Adele’s Production Story: from Myspace to The Grammys
01 Mar 2017
Interview kind: text
· Reading time: 14 minutes
In 2006 Adele was a young teenager and a big fan of the Spice Girls; just a few years later she was topping the charts holding hands with her greatest idols. Her music has got something more than the usual mainstream pop we hear on the radio every day and her success doesn’t seem to be slowing down.
Adele’s recent winning streak at the 2017 Grammys has brought her under some even bigger and brighter spotlights and if her debut album 19 was a free ticket for the worldwide music business, her later albums 21 and 25 have been credited to have single-handedly revived the music industry.
Let’s dig into the production history to find out what led this young Londoner to fill her shelf with 15 Grammy statues.
Adele Laurie Blue Adkins was born in Tottenham in 1988. She was introduced to music during her early age and she started singing at the age of four. She started listening to Etta James, Ella Fitzgerald and Roberta Flack when she was 14 and never stopped since then; she found their vocal abilities highly inspiring for their passion and control.
She graduated at the BRIT School for Performing Arts, during which she started working on her first record, Hometown Glory. Along with vocal training, she was learning song-writing and production techniques that she used to record a three-song demo for a school project.
A friend of hers posted it on Myspace, attracting the attention of Nick Huggett, at the time A&R for XL Recordings label. Adele was reluctant of the first offer they made her for the simple fact she had never heard of them before.
Nick talked about this young 18-year-old girl to Jonathan Dickins, who became her first manager. He started working with her and got her to sign with XL just a few months after her graduation at the end of september 2006.
In may 2007 she stepped into her first recording studio followed by a few selected producers and writers like Jim Abbiss, Eg White and Mark Ronson.
19 was her debut album and the Londoner singer wrote most of the songs but was collaborating with other producers and writers at the same time. The title reflects the singer’s age at the time.
Chasing Pavements was the first single released from 19 and it was co-written and produced by Eg White. The main theme of this song is the breakup she had with her boyfriend at the time.
After a discussion between the two in a pub, she ran away and while she was running home on an empty street, she though to herself: “What is it you're chasing? You're chasing an empty pavement.” And that’s how the song title came up and this is where the “breakup” concept started.
This single made Adele win a Grammy for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance and for Best New Artist of 2008-2009.
The definitive boost to her debut album happened after her appearance on Saturday Night Live in October 2008. Before the show the album was ranked at number 40 on iTunes. After just 24 hours it had topped the chart.
During the long road trips of the 2008-2009 US Tour Adele was highly exposed to bluegrass and rockabilly thanks to her bus driver’s passion for artists like Dolly Parton, Garth Brooks and Wanda Jackson. These new influences translated into her appreciation for country style music and for its straightforward melodic and narrative structure.
In April 2009 she began composing 21, her second studio album, during a highly emotional period after she broke up with her boyfriend.
The list of featured producers on this album includes the well established Jim Abbiss followed by some new top level entries like Paul Epworth and Rick Rubin. This album confirmed that the young London girl didn’t just casually sign a record deal with a major company, but that she really had what it takes to make it big.
And she actually did: the album topped the UK charts for 13 consecutive week and spent 10 weeks at the top of the Billboard album chart. It went multiple platinum in the UK and in the US and won six Grammys in all the six categories for which it was nominated.
After the success of 19, Adele started collaborating, always through XL Recordings, with the producer and song-writer Paul Epworth, who had already worked with artists like Florence and The Machine, Cee Lo Green, Plan B and Bloc Party.
He produced and co-wrote the most award winning single on the album, Rolling in the Deep. His unique approach to the production leaves a lot of space to Adele’s obvious talent, yet it gives a personal touch to the general feeling of the song. Being a musician himself, he recorded some of the acoustic and electric guitar parts, percussions and background vocals that made it to the final mix.
In an interview for S.O.S he explains the process that brought this song from being a rough demo to a Platinum hit.
Adele and Paul where working on some demos in Paul’s studio in London. There was always a vocal mic set up in the room and, as soon as one of the two came up with a few lines, they recorded them immediately. This allowed Paul to work on some rough arrangements on his DAW (usually Logic for the pre-productions) without having Adele singing the parts over and over again.
After he laid down the basic structure on the piano, he recorded her with a Rode Classic 2 mic going through an UA 6176 mic preamp. Paul then recorded the acoustic guitar riff and added some very settle electric guitar layers. The main structure of the song was completed and the demo was ready to be handed over to Rick Rubin to be re-recorded and produced in his Shangri La Studios in Malibu.
The version that came out of that studio was powerful and highly produced, but at the same time it lacked of that very basic structure and that natural rawness the demo was able to deliver in a very direct way. For these reasons Paul was asked to “upgrade” the demo so he went back to Eastcote Studios in London and started producing an alternate version of the song.
The kick sound was obtained by combining a 1972 Ludwig Super Classic 26” Kick with a ‘60s marching band bass drum placed up against the front head. They managed to get a tight attack and a long-lasting “boom” sound. Paul also recorded Adele stamping on a wooden step and blended in the sample to give the song a more live blues sound. All of the drums where replayed by drummer Leo Taylor, the piano was replayed by Neil Cowley and Paul re-recorded all of his guitar parts adding some slight changes.
Paul’s 1964 Martin was recorded with a Telefunken Elam 250 and a binaural head with two Elam 260s on it. The use of the binaural head allowed to get a natural room sound and it was use for nearly every instrument, swapping between these two mics and a pair of Schoeps. The electric guitar parts were recorded with a 1957 Les Paul amped with a Mesa Boogie combo and recorded with a Royer mic.
Everything was recorded into Pro Tools and the finished sessions were handed over to Tom Elmhirst for the mixing.
His approach to this process was mainly “out of the box”: being a big fan of studio C at Metropolis Studios in West London, he used about 44 of the 72 available channels on the Neve VR desk and the remaining channels were used for returns from the outboards. Some tracks had to be printed to stems because his main goal is to have everything spread out on the desk.
Pro Tools was mainly used to notch out some problem frequencies from individual sources and to add some distortion with the Lo-Fi plug-in. His aim was to add further dynamics to the song, without moving away form Paul’s excellent rough mix. He created a 2D sounding mix during the verses that explodes into 3D choruses with some extra sub-bass harmonics added later on. The amazing depth of the mixes is given by the use of delays and reverbs automation throughout the song.
You could argue that replicating the success of 21 is certainly not easy. But like Adele herself said in an interview in 2015, her songwriting process isn’t about chasing a further fame, but it’s about herself. If 21 was a heartbreak album, during the following years her life changes and all of the worries that she carried with her start becoming more settle, leaving space for a grown up woman ready to step out of her twenties.
25 is more about how life changes during this particular age, about how you start realizing what you did in your teens and what life can offer for the future.
The writing and composing process took a long time to be completed, the singer was trying not to replicate 21 and that brought her to run out of ideas. Her team backed her up and they started the recordings.
After she had worked with producer Ryan Tedder for Remedy, she felt like she had no further inspiration and decided to rely on other producers. Along with Paul Epworth, the credit list features Max Martin (The Weeknd, Demi Lovato, Maroon 5) and Danger Mouse (U2, Black Keys, Gorillaz).
The first single of the album that was released in October 2015 was Hello. It was co-written and produced by Greg Kurstin, who had already worked with some major pop artists like Sia, Train, Take That and Kylie Minogue. To record the production and composing session, Greg decided to rely on a more minimal and practical setup, going through an Apogee Quartet interface directly into Logic without using any analog gear.
Everything in the studio was set up and ready to go at all times: all the keyboards were patched in, the drum set was mic’ed and all the channels were there. If something was needed, he just had to pick it up and play it. This method made everything more smooth and during the sessions at Greg’s studio in London the two of them came up with the first hit single of the album: Hello.
The first scratch of the song was recorded with a MIDI piano that Greg was playing in the control room. Adele started humming a few lines and so they moved to the grand piano in the live room. He played a few cords and most of the song was written the same day.
The final composing process lasted up to six months in which they tried dozens of different versions: the part that took more time to be completed was the chorus, but they finally managed to nail it. Adele asked him to lower the song half a step and he added some layers of virtual instruments and plug-ins to get more low-end and a bit more punch from the live drums.
The single, along with other 8 of the 11 tracks on the album, was mixed by the well known mixing engineer Tom Elmhirst at Electric Lady Studios in New York.
Adele’s sound is a combination of her massive talent and her unique personality with the production methods of some of the greatest producers, song-writers and engineers of the modern music industry.
This led her to being one of the greatest mainstream artists of the worldwide music scene, but at the same time she managed to translate a great personal touch to each song depending on the period of her life she was going through.
If you’re still doubting about who Adele is, check out her tribute to George Michael at the 2017 Grammy Awards ceremony. It’s not a common thing for an artist this big to stop a live performance in front of tens of millions of spectators and ask to do it again because of a problem in her in-ear monitoring system.
This means committing to something that, no matter how big and famous, she still loves doing at her best.
I’m a young musician and sound engineer based in Italy.
I’m also the Artists & Professionals Assistant at Bantamu and I’m here to get the best music out there, whether it’s playing, engineering or simply writing about it.
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