Photography by Jack Waterlot | Styling by Alison Brooks | Groomer: Abreea Saunders
For Adam Lambert, Hollywood isn’t just a metaphor for success or disillusionment. It’s a real place — his city for the last 15 years. It was his home before he ran away with all the accolades (if not the title) on American Idol, before he debuted an album at the top of the Billboard charts, before guest starring on Glee, and before fronting a stadium-rock band that ranks among the biggest of all time.
When it came time to write and record his new album, The Original High, he knew where his material would come from.
“I wanted the album to be a real snapshot of my life, my real life, my authentic life in L.A. over the past 15 years,” says Lambert. “I wanted it to sound like music I listen to when I go out or when I’m at the fucking gym or in Runyon Canyon or in my car.” He pauses. “It’s a bit of a melancholy album, you know? It’s talking about the ups and downs of life in Hollywood.”
If Lambert had been singing specifically about his time in the music industry, the ups would certainly include the debut of his sophomore album, Trespassing, at the number 1 spot on the Billboard 200 — a historic first for a gay artist; or being handpicked by Brian May and Roger Taylor to be heir apparent to Freddie Mercury as Queen’s frontman in a globe-trotting tour. The downs might include disappointingly little radio play for Trespassing’s singles, despite that auspicious launch. Or it might include the reaction from his then-label, RCA Records.
During the downtime following the release of Trespassing, Lambert was going out, going to dinners, and hanging out with friends. And his conversations with them had a new and different purpose. He began asking friends heavy stuff: What is it that you want? Why are you in this city? What are you looking for?
He says, “Most of the people that I asked weren’t able to answer it. ‘How the fuck are we supposed to know? I don’t know what I want.’ And I understood that. I was like, Exactly. What is it that we’re chasing? What is the driving force here? Is it happiness? Is it success? Is it sex? Is it love? Is it validation?”
Lambert went to RCA, armed with some new insights from those conversations and the experience of two albums, and said, “Let’s try something different.” But RCA had something different in mind as well: a 1980s cover album. Lambert thought about the proposal for a few weeks, and researched New Wave. “It didn’t feel like the right thing. So I said, ‘I don’t really want to do that,’ and they said, ‘Well, that’s what we want to do.’ And I said, ‘OK, I’m going to go.’ ”
Now a free agent for the first time, Lambert approached two of his former collaborators, the Swedish super-producers Max Martin and Shellback, who variously co-wrote and co-produced Britney Spears’s “…Baby One More Time,” Katy Perry’s “Roar,” Maroon 5’s “Moves Like Jagger,” and Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.” He brought a demo of a new song titled “The Original High,” about chasing the rush of first times.
“Shell got really excited,” says Lambert. “He immediately heard how he could turn it into an even stronger song.” Martin and Shellback talked with Lambert about where life had been taking him, and he says they told him, “What if we executive produce the whole thing, the whole album?”
“I breathed a sigh of relief because, at that point, I wasn’t sure what the fuck was happening next,” Lambert says. “These two guys are people I respect so much and I also really enjoy them as people. They answered my prayers.”
Lambert spent eight weeks in Stockholm, working on new songs and meeting Martin and Shellback’s collective of musicians, known as Wolf Cousins. “Habits” singer Tove Lo was a part of that group, and together they wrote and recorded the song “Rumors” in Stockholm. She says collaborating was “a lot of fun, and also easy because he can sing the shit out of anything! We kind of want to share similar emotions in our music, so we understand each other lyrically.”
Lambert calls Shellbeck the “mad scientist” of the studio. “He understands how to worm into people’s brains,” Lambert told a Stockholm audience in June. “He came up with this melody,” says Lambert, “and Tove Lo and I sat down and were like, ‘How do we make a story out of these cool sounds?’ ”
The album’s first single came from those earlier, ambivalent conversations about Los Angeles. “ ‘Ghost Town’ is kind of setting the scene,” Lambert says. “You moved to the big city, you have these ideas, you have these ambitions, and then what happens when you get to a fork in the road, or you hit a wall, and you’re like, Oh, it’s not what I thought it was going to be, or I’m not getting what I thought I wanted, and everything I thought I knew is being called into question? How does that make you feel?” He quotes his lyrics: “ ‘My heart is a ghost town.’ I feel empty. I feel unfulfilled.”
So the song wasn’t primarily about a breakup? “It rolls into that,” he says, laughing. “You can spend a lot of your energy in a place like Hollywood chasing ass.”
“Evil in the Night” — despite high-energy steel guitar, bombastic lyrics, and just a touch of Jamiroquai-esque funk — feels like a refinement of a signature Lambert sound.
“I chilled out a little bit. I don’t know if it’s just being in my 30s,” he says. “When you’re younger and you’ve got a skill, you tend to show off more — you feel like you have more to prove. Over the last few years, I’ve gotten into a place where I feel a little more confident in what I do, and I don’t feel I need to prove myself as far as ‘look at all the tricks I can do.’ Now music for me is more about wanting to prove that I can feel something.”
With a new album in full swing, Lambert had to publicly announce his parting of the ways with RCA in July 2013, simultaneously announcing that he’d signed on to appear on Glee’s fifth season. Warner Bros. contacted Lambert the next day.
“It was scary leaving the label,” says Lambert, but WB’s arrival made him feel confident. “It made me feel better about all of this, made me feel like there was a light at the end of the tunnel. That paired with Max and Shellback’s interest in doing the whole album — it was just like, This is all going to work. I know it’s going to work.”
Lambert grew up in San Diego, joining a children’s theater company at age 10. At 12, he floored the audience with a powerful operatic solo in Fiddler on the Roof.
After moving to Los Angeles, he worked in theater, including Ten Commandments: The Musical with Val Kilmer, and the first national touring company and L.A. production of Wicked. Though he’d been out since age 18, his newfound fame on the eighth season of American Idol brought the kind of scrutiny at age 27 for which an ensemble performer and Fiyero understudy couldn’t have prepared himself. His skillful reworking of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” and Tears for Fears’ “Mad World,” accompanying his darkly glamorous stage attire and affect (in contrast with his ultimately forgettable competition), made him an Idol audience favorite.
But before the season ended, Lambert appeared on the cover of Entertainment Weekly; the accompanying article speculated on his sexual orientation in light of his winking onstage sensibility and outré fashion. Pictures surfaced of him making out with a man (whom he later revealed was an ex-boyfriend) on a Burning Man social media site, Tribe.net. Lambert neither confirmed nor denied anything, to the frustration of many. Shortly after Idol wrapped in May 2009, and Lambert was awarded the runner-up spot, he came out in a cover story in Rolling Stone, but continued to field complaints for appearing in a Details photo shoot in which he suggestively grabbed a naked woman, and for subsequent tightly orchestrated media appearances. He essentially wasn’t being gay enough.
There’s no way to know exactly how much being out has contributed to or detracted from Lambert’s career, but it would be easy to understand why he may have felt he’d rather unfairly gone through the ringer. But he says he feels no envy for those musicians who’ve come out since he did, and may be having an easier go of it. Lambert praised gay singer Sam Smith to Attitude recently, saying, “I’m so happy for him, and I’m so happy his sexuality wasn’t a big thorn in his side.”
“It was just the way things went down,” Lambert says. “At that time, how many mainstream music artists did we have that were out? Elton John and George Michael — and his whole coming out was tabloid fun. There hadn’t been a blueprint to follow. That was the one thing I wished I’d had: a little more guidance. There were definitely moments of frustration and pressure, but there’s been a lot of goodwill as well, a lot of support from fans and media people, and it’s balanced out. I don’t have any sort of bitterness about it.”
Lambert has also forged a connection with Freddie Mercury, a queer artist of the past of whom he was a fan, and with whom he shares more than an octave-defying range. In 2009, May and Taylor performed Queen’s “We Are the Champions” live on the season finale of Idol with winner Kris Allen and runner-up Lambert in a vocal duet. Impressed with Lambert, they invited him to serve as their frontman at the 2011 MTV Europe Music Awards, on a brief European tour the next year, and on a world tour in 2014 and 2015.
“I’ve heard nothing but incredible stories about him,” Lambert says of Mercury. May and Taylor both told him that they’d have gotten on well, that he shared Mercury’s sense of humor. “From what I gathered, he seemed like a really sweet guy, actually — and a bit shy socially. I would have loved to meet him.” Lambert and his Queen bandmates have talked a lot about Mercury, including how out he was. “Technically, he wasn’t really closeted. I mean, he did interviews early on where they were like, ‘Are you gay?’ and he was like, ‘Oh, yeah, gay as a daffodil, darling,’” Lambert says and laughs. “But nobody really believed it because they didn’t want to. It was so taboo at that time that people didn’t actually think he would have been.”
In the promotion of his new album, fans have noticed Lambert’s new look, a touch easier on the velvet and mascara. “I just generally grew out of that old look and enjoyed new ones — it’s as simple as that,” he says. “There’s also a point where I was working really hard to achieve a look that I was really into, and it was really fun and I wanted to stand out and be crazy and be weird and make a statement with the stuff I was wearing. I look back on some of those red carpet looks, and I’m like, What were you thinking?”
“It’s like growing pains, but I was just trying to express myself. Looking back on it now, I can see that I was probably hiding behind it a little bit, sort of like the kid that goes to high school dressed like a goth because they’re actually really sensitive and they don’t want to interact with people and they’re a little scared.”
Though the studio work is meticulously planned, some other parts of Lambert’s life aren’t, and that’s OK. “Everybody thinks everything is so premeditated and thought-out,” he says. Some things are “just impulse…because I felt like it.”
But he says, “Six years is a while, and now I’m in a new space and time in my life, and I’m hoping that my music and my image all match where I’m at.