Adam Lambert talks 'High Drama' album, full-circle Jobriath cover: 'I know what my brand is now, more than ever'

“There's an album coming!” Adam Lambert happily exclaims, exclusively speaking to Yahoo Entertainment via Zoom from London, clearly unable to contain his excitement.

It’s been almost three years since the American Idol alumnus/Queen frontman’s last studio LP, Velvet, which was promotionally sidelined due to the COVID-19 pandemic (it came out March 20, 2020). But Lambert spent lockdown working on new music, and the result is High Drama, available for preorder now and out Feb. 24, 2023. The album is a full-circle affair, with ties to his Idol and Queen eras, to his theater roots… and to one groundbreaking queer artist that, it could be argued, paved the way for proudly out artists like Lambert.

“The idea came up to do an album of covers, and I haven't done that before,” says Lambert. “I've done that on Idol, obviously… and Queen is essentially sort of a covers situation, even though I’m in the band. It was like a real nice challenge to go, ‘OK, let's find songs’ — some are obscure, some are new, some are really well-known — ‘that we think are cool, and flip them and make them sound entirely different if we can.’”

Flipping songs is obviously one of Lambert’s special skills: His Jeff Buckley-esque “Ring of Fire,” stripped-back “Mad World,” and acoustic “Tracks of My Tears” rank as some of the most daring and creative American Idol performances of all time. And that is why he’s not sticking to any “super-specific criteria” for High Drama’s covers. “It's just me, just doing me. And it actually feels really good, because I think in the past I might have been trying to manufacture something or run toward a trend or a sound,” Lambert confesses. “And I think with this album, even though they're covers, we've managed to make them sound and feel original enough, so they're like my kind of records. It just feels like we're doing it without thinking about it, in a way. I'm not trying to do a theme or a sound. I just am doing it. It just feels very natural, which is really nice.”

And so, the main theme is that the album is simply highly dramatic and “a bit rock-star.” There's a cover of King of Leon's "Sex on Fire," which — speaking of full-circle moments — Lambert gave as the answer Yahoo Entertainment's question back in 2009, "If you could have a theme song that played every time you entered a room, what would it be?" (He even sang a bit of it on camera.) There are also songs originally recorded by modern female pop stars (Sia’s “Chandelier,” Billie Eilish’s “Getting Older,” Lana Del Rey’s “West Coast,” Pink’s “My Attic”); hits by ‘80s New Romantic icons Duran Duran and Culture Club; soul scorchers like Ann Peebles’s “I Can't Stand the Rain”; and, quite excitingly, a “glam-rock version” of Bonnie Tyler’s Jim Steinman-penned Footloose power ballad “Holding Out for Hero.” (“Get ready,” Lambert says of that latter epic.)

But perhaps the most fascinating and full-circle (and most obscure) cover on High Drama is “I'm a Man,” by cult glam-rocker Jobriath — the first openly gay rock star and self-declared “true fairy of rock ‘n’ roll,” who at one time was hyped as the next Bowie.

“I saw the documentary, and I was just like, ‘Oh my God!’ I remember sitting there, and it just resonated with me so much,” says Lambert. “I mean, he was also in Hair, the musical, which is where I got [my start]. … It's crazy too, because my uncle, who's no longer with us, he saw the one [legendary, rare] show on [Jobriath’s otherwise doomed] tour that was good, in Tuscaloosa in the South. He was there at that show, and he was a fan. … There was just all these weird parallels, and I was like, ‘OK, this is amazing. This guy's incredible.’”

Lambert is referring to director Kieran Turner’s labor-of-love documentary, 2012's Jobriath A.D., which featured famous fans like Soft Cell’s Marc Almond, Scissor Sisters’ Jake Shears, hit songwriter Justin Tranter, Henry Rollins, and Joe Elliott (whose band Def Leppard covered another Jobriath song, “Heartbeat,” in 2006). The film told the tale of should’ve-been rock star Bruce Wayne Campbell, aka Jobriath, one of rock ’n’ roll’s greatest tragedies. Initially touted as the “American David Bowie” via a massive marketing campaign spearheaded by Elektra Records and infamous impresario Jerry Brandt (who’d worked with Carly Simon, Chubby Checker, and the Rolling Stones), the former Hair actor-turned-glam rocker instead faced a swift and vicious backlash. The public reaction was no doubt at least partly because Jobriath was openly gay. (He made bold statements like “Asking me if I’m homosexual is like asking James Brown if he’s Black” in his sensationalistic interviews, and blasted other effeminate rockers as “pretenders.”) This was basically unheard-of in 1974.

However, Brandt’s obnoxious next-big-thing promotional blitz (which included plastering the Jobriath’s nude torso on hundreds of New York city buses and on a Times Square billboard before the singer had even released any music), and the hype over Jobriath’s rumored $500,000 Elektra deal (the most lucrative recording contract ever, at that point), also contributed to the backlash. Less than a decade after the spectacular commercial failure of Jobriath’s self-titled debut album, the singer — who later reinvented himself as New York cabaret pianist Cole Berlin and disavowed his Elektra catalog entirely — became one of music’s first AIDS casualties, dying alone and in obscurity at the Chelsea Hotel on Aug. 4, 1983, one week after his original 10-year contract with Brandt expired. He was 36 years old.

Until recently, Jobriath was known mainly for being one of the biggest commercial failures and cautionary tales in music business history, but over the years he has become a cult hero and cause célèbre among other musicians — gay and straight — who owe him a debt. Morrissey (who’d once attempted to hire Jobriath as his opening act in the ’90s, before learning that Jobriath had died) kickstarted this campaign in 2004, when he oversaw the first reissue of Jobriath’s out-of-print music via the compilation Lonely Planet Boy. And now Lambert is about to introduce Jobriath to an even wider audience, via High Drama’s “I’m a Man.”

“I think the thing I love about ‘I'm a Man’ is it obviously was written in a different time. You know, right now we have a much different discussion around masculinity and femininity and gender and all those things — but who knows, maybe if there was a word for it back then, maybe Jobriath would've considered himself non-binary or gender-fluid or whatever,” says Lambert. “It’s a really interesting message in that song, because he's basically just saying, ‘I'm a man. I'm not the kind of man you are. I'm this kind of man. Let me just be that kind of man. Let me just be me. Let me be exactly what I am.’ So, that was a big mission statement for him, and it's definitely a bold move that that was his first track coming out on the scene saying, ‘This is me.’”

Lambert obviously exploded onto the scene in a more liberated and accepting era, but he still had his own career struggles and backlashes coming off a conservative show like American Idol in 2009, and in recent years he has become bolder himself. “I think that's one of the things over the past couple years that I've gotten really clear on: I think I know what my brand is now, more than ever,” he asserts. “Everything was so new [after Idol]; everything was so overwhelming. The music business is hard. It's a business. I love making music. I love being creative in the studio. I love getting onstage. But the business side of it can be challenging. And I think at that point I might have been a bit frustrated with it and a little overwhelmed by it.”

It was around this time — after releasing Trespassing, the first album by an openly gay artist to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart, interestingly in the same year that Jobriath A.D. came out — that Lambert was feeling especially frustrated. Despite Trespassing’s historic success, Lambert’s label at the time, RCA Records, wanted him to follow up with a covers album — specifically covers of just ‘80s new wave songs — and “it just didn't feel right.” Lambert ended up parting ways with RCA as a result. “At the time, I just didn't see it. I was like, ‘I want to make my own music right now,’” he says. But now he’s releasing High Drama, a covers record on his own terms, which he co-executive-produced.

Adam Lambert's 'High Drama' album art. (Photo: BMG)
Adam Lambert's 'High Drama' album art. (Photo: BMG)

“I'm in a place where it just appealed to me. … I do think that as a musician, as an artist, I've evolved a bit. I can look at a song and know exactly what I want to do with it now. And I feel more confident in those ideas,” Lambert explains. “And I think at that time when [RCA was] asking me to do that, I don't think I was as confident. Now I feel much more settled and I feel much more sure of myself, of who I am and what I am — and what I'm not. And it's exciting, because I think I've earned it with touring with Queen. I think I've earned a certain fanbase and attention.

“And now with that sort of as a backdrop, I'm turning around and trying to make an album of music that all the people that I've sort of interacted with will like. You know, fans of Queen might like it. Fans of mine will like it. And most importantly, I like it. I like playing the music. It sounds good.”

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— Video produced by Jen Kucsak, edited by Teri Keiser