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Adele talks coming back to Earth at '30'

NPR Music critic Ann Powers writes that Adele's new album, 30, "engages with the world — through lyrics that trade adolescent romanticism for genuine self-examination." Her new album, 30, is out now.
Simon Emmett
Courtesy of the artist
NPR Music critic Ann Powers writes that Adele's new album, 30, "engages with the world — through lyrics that trade adolescent romanticism for genuine self-examination." Her new album, 30, is out now.

It's been more than a decade since the singer/songwriter Adele released her epic breakup album 21, which became one of the most overwhelmingly successful records in history and transformed her from promising talent to indelible superstar.

The time since has brought with it more success — an nearly equally successful third album, 25, a James Bond theme song, sold-out worldwide tours (all of them) — as well as personal growth and struggle. Just like all of us.

Indeed, as NPR Music critic Ann Powers writes that Adele's new album, 30, "engages with the world — through lyrics that trade adolescent romanticism for genuine self-examination, arrangements that reflect the present moment, and a vocal presence as warm and multifaceted as Adele is in interviews and her onstage patter, where she's a pal who tells long stories and makes jokes, not a gravitational force."

We spoke with Adele about the process of writing, recording and feeling her way through 30, which is out today.

The interview below has been edited and condensed. To hear the broadcast version of this story, use the audio player above.

Rachel Martin, Morning Edition: This album is remarkable for a lot of different reasons. You know, everyone's talking about this as the seminal divorce album, but what struck me is that it's not.

You know, a lot of breakup albums about ending relationships are about the feeling of being left and the heartbreak of being left, or the other options, "Maybe we're both sad and we're both moving on to a better place." This is not either of those things — you are owning this. You are the one doing the leaving.

Adele: Yes. ... I think a lot of people tend to think that the person that leaves a relationship or leaves a marriage is fine, and that they've got the power of their choice. That's not the case at all, not that I ever expected to feel like that.

It was one of the biggest decisions that's ever made in my life, and it was a lot for me to forgive myself for doing something like that, you know? But also, there was no anger. There was no anger in any of it.

I really, really went to town on myself,like, "What is it that I want, if I'm leaving such a stable scenario?" And, you know, ""What is it I want if I'm leaving someone who's a brilliant person all 'round?" Stuff like that. I really had to go on that journey. And in the end, I've made so much progress that I wanted to share all of [these] songs that explored that.

It's really hard to figure out what you can live with, right? What you can take — what's the appropriate amount of happiness or unhappiness?

Yeah, I agree with that. Because there's that whole thing as well, "Do I really think that the grass is greener somewhere else?" Because it never bloody is, you know? Like, it never is. So yeah, that definitely cropped up a few times, "I have maybe made a mistake." But that was in the thickness of the turmoil, of me thinking about whether or not to do what I did.

You told Oprah in your interview with her that [ex-husband] Simon [Konecki] saved your life. Can you explain what that means?

Everything always seemed to change a lot, when I was growing up. Not necessarily in negative ways at all ... but there was a lot of change. All the time, we were moving along. Lots of different people in and out of my life and stuff like that — which [was] probably a positive thing for me in the end, considering where I'm at now. But [Simon] is just a tree, he is like a 300-year-old tree with roots that spread for miles, you know? I felt safe. Very, very safe. And no one had ever given me that before.

What else became apparent to you through the self-interrogation of these last years?

Just how, like, wildly defensive I am. I didn't realize. It was like, without even listening to what someone might say to me, I would just hear a tone or something I wouldn't like — and rather than me looking into it and asking, "Can you explain that more?" or whatever, I would just go on a bloody rampage. Shut it down immediately. Which stops you from growing, you know? So definitely that.

Also over the last decade, obviously I'm with my kid a lot, but I've spent a lot of time on my own, [and] I realized that I didn't like being on my own. So I was filling these holes in my life with things that weren't always good for me. and that don't work for me. So I worked on those things vigorously.

Can you be alone now and be OK?

Oh, I love it. I love it. I really do. And that's what that lyric in "Hold On" is: "Sometimes loneliness is the only risk we get." It's how we stock up on supplies for ourselves, emotionally. And the world is just so noisy — and I'm not even saying that as being someone that's well-known. Everyone just wants something or needs something all the time, and it's exhausting.

It's often in the evenings, you know, when my son's going to bed... but it feeds me. I like it.

There's a lyric from the song "To Be Loved" where you sing this: "I will choose to lose / It's a sacrifice, but I can't live that life / Let it be known that I tried." That last bit, "let it be known that I tried." Is it hard not to care how other people judge your choices?

I mean, normally I'm really good at not caring about that. But you know, like I've said as well, there was a level of me feeling quite embarrassed by not being able to make my marriage work. That people would think that I didn't take it seriously — and I did. But that "let it be known that I tried" lyric was more because — obviously, [there was an] announcement that we were separating, just because I was trying to control my own narrative. Then there were so many stories that were written about why we broke up, our history, a sort of timeline of events that led up to it — I didn't say anything. I didn't. I rarely respond to tabloid rumors and stuff like that about me. But it was more of me just being like, "Actually, this is my story, and this is how I felt, and this is how extreme it was." So that's what that lyric is. That is really me being like, "They said this is what actually happened, like what everyone else says, you weren't there. You don't even know us."

You've obviously evolved a lot just as a human in the last few years.

Yeah — thank god.

So what do you think this album shows us about how you've evolved as an artist and singer?

I think it's definitely my most personal and most vulnerable record yet. And that's saying something, because I feel like I've always gone there before. ... I was thinking the other day about [Adele's 2011 sophomore album] 21 — what was wrong with me? I was taking it that seriously... that was a boyfriend. How the hell did I write that album? Like, you know?

But it is a crazy thing. I definitely think that my voice has matured. But I also think that my delivery on the album is because of the lyrics and what I'm singing about. I don't feel the need to wail all the time anymore — my lower register on this album shines more than on any other record, I think. And lyrically, I wasn't trying to write "better lyrics" or anything like that. I guess because of the subject matter, it came out in different ways. But in the past, I've definitely avoided reading articles or novels or really, you know, reading anything, just so as to not sort of take anything from any of that and put it into the songs. [But] I read a lot during this. So I filled up — my vocabulary definitely got bigger, you know?

There's so much diversity in the sounds on this record. I mean, "Cry Your Heart Out" starts with these harmonies and then your main vocal comes in and it feels like we're listening to a 2021 version of the Supremes. It's awesome. But there's also this real jazz sensibility that comes out in other tracks. What was your intention behind the variety of the sound of this album?

Well, I've never really been conscious [of having] a sound. Obviously my voice has always been the running thing for me ... [but] I can't say that it was on purpose at all to have such a broad collection of sounds going on. I think I'm very lucky that I get to work with really incredible producers, who are all so multi-talented and able to tap into any kind of style.

You said this is the last album you're going to title after your age. How come?

Well, one thing: I'm going to change my mind all the time. And that's OK. I can say, "I'm never going to do this" and "I'm never going to do that." But am I?

I am just like everyone else in the world. I can change my mind. And I haven't got to stay true to something that I've said — you know, I think the age thing is a bloody good idea. And so I want to keep going with [the titles]. Or I might not.

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Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Phil Harrell is a producer with Morning Edition, NPR's award-winning newsmagazine. He has been at NPR since 1999.