Ten years ago, Adam Lambert burst onto the music scene in a blaze of guy-liner, hairspray and sexual ambiguity as America’s most unlikely “Idol.” But while he had the rock star look down and a soaring voice that seduced the hard-to-impress Simon Cowell, Lambert lost. Or did he? While many blamed homophobia for his runner-up showing, Lambert took his fame and ran with it, helping to promote LGBTQ tolerance to middle America, which paved the way for future openly gay artists such as Troye Sivan. Soon after, he solidified his industry cred by stepping into Freddie Mercury’s shoes and touring with Queen. Now 37, the singer wants to reestablish his identity as a solo artist with his forthcoming fourth album, “Velvet.” Says Lambert: “In terms of its sound and influences, it’s the most me.”
Talk to me about being an openly gay artist in 2019 versus 2009. The last time we spoke you likened coming out to “being thrown into a pot of boiling water.”
It’s a totally different landscape. There is much more visibility so it doesn’t feel like a foreign or scary concept. When I first came on the scene almost everybody that I encountered in the music business was very supportive of me personally, but they were all a bit nervous about how it could work publicly. Now it’s been proven that there is a market and an audience. It’s allowing a lot more diversity to be pushed through.
Is it safe to assume that these days, you no longer experience any homophobia in the music industry?
It’s gotten better but I can’t make a blanket statement that it doesn’t happen anymore. There are always going to be shades of homophobia — sometimes internalized homophobia that I’ve encountered from other gay people in the industry. They might feel that [I am] ‘too gay.’
“Velvet” sounds like your most personal album to date. What was it like to make?
I was involved on every song and that’s a first for me. So it was a different experience sort of executive producing this album. Confidence is part of it and just having a clarity of direction has been really integral, too. I started the process about three years ago, just calling up friends that I knew were songwriters or producers. A lot of people I contacted I had met or worked with before, and the familiarity created a sense of safety in the studio for me. I wasn’t going through a label or management team — the official channels. I was doing it socially and that was a nice way to start out the project because there was no pressure and nobody commenting. It allowed me space and time to explore, and once I had a few songs together that sounded cohesive, I took it to the wider business circle around putting out music.
What does gay pride mean to you?
When I moved to LA in 2001, I was 19. I was a bit of late bloomer and it was like a whole new world opened up. I went to clubs and bars in West Hollywood and finally I felt like: ‘OK, now I’m with my tribe.’ Then I slowly learned that even within the gay community there are lots of different subsets. So that was part of the exploration socially for me when I was that age — figuring out what scene I wanted to be a part of — and it was interesting to navigate.
Which subset did you choose?
Well, l didn’t really know. I was doing musicals, and the musical theater community in LA is one thing. Then I would go out to a club and listen to dance music and that’s a different world. So I always felt like I was bouncing around a lot of different circles. I think that made me who I am.
But did you feel like you fit in somewhere?
I still don’t feel like I fit in. Part of my personality is to always have a little dash of outsider in me. I’m a bit of a weirdo.
Now that you’ve rocked the Oscars with Queen and made Cher cry at the Kennedy Center Honors, how have you redefined what “making it big” means to you?
My idea of success has evolved. Being allowed to continue being a creative as a career — and live comfortably — is a blessing. It’s easy to measure financial success by streaming numbers. But to me, the most important thing is to find a sense of personal satisfaction, and it’s so much more than numbers.
Looking back at your experience on “Idol,” are you aware of the impact you had at the time?
It’s funny because I was a theater kid in LA and when I wasn’t in a show, I’d be going out to clubs in crazy hair and makeup. I was never what you would consider a commercial pop star. I did that show on a whim — I was 27 and it was the last year I could audition. I did it just to say: ‘Oh, well, at least I tried.’ I didn’t expect to get as far as I got. Every week that I stayed in [the competition], I thought: ‘Are you kidding me?’ I just didn’t think that I was what they were looking for. And I don’t know if they thought that I was what they were looking for, either, but it just kept working out. Maybe that’s why I connected: Because it did feel like something fresh for the show. I wasn’t a typical contestant for them and every week I tried to push the envelope. It was good TV for that reason.
But how did you translate that into a successful debut album? There was no blueprint.
Coming off the show with all the hype and the publicity, that was the best fuel for a pop career. It was then trying to figure out OK: How do we funnel this into an album? But the label that I was signed to at the time, RCA, and the A&R guy, they got it. When I look back on that album, it is pretty cool. They found a way to bridge the gap between me being sort of a weird throwback type person and the current pop landscape.
I feel like people have always responded to your authenticity.
I try to be as upfront and honest as possible. I don’t do that much compromising of my personality or beliefs at all. Sometimes it’s to my own detriment [laughs] but I stick to my guns.
So many LGBTQ artists have struggled with substance abuse. How did you dodge that bullet?
I always felt like my voice was something I had to take care of — it’s an instrument. That was what kept me from partying too hard. It kept me balanced.
What is one thing you understand about Freddie Mercury that perhaps no one else does?
I wouldn’t venture to say that I know anything more than his band members. But there’s definitely a kinship in terms of the fact that he was queer. And being a queer performer in the rock and roll industry at that time — it was pretty straight. What must that have felt like and how may that have informed his decisions? I wonder if Freddie being super-camp and over-the-top was almost a reaction — a rebellion —against the system. And I can relate to that.
This month is the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots — and the death of Judy Garland, who was the ultimate gay icon to that generation. Are you a fan?
When I was younger — even before I was out — I had a voice teacher who was like a mentor to me. She was fond of Judy, Liza Minelli, Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler, Cher. She cut my teeth on the classics and showed me all their movies and albums. So when I learned later that they were like the quintessential gay icons, I was like, ‘Oh, well, I got my education already.’ So I do have an appreciation for them. Yeah, they’re a bit camp, but these women were legendary for good reason.
Do you still struggle with any internalized homophobia?
I rejected mine quite a long time ago to be honest with you. Maybe in certain cases: With artists in the age of social media, a lot of expression is edited or curated for an audience. When you’re making pop music, one has to keep in mind: ‘I need to connect with as many people as I can.’ You want to make entertainment for the masses. The most important thing is to balance that with some sort of personal integrity and that’s the headspace I’ve been in of late.