Don’t stop me now: Adam Lambert has a similar flamboyant style to Freddie Mercury
Don’t stop me now: Adam Lambert has a similar flamboyant style to Freddie Mercury Photo: Rex Features
Neil McCormick By Neil McCormick7:01PM GMT 13 Jan 2015 CommentsComment
'I’m not Freddie,” insists the bearded young American, lounging in a brocaded black and gold jacket, tight leggings and knee-high lace-up boots. “I’m not trying to be Freddie, or compete with Freddie. But I do feel some kinship and I’m seizing this opportunity to try and make his music come to life again.”
On the first day of 2015, the most searched for term on Google UK was “Adam Lambert”. It seemed the nation had been stirred into collective curiosity about the identity of the singer who welcomed in the new year with Queen. As fireworks exploded, 12 million viewers rocked to the sound of Bohemian Rhapsody and We are the Champions on BBC One.
This week, the group embark on a UK arena tour, performing to 160,000 fans before rolling on to the continent. It is all quite impressive for a band whose iconic lead singer, Freddie Mercury, passed away 24 years ago. So who is this young whippersnapper swinging the microphone in front of white bearded 65-year-old drummer Roger Taylor and frizzy haired 67-year-old guitarist Brian May?
“Adam is a phenomenon,” says May of the vocalist he first spotted on TV show American Idol. “We weren’t looking for another singer but Adam is kind of a gift from God. He has a technical ability beyond 99.9 per cent of singers in the world. You see that and can’t help but think, 'I wonder what would happen if we opened that box again?’ ”
“My nickname for him is Camp Elvis,” says Taylor. “His presence and charisma reminds me of Presley in so many ways, the look, the showmanship, the overtly sexual attitude. He is absolutely scintillating on stage, a voice in a million, and the same was true of Freddie. There are almost frightening similarities, especially socially, as an overtly gay man full of wit and banter. There are moments backstage when it seems like nothing has changed at all.”
'Awful Discovery', one of Brian May’s stereoscopic photographs from 'Poor Man's Picture Gallery'
Brian May's unlikely obsession 20 Oct 2014
Listen: 'New' Queen song featuring vocals of Freddie Mercury to be released 03 Nov 2014
In pictures: Freddie Mercury 24 Nov 2011
“F--- yeah, I had doubts! It was really intimidating,” the 32-year-old Lambert proclaims, recalling his first performances with one of rock’s legendary bands. “Freddie is like a myth, how do you live up to that?”
Lambert was just nine when Mercury died. He discovered the band through his parents’ record collection. “Everybody knows Queen peripherally, you hear them at sporting events and stadiums, my dad helped me make the connection between the music and the people making it.” So he was already a fan when he got a chance to sing We are the Champions with May and Taylor during the finale of American Idol in 2009.
“I was pinching myself. These guys were part of the golden era, you are looking at their pictures in books and magazines, then you look up and they are in the dressing room next to you.”
They got along well enough for Queen to invite Lambert to join them for a 15-minute set at the MTV Europe Music Awards in 2011. “I made the mistake of going online and reading some of the comments after, and oh man, there were diehard Queen fans that were ruthless. I thought I’ve got to step up to the plate here.” When it was proposed that they play gigs together in 2012, he says: “I knew it would be an uphill climb every night, a big challenge on a personal and performance level.” They played six shows, in Russia and the UK. “I was winging it, that’s what it felt like.”
But when they reunited to tour America last year, something clicked into place. “I realised it’s no use being awestruck because we are in this together. I’d done my homework. I read every biography, watched every documentary, listened to every album. It’s like I’ve crawled into the music, its part of my blood now, I don’t have to think about it, I can just be. You let instinct take over and that’s when things get really interesting.”
Lambert has fantastic vocal range and control. “He’s a very daring singer,” according to May. “He goes for notes he’s got no right to reach.” Although still not particularly well known in the UK, American Idol made him a household name in the US where he has had two hit albums, even though he hasn’t enjoyed the kind of blockbuster career his talent probably warrants. “I don’t think pop music is really about how high you can sing,” says Lambert. “I’ve learnt a lot in the last five years. It’s not about technique, it’s about: are you cool? Are you likeable? Are you interesting? Is there something about you that grabs people? And oh yeah, you can sing too? That’s nice.”
Charming, chatty, good humoured, Lambert comports himself with a light campness, wearing his sexuality easily. “Listen, I’ve been out of the closet since I was 18, and I’m not getting back in,” he assures me.
He was raised in San Diego in a creative, liberal household, and there was always a lot of music around. From the age of nine, Lambert became involved in theatre. When it became evident that singing was his strength, he took voice lessons and studied opera. From the age of 19, he was making a living in musical theatre, performing in productions of Hair, Brigadoon and Wicked. “I kind of slowly fell out of love with the idea of being onstage eight shows a week doing the same thing every performance, over and over again. Creatively, I really get off on spontaneity, impulse and novelty but those big Broadway shows become kind of corporate, locked-in things.”
In LA, during his 20s, Lambert fronted short-lived indie rock bands with a glam rock bent. “Bowie and Queen were what I dug into, the way they performed, the androgyny, the theatrical, campy persona. When I was coming up, there were a lot of girl pop stars pulling from that era, but when I did it, my eyeliner seemed to make people uncomfortable. Go figure.”
Lambert auditioned for American Idol, almost as a last roll of the dice. “I was 27, I knew I was past the prime zone, and I’m openly gay. I thought the worst that could happen was I would get some notoriety and it might bump my theatre career up a couple of notches.”
Lambert finished as runner-up (to Kris Allen). “That exposure as a person, that was the thing I needed to get to – a place where a record executive could look at me and go, 'OK, this is someone we could work with.’ ”
What can never be quite determined is what part his homosexuality has played in determining Lambert’s career. Before the American Idol finale, pictures of him kissing a man became a major news item. Later the same year, when Lambert kissed his male bassist during a TV awards performance, ABC received so many complaints it cancelled his appearance on Good Morning America.
Lambert is credited with being the first openly gay artist to have a number one Billboard album in the US (Trespassing in 2012), and this despite the presence in pop of such figures as Liberace, Johnny Mathis, Elton John, Boy George, George Michael and, indeed, Mercury.
“Freddie dressed like a leather daddy in a group called Queen,” notes Lambert. “Back then, it was almost like people didn’t want to hear it, and they certainly didn’t want to talk about it. Right now, the US media is gay obsessed. My sexuality precedes everything I do. It is not the easiest thing to navigate. You want to be open and make your community proud, but at the same time you don’t want to alienate everyone else.”
Yet if Lambert has not quite become the superstar many predicted, it may also be because his contrived brand of glam-inflected pop is not individual or characterful enough to really warrant world domination.
His live collaboration with Queen has given him a global platform and it will be interesting to see how performing that killer catalogue night after night will shape his next solo offering. “Queen is not where pop music is today, but emotion is universal and timeless, and that is why the music endures. They went into every genre, almost. We’re doing bluesy rock songs and the campest baroque show tunes, it is like a variety show, it’s a great challenge for a singer.”
Rock bands never seem to fade away any more. As long as at least one member is alive, (and sometimes not even that many) they find ever more inventive ways to keep the show on the road, with video screens, holograms and stand-ins. Between 2004 and 2009, Queen toured and collaborated with British rock and soul star Paul Rodgers. This latest venture feels closer to the brash, flamboyant spirit of the band’s glory days. May proclaims himself delighted that Lambert can sing every song in the original key, adding “that was hard even for Freddie.”
“I had a little bit of trouble with Don’t Stop me Now,” admits Lambert. “The guys would say, 'Hey, it’s OK, you don’t have to do it just like the record. Freddie used to modulate down and find ways to make parts easier for himself.’
“But Freddie was allowed to do what he wanted because it was his song. I have a different standard that I’m up against. I have to do the big note or they’re gonna say I can’t cut it.”
There are no plans for Queen and Lambert to record together. For the moment it is purely a live experience. “When Freddie died, we sort of assumed that was it,” admits Taylor. “But new challenges arise and you think maybe there’s life in the old dog yet.” Original Queen bassist John Deacon left the band (and the music business) following the completion of posthumous album Made in Heaven in 1995. “It is everyone’s prerogative to retire,” notes Taylor. “But it’s like giving up on life as far as I’m concerned. I worked it out years ago. This is who I am.”
“We ain’t a tribute band, that’s a no-brainer,” says May. “We built Queen, we lived and breathed it, it is part of us and we are part of it. It still feels as if Freddie is with us, because his music is always in there, his personality is on stage with us.”
“He is part of our mental wallpaper, which can be a little bittersweet,” says Taylor. “I would say it took five years to get used to the fact that he was gone. But the fact is, he’s not here, and we are celebrating and we salute him, and it’s not maudlin at all. I think he would have approved. And I know he would have liked Adam.”
“Freddie and Adam have a very similar attitude to life,” concurs May, “a sense of humour and camp and lightness of touch. Queen have a serious side but, really, that little bit of humour is what keeps everybody sane.”
“Singing his songs every night, I feel very close to Freddie,” says Lambert. “I wish I had his heavier tone, for sure. He smoked like a chimney and he’s got that real strong mid-chest voice. The way he attacks the note, it’s bad ass, it’s sexy, powerful.
“I’m a fan, and that is my connection with the audience. I feel lucky to be up here. I mean, weren’t Queen great? Listen, they still are.”
Queen + Adam Lambert play Newcastle Metro Arena tonight and then touring. For tickets visit ticketmaster.co.uk
Published on 24 March 2015 photography Rankin fashion editor Chris Benns fashion assistant Alessia Vanini
When a 27-year-old Adam Lambert stepped in front of the judges on American Idol in 2009 he had little idea what would soon come his way. Belting out theatrical renditions of “Rock With You” and “Bohemian Rhapsody”, never in his wildest dreams did he expect to be – within six short years – fronting Queen and being spoken about in the same sentences as one of his idols, Freddie Mercury.
But whether Adam can quite believe it or not, his determination, boundless talent and unwavering resolve to be nothing but himself has seen him achieve more in six years than many musicians achieve in a lifetime. Never mind the praise, fans and record sales – Adam even has a day named after him in his hometown of San Diego (it’s May 8 FYI)!
But it’s not just his music that does the talking, it’s Adam himself, and he doesn’t hold back – refreshing in an industry known for censorship and often tarnished with the stereotype of churning out manufactured, media trained pop darlings. Openly gay, he has been credited with being an ambassador for equality and bringing a new perspective to mainstream music, as well as shining a light on much needed issues including bullying and same-sex marriage. In a world of sameness, Adam stands out and thank god, the music industry – and most others – need more voices like his.
Before his third studio album is released this spring we caught up with the burgeoning superstar at his shoot with Rankin to find out why the future is really rather rosy indeed.
You’ve been getting incredible reviews for your UK shows, is it a relief? And how much pressure did you feel before the tour started? We played our first full show together about two years ago in the Ukraine for close to half a million people in a massive public square. That show scared the hell out of me. This past summer we toured North America and Australia and Asia to great acclaim, which strengthened my confidence and comfort with the material and the band. I was excited by the reaction we received after performing on The X-Factor and the New Years Eve show. I think those performances warmed up the crowds and gave them a taste of what we were capable of with a full arena show in Queen’s motherland
Are you a fan of Britain and British culture? Yes! I’ve been spending a lot of time in London this year. I love the pop music coming out of the UK right now. Vulnerably soulful vocals and this house revival are turning my crank. I’ve always been drawn to British film and TV as well – there’s a great emphasis on witty banter and sarcasm.
Brian May has said that you’ve transformed over the time that you’ve worked together - do you see that in yourself too? I think I have crawled into the songs more. I am now able to toy with the melodies more than when I started. I also find myself more connected to the lyrics and have learned more about what inspired the band to write them. Now after four years of working together, I feel a stronger responsibility to the band, I’m closer to Brian and Roger and more comfortable with the intense expectations of the fans. The doubt and fear have faded and been overtaken with a deep joy.
When approaching the Queen arena tour I wanted to dive right into their reputation for theatricality and camp. To avoid or downplay that energy would feel sacrilegious. I approached it like I was co-curating a staged retrospective of the history of the band. One section of the show was my tribute to their 70s Glam period and I didn’t hold back! Fringe, rhinestones and platform heels felt only appropriate. In my opinion, this is all part of why audiences fell in love with the band in the first place. This kind of nostalgia was a major part of the design of the entire tour.
How have you changed as both a performer and person in the last five years or so? I definitely feel both a personal and professional evolution over the past five years. I think I’ve become more well adjusted to the strangeness of fame and more grounded in my personal life. I don’t overwork my performances as much as I once did; as an entertainer, sometimes less IS more. Personally speaking, I’ve tried to take a similar less is more approach to life. That being said, I still have extravagant tendencies but I think I’ve managed to balance things out a bit better. I’m still my own worst critic, but I’m giving myself better reviews these days. This has all lead to me feeling more comfortable in my skin and more willing to reveal a more authentic, honest self to the world. My personal style reflects this shift pretty clearly as well. I’m still drawn to glamour but in a much less flamboyant way. I’ve outgrown a lot of the looks I was working when I broke onto the scene five years ago – all that bullshit was a LOT of work and way too much getting ready time – I’m not patient enough anymore! And plus, my tastes have just changed in five years – just like anyone. We all have our phases, some fierce and some tragic! I definitely look back on some of my fashion choices and roll my eyes.
When the opportunity came about to front Queen, what were your initial thoughts and reactions? I was honoured and excited – and then the fear reared its ugly head. I thought, “yikes I don’t want to be compared to the incredible Freddie Mercury”. Who would? He’s a god in my book. I knew I could handle the songs but it would be a tricky balance between making them my own, and keeping their original integrity. At the end of the day, I chose to accept the challenge in hopes that it would lead to a growing experience. I’m very glad I did. I feel creatively revived and inspired.
How does performing with Queen impact your solo career - does one ever have to take a back seat? I’ve been so lucky to share the stage with these legends and reconnect with audiences all around the world. I take great pride in our sold out world tour. It has been the ultimate outlet for my love of larger than life, glam rock, pomp and circumstance. This was some of the very reference material that inspired me at the start of my career in the music industry. For Your Entertainment was my modern pop take on glam rock. Stylistically, my new solo materials has moved in a different direction. I am looking forward to launching a new chapter that will explore another side to my personality. I don’t think of one taking a back seat to the other – they’ve coexisted beautifully. Our tour was a live collaboration, for which I was Queen’s grateful guest. Now that it’s over, I have my third album to release and promote. But this isn’t a goodbye to Queen at all. In fact, we are headlining Rock in Rio this September. For now though, my focus is shifting to my upcoming album.
Speaking of your new album, The Original High, how is it different to your previous material? This album was executive produced by Max Martin and Shellback and they helped me keep a very cohesive sound and mood throughout. Sonically it feels more contemporary than my previous material. It’s definitely pop but not bubblegum. We have avoided camp and theatrics and have favoured a darker, more grounded vibe, and at the same time, it will make you dance! Lyrically, it’s very very personal, the album has an overall bittersweet feel to it. Vocally, I think it’s my most tasteful, sophisticated work to date. With Max’s guidance, I approached a lot of it with more restraint than in the past. Instead of being overly specific, most of the songs are more esoteric and so they’re open to interpretation. I’m curious to hear about the individual meaning that people find in the songs dependent on their own situation.
The first single feels like the perfect introduction to The Original High. It establishes itself in a very earthy, vulnerable way and transforms into a hypnotic dream full of surreal imagery and set to a minimal yet massive deep house beat. The hook will worm its way into your ears after the first listen. Get ready!
You seem to be a very authentic and honest person and don’t hide who you are or what you believe in. Is it important that this authenticity filters down into your music too? Sometimes my candidness bites me in the ass but that doesn’t stop me from keeping it real (laughs). I’ve always been an open book. I think there have been moments of this on my previous albums but on The Original High, we have really cracked the book wide open for all to hear. It’s a little scary to be that vulnerable, but I’m ready to let people understand all that makes me tick, even the unattractive parts of me.
Do you think that the music industry and musicians today are honest enough? I think with social media as it is now, musicians are a lot more open and honest, and I think that’s what people expect and want.
Do you want to be seen as a role model? In the past it felt like a lot of pressure. I’ve always said, don’t do what I do, do what you do. If my personal empowerment motivates someone to explore theirs, then I’m honored. I don’t consider myself a teacher or better than anyone else, I’m flawed and still trying to figure myself out.
You’ve been credited with advancing gay rights in music, which definitely needed to happen. Do you feel a responsibility to continue to do so? I think there’s a simple power in being unapologetic and open about who and what you are and not letting it prevent you from getting what you want. In that way, I think I’ve made a statement. My wish is for gay to become less of a label, and more of just one of many great colours in the collective box of humanity. I’m not a separatist. I’m all inclusive.
How inclusive is the industry you’re in, in your opinion? It’s quickly changing along with society. I’m thrilled. We have entered a time with a much more level playing field.
Now onto another subject - fashion. How important is crafting a standout persona through fashion? I am a shopaholic. I love clothes. Playing ‘dress up’ has always been a favourite daily activity. I love the expression of it. Beautiful things make me feel good.
Finally, what are your biggest goals this year? To have my music reach a broader, global audience. I can’t wait to share it!
Adam will release”Ghost Town” on April 21st with The Original High following later this year
On this week's episode, Adam Lambert stops by the podcast to discuss his new "existential dance goth rave" single "Ghost Town," contemplating (and ultimately rejecting) an 80's covers album, finding his new sound in Sweden and why his new album The Original High will offer "something for everybody." (Note: there's more with Adam coming to Billboard.com soon!)