In a transitional era that’s been a difficult one for the record biz, 2011 has been particularly brutal. In three separate weeks, the Billboard 200 album chart has set U.S. marks for the lowest first-week sales figures ever for the album at the top of the chart.
That’s why Feb. 22 is such a key date to both the industry and to Grammy-winning British singer Adele, who’s looking to measure how deeply her success overseas will crossover to the U.S. Call it a convergence of need — in which the hit men have more at stake than the thrush.
Adele’s second album, “21,” came out Jan. 24 in Europe, Australia and New Zealand and quickly vaulted to the top of the charts in more than 14 countries, according to Sony Music. First week sales figures in the U.K. alone topped 208,000 copies — more than quadruple the top U.S. seller in the same frame — making it the biggest January seller there since Arctic Monkeys’ Zeitgeist-capturing “Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not” sold 363,000 units its opening week five years ago.
Adele’s latest arrives Feb. 22 in the U.S. on Columbia/XL. And while success overseas doesn’t guarantee the same in the U.S., many are forecasting a chart-topping album that finally looks like one.
“It should do well,” predicts Bryan Burkert, owner of the Soundgarden record-store chain in Baltimore and Syracuse, N.Y. “She really hit a crossover audience with (debut record) ’19.’ It generated buzz from dance to indie kids and into the urban community.” Indeed, “19” has sold 903,000 copies in the U.S. to date, according to Nielsen SoundScan, as well as 1.85 million digital tracks. The first single from “21,” “Rolling in the Deep,” has reached No. 2 on Billboard’s Triple A chart, and continues to climb the Adult Top 40 chart.
Adele made a name for herself on this side of the Pond in 2008 in a serendipitous TV appearance on “Saturday Night Live.” Overshadowed by fellow British singers such as Amy Winehouse, Duffy and Leona Lewis, Adele had crept quietly into the U.S. musical consciousness throughout the year on the back of ballad “Chasing Pavements,” but her October “SNL” performance catapulted her U.S. career into high gear — it didn’t hurt that she was booked on the same night that then-Republican VP nominee Sarah Palin appeared on the show, bringing with her the highest ratings for “SNL” in 14 years.
Grammys the next year for new artist and female pop vocal performance left Adele well-positioned to break out on the charts.
But the singer thought that artistically, her debut disc could have been better. “A lot of the reviews said, ‘I don’t think her songs are as good as I think her voice is,'” she recalls. “I was like, ‘Right … I want to make records forever. I don’t want to be a flash in the pan. I really want to show development in my records.’?”
So Adele took the drastic step after coming off a tour behind “19” of “literally locking myself into my (London) flat for months” and listening to all kinds of music — in particular country and hip-hop — to teach herself songwriting.
The latest album as been more collaborative, with the 22-year-old singer-songwriter linking up with such noted tunesmiths as OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder and former Semisonic leader Dan Wilson.
“I was really worried about making ’19 2.0,’ so I co-wrote a lot more on this record. The first record was 80%-85% all written by me; this one is 55%-65% me,” Adele says. “When I was doing ’19,’ I was a typical stubborn teenager. I was like ‘No, I can do it all on my own!’ I’ve embraced the fact that I can’t do it on my own anymore.”
The music biz feels the same way. In fact, Burkert’s only complaint about the new album? That it isn’t out in time for Valentine’s Day.In addition to Tedder and Wilson, Adele also worked with such songwriters and producers as Paul Epworth, Fraser T. Smith, Eg White, Jim Abbiss and Grammy-winner Rick Rubin. She’d heard that Rubin could be an absentee producer, but she found him tremendously hands-on during their studio time together in Malibu. “He was as involved or more involved than anyone else I’ve ever worked with,” she says.
That doesn’t mean there weren’t a few rough spots. Adele’s toughest day in the studio came when she tried to record a cover of INXS’ “Never Tear Us Apart.” “It’s the first song I ever learned how to play, and it’s one of my favorite songs,” says Adele, who covered Bob Dylan’s “To Make You Feel My Love” for “19.” “But when we covered it, I was devastated because I sounded so unconvincing in it. I didn’t believe a word I was singing.” Then, session guitarist Smokey Hormel suggested The Cure’s “Lovesong,” a tune that resonated even more with Adele because her mom took the singer to her first Cure show when she was 3. Rubin had originally thought of getting Barbra Streisand to record a bossa nova-tinged arrangement of the song. That never came to pass, so he gave Adele that version. “I was well up for the idea, and the take that’s on the record is the first take.”
But Adele, who will spend most of 2011 on tour, knew that her cover had to pass muster with her mother, who loves the band. “I said, ‘Oh mum, I’ve covered “Lovesong,” it’s a bossa nova version’ and she was mortified. Then I played it for her and she loved it and she cried, but the (initial) thought of someone ruining a Cure song fills her with despair. She’d disown me if she didn’t like it, but she loved it.”