Adele’s album 21 has dominated the charts on both sides of the Atlantic throughout 2011, prompting Christopher Barrett to speak with the Rick Rubin-led production and songwriting team that helped shape a music phenomenon.
There is no doubt that when it comes to albums, 2011 has been 21’s year. Adele’s sophomore album crushed all competition, almost single-handedly prevented a nosedive in UK album sales and broke record after record as the year progressed.
A PRS for Music
member since 2008, and published by Universal Music Publishing Limited, Tottenham-born Adele Adkins now looks set to match The Beatles’ record of having the biggest selling album and single in both the US and UK in the same year.
Released on 24 January by independent label XL Recordings, 21 has sold more than 12 million copies around the world and reached three million sales in the UK faster than any other album in history.
It’s an incredible achievement and one that few would disagree is well deserved, but such is the extent of 21’s success that even Adele’s manager Jonathan Dickins admits to being surprised.
there are elements that you simply have no control over
‘I knew we had a great artist and a great album but there was no way we could have predicted that level of success; but then the stars align, there are elements that you simply have no control over,’ he says.
Among the elements that Adele and her management team did have control over was the choice of songwriting companions and producers.
Recorded largely in London and California, 21 saw Adele assemble a crack team of collaborators led by Rick Rubin and including Paul Epworth, Ryan Tedder, Dan Wilson, Fraser T Smith, Eg White, Greg Wells and Jim Abbiss.
Between them they have worked with an array of artists from Johnny Cash to Mika, so it’s not surprising that the influences on 21 were equally eclectic; ranging from Wanda Jackson to Radiohead.
It is no secret that the fuel which fired much of 21’s passionate lyrical content stemmed from Adele’s split from a former lover. With the Brit School graduate bristling with inspiration and energy at recording sessions, very often the first or second take proved to be the best and the subsequent demos ended up playing a significant part in the finished album.
‘The first idea you have with Adele often ends up being the best,’ says Ryan Tedder, the OneRepublic frontman whose production and writing collaborations include Leona Lewis’ Bleeding Love and Beyoncé’s Halo.
Tedder co-wrote Rumour Has It and Turning Tables with Adele, the second and third tracks on 21. He also ended up producing Rumour Has It despite Rick Rubin initially being poised to produce the entire album.
Tedder first met Adele on the night of the Grammys in 2009, in unforgettable circumstances.
‘It was absurd. She was standing there by herself in the lobby of the London Hotel in LA holding 50 balloons and we both got in the elevator at the same time. On the way up we tried to have a conversation through the balloons,’ he laughs.
When Adele and Tedder first began working together she only had two songs, demos of what would become the first and third UK singles; Rolling in the Deep, which was co-written and produced by Paul Epworth, and the Fraser T Smith collaboration Set Fire to the Rain.
Eager to impress, Tedder remembers arriving four hours early on the first morning of the two-day session for Turning Tables and teaching himself Adele’s previous single Chasing Pavements.
‘I was trying to digest what chord changes and voicings would work for her and after about three hours of chasing that kind of stuff I ditched it and thought “to hell with this, I am going to write something that I want to hear”.
‘I came up with the opening piano sequence and when Adele walked in I had the concept of Turning Tables. I thought it was interesting, it felt connected – Chasing Pavements, Turning Tables; two completely odd non sequitur statements. I also had the opening line, “Close enough to start a war, all I have is on the floor”.
‘I had no idea about the break-up with the boyfriend, but then when she heard the lyric she said it was literally what she was going through and so we made the song autobiographical.’
The first session lasted only three hours and the next day Adele finished the vocals, Tedder added piano and some drum programming and the first demo was completed.
I got goose bumps all over
‘I went back to my hotel room that night and was listening to it on headphones while lying on the bed and I got goose bumps all over. I texted Adele and said “Are you awake?” She said “Yes, I’m listening to the song and crying”, I said “Oh, wow, that means we have something real here”.’
Tedder and Adele reconvened at Serenity West studios in LA to record Rumour Has It, a two-day session that Tedder remembers as among the best of his career.
Before Adele arrived Tedder was already playing around with a riff inspired by Radiohead’s I Might Be Wrong. ‘It has this drop de-tuning and an American blues vibe to it, that was the impetus for the whole song,’ says Tedder.
He recalls that aside from the bridge linking to the orchestral section, Rumour Has It came together quickly, not least due to Adele’s vocal prowess.
I have never had anyone do that in ten years
‘The entire vocal took about ten minutes,’ says Tedder. ‘She sang it once top to bottom, pitch perfect, she didn’t miss a note. I looked at the engineer then at her and said, “Adele I don’t know what to tell you but I have never had anyone do that in ten years”. Putting a vocal on typically takes around four or five hours to make perfect; she did it in one take.’
Similarly taken aback by his experience with Adele is Greg Wells, who co-wrote One and Only along with Dan Wilson and Adele.
‘In a way she has completely destroyed me working with any other artist,’ he laughs. ‘Working with Adele is like the very thing you hope for when you go into the music business.’
The duo met at the suggestion of Columbia Records US president Ashley Newton, and began work at Wells’ studio in Culver City.
‘When I am talking to an artist inevitably I start hearing an idea in my head, it is almost as if someone pushes play. I heard two different ideas at the same time, one had a fast kind of New Orleans voodoo feel with the drums from Gene Krupa playing Benny Goodman’s Sing, Sing, Sing.
‘Then I heard this other thing in my head, a slow cycle of chords in 6/8 meter. I played them both; I sat down at the drums and played the fast drum beat and then I went to the piano and played the slow thing I was hearing in my head and Adele was like, “I like them both, lets start with the piano”.
‘So I am playing this cycle of chords and meanwhile Adele was walking around the room with a notepad and pencil, taking it in, she didn’t say anything for a full ten minutes. Then she said, “I have this thing but I don’t know whether it is any good or not”, and she unleashed the chorus of One and Only; the whole thing, starting in a high C in full voice. Inside I was dying; that kind of thing doesn’t happen every day. I started laughing and said, “Well, that’s pretty great!”’
Adele went on to complete One and Only with Dan Wilson who also worked with her on Don’t You Remember and the US and UK number one single Someone Like You.
A stark, piano-led ballad, Someone Like You kick-started 21’s phenomenal success in earnest when Adele performed it at the Brit Awards just three weeks after the album was released. Her rendition not only stunned the crowd inside The O2 arena but a global audience, not least its co-writer who was watching online.
‘Her performance was so powerful, it came in the middle of a show full of incredibly complicated machine music that sounded like a whole army of people had created, it really stood out.’
Wilson not only co-wrote Someone Like You at Harmony Studios in LA but also produced it as the original version couldn’t be bettered. He recalls Adele at the outset brimming with energy and ideas, playing him YouTube clips of favourite acts and introducing him to the sound of Wanda Jackson, which Wilson says inspired the mood of the session.
Someone Like You became the second UK single. The third, Set Fire to the Rain, was co-written by Fraser T Smith in his Fulham studio.
Fraser T Smith
A fan of his work, which includes James Morrison’s Broken Strings, Adele had wanted to work with Smith for some time and on meeting they clicked immediately.
‘When she walked into the session I already had a rolling drum beat going and some chords in my head, she delivered a great vocal and we bashed it out,’ says Smith.
The demo took just two days to complete but was so strong that Smith was called back to produce it.
‘At the outset there was no thought about producing as the whole record was going to be done by Rick Rubin and Adele was going over to record it at his studio in Malibu. But I wanted to make sure that what he received was really good and that it was dressed in the best possible way,’ says Smith.
The magic was caught during the writing
For the final version Ash Soan provided live drums and Rosy Danvers a string arrangement, but the original demo version of the vocal just couldn’t be bettered. ‘We had unsuccessfully tried to re-record the vocal, but in the end we left it, the demo vocal is great and I think it set the tone for a lot of her record. Like Someone Like You it was the original demo; the magic was caught during the writing.’
Rubin ended up producing four tracks including her remake of The Cure’s Lovesong at his Shangri La Studios. He played Adele a demo of Lovesong in a bossa nova style that he was originally intending Barbra Streisand to record and Adele loved it.
Rubin had assembled a band and Lovesong was recorded live in the studio. The results stunned both the band and the seasoned producer.
It was clear something very special was happening
‘Her singing was so strong and heartbreaking in the studio, it was clear something very special was happening,’ says Rubin. ‘The musicians were inspired as they rarely get to play with the artist present, much less singing.
‘Today, most things are recorded as overdubs on track. This was truly an interactive moment where none of the musicians knew exactly what they were going to play and all were listening so, so, deeply and completely to figure out where they fitted in. It’s almost like a psychic connection needed to occur so the musicians didn’t step on each other’s licks, and all of the playing was keying off the emotion on Adele’s outrageous vocal performance.’
Adele’s instinctive desire to trust the early recordings is something that many believe helped add a freshness to 21 that sets it apart from its contemporaries, Greg Wells being among them.
‘In a world of manufactured sausage machine music and a climate where pretty much every record company decision is fear based, because it is so brutal out there and so hard to get anything buoyant, Adele’s management team let her make that record and put Someone Like You on it. Now they have a hit all over the world with a piano and vocal demo. My hat goes very far off my head to her team; they have allowed Adele and her music room to breathe.’
Dickins admits that he and the team at XL have been careful not to over-promote 21 or push Adele too far. His focus is very much on the long game.
‘There are a tonne of places Adele can go, I don’t think we have even touched the surface of where she can go creatively. Can we replicate the phenomenal sales of 21 on every record she releases? Probably not, but I honestly believe Adele is an artist that will have a 30 or 40 year career.’