Behind The Album: Adele’s ’25’

From talks with the artist and her collaborators, including Greg Kurstin, Bruno Mars and Danger Mouse

Asked about the source of the songs on her previous album, 21, Adele repeated the same answer several times: “A rubbish romance.” Backstage at the 2012 Grammys, after winning all six of the Grammys for which she was nominated, she was asked if a sequel was already in the works.

“No,” she laughed. “I’m too busy being happy!”

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Rather than rush into a new album, Adele took time to seed collaborations with a host of remarkable producers and songwriters around the world, and she gradually shaped her emotions and feelings into the songs that comprise 25. She also grappled with the challenge of balancing her career with being a first-time mother after giving birth to her son, Angelo James Konecki, in October 2012.

Adele at the Grammys, photo by Paul Zollo/American Songwriter

Upon its release, 25 was praised by many as her most confident and fully realized album. Buoyed by the hit “Hello,” which has emerged as a contemporary standard, it became a blockbuster album like its predecessor, selling more than ten million copies in the United States.

We spoke to many of the people with whom Adele made 25 – co-writers, engineers, producers and musicians – who provided their direct behind-the-scenes perspectives, connecting sessions from Prague to London to Los Angeles. It starts with Greg Kurstin, who co-wrote, produced, engineered and mixed “Hello.”

Greg Kurstin (co-writer/producer/engineer/mixer):”Hello” started with Adele and I trying different ideas. I started playing some piano chords and Adele sang different ideas until we landed on the verse. From there I followed her melodies and tried to support them as best I could.  She did all the lyrics.

Adele: [“Hello”] is about hurting someone’s feelings, but it’s also about trying to stay in touch with myself, which sometimes can be a little bit hard to do. It’s about a yearning for the other side of me … about wanting to be at home and wanting to reach out to everyone I’ve ever hurt, including myself, and apologize for it.

Kurstin: I tend to go for moody chords and Adele’s voice invokes so much emotion. It took us a while to get the chorus right. The verse came together much easier. I’m happy we didn’t give up.

Adele: [“Hello” was] the first [breakthrough for the album]. It happened really quick and it just felt great. [I said,] “There I am.”

Ariel Rechtshaid (producer/engineer/mixer):My friend Tobias Jesso wrote “When We Were Young” with Adele and they were having a little trouble with the arrangement. Tobias told them to hit me up. I met her in London and she played me a voice recording of it and also “Why Do You Love Me.” [Editor’s Note: “Why Do You Love Me” appears as a bonus track on select editions of 25.]

Adele: [“When We Were Young” is] a bit of a letter to myself. It’s really about regrouping because naturally me and my friends have dispersed. We all love each other still, but we don’t have time to be unconditional and 24/7.

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Rechtshaid: Adele wanted drums on “When We Were Young” and we agreed on a ’70s approach. I needed to get inside the song a bit more, and called Tobias to replay the piano as only he could. He and Adele performed it live a few times. I wound up using the first take; it was very inspired. We then experimented with backing vocals for the last chorus. I had her shouting, playing with ranges I hadn’t heard her sing in before. She must have thought I was crazy.

My friend Nico Muhly happened to be down the street from the studio, so he came over and played piano, celeste and pump organ. We were just playing with whatever instruments the studio happened to have around.

Nico Muhly (pianist): This whole thing was crazy and fast. I was in London, and got this fast message from Ariel, “Are you anywhere near SoHo?” Miraculously I was, and lo and behold he was there with two Adele tracks saying, “Is there anything you want to add to these?”  

I looked around and there was a piano and a synth and a really nice engineer. And there was Ariel and this vibey room in the middle of London. I listened to the tracks, and then entered a kind of hyper-mode studio-rat space, and recorded 1 million tracks of piano. It was so fun.

Rechtshaid:I tried to imagine her singing [“When We Were Young”] in a stadium, and thought there should be one more element everyone could sing along with. I created an extra four bars at the top of the bridge and had her softly chant the [phrase] “when we were young.” After the bridge, she performed this wonderful classic diva vocal belt over the top of these chants. It was last-minute magic.

Austen Jux-Chandler (engineer/mixer):When it came to recording [“When We Were Young”], it was an almost magical moment. Soon as that track rolled, she switched gear from being a lovely, chatty London mum and into “Adele,” and belted out a vocal that already sounded done. To the point where Ariel and I looked at each other and knew we should do more takes, though we already had it. Already she was having a cup of tea and being a normal mum again.

Adele: I find raising a kid … really difficult, but that’s easy compared to getting the balance right between feeling like you’re spending enough time with your child but spending enough time on your work. … I feel like the process of writing my record was such a selfish act to do, being a parent … so I felt terrible. No more terrible than any other mom does, or any other parent. The guilt of having a bad studio session and spending like eight hours away — [I] still regret it.”

Rechtshaid:I started to experiment … on “… Young.” I realized that if I slid her vocals back one eighth note, the chorus had a backbeat. I was nervous because it changed the feel of the song dramatically. Everything gelled when we dialed up the choir patch of the Orchestron. It had just the right amount of haunting sound, and [keyboardist] Roger Manning’s performance on it was perfectly dynamic.

Once I put both [“When We Were Young” and “Why Do You Love Me”] together I was nervous about sending them to her to hear without seeing her and gauging her response. Being able to change something bothersome on the spot can really help. So I set up a live stream where we were awkwardly staring at each other while I played it. She cried. It was done.      

Danger Mouse (producer):We worked on “River Lea.” We had a lot of little ideas we started and this one became significant because of what she wanted to say in the song. The song changed a lot in the process, but she definitely led the way. 

Adam Klemens (conductor):I conducted the 38-player string orchestra for the song “Love In The Dark,” at Smecky [Music Studios in] Prague, Czech Republic. Samuel Dixon produced. I liked the arrangement and the sound of our orchestra in the song very much. The recording was done in a secret mode. Due to the matter of contract between producers and our contractor, we, the musicians, did not know that we were recording for Adele’s album.

Bruno Mars (co-writer/producer): [“All I Ask”] took a bare 48 hours. We all crowded around the piano until we found something that sparked. … It makes me very jealous because it doesn’t happen like that all the time!

Adele: I’ve always been a really big fan of Bruno, but when we worked together he was beyond. He can do anything, literally singing the best vocals you’ve ever heard live in your life while he is playing a drum or a bass or doing some mad percussion riff.

Alasdair McLellan (album cover photographer): She does not look at the camera on the covers of either 19 or 21, sofor [25] Adele really wanted eye contact. She wanted it to be very direct, her face filling the frame. I always wanted black and white, because there’s an authenticity to it that matches her authenticity.

Danger Mouse: Adele has incredible instincts and great vision.

McLellan: Her songs sound like classics. It’s a very rare thing to have an artist who can create a classic song even before they have had time to become classic.

Adele: The key to [25] is that I haven’t gone, “This is what [the album is] about.” I’ve skimmed the surface of what the [songs] mean to me, and what I’ve written about.

I would like everyone else to decide what these songs mean to them.

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