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By Chas Newkey-Burden
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2013 Chas Newkey-Burden
All rights reserved.
'People think,' said Adele, 'that I popped out of my mother's womb singing "Chasing Pavements".' One should tread carefully when discussing Adele's early years. Do not, for instance, try telling her that she was 'born to perform'. She will have none of that sort of talk. 'Fuck off, no one's born to perform,' she has snapped.
Adele Laurie Blue Adkins cried, rather than sang, as she was born on 5 May 1988 in London. The soundtrack to that year included Bros wondering aloud when they would be famous, Rick Astley vowing to never give you up and Michael Jackson starting with the man in the mirror. Elsewhere, people partied in warehouses while raving to acid house and, in Wembley Stadium, tens of thousands bounced up and down while calling for the release of Nelson Mandela. In years to come, when future celebrities are profiled, Adele's worldwide hits will be used as a cultural benchmark of the times they were born into. People will be proud to have been born as songs like 'Someone like You' filled the airwaves.
Adele's mother, Penny Adkins, was 18 when she gave birth to her daughter, or '18 and-a-half', as Adele cutely, and more precisely, puts it. Adele was Penny's first and &nash; to date – only child. Not long before she became a mother, Penny had been – lovingly – shown the door by her own mother and father, who were firm believers that their offspring would benefit from being taught self-reliance the hard way. 'That's what we did with all the kids,' said Penny's mother, Doreen. 'They had to make their own way in life.' This was a rule Doreen had for all her offspring and she has seen the results it led to. 'My kids, they all work. The whole family have got jobs. You have got to get on and it hasn't done any of them any harm.' This sense of independence, toughness and ambition has found its way through Penny to Adele.
Doreen has said that she was not shocked when Penny told her she was pregnant. Adele's father Mark Evans and her mother split when Adele was just three years of age. Therefore, Evans was, Adele has said, 'never in the picture'. As we shall see, the extent of his involvement in his daughter's life is a topic of some disagreement. She described her father as 'a really big Welsh guy who works on the ships and stuff'. She does not mourn the lack of a relationship with him. 'It's fine, I don't feel like I'm missing anything,' she said. 'Some people make a big deal about coming from a single-parent family but I know loads of people who grew up without having their dads around.'
Penny, then an art student, had met Evans in a pub in north London in 1987. Evans described his feelings that night as 'love at first sight'. They quickly became an item and within months Penny was pregnant with Adele.
Evans says it was an unplanned pregnancy; both were determined at that stage to make the most of the situation they found themselves in. Evans says that he proposed to his girlfriend around this time. 'I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life with Penny so I asked her to marry me,' he said. 'She turned me down – she kept saying we were too young to get married.' Although he split with Penny early in Adele's life, Evans claims a slice of credit for his daughter's musical tastes. 'I'd lie on the sofa all night cradling Adele in my arms and listening to my favourite music – Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Bob Dylan and Nina Simone,' he said. 'Night after night I'd play those records. I'm certain that is what shaped Adele's music.' He added that his musical taste and love of blues music certainly influenced part of his daughter's name. 'The music I loved – and still love today – is what gave me the idea for one of her middle names, Blue. I always think of Adele as Blue.' There were moments of tenderness between father and daughter. An early photograph of her shows Evans proudly holding his daughter wearing a pink babygro and red boots. She seems fascinated by the camera. Nowadays, the fascination flows strongly still – but in the opposite direction.
After Evans split with Penny, he moved back to his native Wales. There, he joined a family business, helping his own father John who had acquired the lease for a cafe in Barry Island funfair. It is the same site that is featured on the popular BBC comedy Gavin & Stacey. 'I remember she came to stay in the summer after her fourth birthday and she was carrying this little acoustic guitar she'd picked up in a charity shop,' he said. 'She said she was teaching herself how to play it by listening to the blues songs we used to listen to on my record player and then trying to make the same noise.' Each time he saw Adele, Evans noticed that her musical ability had improved dramatically. 'Within a couple of years, she'd started singing along and I remember thinking, when she was seven, My God, Adele's really got it. She's going to be a huge star one day.' A friend of his, who worked as a music producer, also praised Adele's vocal skills when he heard her sing as a child. He felt her voice had great colour and range. He encouraged her to record herself singing the song 'Heart of Glass' by Blondie. As well as her musical skills, Adele was also practising her lyrical ones: she started writing poetry when she was little more than a toddler.
Evans's own family had been shocked to learn of the pregnancy. But they vowed to help look after the child, regardless of the split. Penny and Adele often spent weekends at the family home in Penarth, near Cardiff. Sometimes, said Evans, they would take caravan trips along the Welsh coast during Adele's summer holidays. Her paternal grandfather, in particular, made a real effort to help raise Adele. 'He just loved my mum and because my dad wasn't in her life they completely took her over as their daughter,' recalled Adele fondly.
'I think my dad was Adele's most significant role model,' said Evans. The feeling was mutual: John idolised Adele, his first grandchild. 'They spent a lot of time together, just the two of them, said Evans. 'Adele would spend much of the summer with my parents and most of that time my dad would be playing with her, talking to her, showing her the sights.' As a result of this, Adele elevated her grandfather in her own imagination.
'I painted him as this Jesus figure in my life,' she said. Interestingly, Amy Winehouse – who attended the same school as Adele and was a huge influence on her music – was also extremely close to a grandparent. In this case it was her grandmother Cynthia, whose death was said to be a factor in Winehouse's downward spiral after 2006.
Adele is extremely keen to recall the sacrifices Penny made for her. 'She fell pregnant with me when she would have been applying for uni, but chose to have me instead,' said Adele. 'She never, ever reminds me of that. I try to remember it.' Her mother has a creative side to her personality, which Adele describes as 'arty'. She works across several projects and areas including as an artist, a furniture maker, an activity organiser for adults with special needs and as a masseuse. Adele and her mother have always been very close: 'Thick as thieves,' says Adele. 'She's the love of my life.' One of the things that made Adele so intensely fond of her mother is that Penny has a great perspective on life. The way her daughter describes her, Penny could hardly sound less like the sort of pushy mothers that often loom large in the lives of performers who are successful while young. 'She doesn't worry about little things. She's never disappointed even when I know she probably is. You know that parent thing, "I am not angry; I am disappointed." Like a bullet. She's not like that. She's honest and open and so supportive.'
Adele grew up with Penny's new partner as a stepfather, and she quickly grew close to him. She also has a half-brother called Cameron. The half-siblings bonded as if they were full relatives. 'He looks like my twin,' said Adele. 'We're identical, same hair and everything.' To this day, they find many things to unite them. 'It's bizarre growing up in a completely different city but then, when you see each other, it's as if you've spent every day of your lives together,' said Adele. 'Straight away I'm bullying him. Straight away he's like ... "You fuck off" ... It's amazing, immediate. He's lovely. Really shy, which is the only difference.' Despite the absence of her father, Adele never felt isolated at all, partly because her mother comes from a large family. 'There are 33 immediate family members on my mum's side alone,' she said. Indeed, she is one of the 14 grandchildren her maternal grandmother boasts.
Many of those relatives are male, so she was never short of unofficial father figures. 'We are all really bolshie,' she added. That trait comes across often in her interviews and her on-stage chatter between tracks. She invariably enjoyed visiting her cousins, many living nearby. In their company, she got to experience for a while the sensation of being in a large family, with all the joys, tribulations and other experiences that implied. Then, when she got back home, she could return to the pleasures of being – effectively – an only child. It was a strangely agreeable state of affairs for her. 'I'd go and see them, always arguing and hating to share, then I'd be back home to my tidy room and unbroken toys and no fighting over my Barbie,' she said. 'It was like I had the best of both worlds.' She was certainly comfortable with being an only child. Whatever she was up to, she was happiest when she could be in control of the process. 'If I was building a castle out of Lego, I'd have to do it myself,' she said.
She has a similar feeling of wanting to control now, when she embarks on songwriting. Indeed, looking back over her life to date she has sometimes wondered whether it is her only-child status that has contributed to her writing ability. As someone who has rarely read a book, she has found herself considering just why she is so gifted with the pen. 'I don't know if it's because I'm an only child, but I was never, ever good at saying how I felt about things,' she said. 'From the age of about five, if I was told off for not sharing or I didn't tidy my room or I spoke back to my mum, I'd always write a note as my apology.' She found that she could express herself much better with a pen in her hand. Indeed, many of the songs that she has since written can be considered letters of heartache and disenchantment, set to music. Her first hit was written in the same circumstances as many of her childhood letters: immediately following a row with her mum.
Initially, though, her dreams for the future were not musical ones. Instead, Adele dreamt of becoming a fashion reporter or a heart surgeon. Her journalistic ambitions again see her mirror Amy Winehouse, who was working in an entertainment reporting agency before musical fame swept her off her feet. The medical route, meanwhile, wouldn't come as a surprise to astrologers. Her birthday means she was born under the star sign of Taurus. Considered one of the most distinctive of star signs, the typical Taurus is expected to be a calm, consistent person who rarely gets stressed or upset by life. Were Adele that level-headed, then her life and emotional feelings would have made for a set of pop songs with minimal drama, as opposed to the gut-wrenching themes she has written about. It is precisely her emotive nature and eventful life that have helped give her music and image so much edge. A Taurus is also expected to have a stubborn nature and here we have a trait it is much easier to identify in our heroine. This is a highly honest star sign, too, which chimes with the outspoken and forthright nature of Adele. In interviews she frequently gives explosive quotes, some of which have got her into trouble and, of course, her on-stage banter is legendary.
The neighbourhood Adele grew up in is a little over six miles north of central London, and lies in the borough of Haringey. Tottenham is a multi-cultural neighbourhood – researchers at the University College London have declared the southern end of it to be the most ethnically diverse area in Britain. Around 113 different ethnic groups live there, and between them they speak around 193 different languages. It all meant there was a rich, almost heady, variety of sights and sounds round about her.
In 2010, Tottenham had the highest unemployment rate in the capital, and the eighth highest in the UK. There have often been tensions between the police and sections of the local community. These tensions were epitomised during the riots that took place on the Broadwater Farm housing estate in 1985. The trouble was sparked when a popular Afro-Caribbean woman, Cynthia Jarrett, died during a police search of her home. The following day, fighting broke out between police and local youths. This was the first time live fire was used by rioters in Britain. As the violence escalated, a policeman called Keith Blakelock was stabbed to death. Controversy then raged over who had committed the murder, and the three men convicted for the crime were later cleared on appeal. In August 2011, unrest again came to Tottenham, when the death of Mark Duggan in a police operation led to riots and looting which spread from Tottenham across the UK.
Adele supports the local football team, Tottenham Hotspur, and insists that she is not merely another celebrity looking to boost their fame by declaring questionable support for a football club. 'I'm a real Spurs fan,' she said. She is already well on the way to becoming the most famous ever child of Tottenham and is happy enough about this. 'I'm not a fake Tottenham girl, I was born there,' she said proudly.
Among those also born there who have found success and fun in the music industry are rapper and producer Rebel MC, Dave Clark of 1960s band the Dave Clark Five and pop singer Lemar.
For Adele, one of the first singers she admired was Gabrielle, whose full name is Louisa Gabrielle Bobb. Born just a few miles away in Hackney, Gabrielle was discovered after a demo recording of her singing the Tracy Chapman hit 'Fast Car' was circulated. After she was signed up to a recording contract, Gabrielle quickly became a hit artist and a pop icon, thanks to her distinctive eye-patch. Her debut single 'Dreams' topped the charts when Adele was five and quickly became a firm favourite of the Tottenham youngster. By this stage, Adele had already become fascinated by music and, in particular, she was 'obsessed with voices'. She noted the range of emotions that the human voice could express when set to music: 'I used to listen to how the tones would change from angry to excited to joyful to upset.' She was a truly precocious music fan: she understood music both emotionally and intellectually from a very early age.
She was a pretty child: a photograph of her as a four-year-old on Christmas Day shows a well-dressed girl with neck-length, fair hair and a cute, slightly nervous expression on her face.
There was always music in the household, even after her father moved out. Adele grew up listening to a more hip, varied and relevant soundtrack than she might have done with an older mum. Penny loved music with the intensity of a teenager well into her twenties. Among her favourite acts were 10,000 Maniacs, the Cure and Jeff Buckley – Penny played their music night and day in the home. Indeed, when Adele was just three years of age, her mother took her to her first concert. They saw the Cure at Finsbury Park. Adele would later record a cover of the band's 'Lovesong'. Penny also allowed her daughter to stay up late on Friday nights, to watch the BBC's live music programme Later, presented by the baron of boogie-woogie pianists himself, Jools Holland. Each week, Adele's musical knowledge and tastes swelled. Soon, she could add the likes of Destiny's Child, Lauryn Hill and Mary J Blige to the list of acts she followed.
No wonder Adele quickly grew to love music, not just at an emotional level but an intellectual one as well. Hers was a considered love. 'Cheesy as it sounds, I was sitting in Tottenham, had never left the UK, but felt I could go anywhere in the world and meet another eight-year-old and have something to talk about,' she said. 'I remember noticing that music united people and I loved the feeling of that and found a massive comfort in it. A euphoric feeling, even.' She also found that music could give her an entirely contrasting emotion. The first song that ever made her cry was 'Troy', by Sinead O'Connor. This had long been a favourite song of her mother's. Adele cried when she first heard it and was shocked by how powerfully it moved her. It has a sparse production until towards its climax but it is O'Connor's powerful and emotional delivery that stirs the soul when listening to it. In this regard, it is quite in keeping with the music that Adele would one day make herself. Little could she have known when she first heard 'Troy' that her own music would one day provoke similar storms of emotions in her own fans. Indeed, she would one day turn many of the millions watching her sing on the Brit awards into blubbering observers shaken by the raw power of her lyrics and her delivery.
Excerpted from Adele by Chas Newkey-Burden. Copyright © 2013 Chas Newkey-Burden. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
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