The English pop megastar Adele has an epic voice and it’s this quality of epic-ness that sets her apart and draws us towards her music. What makes her voice epic? Her flawless sense of pitch, her phrasing, her all out power. Most of us who aren’t singers or have no particular interest in the voice–this would be me–nevertheless are fairly fine-tuned when it comes to evaluating the voices of others, including singers. We notice things in non-musical contexts even when we don’t mean to (“Did you hear how that guy was talking to me?”) and so we certainly notice things in Adele’s voice too. What we notice is that we trust Adele’s voice. It sounds fully sure if itself, of the words it sings, of the melodies it weaves. It conveys what feels like authentically real emotion–like someone who in the process of expressing themselves utterly embodies the sentiment they’re expressing. In a song like “Hello”, her latest epic ballad, Adele builds herself up alongside the unfolding song.
One of the go-to techniques I’ve noticed Adele using are melodies that spend a good amount of time simply holding key notes. These held notes are like anchors or lifelines that connect one lyrical idea to another. (For some reason I picture them as the musical equivalents of a taut high wire, the kind that Philippe Petit walks across.) On “Hello” we hear that holding on the word “side” in the chorus catchphrase, “hello from the other side.” It’s this note-holding that represents the singer’s strength–not just vocally, but maybe too as a virtual character in her own songs and maybe too as a symbol for us to be equally resilient.
The other thing to note about Adele is that her power and go-to techniques are matched by a convincing performance practice. Watching her perform on TV a few weeks ago I went wide-eyed as I noticed that she was tearing up as “Hello” ran its course. Think about that fact for a moment: she made herself cry while singing. Professional musicians often have to recreate the same pieces over and over again, and the magic trick is to make the music feel like it’s new each time. Repetition can make it difficult to tap into deep emotions because when we repeat things they take on a different quality than they had when they were new to us. (Not necessarily worse, just different. Quality has that inherently shifting property about it.) Adele seems to be one of those performers who can summon the appropriate emotion at each performance to make it seem like the first. My own theory is that she can’t help herself. However she may be in real life (down to earth, so we hear) onstage a sense of simply being epic comes naturally to her. We’re drawn to her, we respond to her, because she naturally does what she’s doing. With Adele, making music never seems like a performance.