Theo Wenner for Rolling Stone
Adele: ‘It Fucking Devastated Me’
How she turned heartache over her divorce into her most honest album yet
Adele thought that maybe, just maybe, she could quietly slip news of her and her husband’s separation into the world without much notice. It was Good Friday, 2019, and their marriage had been over for some time. A holiday weekend, she figured, might deflect some of the attention she had been dreading.
“Fucking idiot,” she says of her plan.
Adele and her husband, Simon Konecki, had been together since 2011. Their relationship was remarkably under the radar given Adele’s growing stardom, partly because she really only emerged from her life as a wife and mother to their son, Angelo, to release record-shattering albums. Their wedding was so private there aren’t even pictures online.
Adele’s dread only intensified after a press release went out that Good Friday evening. A close friend flew out from England to Los Angeles to make sure the then-30-year-old wasn’t on her own as the news spread. Tweets and memes flooded social media, expressing not just shock that the relationship had ended, but also excitement at the idea that Adele’s heartbreak would inspire new music.
You can understand where the fans were coming from. Adele built her empire on heartache: moving reflections of pain and its aftermath, like finding “Someone Like You,” or merely saying “Hello” to an ex after years have passed. At the time Adele and Konecki announced their breakup, nearly four years had passed since her last album, 25, and her audience was hungry for something new. And what’s a better album prompt than a high-profile divorce?
For Adele, the fan reaction was bewildering. “During something like that, that kind of significant thing to happen in life, your mind sort of goes to those places: ‘Why don’t they like me? Why would they write that if they’ve followed me for 10 years?’ But in reality, that’s not their responsibility. In reality, their responsibility as a fan is to want a good record and to hope I deliver. So I took it with a pinch of salt, and it was fine.”
(Adele knows a thing or two about waiting forever for a favorite artist to release new music, like her friend Kendrick Lamar. “Fucking hell!” she says of her anticipation for the rapper’s next LP. Unlike her fans, she’s already had the privilege of hearing a few of Lamar’s new songs in the interim.)
Adele had enough to worry about besides Twitter and the expectation of new music. Rumors and assumptions spread like wildfire, but the reality is that there were no heroes or villains in her divorce. Konecki was a good husband and continues to be a great father to Angelo. He’s still one of Adele’s best friends, even texting her memes while she and I are together. Instead, the end came with the heartbreaking, if less dramatic, feeling that she was getting further from the person she hoped to be.
“I didn’t really know myself,” she says. “I thought I did. I don’t know if it was because of my Saturn return or if it was because I was well and truly sort of heading into my thirties, but I just didn’t like who I was.”
Adele wanted to be settled and happy, in a home full of loving, organized chaos. She never really felt that, or at least she never felt truly present in it. “It made me really sad,” she recalls. “Then having so many people that I don’t know know that I didn’t make that work … it fucking devastated me. I was embarrassed. No one made me feel embarrassed, but you feel like you didn’t do a good job.”
Adele had already started writing the album everyone was waiting for. She began work on 30 in early 2019 and had it completely written by early 2020, though the pandemic would have something to say about the eventual release date. Sure, it’s an album about “divorce, babe,” as she stated recently in her first-ever Instagram Live. But it’s not the collection of scorched-earth power ballads everyone may have been expecting.
Instead, Adele wrote an open letter to Angelo, in hopes that one day he’ll hear the album and really, truly understand who his mom was and how her life changed during this time. The only song specifically about her marriage is “Easy on Me,” the gorgeous, very typically Adele first single. Across 30, Adele assesses the most important relationship of her life: the one with herself. Saturn returns are periods of major upheaval at the turn of one’s thirties, and Adele just went through hers, coming out on the other side of a turbulent period ready to reckon with who she is and what she wants, even if it meant upending her own life.
She embarked on a spiritual journey, her own Eat, Pray, Love, if you will. It’s the kind of thing the acerbic Brit might once have rolled her eyes at. It was exactly what she needed.
The Good Friday announcement sent Adele off on an intense few weeks of bed-bound anxiety. She was spending more nights on her own now that she and Konecki shared custody of Angelo. It was the most time she had ever spent away from her son.
But when she celebrated her 31st birthday with friends in May 2019, eating a home-cooked dinner and watching a movie, something clicked. “I remember going upstairs, and doing my face, and getting into bed,” she says. Her birthday fell a few weeks after that depressing Easter weekend. “I felt quite hopeful,” she says. “It was the first time I felt I’d had a really nice evening and I was OK being in the house and going to bed on my own. I was not excited, but I was looking forward to the next day.”
The next day, she woke up to the California sun pouring through her curtains and “saw this tsunami of emotions” coming toward her. She thought that maybe she would try to be busy. Instead, she stayed in bed and started watching The Sopranos.
“I was like, ‘This is going to be really fucking up-and-down,’” she says. And it was. But after the great birthday and rough comedown of a morning after, she decided to spend 2019 trying new things. She took recommendations from anyone — her lifelong London crew, industry allies, other moms at Angelo’s school, even her eyelash girl. She entered her “sound bath era” and began hiking regularly. That July, she climbed a mountain in Idaho with friends, where they wrote their intentions and buried them in the dirt. She gave up drinking for about six months, tired of the constant “hangxiety.”
“Anything that could soothe my anxiety, I threw myself in headfirst,” she explains. She traveled “anywhere where there’s meant to be brilliant energy.” Jamaica, Greece, even a desert in Arizona, where she had done a similar intention-setting ritual. Adele’s diet and body were changing, too. She had found out she’s allergic to most forms of gluten when she moved to Los Angeles three years earlier, and later learned that a symptom of gluten sensitivity is feeling depressed. “So, I was like, ‘Oh, great. Thanks, guys. Could have had a really fun twenties.’ ”
She got a bit addicted to the gym; it was another place where she didn’t feel anxious. She was learning she was stronger than she thought and healing parts of her body, like the back that had given her trouble for years. She also learned she is surprisingly athletic. “If I can transform my strength and my body like this, surely I can do it to my emotions and to my brain and to my inner well-being,” she surmised. “That was what drove me. It just coincided with all of the emotional work that I was doing with myself as a visual for it, basically.”
All the while, she was writing. Most of her new songs were penned during a trip to London that summer. The producers and songwriters Greg Kurstin, Tobias Jesso Jr., Max Martin, and Shellback all returned after contributing to 25. New to the squad was Inflo, a North London producer who helped her get back to some of her writing roots.
“He really taught me to chill out,” she explains. After having Angelo, she’d become a bit of a “control freak,” which showed when she was making 25. It was more polished than 19 and 21, albums on which she was “just throwing everything at the wall.” Inflo made her take a closer listen to some of her favorite albums — Donny Hathaway, the Carpenters, Al Green, Marvin Gaye. Their albums sound perfect because they technically aren’t. “He was like, ‘If you really listen, this is a mess. If you really listen, people are playing the wrong notes. They’re coming in at the wrong time. It’s all about the energy and the atmosphere that that creates. Why would you want anyone to do another take if you’ve just got the most perfect take that there is?’ ”
Their time in the studio would begin with a “six-hour therapy session,” Adele says, when the pair would unpack what she was going through at the moment and then spend two or three days pulling out a song that cut to the heart of her emotional tsunami.
The album’s track list is almost a chronological chain of events. It begins with a Judy Garland homage titled “Strangers by Nature,” which opens with Adele “taking flowers to the cemetery of my heart” and wondering if she’ll ever learn “to nurture what I’ve done.” She made that one with Ludwig Göransson, the Oscar-winning Swedish composer who worked on Black Panther and with Childish Gambino (whom, by the way, Adele’s been into for “donkey’s years”).
“I met Göransson at a party, and I was like, ‘He’s definitely European, that guy,’ ” she recalls. As a Brit in L.A., she finds herself seeking out other Europeans because of their often similar dry sense of humor.
They worked on “Strangers” after she had watched the Renée Zellweger-led Garland biopic, Judy, and wondered why no one wrote songs like that anymore. She calls the track her Death Becomes Her moment, alluding to the camp classic starring Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn as two vengeful, youth-obsessed frenemies. Through “Strangers,” Adele acknowledges being a bit of a “hot mess.”
The song, short and whimsical, is so unlike anything she’s done before that she almost thought about giving it to someone else to sing or sample. “You know in the old movies when someone’s having a flashback or a memory to something else, and it’s almost like they’ll shoot a river or a pond and the water goes all ripply?” she asks. “It reminds me of that.”
On “My Little Love,” Adele sings an R&B lullaby to Angelo. She admits that “Mama’s got a lot to learn” and that she’s just barely holding on. Strikingly, it includes voice memos of Angelo asking tough questions she tries her best to answer. “I love your dad because he gave you to me,” she says to him during bedtime conversations she’d begun to record in a period of severe anxiety. “It was unbearable,” she explains now, “and so if I started getting anxious about something I might or might not have said, I could just listen back to this and be like, ‘OK, I’m fine.’”
Adele has started to wonder about society’s expectations for mothers, how they’re always just moms while dads can be many things at once. Much of that is what reinforced her feelings of failing Angelo after leaving Konecki. “I might not have been emotionally there all the time, but I never wasn’t there for him,” she says, defending herself against her own fears. “My Little Love” — and, really, all of 30 — is about showing Angelo who his mother really is: a layered and complicated woman with an identity outside of their relationship, who’s struggled and cried and hurt.
“He needs to know everyone goes through it,” she continues. So far, and as heard on the voice memos, he is quite the understanding nine-year-old. “He’s a Libra, so he is, like, ‘Chill. It’s fine, Mama. Just chill out.’ ”
In February 2020, Adele’s best friend Laura invited Adele to come to her wedding. “I’d been so sad and reclusive,” Adele says. “She was like, ‘Listen, I need you to show up for me. I need you to come and run the party.’ ”
Since becoming famous, Adele often felt she had to skip things like weddings and birthday parties for her friends. She worried her presence would cause paparazzi disruptions for the guests or invasions of her own privacy. It’s not like she could ask to have all the phones removed from someone else’s big day. “I took it to an incredibly isolating level,” she says.
But in the process of regaining herself outside of her marriage, Adele began showing up for friends like Laura. And in showing up, she managed to leak news of her own album. A couple of glasses of wine in, she took the stage at Laura’s wedding to announce that her fourth LP would arrive in September 2020, a date that would of course slide back, thanks to a worldwide pandemic. “[Laura] was like, ‘I was not expecting you to really run it like that,’ ” she says.
Fast-forward to this September, a full year after the original release date. Adele is enjoying a poke bowl in a Burbank rehearsal space and relishing a different kind of tweetstorm than the one she witnessed after her separation announcement. Her name had been trending after a radio host spread a rumor that she was about to drop her album imminently. A fake track list started to spread, including imaginary duets with Beyoncé and Ariana Grande. Adele isn’t active online when she’s not promoting an album or tour, but she is a “full-blown millennial.” Meaning she’s an NSA-level online sleuth.
“I know how to trace something online, like no one’s business, back to the original source or leak, more than anyone on my team,” she claims. She has a “finsta” — fake Instagram — she uses to check out cat and interior-design content, and a fake Twitter for checking on what’s come out about her. She’s been keeping tabs on information leaking about the real 30, free from any duets outside of a deluxe-edition version of “Easy on Me” featuring Chris Stapleton.
Adele pulls out her phone to find her favorite Tweet from the fervor over the fake album announcement. She searches the user @keyon, whose display name is “HOOD VOGUE is tired of poverty.” He called bullshit on the information quickly, noting that Adele famously does not do features. “He is so funny. I was like, ‘See, that’s a fan,’ ” she says, scrolling through her phone. “If anything’s blowing up on Twitter, I always go straight to that account because I know he’ll either be like, ‘Oh, this could be real,’ or he’s like, ‘This is fake.’ ”
A couple of hours after we part ways, she’ll forward another tweet to me, with her name in bold from the search she pulled up on Twitter. “Can someone wake Adele up and tell her she’s coming Friday I don’t think she knows,” it reads, a sly reference to the fact that maybe, just maybe, the internet sleuths have it wrong and 30 is not, in fact, coming out that week.
The radio person wasn’t totally off about something coming. That Friday, projections and billboards would pop up across the world with just the number 30 on them. Following the confirmation of new music a few days later, her album rollout snowballed from there. Soon, the actual, final date was announced: Nov. 19.
She could delay the album only so long. “If it wasn’t coming out now, I think I probably would never put it out,” she admits. Given the very specific point of her life she’s singing about, she reckoned with the fact that an album has as much of a shelf life for the artist as it does for the audience. “I know I would’ve changed my mind and been like, ‘It’s moved on. Let’s start the next album.’ And I couldn’t do that to this album. I feel like it deserves to come out.
Albums, tours, and movies have been scheduled and rescheduled across the industry in an ongoing search for when things will feel “normal.” But like Adele and Drake, many have concluded that that time may not come for a long while. “No one wants to remember this period of time,” she says. “Obviously, it’s way better than last year, but the day my album comes out, someone’s loved one will have died from Covid. For them, it’s going to be a reminder every time they hear ‘Easy on Me’ on the radio.”
The week 30 was announced, Adele gathered her band in Burbank to start going over songs old and new. It had been years since they were together, so they celebrated their reunion that week with a game of rounders (a kind of British children’s baseball) at the Rose Bowl with a catered In-N-Out lunch. The band wore matching shirts, and Adele’s goldendoodle puppies, Freddie and Bob, ran around the field. In a stirring battle of Americans versus Brits (and Australians), the Americans (with help from one athletically challenged journalist) won by a hair, even though we had no idea how to play the game.
In October, the crew filmed two live specials, one for CBS stateside and the other for ITV in the U.K. They’ll prep again next year for a few big shows, including two in Hyde Park in London. For now, don’t expect a marathon tour like the one Adele embarked on for 25. “It’s too unpredictable, with all the rules and stuff,” she says. “I don’t want anyone coming to my show scared. And I don’t want to get Covid, either.” She shoots down the rumors of a Las Vegas residency, which she hasn’t signed up to do “because there’s fucking nothing available.”
In rehearsal, Adele and her band test out the upcoming single “I Drink Wine,” a standout from 30 that’s already gone viral on Twitter, based off the name alone. It’s a song about shedding one’s ego, complete with a bit of a Seventies Elton John and Bernie Taupin flair. “I took everything so personally at that period of time in my life,” she explains, “so the lyric ‘I hope I learn to get over myself’ is like [me saying] ‘Once I’ve done that, then maybe I can let you love me.’ ”
The song is conversational, with Adele pulling a “Barry Manilow trick,” where every chorus is sung differently. She put on different characters while recording the background vocals, too, to give it a sarcastic Sixties vibe (also present on the cheeky “Cry Your Heart Out” and “Love Is a Game”). “It made it less intimidating,” she continues, “because some of the things I’m talking about really hit home for a lot of people.”
It’s hard to date when you’re Adele. After her divorce, she was back on the market for the first time in nearly a decade, years of which were spent becoming one of the bestselling artists of all time. She’s jealous of her friends who are on apps. L.A. never really felt conducive to finding love in the limited ways she could seek it out. “Everyone is someone or everyone wants to be someone,” she says. “I’ve been so lucky that no one I’ve been with has ever sold a story on me. I feel like that could really be a possibility.”
She wrote the 30 track “Can I Get It” about wanting to be in a real relationship instead of one that would devolve into casual sex, which seemed to be the only thing the Los Angeles dating pool was good for. “I lasted five seconds [dating here],” she jokes. The song “Oh My God” explores wanting to put herself out there but having trouble doing so as a superstar.
Her friends tried to set her up with people they knew, but she hated that, too. “You can’t set me up on a fucking blind date! I’m like, ‘How’s that going to work?’ There’ll be paparazzi outside and someone will call [gossip site] Deuxmoi, or whatever it’s fucking called! It ain’t happening.”
She was able to find love in private. There are a few songs on the album about the first relationship after her separation. The Erroll Garner-sampling “All Night Parking” is an ode to the intoxicating feeling of falling for someone new. “When I’m out at a party/I’m just excited to get home/And dream about you/All night long,” she sings. Unfortunately, the romance was long-distance and doomed from the start. “[It] was a great learning curve and nice to feel loved, but it was never going to work,” she admits.
The track immediately after “All Night Parking,” titled “Woman Like Me,” jumps toward the end of the courtship. A diss song through and through, it finds Adele chiding her ex for being complacent, lazy, and insecure, wasting the potential of their relationship. She delivers the message clearly and calmly, less pissed off than completely over the situation. “Even though I’m directing all the things I’m saying at someone else, they’re also things I’ve learned on this journey,” she explains. “The storyline of what I’m saying, I wouldn’t have been able to write before because it was something that I was experiencing myself.” (Some fans have wondered whether any songs on 30 are about British grime star Skepta, but Adele was already done with the album before rumors of their romance even surfaced.)
When you’re an A-lister, dates tend to be sterile — NDAs, hiring out the whole restaurant. Still, she’s recently found ease, stability, and security with boyfriend Rich Paul, an agent for prominent athletes like LeBron James. Paul and Adele met on a dance floor at a mutual friend’s birthday party years ago. She doesn’t remember which song they danced to, but she assumes it was something by her close friend Drake. Mostly because the DJ was playing too much Drake that night: “I was like, ‘You should play something else. I love Drake. But you should play something else.’ ”
It was, in fact, Deuxmoi that broke the news of their relationship, telling the world before she was even able to tell the people in her life. “I didn’t really tell many of my friends at the beginning because I wanted to keep it to myself,” she admits. The first photos of them were at a discount mall. “None of them believed it!” For the record, she made a good sweep of the store that day. “Woo! I got loads in there,” she exclaims, with that signature open-throated cackle.
Just as she’s learned to date, Adele has also come to find her way in her adopted hometown. Until Adele had Angelo, she never liked Los Angeles. “It felt like I was only ever here for work. I felt like I never met anyone that was from here,” she explains. She thought of L.A. as a ghost town. But when she was in town for the Oscars in 2013, the year she won a statue for her James Bond song, “Skyfall,” Adele, Konecki, and an infant Angelo rented a house and she fell in love. “That sun every morning,” Adele says. “[You can] always see the sky because it’s not high-rises here.”
The family bought a house during the American leg of her tour, settling down in a celebrity-filled, gated enclave in Beverly Hills. The home is cozy and kind, with plush red sofas and sage-green cabinets. There’s a huge room dedicated to toys and instruments for her son, though he’s more into video games and TikTok lately. Eventually, they bought two more houses in the same area, including one across the street, where Konecki now lives. “We do normal, normal things on the weekends,” Adele says of their life. “I’ll take him to the parties, all of that. We’ll do school drop-off.”
As Angelo started attending school, Adele began befriending the other moms. In her neighborhood, she finally caved and made industry friends, like her neighbors Nicole Richie and Jennifer Lawrence, a practice she had consciously avoided for years. “They humanized me because I had avoided talking to anyone that was ever famous in any capacity, because I was like, ‘Well, I’m not famous.’ I’m very British like that,” she explains. “We never spoke about work, which was amazing, because most of the time when I catch up with someone, they want to know all about my work, and I’m like, ‘I don’t want to talk about that. Can we talk about something else? I’m knackered.’ ”
Adele has “chilled out” in Los Angeles, with her core group of friends helping her find a life that feels both private and full. In fact, she has come to love the city so much that she even got it tattooed on her arm, the L.A. skyline in the middle of a ringed planet, to represent the Saturn return she experienced while living there.
Adele still had one more stop on her journey of personal reckoning. It was back in the U.K., where her father was losing an eight-year battle with cancer.
Adele’s parents split when she was three. Following the separation and a string of other losses, her father, Mark Evans, began to slip deeper into alcoholism and became estranged from his young daughter. Their relationship remained tense as her fame ballooned.
When Evans’ cancer returned earlier this year, Adele wasn’t sure whether she should go to see him. She credits her friend India with persuading her to do so. It turned out her dad was receptive to having an honest conversation about their relationship and the pain she’s felt her entire life. She even played Evans the new songs. In fact, he was the first person to hear them.
Their final conversation set her free from a lifetime of pain, feelings of abandonment, and being unloved, set off by a seeming lack of effort on his part. “I don’t think I understood the true deepness of how I felt about my dad until we spoke,” she says.
There were parts of her father that she had never quite understood and was now ready to forgive. The same types of things she hopes to explain to Angelo about herself. “I think I’ve never been fully in any of my relationships,” she reflects, with Konecki as the closest exception. “I always had this fear from a really young age that you’re going to leave me anyway, so I’m going to leave or I’m not going to invest myself in anything.”
When Evans died in May, she found herself having a “physical reaction,” comparing the experience to the scene in The Green Mile where illnesses are sucked out of people and spat out. “It was like I let out one wail and something left,” Adele explains. “I’ve felt so calm ever since then. It really did set little me free.”
A week later, she reconnected with Paul and embarked on the most “incredible, openhearted, and easiest” relationship she’s ever been in. A relationship she finally felt comfortable enough to tell the world about, with a man she was proud to introduce to her son.
After a four-album journey, a woman has found new love, and it turned out to be as much with another person as it was with herself. “I’m not frightened of loneliness anymore,” she says.
From Rolling Stone US