Adam Lambert on Music Biz Mistakes, Triumphs and One 'Ballsy' Request for Exec Producer Credit (Q&A)
As his second album "Trespassing" is released this week, the "American Idol" season 8 runner-up opens up to THR about music industry lessons he learned the hard way.
Adam Lambert is widely regarded as one of the most successful contestants to come out of American Idol. In that sense, he defies the odds. After all, so many alums of the No. 1 Fox show fizzle as quickly as they skyrocketed to fame. But Lambert, now 30, has cultivated a loyal fanbase that he’s carried with him every step of the way since his 2010 debut, For Your Entertainment, and he’s counting on those so-called Glamberts to catapult him to the top of the Billboard album chart next week, when Trespassing, Lambert’s new album, is expected to debut in the No. 1 spot selling in the vicinity of 80,000 units.
Long considered among the more media-savvy alums, Lambert’s years in the theater have certainly helped ready the San Diego-bred singer for a career in music, but industry experience has been the best lesson, as he told The Hollywood Reporter in a recent interview.
The Hollywood Reporter: Your first album was hard to categorize in terms of genre, and since then, music has become very urban- and dance-heavy. Did that factor into your approach as you worked on Trespassing?
Adam Lambert: I actually find it a little irritating how everyone has to classify everything. I don't really get why we do that so much because if you like a song, you like a song. I wanted to make something that was like pure pop. But pop is everything, so what does that mean? I think that on the last album and coming out of Idol, I had a little bit of pressure that I put on myself and maybe from some of my fanbase to have this classic rock fame. There's still a lot of that energy on that album and there's still a lot of that sensibility and spirit, but I think the genre is less exploited.
THR: You also record for a company, RCA Records, that’s fixated on Top 40 success…
Lambert: It's been an interesting experience. And I think going into it the first time, I didn't really understand the business of it much at all. Maybe as a consumer, I did, but not as much as I do now from the inside out. And it definitely does inform you and teach you things. First and foremost, I wanted to write music this time. I wanted to write from my perspective, figure out what I wanted to say and if it fit on the album and the executives liked it, then great, but it came more from me first this time. It's been really cool too, because, yes, it is a business, but I've been working with incredible A&R who's into the sonic sophistication that I think the album has, and my new management [Direct Management Group] has been really fantastic. So I think I have all the necessary tools to be able to accomplish what I wanted to accomplish this time.
THR: What’s surprised you most about the music industry and how it works?
Lambert: That there’s such an emphasis put on numbers, but what's really exciting is when numbers are being emphasized on an artist like Adele, where it is about the music but it happens to be commercial. That’s exciting when the art and commerce comes together and that was kind of the goal on this album -- how do we straddle that? Yes, I want it to be mainstream and connect with a broad audience, but how do I make it distinctly me -- my point of view and my sound? I think we did it. I think we brought funk into it in a really cool way. Because I always have so much fun with those types of grooves live, like when I perform “Fever” or “Strut” -- I love the way it feels up on stage. I love the beat. I love the way the audience is moving. I wanted more of that. And I also wanted to be able to have those moments, like on Idol with “Mad World,” where you can pull open the flood gates and be real and vulnerable.
THR: You spent so much time on the road, when did you do your writing?
Lambert: When I got home. I journaled a little bit and I did go back and kind of revisit moments and experiences to try and put them into song. What everybody always says is write about your ups and your downs. It really is cathartic. It gets you to the next place, and it did help me move forward and into the next chapter. Exorcise the demons.
THR: You’re listed as executive producer on Trespassing. How did that come about?
Lambert: I talked to RCA about it. In the beginning I had a meeting in New York with the heads of the label, Peter Edge and Tom Corson, right after I got off the road when I started the writing process. We had a great conversation during lunch where we just leveled with each other. I was like, “Look, if there's something that you don't like, just tell me.” And they were, like, “Okay, cool.” We just called out all the pretense and the bullshit and said let's have fun with this and really communicate because we want the same thing. So let's figure out how to do it. A lot of artists that I've heard about and read about are at odds with certain parts of the business and I didn't want that. I wanted to have a very open, fun experience.
THR: Did you actually say I want to be the Executive Producer?
Lambert: Yeah, that came like a second later. I was, like, "I really want this to be from me, but you need to tell me if you think what I'm doing is bullshit or if it sucks." They were surprised but I said, I'm a big boy. I grew up doing theatre, I'm used to rejection, you can tell me. It was really cool. And I think we figured out what we wanted to accomplish creatively and what we wanted to avoid, what we wanted to emphasize and what we needed to move past. We were all on the same page.
THR: But asking for that title on a second album is kind of ballsy…
Lambert: Well, I am ballsy. Sometimes to a fault. The thing about being executive producer, it wasn't like, “I'm going to be in control; I'm right, don't touch it.” It was, “I'm going to executive produce this project with you. It's a team effort.” It's not me taking over the whole business. There's so much I don't know about and didn't know about a year ago, so it's more of a creative statement. … Maybe the way that they look at it is, “Well, if doesn't work out then we have nobody to blame but him.”
THR: That can be a frightening existence…
Lambert: And that's the way I look at it, too. I'm putting my eggs in the basket here and putting myself on the line. Why shouldn't I?
THR: How many songs did you record?
Lambert: In various states of completion, probably like 40 to 50. There were a lot of different directions. Stylistically, I wasn't totally decided when I started. I was like, let's have a bunch of sessions and just get out there and start writing.
THR: Is there a lyric you're particularly proud of?
Lambert: I think "Outlaws of Love," which is the big socially conscious tune, is commentary on the sadness and the hopelessness I feel when I look at the situations the gay and lesbian community deals with, daily -- politically, socially, everything. I just quite frankly said in the chorus: "They say we'll rot in hell, well I don't think we will." And it's not super complex or deep but just saying that in the song, it’s the one shred of hope in the song. It's just saying, I don't think so. It's really straight ahead. I used to write lyrics that were really complicated and trying to be clever and I found that I like lyrics now that are more like, “There it is!”
THR: Agreed. Songs like “Underneath,” “Chokehold” and “Broken English” really bring out a lot of emotions. How did you get into that headspace?
Lambert: One of the major themes on the album that there's a lot more underneath the surface than what meets the eye. Especially in the public eye, we're expected to be perfect and we’re not. That's not real life. And I think that's one of the things that I've found frustrating about being a celebrity is we're held to this really high standard, where I'm just a guy that sings. I'm not perfect. I'm not a beauty queen. I make mistakes. I fuck up. I say the wrong thing. I misjudge things. I'm sad sometimes or mad about something. And I just don't understand why that's not okay. Everything has to be all hunky dory all the time. So that song, “Underneath,” is saying don’t judge a book by it's cover and also, don't write someone off or classify them, or categorize them so easily because there's a lot more there.
THR: It's a lot of responsibility to carry.
Lambert: It's A LOT of responsibility to carry. That's another thing that the album deals with on the darker side. There's a lot of unforeseen anxiety, things I didn't really prepare for or that catch me off guard sometimes. And "Underneath" talks about that. I think the line in "Underneath" that's so great is "it's still not that easy for me underneath." It's still hard.
THR: But you make it look so easy.
Lambert: And that's part of being an entertainer. It’s also one of the things that I work towards. I want to be strong because I feel like I'm still hated on. But the point is that I'm trying to encourage people that you can't let it bring you down. You have to find the strength somehow. And there are moments when it gets hard, and there's moments where it's difficult or something happens and a bunch of people talk about it. And you're like, “Fuck, this is my life!” It's not the easiest thing in the world, but it is worth it. And that's the thing, for a minute there I wasn't sure if it was.
THR: When were you feeling that way?
Lambert: There was a moment when I was in the midst of the album and I thought about the last time where I wasn't totally happy. And I was questioning the whole situation -- do I like this? Am I really into this? And it took me a minute just to make sure to put it into perspective and kind of check myself. And the bottom line is that it can be taxing and tiring and it can become and uphill climb but it is worth it. Especially when you get to create. That's the seed of it.
I couldn't tell you an exact date, but after the AMAs thing, I was like, “Woah! Did I fuck it all up? Did I kiss my shot goodbye by trying to prove some point?”
THR: But you survived that moment, made your point about a gender double standard and got that out of your system….
Lambert: And I think I've always been that type of person. I do the opposite of what people want me to do. I'm very contrary. And so I think there was part of me, which can also sometimes get wrapped up into self-sabotage, where I was testing the waters and playing with fire a little bit. I was reacting, I was kind of frustrated with the whole double standard that was surrounding my sexuality and the choices I was making.
I think I learned a lot from that and from the whole album cycle and tour -- as a person, as an artist and as a business person. So I think this album is a combination of all of that. I’m going, “Cool, I stretched my limbs. I see where my boundaries are, I see where they aren't. I see all of it.”