Adam Lambert Talks Chasing ‘The Original High’ & The Funky, Housey Sound Of His New Album: Idolator Interview
Adam Lambert has done a lot of promotion this week in support of the just-released The Original High. But if he’s fatigued, he’s keeping it hidden when we sit down to talk about this, his third album. In fact, us being the pop nerds that we are here at Idolator, we don’t give a toss about prompting this guy to give his thoughts on Caitlyn Jenner or other openly gay musicians or American Idol, as we’re far more interested in hearing his stories about crafting the new music that reunited him with his “Whataya Want From Me” and “If I Had You” collaborators Max Martin and Shellback.
Adam, as we know, spent a large chunk of the past year touring with Queen and keeping hush-hush about his new label deal with Warner Bros. (Previous albums For Your Entertainment and Trespassing were released through RCA.) Guitar god Brian May from Queen even wound up laying down instantly-recognizable riffs on The Original High track “Lucy,” while treks to Stockholm to record the LP found Lambert collaborating with “Talking Body” singer Tove Lo on a new cut called “Rumours.” And then, of course, there’s the album’s single, “Ghost Town,” the video shoot for which — to hear Adam tell it — sounds like the best two-day party we all missed out on.
But enough jabbering on about our talk with Mr. Lambert. He doesn’t really need an introduction, anyway! Head below to catch our full, unfiltered conversation with Adam (be sure to flip to the second page, too!) about the making of his brand new album, The Original High.
First up, I need to retroactively thank you for tweeting about our En Vogue Funky Divas 20th anniversary feature three years back. ADAM LAMBERT: Yeah, I love that album!
As you’re well aware, the Glamberts are very loyal, so that led your fans over to us, and they’ve stuck around ever then. So thanks! AL: Of course. [Laughs] I don’t have a lot of bookmarks on my computer — and I’m not just telling you this — but Idolator is one of ’em. I always like the stuff you guys bring up. I discover a lot of music on there.
Very cool. So before we jump into your new album, let’s touch on En Vogue — what was it about Funky Divas that clicked with you as a kid in the ’90s? AL: I mean, the vocals were fucking crazy! Those vocals were like…what? For me, around that time, I had been doing musical theater as a kid for so long and my perspective of music was based on soundtracks I had heard from musicals, and what I heard around my house, which was more like rock, ’70s kind of stuff. So, I think discovering these soulful diva voices was such a new thing for me. The little gay boy inside was like, “Yes, girl — sing!”
Well, speaking of singing, you’ve got a new album out this week. How did Max Martin come to executive-produce The Original High with Shellback? AL: Basically, after I left [RCA] I started going around L.A. and working with producers that I had heard about and writers that I had heard about, and I had this demo of a song called “The Original High.” Then I arranged a meeting with my management and with Max and Shellback. I played them a couple different demos, and they’re like, “Okay, cool, right on.” Then I played them that one and they’re like, “Woah!” Shellback had all these ideas on what we could do to make the track a hit and make it even better. I started talking about what I’ve been doing and where I was, and they were like, “What do you want to do? You’re in a different place and zone then you were in before. Let’s do the whole album.” We just had a great conversation and reconnected.
Did the song “The Original High” have that ’90s throwback house vibe in the demo form? AL: No! The melody was all there. I think it was mostly the verses that stayed, but it was actually more chill — like acoustic-y chill in the beginning, as a songwriting demo. We slowly discovered that throwback house thing was gonna be a big part of the album. And I love that, because it reminds me of when I was a kid listening to dance music for the first time – big, funky, groovy vocal stuff, like C + C Music Factory and Soul II Soul.
And Robin S! AL: Yeah, all that stuff! I really loved those songs, so in many ways that’s a reason why [the song is] called “The Original High.” It’s like the first time I heard that style.
I feel like the other song on your album where that sound is most prominent is “The Light.” AL: Yeah! That’s straight-up ’90s house.
So let’s dive into some of these great tracks. Why don’t we start with “The Original High”? How did this one come about in the first place? AL: I worked with Axident and John West. I found out about Axident through my friend Justin Tranter from Semi Precious Weapons, who I’ve done a little writing with. He’s a genius. He’s hilarious.
He “likes” a lot of our Instagram photos! AL: He’s great, and really talented. We were talking and he was like, “You should check out this guy.” So that’s how I met Axident, who’s from Norway, and we recorded the song. Its evolution happened with Shellback, and we made it more uplifting as far as the emotional tone of it. I think in the original it was a little sadder, a little more melancholy, and we pushed it up into a more euphoric place.
Another standout is the ballad “Underground,” which you performed this week during your iHeartRadio show. AL: Could you tell that I messed up lyrics, because I certainly fuckin’ messed up lyrics! [Both laugh]
I missed that! I don’t know the album as well yet to realize you messed the lyrics up. AL: Clearly I don’t either! I love that song, though, and probably out of all the songs, sonically it’s the most of a departure for me. It’s definitely stepping into a new vibe that I haven’t done before. I love that it’s still me in the recording, but just the sonic frame is more of a contemporary R&B thing, which I think is really interesting. I was really excited about going there. I have artists that I’m listening to lately like The Weeknd and Miguel. The new-school R&B is so cool and I’m very attracted to it.
Have you checked out Banks? AL: I love Banks. Yeah, really rad. I really do like a lot of atmospheric shit, more kind of vibey, floaty stuff. So I love that “Underground” has that soundscape thing happening. There are a lot of layers and nondescript little atmospheric effects.
“Underground” was one of the few songs you didn’t write on the album. AL: No, I didn’t write that one. That was Joe Janiak. I met him in Stockholm. He’s from the UK and he’s kind of a hippie — he’s got long hair and he’s really, really positive. His energy is really happy all the time. We just clicked. We talked about lifestyle a lot. That was one of the things I bonded with him over, like certain parties you’ve been to, or festivals, or experiences you’ve had…in certain states of mind! That’s where we really connected, so I think that’s what inspired him to write “Underground.”
How did you come to collaborate with Tove Lo on “Rumours”? AL: That was actually one of the first things I did when I got out there. Before I went to Stockholm, I sat with Max in that meeting, and then I had another meeting with them and they had some track ideas that they were gravitating towards. They played me the instrumental of what became “Rumours,” and it had a different beat on it at the time — more of like a pop beat, but it had the same feel. Shellback came up with a melody without the bridge. Tove and I sat in the studio together — we hit it off immediately, first of all. She’s cool! Maybe it’s something in the water in Sweden, but they’re very humble. They’re not trying to be big shots about stuff. Her song “Habits” hadn’t yet blown up or turned into what it was going to be. We started talking about having a personal life and having a public life, and how the two are at odds with each other. That’s where we started getting the ideas for the lyrics.
It seemed inevitable that you would record a song with Brian May from Queen. And “Lucy” sounds to me a bit like Michael Jackson’s “Dirty Diana.” AL: That is exactly what I’ve been feeling about it: It’s my “Dirty Diana” moment. It’s a tale of a girl going the wrong way in life. I love that it’s Brian May doing signature guitar on top of more of a hip hop swing. The beat’s a little heavier, a little more urban influence. To have him play on that, I think people are going to be like, “What?” I’ve gotten a lot of great feedback about that song.
It feels like a very “you” song. Although you’re a quote-unquote pop star, you’re one of the only real rock stars in pop at the moment, if that makes sense. AL: It was important to definitely touch on the things that people know and are comfortable with with me. I think “Evil In The Night” is another example of me giving the type of delivery that people are used to from me. I didn’t want to not go there. I just wanted to discover some new ground as well.
“Evil In The Night” is actually the next song I wanted to ask you about. AL: I love “Evil In The Night”! It’s one of those songs that is super fun live. That was actually one of the first songs, as well, that we developed in Stockholm, and Sterling [Fox], who is one of the writers on “Ghost Town,” had come up with this hook, this idea of [hums the melody of the chorus]. Shellback really came through and developed those funk verses. It was super fun to record and sing. What I love is that there are some really esoteric lyrics in there, like “bombs over Broadway.” You know how when you’re working on a demo, you call it something and then you maybe call it something else later? Early on, we were calling it “Bombs Over Broadway.” I thought, “I don’t know if I love that title” — especially because the phrase “evil in the night” kept getting repeated. I said, “That feels a little more like a title,” but we all kept calling it “Bombs Over Broadway.”
You worked with a lot of writers and producers on your two post-Idol albums, and then had Max and Shellback executive-produce The Original High, which plays like a very solid, cohesive effort. AL: Yeah. It feels like the most cohesive thing I’ve done. I realize that. I think that was one of the goals. In talking with them initially, I asked them, “What do you think works for me and what do you think didn’t?” And one of the things they said was, “Well, you were kind of all over the place in the last couple albums — you do a little bit of this, a little bit of that, a little bit of this. Let’s do something that feels like a body of work.” And I was really wanting that. I think the tricky thing is is that I have a very broad fan base. I have people that got to know me on Idol, and I have younger people as well, and there are gay fans and international fans. Everybody maybe has their own favorite thing that I do, so how do we melt it all together and make it feel current? It was a little tricky to crack the code, but I think they did it. I mean, “Ghost Town,” the reason why I pushed for that as the first single is because it’s this perfect blend of two different things in one — we have this really cool, edgy ’90s throwback house thing happening, but it starts with that spaghetti western, acoustic folk-pop thing. I felt like, you know what, if this is the first thing back from me, like a re-introduction, I love that it’s just my voice and a guitar to start with. Because it’s pure and it’s emotional and I love the story that it tells. It’s a bit dark and poetic.
It’s a fantastic video, too. AL: Thank you.
And you perfectly segued into my next question, which is about Hype Williams. AL: He’s rad. Great energy!
How was being on that set with him as a director different from all the other videos you’ve done? AL: You know, I had gotten in touch with him through Pharrell during the last album cycle, because I was going to maybe have him direct something that Pharrell wrote. Unfortunately, we never got to that point of making one of those songs a single. We had already talked, but didn’t get to work then. When it came time to make this video for “Ghost Town,” I was like, “I’m gonna call Hype.” He’s very upbeat and encouraging, and what I like about working with Hype is that he’s so relaxed.
What was the experience like while making that video? AL: We had a fucking house party, basically, when we shot it. We did it over two nights at a studio in Burbank and we talked about what the vibe was going to be. At first I was thinking maybe we should do something a little more literal — you know, actually shoot it in a ghost town somewhere in California. We started talking about it and Hype was like, “Why don’t we just go less literal and make it like a performance video? We should get some cool people in the video, dancing and feeling it.” I was like, “Okay. I’ll handle that.” So I have a friend who used to be in the Pussycat Dolls, Carmit, and she knows dancers everywhere. She’s worked with Hype before in the past. I brought her in to help me bring people together and cast this video. She brought some dancers to the table and then I brought some people I knew in who are just models that are gorgeous and interesting-looking. I called a stylist that I really love, Brett Nelson, and this hairstylist I really love, and Sutan, the makeup artist who’s also Raja from Drag Race five seasons ago. So I kept joking that it was my House Of Glambert! I invited my friends to do this video, and we made some margaritas and we shot it.
Last question before you have to go: You wrapped the tour with Queen earlier this year. Can we assume your own tour is coming up? AL: I want to. I have commitments to the end of the year to promote this thing. I’m very fortunate that there’s international interest, so I get to go to all these different places around the world to promote the album. That takes a little while to get that all moving. But I’d love to tour this album. I already have a few ideas. I’m not sure what yet, but it’ll feel different from the stuff that I’ve done in the past. I want to do something innovative and interesting; something that matches the music and the sonic vibe of it. Probably wouldn’t be till next year if it happens.
Adam’s third album The Original High was released this week. Pick it up on iTunes.