Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody may have started the music-biopic craze, but a whole separate movie could be made about the life of Queen’s current frontman, Adam Lambert. From his early theater and club-kid days, to his unlikely ascent as an American Idol darling, to his present-day status as an LGBTQ icon and the lead singer of the biggest rock band (and biggest comeback band) on the planet, his story is one for the ages.
It hasn’t always been easy. Lambert has battled to maintain creative control of his solo music and find his true voice, occasionally struggled to shake off any lingering reality-TV stigma, rebounded from a controversial American Music Awards performance that many haters claimed would damage or even end his career, switched record labels and managers more than once, looked for love, dealt with homophobia, and, of course, managed to win over millions of Queen fans who once doubted his ability to fill Freddie Mercury’s mighty big boots. And now, 10 years after he first auditioned for Idol with Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Lambert is an amazing place both personally and professionally, as evidenced by his exuberant and undeniably funky new EP, Velvet: Side A.
From the badass ‘70s-action-flick vibes of the attitudinal new single “Superpower” to the keening Leon Russell-meets-ELO piano love song “Closer to You,” from the sassy uptempo cowbell banger “Loverboy” to the George-Michael-covers-Samantha-Sang-on-Duran-Duran’s-Wedding-Album late-night disco-comedown that is the absolutely epic “Overglow,” Side A sinks deep into a smooth, vinyl-ready groove. And Lambert definitely has his groove back — not that he ever really lost it.
Yahoo Entertainment chatted with Lambert ahead of Velvet: Side A’s release (Side B will arrive next year, because there are clearly many sides to Adam Lambert) to discuss new music, new beginnings, and just how much the world, his career, and his life have changed for the better since he shocked millions of viewers by wearing black nail polish and guyliner or kissing a man on national TV.
Yahoo Entertainment: So, one thing that has struck me with your work in general is there's sort of a decade-centric thematic-ness to it. Trespassing had an’80s roller-disco sound, The Original High had a lot of ‘90s techno and house influences, and now there is a funky ’70s thread weaving through all the new stuff — right down to some of the styling, the videos, the artwork. The obvious assumption would be that the ‘70s vibe comes from working with Queen.
Adam Lambert: Yeah, definitely being with Queen for this long and singing music from that era and loving it, and realizing that people love it, it gets a reaction. The songs that Queen and I are performing on the road are timeless; they still connect. So it kind of reminds me that not everything has to be “new” and “next” — you can kind of go back to the classics, and sometimes they just feel better. And I'm a creative person that likes to take a reference point to work off of. I like having a world to exist within when I'm making creative decisions. It gives me sort of a sense of continuity and semblance. And… well, I just f***ing love the ‘70s! I always have, I always will. I remember being a teenager and going to the record store — I'm old enough to have done that — and getting, like, one of those disco-funk compilation/best-of kind of things, and coming home and blasting it and just being totally obsessed with all of those songs and the singers and the beat and the groove, and the fact that it made me want to dance. All the vocals were really powerful and soulful, and I always loved that s***.
Same here! So I wouldn't necessarily say that “Superpower” is an overtly political song, but it definitely seems to be making a social statement. What is the inspiration behind that song?
It’s somewhat topical, but I think that it's focusing less on the politics per se, and more on the sociopolitical angle of things. We're in a political climate where identity is sort of at the heart of a lot of it, and since the current government regime has been put into place, there have been a lot of groups that have felt sort of overtly discriminated against, or trash-talked, or not taken seriously. I consider myself an outsider — I'm an “other,” being a gay man, and I identify with that. I definitely think that there are certain groups that have it harder, but anybody that feels ostracized or bullied in any way, that's sort of who the song was written for. It was written for anybody that needed an anthem to feel strong and defiant and fabulous and with a smile on their face say, "F*** you!"
“Overglow” is a standout track on Side A, and you co-wrote that with MNEK, one of my favorite new artists. I remember last year you told me you were working with him, and you said this is a really good time for LGBTQ songwriters and it was important for you to collaborate with them. Can you tell me more about that?
Yeah, I think I worked with more queer people — and more women, actually — than I ever have on anything before. And I think that's one reason why it feels authentic, because I felt very comfortable with the people that I was working with. I felt at ease. I felt like there was a lot in common, that we were able to understand each other, so the writing process was really easy flow. And with MNEK, for example, he's just such a genius with melody. Just an absolute genius. And he came up with this melody that's just slinky. I think the chorus almost has sort of an ‘80s new wave thing about it, almost like Duran Duran, but then the verse is a bit more like old R&B. It's hard to kind of pick a genre for this whole project, because there's a mix of all of them.
So this year marks the 10th anniversary of when you came into the public eye, via the whirlwind of American Idol, the American Music Awards, For Your Entertainment, all that. And although 10 years is not really that long in the big scheme of things, I feel like the cultural landscape for LGBTQ artists just has completely, seismically changed in the past decade — and also for even queer people who compete on reality shows, in terms of being able to have their sexuality be a part of their story arc. I'm curious if you ever think about how you may have helped open those doors? Things have changed so much since 2009.
Oh, they’ve changed dramatically. It's definitely been a process for me to shake off some of the stuff I had to deal with 10 years ago. Some of it stuck on me a little bit. It was not easy. It was like I was constantly having to justify my existence. And now I don't feel like I have to do that. And I think I started realizing that a couple of years ago when I was writing this project. That was part of this whole experience. I was like, “I don't have to explain myself anymore. I don't have to try to assimilate to what everyone else is doing in order to be successful. I can just do me.”
When you say there were things you had to shake off that were difficult, what were the main struggles?
I think I had a little bit of a chip on my shoulder about the business. I just felt frustrated. So I made the conscious decision to get back to the drawing board and focus on why I do this in the first place. And what I realized in that sort of time of reflection was that I do love music and I do love performing, and that's the most important thing. I love being an artist and I love dressing up. I love connecting with my fans. So any sort of negativity that I had towards the business, I needed to figure out a way to insulate my creativity and tune that s*** out. And part of that process was jumping into different business situations than I had been in, letting go of some of the other people that I had been working with, and figuring out what kind of situation was going to work best for that.
It's interesting that you use the term “chip on your shoulder,” because I did mention the 2009 American Music Awards — and I did sense some defiance or even anger in that performance. At the time I felt like you were saying, “Screw you guys, I'm going to do what I want!”
Um, yeah! [laughs] You know, I don't even know if it was conscious, if it was like in the forefront of my mind. But looking back on it, I definitely think that was a part of the vibe. I mean, I popped onto American Idol and I did what I wanted on American Idol, and then I got a record deal and I was confident. I felt like, “I did well on the show, people like what I do. OK, great. Let's make some original music!" And then all of a sudden, I had all these roadblocks everywhere, a whole new set of rules and a whole new ballgame to play. I mean, it was a lot. And then there was the stuff with the sexuality. In certain cases back then, 10 years ago, at the beginning, [my sexuality] was the thing that preceded everything. It was in front of my name. It was in front of my song. And the thing is, I'm totally comfortable with my sexuality and I have no shame in it, I was never trying to downplay it, but at the same time I was like, “Wait a minute, what am I here to do?” I didn't really know where the balance was. And I think slowly over this last 10 years, the balance has revealed itself very clearly to me personally — and to the rest of the world. It's like, “OK, we get it now.”
It's sort of a double-edged sword, in the sense that artists like yourself or MNEK, or all the people that were in the Billboard Pride magazine that you were just on the cover of, are in a great position to effect change or create more opportunities. But then at the same time, there is the issue of getting labeled as “that gay artist” and nothing else.
Well, the other thing that's changed too is there are a lot more people in the business that identify as queer or gay or bi or lesbian or trans or non-binary — whatever your identity is, now there's a strong group of us. And now for the gay community itself, they can all see themselves represented in the music world and for outsiders looking at us. They can see all this diversity. So although it's something we do need to work on it and it needs to get better, you're seeing it. You're starting to see it. And I think at the time, 10 years ago, one of the things that was hard for me was I thought, “I can't in any way, shape, or form represent or be a spokesperson for the entire [LGBTQ] community.” I never fancied myself that. I never assumed that I would be able to do that. But that was the type of questioning I was getting from the media and from the industry. It was like, “We want you to speak on behalf of everyone.” Well, that's not fair. So, I think in some cases I felt I was a bit defensive.
Do you think the resurgence of Queen has helped open minds?
Yeah, I definitely think that. I think gay is fully mainstream at this point. It's not a niche, it's not like a novelty anymore. We're not the punchline. We're a part of mainstream culture. And actually, if you look at where we were at up until the Trump administration came in, things were progressing really beautifully. I mean, all the legislations that were going through, all the progress that was being made — gay marriage and all the protections that were given, and even stuff that we were starting to get into with the trans community. And then all of a sudden, our political situation changed and they were trying to roll everything back. And so it's scary to see the pendulum swing back and it's a bit discouraging, but I do think that it's making everybody more aware of what needs to be done, and probably in the long term it strengthens us. I hope that in this next election it will allow us to unify a bit more.
Well, we were talking about when you were on the AMAs, which was your first big awards show performance in America. And for a long time, that was your only big awards show performance in America. And then, almost exactly 10 years later, you were opening the biggest awards show of all, the Oscars, with Queen. That must have been such an amazing moment.
It definitely felt that way. It dawned on me that it was literally a decade later. Yeah, it felt like a bit of retribution. Like, "See? I can do something tasteful too!" [laughs] It had a lot of full-circle stuff, but it meant a lot to me that the opportunity was there, and that Queen and I could perform together to sort of cement our collaboration for the whole world to see. That was really wonderful. And it meant a lot to me to be in front of so many artists that I admire. I love film, and TV, and actors, and watching people create, and a lot of those people are heroes of mine. So I was kind of floating. It's just been a blessing that Queen has found this pop-culture resurgence with the film [Bohemian Rhapsody]. I mean, we were doing just fine with our touring, we were still selling out these tours, but now after the film, it's stratospheric. It’s beyond what anybody imagined. So I do consider myself pretty lucky, timing-wise, that I'm part of this amazing team-up.
Well, you should give yourself some credit for the Queen resurgence as well, I think! Since we are on the subject of big performances, and the Super Bowl is in the news, I have to ask: Can we get Queen to play the Super Bowl halftime show eventually? I don't understand why that isn't happening. Everyone loves Queen. Queen are bigger than ever. And you have at least two huge sports anthems that everyone knows!
Well, listen, if someone asks me to do it, I'm sure I would say yes! [laughs]
OK, back to Velvet. You recently revealed that you are in a new serious relationship. I hear a lot of joy on this EP, and I'm wondering if that is because of this happy development in your personal life.
Well, actually, all of these [songs] were written before that. But I think that that was sort of my reason for releasing “New Eyes” as the first single, essentially, for this whole project. There are other songs that might seem like more obvious, bigger or bolder songs, but I just wanted to put something out that felt true and authentic, like a reflection of where I was at. And “New Eyes” really kind of sums up how I feel about [boyfriend Javi Costa Polo] — somebody that made me look at things differently, that made me feel fresh and new and kind of snap out of the slightly bitter space that I was spinning in.
So your heart's not a ghost town anymore? “Ghost Town” was a damn bitter song!
Nope, the tumbleweeds are gone! [laughs] “Ghost Town” was super-dark. I mean, “Closer to You” has a melancholy thing about it, but the chorus looks ahead with longing and hope and sort of lifts you up. It's sort of the heartbeat of the EP, because the other songs are empowerment anthems or playful jams about dating, and they're more explorations of texture and funk and rhythm and groove, but “Closer to You” is like a straight-up ballad, a very throwback ‘70s pop kind of ballad, and it's brutally honest. And it has some drama to it. Obviously saying, "I would sink my house down underwater, I would trade all of my gold for dirt, I would walk through fire just to hold you” — that is drama. But I think that when I was writing it, I was feeling that sense of, “You know what? I'm really ready. I'm ready to be in love again. I need it. I need to give that kind of love, and I need to receive it. And I would do anything for it.” I felt sort of… I don't know if desperate is the right word, but just a sense of “it needs to happen.”
What made you ready?
It was just time. I mean, look, to be honest with you, I’ve had a lot of fun being a bachelor. I really have. That sense of freedom, it can be really great, that rock-star existence of being on tour everywhere, traveling around, meeting people, chance encounters, all that stuff. It's fun, you know. But I think personally and spiritually, I'm in a new chapter now — and I knew that I was headed into that chapter before I even met my current boyfriend. I knew it was time to have an experience that was a bit more about intimacy and the longer, bigger picture.
Speaking of the bigger picture, you're in a unique position, in that you sort of have three audiences. There are people who maybe got on board with you because of Queen and aren't super-familiar with your solo work. You've got old-school fans who have been following you since the Idol days. And then you've got younger, newer fans who don't necessarily know you from either of those backgrounds. Did you have any strategy for how to connect musically to all of these fanbases?
I hear what you're saying. It wasn't sort of fully mapped out in this way, but definitely, once I decided that I wanted to do something that was throwback and more ‘70s/early ‘80s-influenced, I thought to myself, "This is a good thing, because maybe Queen fans will find some music on this project that they would like." It definitely was an afterthought. But in the past I thought too much about what everyone else thought, and not enough about how I actually felt, and the difference with this project is that I was like, "I don't really care as much about what everybody else thinks. I'm just going to do this because I like it." So maybe call me selfish, but I just want to get onstage and do these songs that I really like — just because I like them.
You mentioned something about getting out of some previous business arrangements. Your last three albums were on major labels. How are things different with Velvet being on an independent label, Empire?
I think in the past, there were just more compromises made creatively. I've always wanted to take risks, and I've always wanted to do things that weren't necessarily super-mainstream or super-obvious. And when people are throwing a bunch of money around, that makes them nervous! I think my current situation for this album is really great because I'm not being told what I can and can't do. I'm not saying in the past that the labels said, "We're controlling you. You're not allowed to do this!" It's just that they were not going to be as supportive if I didn't do something that they felt, like, fit into the box. So this project is very different that way, because I don't have to deal with any of that. I'm going to make these songs: “This is what I want to put on it, here we go, let's get it mixed.”
Ironically, though, speaking of full-circle, I think there are some Velvet songs that evoke your early Glam Nation days, the For Your Entertainment era.
Yeah, I think that if I were to compare this one to any of my other albums, it probably is most similar to some of the stuff on For Your Entertainment. I think the thing with Velvet is it's a bit more focused, more cohesive. It's a little more obvious what's tying it all together. I feel like with this one I wasn't thinking too hard. I was just kind of feeling and doing, which is where you want to be when you're making music. I'm an overthinker; I have a tendency to get in my head on certain occasions. And the songs that are on this album were free-flowing. They came easy, and they weren't me trying to fit into something new that wasn't authentic. It was me just doing what came naturally. I think you can hear that. I hope you can hear that.
So when is your biopic coming out? The Adam Lambert Story!
Oh, I don't know! [laughs] I think there's still a lot of s*** that I haven't done yet, so I don't know. I don't know the whole story yet.
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