Standing on stage at New York City’s tiny, cavelike Mercury Lounge, a striking young songstress is explaining that the jaggedly melancholic ballad she is about to play was inspired by a former beau. ”He’s been a huge influence on my songwriting,” she confesses, her British accent more pronounced when she speaks. The young woman is smiling, but not joking. Later, after returning to the stage for an encore, she will introduce another tune to the rapt crowd with the words ”This song completes the file on my ex-boyfriend.” She isn’t a star yet — her debut album won’t be out for several more months — but in this room tonight, the possibility hangs there like a promise.
The girl in question? Her name is Lianne La Havas, a 22-year-old Londoner with a haunting, jazz-inflected voice and a fresh record contract. And the reason that anyone except a deranged lunatic could think that an unknown female singer from the U.K. just might ride her heartbreak all the way to the top of the American charts can be summed up in one word: Adele.
In just over a year, the artist born Adele Laurie Blue Adkins has sold some 19 million copies worldwide of her second album, 21 — an intimate, confessional collection of songs that, like La Havas’, are not an obvious fit for America’s often rigid mainstream-radio formats. Not surprisingly, its success has prompted a frenzied search for ”the next Adele,” just as left-field phenomenons from Nirvana to Norah Jones did in the past. ”Obviously in meetings there’s a lot of ‘Why didn’t you sign Adele?’ ” says one veteran British A&R man, speaking anonymously. ”Everyone goes out, tail in between their legs, and says, ‘Right, give me a girl singer with a voice!’ ”
Not that Adele’s impact was expected, by any means — least of all by the singer herself. It wasn’t so long ago that she was merely one of several British songbirds, along with Duffy and Estelle, who arrived in the commercial slipstream of Amy Winehouse. True, her debut, 2008’s 19, sold respectably; spawned the single ”Chasing Pavements” (which peaked, prophetically, at No. 21 on the Hot 100); and earned her two Grammys, including one for Best New Artist. But she had doubts that 21 would match the success of its predecessor. ”I was saying, ‘I don’t think this record is going to do anything. I can’t feel a buzz in America,’ ” Adele told EW last spring, shortly after the release of 21.
”When everybody heard the record, they knew it was special,” says Rob Stringer, chairman and CEO of Columbia Records. ”But not one person could honestly tell you they thought it would sell this many.” In fact, lead single ”Rolling in the Deep,” released in November 2010, was well received but didn’t exactly burn up the charts. Soon, though, critical mass — and a string of high-profile pre-album-release appearances on shows ranging from Today to Letterman — took over. In February 2011, 21 bowed at No. 1 with a startling 352,000 copies sold. By May, ”Rolling” sat atop the Hot 100 too.
The more you examine the arc of 21, the more surprising it becomes. Not only does its feisty, curvaceous creator represent a variant on the usual blandly spoken, six-pack-proffering pop superstar, but for months she wasn’t able to promote the album at all, due to a vocal-cord hemorrhage and subsequent operation. As Stringer points out, the fact that 21 has kept on selling massive weekly quantities with little assistance from the singer throws ”every marketing concept out the window.” Or maybe not: In 2002, Norah Jones scored a huge hit with her debut, Come Away With Me — and sold even greater numbers the following year, after she dialed back on doing publicity. ”21 actually seemed to get bigger when [Adele] wasn’t there, and we found the same thing happened with Norah,” says EMI’s Zach Hochkeppel, who as the then VP of marketing at Jones’ label Blue Note oversaw Come Away With Me‘s campaign. ”There are a lot of lessons there — saying no sometimes is the best thing that you can do for your career.”
But first, of course, the listening public needs to give a resounding yes. And there is no shortage of hopefuls eager to pursue the path beaten by Adele. Naturally, it is much easier to follow the example of Adele than to match it. Lana Del Rey was hailed as the next great chanteuse, and while her much-hyped, divisively received debut, Born to Die, has sold some 1.6 million copies worldwide, it seems unlikely that many A&R men will be seeking out ”the next Lana” anytime soon. EW’s British A&R contact predicts the prospects will be much grimmer for many recent signees, and the labels that bring them on board, as well. ”There will be plenty of girls signed and let go because they haven’t turned into the next Adele instantly,” he says. ”A lot of shirts will be lost.”
If you’re looking for ”the next Adele” in the sense of ”the next pop phenomenon,” however, then the female-singer-songwriter genre may not be the right place to search at all. Says Rob Cavallo, who signed a scrappy little punk band called Green Day and is now chairman of Warner Bros. Records: ”In this business, you’re trying to uncover that proverbial golden needle in the haystack. It’s not about following — if you follow, you’re dead. ‘The next Adele’ will look and sound and feel different.” In other words, 2013’s biggest sensation is just as likely to be a teenage rapper or, for that matter, a boy band sprung from a TV talent show, like recent chart-toppers One Direction.
If anything, the most immediate impact of Adele’s success on other artists may be more of an accidental by-product: Her album, says Julie Pilat, a program director at KYSR and KIIS FM in Los Angeles, has opened the door to artists with ”a different texture, like Gotye or fun.,” two idiosyncratic acts who have found surprising success on the airwaves in Adele’s wake. ”If she didn’t happen,” Pilat says, ”I don’t know if we would have thought that Gotye was a [potential] Top 40 record.”
In the meantime, the hunt continues for that particular golden needle — even if not everyone in the industry is joining the fray. ”I can honestly say we haven’t signed any female singer-songwriters in the same vein since we signed Adele,” says Stringer. ”We’re not looking for that. I don’t want Adele lite. Why would I? I’ve got Adele.”
The Next Adele
Superstardom is always a long shot. But if you like Adele, we think you’ll like these artists, too.
The ethereal 15-year-old has a song on the Hunger Games soundtrack and has worked with Jim Abbiss, who produced several tracks on Adele’s albums.
Her soulful debut, Our Version of Events, has already topped the U.K. charts. And she is literally ”the next Adele” — that being her given first name.
The London native sounds like a folkier Otis Redding — and recently won the same BBC prize for musical newcomers that Adele took in 2008.
(Additional reporting by Kyle Anderson)