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Like Amy Winehouse a year ago, Adele is a young, big-haired, R&B-tinged British pop singer who's a Grammy favorite even though she's hardly a household name in the States.
Unlike Winehouse, Adele phones on time. The oft-troubled Winehouse canceled four telephone interviews with the Star Tribune last year before we connected, but Adele nailed it the first time -- calling last month from a boisterous gay bar in London where they were playing her songs on the jukebox. It sounded as if she were still celebrating her four Grammy nods, including best new artist and record of the year for "Chasing Pavements."
"I had to lock myself in the bathroom for an hour before I could come to terms with it," said Adele, who, unlike Winehouse, will attend the Grammys. (Winehouse couldn't get a visa and performed via satellite from London.) "I couldn't believe it; it was a world where I never, ever thought I'd be included -- not now or in the years to come."
Gearing up for the awards, Adele will sing Tuesday at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul.
What stands out about Adele Laurie Blue Adkins, 20, are her big voice and even bigger personality. Though hyped as the next Winehouse, she came across more like the next Annie Lennox when she made her Twin Cities debut last summer during one of three mini-tours of the United States. Performing at the intimate Theatre de la Jeune Lune, she showed a luxurious, versatile and emotional voice that, at turns, also recalled American soul great Etta James and fellow Brits Alison Moyet and Lulu.
One of the highlights, of course, was "Chasing Pavements." She said the dramatic, Burt Bacharach-like tune was inspired by a "boy who cheated on me and I found out and I went to a club and punched him and I got thrown out." Afterward, her friends found her walking outside and asked: "What are you doing? You're not chasing anyone?" She said, "I was chasing pavements."
She liked the phrase, went home and wrote a few chords, and a hit was hatched.
Adele's debut disc, "19" -- her age when she recorded it -- is entirely about that boy. She's called the music "heartbroke soul."
"It's a heartbreak record and there are certainly elements of my music that are soul. I don't think my genre is soul, but parts of my voice are," she explained.
Target of the tabloids
In tabloid-obsessed England, Adele is the kind of star who generates breathless press coverage, even without the kind of vices that made Winehouse notorious (she does have a two-pack-a-day cigarette habit, however). Most recently, she stirred a controversy for reportedly saying she doesn't want a Grammy. She said she was misunderstood; she meant that she didn't want her career to peak with her first record.
"I thought I was being really gracious with it and the British media made it sound like I was being an ungrateful little bitch," she said. "I hate that about the media. Sometimes I think I ask for it because I'm so mouthy and opinionated."
Adele has an outsized personality to match her proudly plus-size figure. The newly minted star has already made pronouncements that she has no interest in going into acting, starting a fashion line or writing an autobiography.
What is she like? "Funny, giving, lazy but motivated," she offered. "Naive. Quiet when I'm not singing and stuff. Very shy. Domestic -- I like cleaning -- and I love a party."
At Amy's art school
Adele is the only child of "a hippie mom," now 38, who is a massage therapist and furnituremaker, and a big Welsh man who never was involved in her life. Neither was musical, but her mother encouraged Adele to do her impersonation of the Spice Girls at dinner parties.
As a child, her dream was "to be a mum." But Adele caught the music bug as a preteen, singing Destiny's Child songs as one of the few white students at a mostly black school. At 13, she bought copies of albums by Ella Fitzgerald and Etta James (she was attracted by James' hairdo). Two years later, she took up guitar and, with four self-penned songs, started gigging.
She attended the BRIT School, the only free performing arts school in Europe, which produced such British stars as Imogen Heap, Kate Nash, Leona Lewis, Katie Melua and Winehouse. On Christmas Eve 2004, the high-schooler set up a Myspace page and, two years later, landed a contract with XL Recordings, home to such hip stars as Radiohead and M.I.A.
Even before "19" was released last January, the U.K. music industry anointed her as the first recipient of the Brit Awards' Critics Choice prize. The recognition was "both good and bad," she said of the intense attention it brought to her and her music. The album debuted at No. 1 on the British charts while "Chasing Pavements" peaked at No. 2.
A night with 'lunatic' Palin
Nonetheless, Adele said, "I was quite scared about heading over to America because I think I'm really British and I didn't really know if the music would work."
Her album wasn't released in the States until June. Though her songs got exposure on "Grey's Anatomy" and "So You Think You Can Dance" as well as VH1, "Chasing Pavements" reached only No. 82 here. Her breakthrough didn't come until October, when she appeared on "Saturday Night Live" on the same night as Gov. Sarah Palin -- a show that drew 17 million viewers, "SNL's" largest audience in 14 years. That helped drive sales of "19" to No. 11 on the U.S. charts.
What does Adele owe the former vice presidential candidate?
"I was [booked] on the show before she was," Adele said with a laugh. "I thought she was very funny on it and she was really nice backstage. I don't like her politics; I think she's a lunatic."
Don't be surprised if Adele shoots off her mouth in concert Tuesday. Last summer in Minneapolis, she prattled on about her migraine, wisdom teeth and the heat in the theater. For that performance, she was accompanied only by her own acoustic guitar or a pianist or guitarist. For her return visit, she'll have a proper seven-piece band and possibly some new songs.
"I've got four songs I like so far and about six I hate that will never see the light of day," she said, adding that she plans to record this fall in Malibu, Calif.
She calls her current brief U.S. tour "the road to the awards." If she wins a Grammy, will she thank Palin?
"No," she said, "because everyone would think I'm a Palin and McCain supporter."
Jon Bream • 612-673-1719