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The Weekly Interview: Adam Lambert

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I’m such a pop culture junkie.”
David Roemer
Annie Zaleski

Pop star Adam Lambert—who moonlights as Queen’s lead singer from time to time—is currently focused on touring behind his third album, The Original High, which puts his vocals and a sleek electronic sound indebted to ’90s house and minimal dance grooves at the forefront. The former American Idol contestant dishes on the record’s depth, how Queen fits into his creative life and the formative influence Vegas has had on him.

I saw you in Cleveland in December, and it was a stripped-back radio show. What is the production of this tour like, and what are you looking to convey with this fleshed-out tour? It’s really fun to be able to go and do that with the radio station, but you’re not really bringing any production with you. With this show, it was really exciting, because I was like, ‘Yeah, I get to tour again! And it’s my show!’ (laughs) I invited some amazing creative people that I have met over the years [like] a woman named Brooke Wendle, who I have worked with many times in the past. I’ve known her for over 10 years. I invited her to come along and help me creative-direct this thing, and she brought in some amazing lighting and video people. I wanted video—that was one of my big things. I was like, “I want to be able to show visually the mood that I feel these songs are.” I’ll do my job, and they’ll do their job, and hopefully the combination will really help impact people. It’s really exciting, because that’s an element I’ve not had before.

I worked with an amazing stylist to help develop some very modern costuming, and then at the end we nod to the ’90s. (laughs) The show itself is a three-part journey. The beginning explores more angsty, dramatic, darker themes. The middle of the show is very vocally driven: It’s me without any bells or whistles, just me at a microphone. That’s very much heartfelt, sensitive-side stuff. And then at the end, we party. We light it up and we hit the dancefloor, all together. (laughs) It really sums up the three parts of my personality, I think.

Even seeing the stripped-back show, it was vocally driven, but there was still some grooving. It was subtle, but the groove was still there. I’m lucky, [because] now I have three albums that have given me a range of different songs and different energies to explore. When it came time to put together the setlist, I was like, all right, obviously, I’m going to focus predominantly on this new album, The Original High. But what can I bring in to support the ideas that are on that album, from my past ones? That was exciting, to tinker with the set and put together medleys and throw in bits from this and that and there and the other thing. It’s cool—I enjoyed the process.

When you were putting together this tour, were there any parallels you found between The Original High and your other two records that you maybe hadn’t noticed before? What’s interesting is that I’ve talked to a couple of different journalists, and they’re like, “Well, this one’s so different from the last two.” And in many ways, it’s more consistently one thing than the other ones have been. [But] there’s a couple tracks from both the first and second album that allude to where I got to with this one. Stuff that’s a bit more atmospheric and pulled back and angsty. The lead singles on the first two albums [2009’s For Your Entertainment and 2012’s Trespassing] were different. But even “Whataya Want From Me,” the big single off the first album, even though it’s a bit more rock-oriented, emotionally and sonically it sits in a place that’s similar to much of The Original High. Maybe it’s because of the production team that was behind it. It’s not a huge surprise—I’ve been there before. I’ve been to these places, emotionally.

The Original High is really a showcase for your vocals. It sounds almost like a singer-songwriter record, dressed up with this modern, contemporary pop production. Was that something you were pushing for? How did that evolve? It was a more focused process. With my first album, we put it together so quickly on the heels of American Idol. We were on the American Idol tour, the summer tour all the contestants go on together, and we wanted to get the album out. So we did it really quickly. And it was my first time putting an album out like that, so we kind of blazed through. The second album was a very long process, but it was not focused. It was much more of an experiment. It was like, “Oh, I’ll try this, I’ll try that, I’ll try this.”

With this album, I got to spend two months solid in Stockholm with nothing else going on except working on music. There was a lot of time in the studio, trial and error, and really getting things right. Sort of the way an author writes multiple drafts of a letter or a novel or something. It felt like that. We would do one demo, and then it would turn into something else, and then it would turn into something else. It was finely crafted.

And the producers that I worked with are some of the best in the business, and the whole thing was sort of done in-house with them, as opposed to the typical way of working where you do multiple different producers. Typically, with major labels, an A&R person gathers a bunch of different producers together and it works that way. This was done more the old-fashioned way, where it’s all one team. You can hear that on the album—there’s probably a stronger through-line because of that.

Were there any particular lyrical or musical inspirations that informed you this time around? It was interesting, because in the past I’ve done stuff that’s been over-the-top and flamboyant and high, high, high energy. And I love that kind of stuff, I really do. I have that in my catalog. But I wanted to sing about things that were darker, maybe. Even though there’s still beauty in this world, there’s still wonderful people, there’s also a lot of scary things going on right now.

I’m such a pop-culture junkie, I like to find out what’s going on, what people are saying, what’s going on in social media. There’s a lot of tension out there right now, and even though it’s pop music, I wanted to touch on that. I wanted to sing about stuff that was a bit more serious and a little bit more real. There’s some scary stuff that’s been going on. And yet again, at the same time, we do employ dance music in the album: There’s beats, there’s things to make you move. My hope is that you can find some sort of healing or catharsis with the songs.

There’s the school of thought that pop music is just escapism, but there’s so much wonderful pop music over the years that has made social statements or that’s enacted change. It can be both things. Well, that’s why I was so excited to release “Ghost Town.” Obviously, it’s digging into this deep-house genre, which is really fun and throwback ’90s and really trendy right now. But lyrically and melodically, it really is a folk song about feeling disenchanted and disconnected from the world, from the person that you thought you wanted to be, from the fantasies that you originally subscribed to. It’s all of those things. I think that’s very real. From what I can see, myself included, this generation coming up right now [is] going to face some issues like this because of technology, because of the way we’re communicating—or not communicating. There’s a lot that’s going to shift, I think, culturally. I find it harder and harder—and maybe it’s because I’m traveling and I’m busy all the time—to make real connections with people, because of the way that we all communicate.

It is—it’s a lot of surface communication. You can look and say, “Oh, I have X amount of Twitter followers.” But how many of those people do you actually know? Right. And so the question is: Is your heart really filled because of that? Do you feel that, or do you just sort of see it, kind of like as a ghost? An empty idea? I don’t know. I’m really happy with the way that song turned out, because I feel like, for a pop song, if I do say so myself, the lyrics dig a little deeper.

Did the touring you’ve done with Queen and time you’ve spent around them have an influence on how you approached this record at all? The Queen stuff has been crazy. I’m so lucky, I’m so honored to be getting to sing lead vocals for one of the greatest rock bands of all time. Freddie Mercury is definitely a personal hero of mine. As a singer, he was unmatched. I think he was an incredible songwriter. And on a personal level, being around at the time he was out, he had to keep certain things private. It’s just interesting, because we’re in a different time as far as that’s concerned. And, in a way, I like that I get to be out and proud while celebrating his music and his life.

I think people forget that 35 years ago, it was such a different environment and atmosphere. It’s funny, because in some ways, in the ’70s, rock ’n’ roll didn’t care what your sexual orientation was. And on a greater level, as far as the masses were concerned, I think most people would just rather be in denial about it, and not actually ask the question. That’s sort of what the fans were going through at the time—like, “Well, we don’t care, whatever.” Things are different now. And it’s interesting to look at certain songs from their catalog and be like, “Oh, I wonder if that’s what that was about. Interesting.”

Are there any Queen U.S. tour dates in the cards? I know you’re doing some stuff in Europe this summer. We did a U.S. tour last year. We’re going to be doing festivals in Europe this summer. What’s so great about working with them is they understand that I have a pop solo career that is something I’m putting a lot of energy and time into, and I think they totally get that. It’s really cool that we get to do both. Why not?

Just thinking about this – you have these two wonderful projects [where you] use both sides of your likes and skills. So few people get to do that. And it’s interesting, because it is two different schools of thought, the two different projects. There is some overlap—I have Brian May playing on a song called “Lucy” on my album, [and it] was really cool to have him lay down a solo like that. With Queen, I get to look back with nostalgia and celebrate music that’s been a part of people’s lives for 30-plus years, to sing iconic pieces of music, and get in front of giant audiences and sing songs that they already love and know like the back of their hands. It’s a different experience—it’s remembering something altogether.

With my solo stuff, it’s the opposite. We get to look forward, we get to ask questions about right now: Where are we today? Where are we? What do we want to remember in 10 years? It’s two different mind-sets. And as an artist, as a creative person, I’m so lucky that I get to have both, to bounce back and forth between. It’s very satisfying.

You’ve played in Las Vegas a lot. Do you have any particular memorable performances that stand out to you? Speaking of Queen, we performed at the iHeartRadio show that they did at the MGM, probably three years ago now. That night was sort of the catalyst to put together a world tour with them. We had such an amazing reaction from the audience, and from industry people and fans. Promoters started going, “Hey, let’s put this out there.” That was the reason why we put together a world tour.

ADAM LAMBERT April 1, 7:30 p.m., $35. The Foundry, 702-761-7617.

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