Adele's version of his piano ballad was sweetly longing and brimming with youthful promise — a newcomer's yin to the veteran's yang.
"My manager is the biggest Dylan fan, and for ages, he'd been bugging me to listen to the song, because I hadn't heard it before," Adele told Premiere. "I was being quite defiant against it. I said, 'I don't want a cover on my album. It kind of implies that I'm incapable of writing enough of my own songs for my first record.' And then I heard it in New York when he played it for me, and it just really touched me. It's cheesy, but I think it's just a stunning song, and it really just summed up everything that I'd been trying to write in my songs."
"I want to be really good on my third and fourth album … I want people to be interested in me now, and I hope that I still end up being worthy for a GRAMMY nod then."
On the strength of her sterling debut, Adele went on to earn four nominations at the 51st GRAMMY Awards that year: Best New Artist; and Record Of The Year, Song Of The Year and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for her biggest single off the album, "Chasing Pavements." She took home a pair of golden gramophones for Best New Artist, and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, winning among a stacked field of nominees that included Sara Bareilles, Katy Perry and Pink.
Pink would later write an essay about Adele for Time magazine saying, "I'm so happy when the world catches onto something great. Especially when it's authentic talent, great songwriting and a unique package. … Her success renews hope in me that the world I live in has good taste — that we still occasionally come back to what's simple, and simply amazing."
Charles Kelley, of Lady Antebellum, told GRAMMY.com, "I think we've seen more and more artists chasing that throwback vibe lately. You can only assume [Adele] has had a huge impact on that being the case."
Billboard's Newman says her impact on pop music transcends gender.
"I'm not sure there would be a Sam Smith if there wasn't an Adele," she says. "He very much followed emotionally in her footsteps, in the kind of vulnerability that he expresses."
Kelly Clarkson — another powerful, emotive singer — praised Adele before launching into a cover of one of her songs at a 2012 concert in Australia.
"Adele might be one of the best singers of all time," she told the crowd, before jokingly adding, "It's very hard to cover people who are rad … I hope I don't suck."
Adele released her second album, 21, in 2011, with her third record, 25, following four years later. In the years since her Best New Artist win and first trip to the GRAMMY stage, Adele has won a total of 15 GRAMMYs and earned a legion of fans who salivate at the prospects of her next recorded chapter.
"I want to be really good on my third and fourth album, you know what I mean?" she told Premiere in 2008. "I want people to be interested in me now, and I hope that I still end up being worthy for a GRAMMY nod then."
(Denise Quan is a writer-producer and content strategist specializing in entertainment news and culture. She the former head of music coverage at CNN Entertainment. Her impression of Adele’s laugh is a work in progress.)