There are certain things we can all agree on. Gogglebox, David Attenborough, chips. Small rays of light that allow us to spot our similarities in a climate hell-bent on highlighting our differences. If an official list of these things were ever to be compiled, there’s a strong chance that Adele would be right up top.
Beloved of chic A‑listers and Prosecco huns alike, her blanket appeal is accepted wisdom. We can’t get enough of her “divorce, babe” down-to-earth energy, her safe-hands presence on stage, the way she lets us in just enough each time so that we fall in love with her a little bit more. But what exactly is it about her vocal technique that’s so powerful? Adele’s voice has seen her sell over 120 million records worldwide, take home 15 Grammys and nine Brits, and move Beyoncé, repeat Beyoncé, to describe it as “like listening to God.”
“Adele’s voice is not unlike the instrument of the snake charmer,” says Mykaell Riley, Director of the Black Music Research Unit at University of Westminster. “It has an ability to take charge and control your deepest, darkest emotions.” Agreed. So in celebration of THE FACE’s new cover star, we spoke to a range of vocal experts to gain some insight into why we’re all fighting back the tears when Adele hits that octave-up whine at the top of “Don’t forget me /I beg” on Someone Like You.
Do we all remember the first time we really experienced Adele? I was back home from uni, sitting in my suburban childhood living room watching Later… with Jools Holland with the family. We’d put it on so that we could talk over it and fight with our Dad about why guitar bands were so over. It was 2015 and Adele wasn’t quite yet the fully-formed glamourpuss we know today. She stood in front of a solitary piano, with a low pony and hands grasped like a granny waiting in line for Communion. But as she began to sing her fingers unfurled to express each note and she deployed deft eyebrow raises with the timing and drama of Sharon from Eastenders. We heard and hung on to each perfectly-formed word. She was sharing a story and we would show her the respect of listening.
“For me, Adele’s greatest strength is that she’s such a believable singer,” says The Voice UK’s lead vocal coach, Juliet Russell. “She communicates emotion in a way that makes you feel what she’s singing.” So how is this achieved technically? “In the verses she’ll often use an almost conversational tone that makes you feel like she’s singing to you personally, which is called ‘speech quality,’” Russell explains. “She then builds to an emotional peak in the chorus using full voiced notes that are much higher in her range.”
Like Picasso perfecting his life-drawing skills or Beckham practicing free kicks in the local park, Adele has been honing her craft since childhood. In a 2009 interview with The Washington Post, Adele revealed that as a 14-year-old, she would listen to Etta James for an hour every night in her bedroom as a way to get “to know my own voice”. At this age, the Londoner also bagged a place at the BRIT School – a talent-factory with alumni ranging from Amy Winehouse and Leona Lewis, to King Krule and noise-rock band black midi. She used her time there to build foundations onto which she could then add her signature flourishes.
“Adele spent hours honing her craft at the BRIT school,” says Jenny Howe, a music teacher specialising in voice at the institution. “She used every opportunity to get used to recording and ended up being adept at translating performance magic in a recording environment.” A perfect example of this is raised by Autumn Rowe, a music creative and former vocal coach on the X‑Factor and America’s Got Talent: “When editing a vocalist, breaths are edited out,” she explains. “But Adele never does this.”
“Technically Adele is pretty perfect,” argues Rowe. “She is a mezzo soprano and sings in her vocal sweet spots. A lot of singers can sing many notes, but never really learn what their sweet spot is.” And it is this singular skill that plays such a key role in Adele’s ability to conduct our emotions. Despite the range and force, we always feel comfortable in her hands; secure in the presence of a woman who is fully in charge of her God-given instrument.
“One of my favourite qualities when it comes to Adele’s voice is her control,” Rowe adds. “She does what so many great voices do and saves the yummy vibrato for the end of each line. So much of her vocal feels intentional, as opposed to accidental.”
But Adele has many more vocal tricks up her sleeve. Enough so that each expert I speak to has their own favourite. “She has a lovely creak in her voice which she moves in and out of very quickly,” Russell notes. “It has an emotive effect on one level and on another you can almost hear the mechanics of her voice working. As a result, you hear the humanity within her sound.”
For Rowe it’s all about the wind machine moments: those parts of an Adele track where you wanna grab a hairbrush or break into a run. A technique deployed with unashamed relish on guaranteed chart-toppers like Hello or Skyfall. It’s known in the industry as “the belt”.
“In many ways Adele made the full voice belt cool again,” says Rowe. “A lot of artists strayed away from it in fear of coming across cheesy or Disney-like. But what we learn is that if the message is authentic, it can never be cheesy. Real will always feel real.”
“Adele’s voice is best heard raw without the clutter of heavy instrumentation,” says Riley. And Russell agrees: “In her recordings her voice is definitely the main event. While the production and instrumentation are often great too, everything works in support of her voice. There’s nothing in the way of it.”
Easy On Me, the lead single from her new album 30, feels like classic Adele. But listen closely and you’ll realise she’s still exploring the boundaries of what she can do with her voice. In a recent Rolling Stone cover story, Brittany Spanos describes Adele experimenting with her voice for the new record as “pulling a ‘Barry Manilow trick’ where every chorus is sung differently”.
Whatever 30 brings, we are guaranteed a voice that feels at once nostalgic and hopeful for the future. It acts as a receptacle for all of our own stories and feelings, allowing them to be both universal and very uniquely our own. “Not everyone speaks English,” Rowe reminds us. “A lot of what listeners connect to is tone, emotion, melody… Even if you don’t understand the lyrics to Hello, you connect with the heartbreak and pain.”
Once again, we are a world united in shared gushy love for a London queen.
HAIR Lucas Wilson at Home Agency MAKE-UP Yadim at Art Partner MANICURIST Kimmie Kyees at The Wallgroup TALENT’S STYLIST Jamie Mizrahi SET DESIGNER Nick Des Jardins at Streeters TAILOR Hasmik Kourinian PHOTOGRAPHER’S STUDIO ASSISTANT Luca Trevisani PHOTOGRAPHER’S ASSISTANTS Steve Yang and Jolson Diaz DIGITAL TECH Alex Woods STYLIST’S ASSISTANTS Marcus Cuffie, Lennon Gabriel, Niki Ravari and Jenny Wyman HAIR ASSISTANT Tania Becker MAKE-UP ASSISTANT Joseph Paul TALENT’S STYLIST’S ASSISTANT Analiese Kern SET DESIGN ASSISTANT Gautam Sahi PRODUCERS Helena Martel Seward and Chrissy Hampton PRODUCTION ASSISTANTS Griffith Snyder and Christian James