Queen of Catharsis: How Adele Has Turned Heartbreak Into Hits, From '19' to '30'

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For Adele, music and love have always been one and the same.

During her now-infamous appearance on "Carpool Karaoke" in 2016, the 15-time GRAMMY winner told James Corden that the first time in her life that she felt "truly heartbroken" was that fateful day in May 1998 when Geri Halliwell announced that she was leaving the Spice Girls. 

She hasn't written a song about that moment yet, but there's plenty of heart to be found on Adele's album sleeves, which have charted the singer's evolution from early adulthood, through love and marriage and children, to the other side of divorce -- which is where she finds herself on the debut of 30, her fourth studio album. A generational talent, with songwriting that's spoken to fans for over a decade, Adele has always had a knack for pulling on the right heartstrings to produce a hit, and 30 is set to be more of the same, with its lead single, "Easy on Me," instantly breaking streaming records and topping the Billboard Hot 100.

The world met Adele Adkins, a singular and mononymous talent from her first moment in the spotlight, in 2008, upon the release of her debut single, "Chasing Pavements." Her first album was next, itself also simply named, 19, the age of the artist behind the voice that made you wonder if you were hearing that Bob Dylan song for the first time.  

21 and 25 followed, and Adele promised that the lauded trilogy was completed. But then in October 2021, after three years of production and a pandemic delay, came the announcement that fans had been waiting on for more than half a decade. 30 was coming, on the heels of the singer's divorce from husband Simon Konecki, who inspired much of 25's contented confidence and, as she put it in her recent interview with Oprah Winfrey, provided the stability that "saved my life" amid her rise to superstardom.

It was explaining the split to their 8-year-old son, Angelo, that inspired much of 30 for Adele, she's said. In a recent Vogue interview, her first since returning to the spotlight, the singer shared that she sees the album as "self-destruction, then self-reflection and then sort of self-redemption."

"But I feel ready," she added. "I really want people to hear my side of the story this time."

All these years later, there's still no mistaking Adele's voice for anyone else. She has the pose and talent to captivate a stadium full of listeners, the lyrical mastery to invoke your deepest emotions and the candor and self-deprecating humor of your oldest friend. Speaking to Apple Music's Zane Lowe ahead of 30's release, she admitted frankly that she has no interest in making music for TikTok, despite the platform's hit-making potential.

"I'd rather cater to people that are on my level in terms of the amount of time we've spent on Earth and all the things we've been through," Adele admitted. "I don't want 12-year-olds listening to this record, it's a bit too deep. But the 30 and 40-year-olds who are all committing to themselves and doing therapy, that's my vibe. So I'm more concerned with how this record can help them."

So, for all those Gen Xers, millennials and more -- most of whom shed a mournful tear alongside young Adele back in May 1998 -- take a deep breath, the Queen of Catharsis has returned. And, in celebration of 30, we're taking a look back at all of Adele's chart-topping eras, and the love and loss that inspired them.

19

adele 19 album
XL

Adele’s debut album was, of course, named for the age she was when she wrote and recorded a majority of the songs, a stellar debut from the teen, just out of performing arts high school. In an interview with Billboard from early in her career, the singer confessed that the album -- on which she holds a writing credit on every song except the Bob Dylan cover "Make You Feel My Love" -- is "all about one boy," particularly the standout single, "Chasing Pavements."

"We had a fight in a club, and I got thrown out. I punched him," she recalled of the emotional encounter that inspired the breakthrough hit. "And then, yeah, I was running down Oxford Street, and it was really early, really late, whatever you want to call it, and I was running on my own, there was no one in front of me, and I was just chasing this pavement. It’s a metaphor. You can’t always chase a pavement, obviously, but I was chasing a pavement. There was no one there."

The album debuted at No. 1 in the United Kingdom in January 2008 and began Adele's rise to stardom. However, as the singer attempted to break through in America, matters of the heart complicated her career once again. She called off planned North American tour dates following 19’s U.S. release in June 2008 to be with an old boyfriend, a decision she later referred to as an "early-life crisis" in an interview with The Guardian ahead of the 2009 GRAMMYs.

"I was with someone that I shouldn’t have been with, I was drinking too much," she explained. "I try not to moan about it, but I just wasn’t really prepared for my success at all. I wasn’t expecting it, so I just kind of went a bit doolally for a while… It was really selfish, and I nearly lost it all, but luckily I didn’t and people still want to support me."

Adele got another shot at launching herself to worldwide notoriety in the fall of 2008, when she was booked to perform on Saturday Night Live. The sketch series was riding high on the upcoming presidential election, and the highly viewed episode (thanks, Sarah Palin) provided a stateside boost to her singles, "Chasing Pavements" and "Cold Shoulder." Following the performance, 19 was catapulted to the top of the iTunes charts and jumped 35 places on the Billboard 200, landing at No. 11. Adele was officially on the radar in a big way, winning Best New Artist and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance (for "Chasing Pavements") at the 2009 GRAMMY Awards. 

21

adele 21 album
XL/Columbia

Nearly three years to the day after 19’srelease came 21, a major personal and professional next step for the artist. (Don’t worry about the math.) As with 19, Adele holds writing credits on all of the songs on her second studio album, save for one cover -- this time around, The Cure’s "Lovesong."

And like her first album, 21 was written in the aftermath of another heartbreak -- still fresh when she took to the studio with writers like Ryan Tedder, Paul Epworth and Dan Wilson to craft the album. But this time around, Adele was aiming for a more mature take on lost love.

"The songs on 19 were about my first, teenage love. He cheated on me, so it was a traumatic record," the singer explained to the Daily Mail around the time of 21's release. "This time, nobody did anything wrong. We just fell out of love with one another and I had to deal with the devastation of feeling like a failure because I couldn’t make things work."

"I felt bitter, and that inspired me," she added. "But the album isn’t just me bitching about an ex-boyfriend. I’ve also written songs on which I’m trying to be honest about my own flaws."

21 is bookended by its two biggest hits, "Rolling in the Deep" and "Someone Like You," and Adele opened up about the difference between the two tracks -- which both went platinum multiple times over -- in an intimate video she recorded alongside an at-home performance of the album’s final track.

"That relationship that the entire record is about, [which] is really summed up in 'Someone Like You,' changed me in a really good way. It’s really made me who I am at the moment," she explained. "I'm sure there will be another relationship -- or I hope so, anyway -- that helps change me and define me as well, but I can imagine being about 40 and looking for him again, and turning up and he’s settled and he’s got a beautiful wife and some beautiful kids and he’s completely happy and I’m still on my own. [‘Someone Like You’] is kind of about that."

"When I was writing it, I was feeling pretty miserable and pretty lonely, which I guess kind of contradicts 'Rolling in the Deep,' where I was like, 'I'm gonna be fine without you,'" she added. "This one was me kind of on my knees, really."

In contrast to the heart-rending ballad, "Rolling in the Deep" is a rollicking anthem with a bluesy beat that culminates in a soaring chorus, the heights of which surprised even Adele herself. "[Co-writer Paul Epworth] brought a lot out of me. He brought my voice out as well -- there's notes that I hit in that song that I never even knew I could hit," she said in a track-by-track interview about the album.

"It was my reaction to being told that my life was going to be boring and lonely and rubbish and that I was a weak person if I didn’t stay in a relationship," she explained of the song. "So yeah, I was very insulted, and wrote that as a sort of f**k you."

Another song born from the soured aftermath of the relationship that inspired 21 was "Turning Tables," which Adele crafted with Tedder after storming into the recording studio fresh off an argument with her ex.

"I arrived and I was quite upset, because I was in the middle of all the rubbish that was going on at home," she recounted, "and I was going -- I don’t know Ryan at this point, by the way -- I was going, ‘Who the f**k does he think he is? Always f**king turns the tables on me.'"

Volatile inspiration aside, the performer’s evolving maturity does shine through on many of 21’s tracks, such as "I'll Be Waiting," which is about moving on while still looking back with fondness.

"It's just fun and it’s [about] admitting your mistakes and saying, you know, I’ll be here when you’re ready to love me again," she noted. "It's not mopey and depressed, it's just sort of like, I'll be fine, I'll get on with it."

If 19 was Adele opening the door to superstardom, 21 was her knocking it off its hinges, and she found six more GRAMMYs, and numerous other accolades, on the other side. The album broke record after record, spending two full years on the Billboard Top 200, becoming the first album of the 2010s to be certified Diamond, and making Adele Billboard's Artist of the Year for two consecutive years -- also a historical first.

25

adele 25 album
XL/Columbia

Following the massive success of 21, Adele stepped back from the spotlight for several years, though she insists she wasn't quite as deep in hiding as industry rumors might have had fans believing.

"I'm not a recluse," she joked with The Guardian in November 2015. "Can we clear that up? I didn't stop going to shops. To parks. To museums. I just wasn’t photographed while doing it."

In all seriousness, the singer admitted, "I know some people thought I was mad for taking a break. Even I can see it was a bit weird. But I’m glad it happened. I think it was the right thing. It slowed everything down."

Part of the reason for Adele's professional break was a need to be entirely present for some major moments in her personal life. She married her boyfriend, Simon Konecki, and the pair welcomed a son, Angelo, in October 2012. In fact, the singer admitted, it was her baby boy that would ultimately push her to return to the studio. As an album, 25 would be shaped around a different kind of love story -- one about the sense of self-purpose that Adele found in becoming a mother.

"I felt so mega having given birth; the confidence from that, I felt unstoppable. I'm sure most women feel that," she recalled. "Towards the end of the 21 stuff, I couldn't remember why I was doing it anymore. I couldn't answer the question: 'Why am I halfway around the world? On my own?'"

"But then, after I had my son, I thought, 'Yeah, that's why I did it all.' I felt proud of what I'd achieved with 21 for the first time. And now everything I do, in every channel of my life, is part of a legacy that I’m making for my child. For my children, if I have more. I'm not motivated by much, certainly not by money -- but I'm motivated by that. I want my child to see his mum running a proper business again. Being a boss again. Hopefully smashing it again."

If 21 was about growing up, 25 became about embracing adulthood in an entirely new way -- as a wife and as a mother. One of the major changes, she found, was the desire to craft an album that was less about heartbreak and despair -- another side effect of parenthood.

"People found massive comfort in [21], because everyone can understand being disappointed by love," she explained to The Guardian. "I couldn't give in to any of that in order to access my creativity. There was no opportunity... Because now, I’m responsible for someone."

The album, however, came less easy than her motivations. Adele began working with some of the same producers as she did on 21, but struggled with finding the right headspace -- ultimately scrapping many of her early tracks on the suggestion of friend and producer Rick Rubin, who told her point-blank that they were "no good."

"Honestly, I was waiting for someone to say it," she admitted in the November 2015 interview. "I went back to the drawing board. Worked my arse off."

The process didn't get smoother after that -- at least, not right away. Adele recalled in an interview with Shad of Q on CBC Radio One that crafting 25 was a different experience from 21, in that she was starting studio sessions from scratch, without anything pre-written. "I wanted to go in with lyrics, but I didn’t have time at home," she shared. "I don’t work at home at all, I don’t even play guitar because I’m frightened I’m going to wake the baby up."

The trade-off between work and home life, the singer explained, became essential when she needed to devote herself entirely to creating the new songs. "I feel like, when I wasn't giving very much of myself at all, that's when I was writing the songs that were rubbish," she said. "I think it’s just the sacrifice you have to make. And my worst fear is not being believed, so if that means I’ve got to give all of myself, that’s fine."

"I don’t share my kid with the world -- that’s me keeping something for myself," she added.

Ultimately, it was the production of the album’s first single, "Hello," that provided the creative breakthrough Adele was looking for. "It happened really quick, and it just felt great to me," she said. "I was very much, like, 'Oh, there I am.'"

"Hello" was announced to the world via a surprise, 30-second ad that aired during The X Factor in the U.K. on Oct. 18, 2015. The single was released the next week, and the full album came out the following month, on Nov. 20. "I didn’t want a very long lead-up," Adele explained. "I find it really difficult to engage with an artist for that long, when I’ve heard the whole record before it’s out."

In keeping with the nostalgic theme, 25’s second single was the dreamy rearview mirror ballad "When We Were Young," which Adele wrote with a new collaborator, Tobias Jesso Jr. Her time with the young songwriter had the singer raving afterward that she’ll be collaborating with him "for the rest of my career."

"Tobias was my first session when I got to L.A…. we just chatted absolute rubbish for five hours, and then we got into the room on the piano and stuff and everything we spoke about ended up being in the song," she recalled of how the track came together. "It was just a moment… I was like, something’s gonna happen here. You could just feel it."

Part of that "something," it seems, was the new mother taking a moment to explore the therapeutic value of looking back at her own life through fresh eyes. "I had just had a kid and I couldn’t remember who I was," she said. "I was lost in my own wilderness… Revisiting all those things helped me find my own identity."

"My whole life, I’ve just swept things under the carpet and stuff like that, whereas, by dealing with that -- because I was a parent, and I only have so much capacity for junk, and I have to do all those things -- it was great," she added. "Because it made me realize, actually, that all of the things I was holding on to, good and bad, they weren’t that good and they weren’t that bad. It was just life."

The album was massively successful, receiving Diamond certification, garnering Adele five more GRAMMYs and, like 21, it swept the big three general field awards -- making Adele the first artist to do so twice -- but she made it clear that 25 was always meant to be the end of an era.

"It’s gonna be the last album that I name after my age, so therefore it’s a trilogy, but also I feel like my sort of growth spurt between 19 and 25 is now coming to an end. I feel like it’s the most poignant growth spurt that I might have in my whole life, especially because I sort of photographed it with my albums," she said, ahead of the album's release. "It does feel like something’s coming to an end, but also -- without sounding cheesy -- a new beginning. Something old is ending and something new is starting."

30

adele 30 album
Columbia/Melted Stone

Fans first got a hint at Adele's new era -- and the relationship struggles that would inspire it -- from a rare Instagram post on her 31st birthday.

"30 tried me so hard but I’m owning it and trying my hardest to lean in to it all," the singer shared. "No matter how long we’re here for life is constant and complicated at times. I’ve changed drastically in the last couple years and I’m still changing and that’s okay."

"31 is going to be a big ol’ year and I’m going to spend it all on myself," she continued. "For the first time in a decade I’m ready to feel the world around me and look up for once. Be kind to yourself people we’re only human, go slow, put your phone down and laugh out loud at every opportunity....Bunch of f**king savages, 30 will be a drum n bass record to spite you."

The coronavirus pandemic delayed the album's release -- it would be two and a half more years before 30 became a reality -- but not the news of Adele's split from Konecki, and the singer took the extra time in isolation to embrace the therapeutic value of songwriting. 

"It really helped me, this album," Adele said. in her Oprah interview "I realized, I actually didn't like who I was. And I think I just really got, like most other human beings, especially of my age, really just got into that thing of just going through the motions. Like, I've got to get over there and wasn't opening my eyes and seeing what was actually happening at the time and enjoying the world around me and stuff like that."

However, she did consider, at least at one time, keeping her cathartic process private. 

"There were moments, when I was writing these songs, and even when I was mixing them and stuff like that, where I was like, 'Maybe I don't need to put this album out.' Like, maybe I should write another. Just because music is my therapy," she shared with Lowe.

"I'm never going into the studio to be like, ‘Right, I need another hit,'" Adele added. "It's not like that for me. When something is more powerful and overwhelming than me, I like to go to a studio because it's normally a basement, and there's no f**king windows and no reception, so no one can get a hold of me. So, I'm basically running away. And no one would've known I'd written that record. Maybe I just had to get it out of my system."

The album's first single was a bookend of sorts. "Easy on Me" features the singer packing up the life she built in 25 -- quite literally, the music video was shot at the same house as "Hello" -- and asking for forgiveness as she starts a new chapter in her life and career.

"It’s not like anyone’s having a go at me, but it’s like, I left the marriage. Be kind to me as well," she reflected in her Vogue interview. "It was the first song I wrote for the album and then I didn’t write anything else for six months after because I was like, 'OK, well, I’ve said it all.'"

Other tracks from 30, like "I Drink Wine" and "Hold On," are similarly relatable for listeners going through their own rough patches, a meaningful fact not lost on the singer.

"I really think that some of the songs on this album could really help people," she said. "Really change people's lives. And I think a song like 'Hold On' could actually save a few lives. I really, really do."

In her first official announcement of the album, Adele admitted that 30 ended up chronicling "the most turbulent period of my life." And while it may not be right for the TikTok set, she hopes that her journey on the album is a new kind of connection, a new layer in the story of love and music in her life.

"I’ve learned a lot of blistering truths about myself along the way,” she continued. "I’ve shed many layers but also wrapped myself in new ones... I've painstakingly rebuilt my house and my heart since then, and this album narrates it."

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