Adam Lambert On Soul Searching, Love, That Iconic ‘Fire Fight’ Set And How Queen Helped Him Lean Into A New Sound

Adam Lambert’s fourth studio album doesn’t sound like anything he’s released before and yet it’s undeniably him. In a nutshell, Velvet is a retro-fusion record that pays homage to 1970s grooves. It’s wildly different from his early-career club beats and the modern pop vibes we heard on 2015’s The Original High. Instead, it taps into the music he listened to growing up and the vocal stylings we know he can nail after years of performing with Queen.

Describing a record as reminiscent of the ’70s may seem vague, but you can’t pigeonhole Velvet into just one genre from the iconic era. From funk and disco to soul and classic rock ‘n’ roll, Lambert has encapsulated an eclectic pool of sounds within the 13 tracks. He flexes his piercing falsetto alongside glam rock guitar solos on ‘Superpower’ and croons over slinky riffs courtesy of Nile Rodgers on ‘Roses’. Meanwhile, the thumping basslines on ‘Coming In Hot’ and ‘Loverboy’ could rival a Prince song. You can sample a taste of this sonic smorgasbord on the six-track EP VELVET: Side A that dropped last year, but you’ll have to wait until March 20 for the rest.

The record is made for the stage but it might be a hot minute until Aussies get to experience The Velvet Tour live. Lambert just wrapped up the Australian stint of the Rhapsody Tour with Queen, including the recreation of the iconic Live Aid set at the Fire Fight Australia concert. Now he’s taking The Velvet Tour on the road with a mini-residency in Las Vegas in April and European tour over August and September.

Outside of the studio, the long-time philanthropist and LGBTQ+ rights advocate launched a not-for-profit organisation Feel Something Foundation in late 2019. From challenging the phrase “coming out” to supporting queer creators through education and the arts, the Feel Something Foundation aims to address issues of homelessness, suicide and mental health in the LGBTQ+ community.

While he was in Sydney, we had a chat with Adam Lambert about redefining success and leaning into a new sound on Velvet.

Music Feeds: ‘Velvet’ is almost ready for the world. How are you feeling?

Adam Lambert: I’m just feeling grateful that it’s finally time to put it out. It’s finally here. It was a long time in the making.

MF: How long?

AL: Like four years! Granted, I was working very slowly and taking my time. I had some business obstacles. I changed labels and management and that kinda stuff slowed me down a little bit. And kinda just figuring out what I wanted to do. It’s not something that you know right away. Sometimes you have to find it while you’re working at it. With this one, that was the process. I was experimenting with different producers and slowly but surely a sound started to come together and an angle, a direction. As that started to come into fruition, I was like, “Ok, now I know what it is that I’m making.” Then it started to gain momentum.

MF: Did you enjoy taking that time to experiment rather than working towards a strict deadline?

AL: Yeah, I’ve always liked to be an artist who gets to reinvent themselves a little bit. I like changing it up. I don’t like repeating myself and I don’t like following what other people are doing necessarily. I like figuring out what works for me. With this project, more than ever, I feel like I’m more in the driver’s seat.

That was part of all of the changes I had to make in order to be able to make what I wanted to make. Because I got to a point after my last album, and I’ve been proud of everything I’ve ever put out, I mean it’s all work I stand behind, but I was getting a little fried on the business. The commercial stuff, the numbers, the streams, the money. It all just started to overpower what it was that I really like about making music in the first place.

So I think in that process of changing my business set up, I was also soul searching a bit for a way to check back in with myself. What do I love about this business? What do I love about music? It’s performing for people and creating. That’s what I love. The other stuff is just like part of the equation. It’s not why I do it. It took me a second to figure it out but I really insulated my process this time and I think my album is a result of that. It’s just me following my instinct and tuning out all of the noise.

MF: I read that you wanted to go in a completely different direction on this album. What did that involve for you?

AL: Part of me getting so disillusioned with the business was getting a little sick of top 40 for a minute. A lot of what I was listening to sounded the same and just kind of homogenised. So I just stop listening to all that stuff. I stopped playing into that race. I kinda tapped back into the kind of music that I listened to growing up. The classic stuff that my parents played in the 70s and 80s. I also started digging through playlists and more obscure music from contemporary acts that are also clearly influenced by retro stuff.

MF: Who were some of those modern influences?

AL: Like Tame Impala. There’s a group called Leisure from New Zealand that I really like. There’s a band called Sports in the US that I really like. I listened to a lot of old Prince music, Sly Stone, some Bowie. The ‘Young Americans’ record by Bowie I really, really like. A lot of it is even one hit wonders or artists who aren’t necessarily very well-known but there’s a song I really like.

I just started finding all of these examples and that’s what I would go into the studio with. I would talk about wanting to create something timeless and retro-fusion and I would play some examples. Mostly everything had a great bassline and you can hear that on Velvet.

MF: Oh, yeah! Like on ‘Loverboy’? That bassline is so funky.

AL: Yeah! I’ve always listened and love that kind of music. I just really had to lean into it.

MF: The record is undeniably influenced by the 1970s. Did you have that vision in mind when you first approached ‘Velvet’?

AL: It wasn’t that clear to me when I first started and then it slowly started getting clearer and clearer. There were a couple of songs that might’ve sounded differently in the demo but then I steered it towards the direction of the album sonically. As far as subject matter goes, I wasn’t super conscious that this album has to be about this but undeniably it comes down to relationships. That’s the timeless, universal concept and love. To me, ‘Velvet’ is an album that explores all different aspects of love. It’s like loving yourself, it’s self-love and empowerment. Some of it’s about longing for love that’s been lost. Some of it’s quick and easy fast love. It’s all about that connection stuff. I think that’s what makes me tick. I’m always looking for inspiration in another person.

MF: That’s what makes everybody tick, right? That’s what makes it so relatable. It may not be your story but you can see yourself in that universal concept.

AL: Yeah, I think so! At the end of the day, we all have those feelings and with a song like ‘Roses’, it’s like Valentine’s Day gone wrong. You’re with somebody and you’re wanting them to be intimate with you and be a great lover. And it’s like they send you flowers and that’s their excuse to being intimate and it’s like that’s not enough!”. No matter how big the bunch is, if it doesn’t feel like something it doesn’t feel like something.

MF: You worked with Nile Rodgers on ‘Roses’. What was that like?

AL: We wrote that one with Fred Ball and Kes (Kross) and Daniel (Wilson). We were finishing it and the vocals turned out nice, nice melody, cool concept but it was missing something. I started talking to the producer and was like “How about a bit of a groove?” and he was like “What about like a Nile Rodgers guitar?” and I was like “You know I know him?”. So I hit him up and he was down to do it.

I’ve worked with him before so it was nice to have another collaboration. I first met him when I was working on my second album Trespassing and he did a guitar part on a song called ‘Shady’. Then I performed with him a couple of times with Chic and sang a Bowie song that he wrote. Then we wrote a song with Avicii together, so we’ve done a couple of collaborations.

MF: Sometimes these nostalgic records can sound a little dated but the production on ‘Velvet’ is really fresh. How did you achieve that balance of old and new?

AL: Yeah, like I said there is a lot of influence from the past but a lot of the influence is from contemporaries that also lean into classic grooves. What they tend to do so well is freshen it up somehow. Fuse it with modern ideas. I was lucky enough to work with these producers who are all brilliant. Tommy English is one, for example, who did ‘Superpower’ and ‘Loverboy’. He’s just so good. He’s worked with all of these amazing indie acts that might not be giant pop stars but have amazing music.

I guess that’s the heart of it and the direction that I went. I wanted to go less top 40 and just more what I thought was cool. It’s not about winning anymore. It’s just about creating cool shit (laughs) because then it’s just a personal win. I think I had to redefine what success meant to me a couple of years ago. I started realising that if I put all of my worth in a system that’s put in place to make money, how am I going to find personal satisfaction in that? It’s like a losing battle. So when I had to rethink it, that was the conclusion I came to.

Find what’s a personal win and what I love and with this album, I just want to get on stage and sing it and put on a show. Create a world for people to get lost in for a while.

MF: This album is going to sound great live too.

AL: That’s what I love about it. More than any other album that I’ve done, you can hear instruments in every single song. It’s all played by musicians. I have an amazing band that I’ve put together that I’m going to do shows with. I’m really excited.

MF: Has your time touring with Queen inspired the sound on ‘Velvet’ at all?

AL: I don’t know how conscious I was of it but at some point I realised “Oh, that’s cool”. The two worlds are a little closer together than I ever have been sonically. It’s nice not to feel like I have two different personas or something. Because I’m not. This one feels like a very authentic extension of who I am as an artist. It’s very much closer to the world of Queen now.

MF: You said you grew up listening to a lot of this music, so do you think this transition was almost inevitable? 

AL: Yeah, that’s the thing. I think someone said “You’ve never done anything this soulful before” and I was like “Yeah, you’re right.” It’s funny because I have been listening and singing along to so much soul music my whole life. To finally lean into it makes so much sense.

MF: When you released the ‘VELVET: Side A’ EP last year. What was the strategy behind that? 

AL: I think the rules are out the window now. You can write your own playbook now with the way music is shared and streamed. We put out ‘Feel Something’ and then I put out ‘New Eyes’ and then ‘Coming In Hot’ and then we had this idea to put out part of the album early. Let’s extend the whole process of it. It’s so easy for an artist to put out a single and then maybe one more and then the album. And then it’s all over. This was a way to extend it, keep people interested and keep my fans excited and have something to look forward to. It has been a while without new music so I wanted to make this a new era. It also gives people a chance to go, “Ok, I see what he’s doing.” You’re not asking too much of somebody to rethink what they think of you. You’re easing them into it a little bit. It’s kind of like when you go to a really nice restaurant, like fine dining. They give you little bits at a time and it keeps you interested and satisfied. They don’t give you everything on a plate at once. There’s no art to that.

MF: Had you already finished the whole record by the time the EP was released? 

AL: It wasn’t completely finished by the time Side A came out. I had all of the songs written except I think ‘Velvet’ was the last song to be added.

MF: Wow, that must’ve been a defining moment then. How did that song come about? 

AL: I’m excited for people to hear ‘Velvet’ because it’s a jam. We’ve filmed a video for it. It’ll come out right around the same time as the album. It’s a natural progression after the ‘Superpower’ video which was playful and camp and this one is even more camp. I said I want to do something really fun and I want to do something that’s just really gay (laughs). I wanted it to be really flamboyant and unapologetically so and fun and silly and fashion. It’s all that. There’s some man candy too (laughs).

MF: Ooh! Ok, now I’m listening. But before we get side-tracked, how was the Fire Fight Australia gig?

AL: The energy from the crowd was just amazing. I love that we were there on a bill of amazing local artists and international artists. The audience was different from our normal audience which was exciting. I was offstage watching 5 Seconds of Summer right before I went on and they were great. I really like them. I just got all pumped up and I went backstage and warmed up a bit and had a cocktail and we went out and did our thing.

The audience was so energised. I know Brian and Roger felt the same way. We got off the stage and we were all like “WOW!”.

MF: You recreated the iconic 1985 Live Aid set for Fire Fight. What was the significance of that set choice and how did it feel performing it? 

AL: It was not my idea, I can’t take credit for that (laughs). But we were doing a gig around New Year’s Eve and we’re thinking “What songs should we do?” and got that idea. We immediately thought that was a cool idea and something different, we hadn’t done that before. They’re all songs that we play every night anyway so it made sense. Just putting it in that order, it had some full circle resonance to it.

That moment was made so iconic in the film (Bohemian Rhapsody). To be fair, we were selling out tours before the film but the film has taken it to the next level for this tour. We’ve changed our demographic. We have kids in the audience and full families there. It’s so cool.

MF: That’s so cool that the legacy lives on. Is it still surreal to be carrying that torch?

AL: I am so honoured to be singing with the band. I’m a huge Freddie Mercury fan. The treat for me is that it’s great music for a singer to sing and it’s a big honour. The other thing that’s always been very special to me is that Freddie is this queer icon. He might not have been out because it was a time where it was so taboo that it would’ve been difficult. But now, learning about him in the past 8 years, I feel like he’s somebody I would’ve gotten along with and if he was still with us, he’s someone I would’ve continued to look up to. So to be able to carry the torch for him is really special.

MF: You launched the Feel Something Foundation at the end of last year. How did that start and what you’re trying to achieve with the organisation? 

AL: I’m so excited. We’re just getting all of the paperwork sorted with the government because that takes a minute with all of the non-profit stuff. It’s amazing, I’ve done charity work with different organisations for years and raised funds with my fans. It was just time to take it to the next level and make one of my own. I’ll continue to collaborate but there are specific issues that I’ve learned about over the years and the ‘Feel Something Foundation’ targets queer issues. Particularly the youth issues of homelessness, mental health and suicide prevention.

These things are like when you’re young, you might get kicked out of your house because your family rejects you for it, these things often result in people not having money or a place to live or a strong and healthy emotional state to rely on. Those two issues are two I really want to tackle.

On a more positive note and not crisis-oriented, I also want to have an initiative about arts education. So if a young person is struggling to make ends meet or support themselves, chances are they may have a hard time getting into a university program. For creative people especially, I think that collaboration and community is so important. I want to create some opportunities where we can do lectures or workshops or intensives for queer creatives. I’m really excited about it.

‘Velvet’ is out this Friday, March 20.

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