Adele: Pop's last true mystery
She is the biggest-selling star of her generation, yet, as she returns with a hugely anticipated new album, Adele is still an enigma hidden in plain sight
Published 22/11/2015 | 02:30
She knew what was coming and suspected it wasn't going to be fun.
When I met 19-year-old Adele Adkins - her second name would soon prove superfluous - in January 2008, the soul singer was a mere blip on the celebrity radar, an ingénue with a steep road ahead. Yet she already had a keen awareness that fame was shortly to change her life - in ways that were mostly disagreeable.
"I don't really want to be a role model, to be honest," she told me, in an 'apples and pears' London accent straight from EastEnders.
"It's a burden when that happens, because, the littlest thing you do wrong, you'll have people going 'How could you? My daughter loves you'."
We were in a grey, airless hotel suite, several days before the release of her debut album, 19 (which would sell a distinctly unshabby seven million copies). On a 12-hour promotional visit to Ireland she was small and wide-eyed, and, though wearing make-up, not nearly as airbrushed and manicured as in the publicity shots advertising the arrival this weekend of her third full-length record, 25 (her age when she recorded it).
Within the music industry, Adele was already talked about as the next big thing - or, more accurately, the next Amy Winehouse (or, even more accurately, the next Amy Winehouse-who-wouldn't-ruin-her-career-by-taking-loads-of-drugs-and-going-mad).
Even this tiny level of exposure filled her with unease. Already you could sense barriers going up - Adele the person seeking to wall herself off from Adele the entertainer.
"I used to go out a lot, but since doing the Jonathan Ross show I get recognised," she told me, occasionally making eye contact (mostly she stared at her nails).
"I've had photographers coming after me. I don't like having my picture taken and if I'm making a face, they'll probably do it more.
"So I let them snap me in the hope they'll leave me alone. I went to a cash point in Stockwell the other day and these girls noticed me and were like 'Aaah!' and I went, like 'Aaah!' back and ran the other way. It doesn't faze me but it is a bit scary."
There was something of a blinking dormouse about Adele back then and, though she rarely consents to interviews nowadays, from her recent handful of recent media appearances it's obvious that seven years in the spotlight have not changed her significantly.
To a degree unparalleled among modern superstars - and, with 2011's 21 album moving 30 million copies, she is certainly that - Adele has maintained a zealous guardianship over her personal life. (You might even call it paranoia, were it not for the fact that she appears so spectacularly well-adjusted).
Adele is, moreover, a rare example of a music star in their 20s not completely obsessed with the face they present to the world. When, for instance, noted Adonis Karl Lagerfeld jeeringly described her as "fat" in 2012, she hit back with the most grounded answer possible.
No, she wasn't obese - she just looked like a normal person. Which is how she sees herself.
"I've never wanted to look like models on the cover of magazines," she said "I represent the majority of women and I'm very proud of that."
We know Adele is in a relationship with charity entrepreneur Simon Konecki, with whom she has a three-year old son named Angelo. That aside, the singer remains as much of a mystery as on the day she shuffled into a Dublin hotel to speak to the Irish Independent. Instagram is untroubled by her presence. She does not Tweet voraciously. Paparazzi have yet to ambush her staggering out of a club or shopping for vodka in her pyjamas.
In that respect, she harks back to an older, more restrained idea of fame. Adele is, in this and many other respects, the anti-Taylor Swift - declining to share with her millions of fans the icky details of her friendships, her sleepovers, her pet preferences. An enigma hiding in plain sight, she thus arguably has more in common with a movie star of the silent era than with her latter-day chart rivals.
Tellingly, she does not see this as in any way unusual. Adele refuses to consider herself a brand, to be hawked on every available platform.
"What have I said no to? Everything you can imagine," she once said in an interview. "Literally every f***ing thing. Books, clothes, food ranges, drink ranges, fitness ranges... that's probably the funniest.
"They wanted me to be the face of a car. Toys. Apps. Candles. It's like, I don't want to endorse a line of nail varnishes, but thanks for asking. A million pounds to sing at your birthday party? I'd rather do it for free if I'm doing it, cheers."
This does not, she added, mean she is a hermit. She is an ordinary woman who happens to have an unusual job. That doesn't make her Greta Garbo hiding in her mansion.
"I'm not a recluse," she said. "Can we clear that up, please? I didn't stop going to shops. To parks. To museums. I just wasn't photographed while doing it."
Adele has from the outset, then, demonstrated a determination to conquer music on her own terms. She has, in particular, refused to engage in the large-scale touring which would thrill her fans and reap millions. At a time when even multi-platinum artists are required to literally sing for their supper, Adele will not participate in the dog and pony show. The largest venues she has graced are 1,000-2,000 capacity rooms such as Dublin's Olympia, where this writer saw her perform in 2011.
"I'm scared of audiences," she admitted on one occasion in 2012. "I get shitty scared. One show in Amsterdam, I was so nervous I escaped out the fire exit. My nerves don't really settle until I'm off-stage.
"I mean, the thought of someone spending $20 to come and see me and saying 'Oh, I prefer the record and she's completely shattered the illusion' really upsets me. It's such a big deal that people come give me their time."
It is possible that her stage fright flows from the unflaggingly confessional nature of her material.
Her three albums have all orbited an early troubled relationship. Admittedly, she recently declared that, with a partner and a child, she is at last over her mercurial ex who has popped up repeatedly in her work. But these wounds have clearly taken time to heal - maybe it is not entirely surprising that she should be reluctant to bare them before the world.
"He loves it," she told me when I asked if her former boyfriend was aware Adele had written an entire album about him.
"He's like, 'That song's about me'. And all his mates are like 'You f***ing idiot, you broke her heart'.''