Written on the spot by Adele when she woke up in the middle of the night, like many of the songs on 21, “Set Fire to the Rain” covered the heartbreak of her first relationship.
Recounting all the red flags leading to the breakup, “Set Fire to the Rain” was one of Adele’s 21 power anthems of survival with the lyrics, Cause there’s a side to you / That I never knew, never knew / All the things you’d say / They were never true, never true/ And the games you’d play / You would always win, always win, continuing through the fiery chorus.
But I set fire to the rain
Watched it pour as I touched your face
Well, it burned while I cried
‘Cause I heard it screaming out your name
I set fire to the rain
And I threw us into the flames
When we fell, something died
‘Cause I knew that that was the last time
The last time
Adele said her heart was breaking as she wrote each song on 21.
“It broke my heart when I wrote this record, so the fact that people are taking it to their hearts is like the best way to recover, ‘cause I’m still not fully recovered,” said Adele in a 2011 interview reflecting on the songs, inspired by her relationship with a man who ended up marrying someone else. “It’s going to take me 10 years to recover, I think, from the way I feel about my last relationship. It was the biggest deal in my entire life to date.”
She added, “He made me totally hungry. He was older. He was successful in his own right, whereas my boyfriends before were my age and not really doing much. And he got me interested in film and literature and food and wine and traveling and politics and history, and those were things I was never, ever interested in. I was interested in going clubbing and getting drunk.”
Written by Adele and Fraser T. Smith and produced by Smith, the power ballad was Adele’s second single off 21 in Europe and her third in the U.S. The song also peaked at No. 1 internationally in Belgium, Poland, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and the U.S., and charted within the Top 10 in Austria, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, and Switzerland.
Initially, the song barely made it on the 21 album, but a last-minute switch placed it on the final cut. Eventually, “Set Fire to the Rain” also replaced 21 track “Rumour Has It” as the third single in the U.S., based on research conducted by radio programmers. “Our research found more programmer preference for ‘Set Fire to the Rain,’” said Pete Cosenza, senior vice president of adult radio promotion at Columbia. “Both ‘Rumour’ and ‘Fire’ came back strong, but ‘Fire’ was a bit stronger.”
For 21, Adele went on to win dozens of awards, including American Music Awards, British Music Awards (British Album of the Year), and 2012 Grammy Awards for Best Pop Vocal Album and Album of the Year.
“Set Fire to the Rain” also set Adele’s chart status early on, making her the first female British artist to have three consecutive U.S. No. 1 hits with “Rolling in the Deep,” “Someone Like You,” and “Set Fire to the Rain.”
In 2013, Adele’s live performance of “Set Fire to the Rain” from Live at Royal Albert Hall earned another Grammy for Best Pop Solo Performance.