American Idol’s most interesting graduate has a new album in the works, a new relationship, and a new attitude toward the media that prompted him to sing “Whataya Want From Me”
“I got a smoothie and I pumped gas!”
Adam Lambert’s mornings aren’t so unlike those of many Los Angeles residents on their way to work.
“These are my days,” he says at Conway Recording Studios in Hollywood, teasing the last ounce of his smoothie with a straw. “I woke up, I got on my treadmill at my house this morning and ran for 20 minutes and got ready. I love this juice place. This is called the singer’s remedy, and it’s lemon and cayenne. It clears your throat and gets your cords ready. And it’s something I actually do. And I need gas to drive. It’s a normal day.”
Normal to a point. Then there’s the whole magazine interview, photo shoot, and a day working in the studio. Lambert is recording his follow-up album to his 2009 debut, For Your Entertainment, and has been writing and recording for the last five months. And a lot has changed since the most controversial figure to come out of American Idol first took to the national stage.
At age 12 he wowed the audience of his San Diego children’s theater company with a powerful operatic solo in Fiddler on the Roof, an experience that launched a budding theater career. Fifteen years later his unexpected reboots of some beloved songs (Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” Tears for Fears’s “Mad World”), paired with a more decidedly glam aesthetic than that of his largely all-American competitors, made him the most interesting thing to watch on American Idol’s eighth season, where he finished as first runner-up.
Lambert has long been comfortable in front of an audience. It was the other trappings of fame that threw him — and the media — for a loop.
Before the show had even finished filming he appeared on the cover of Entertainment Weekly in an article speculating about whether he was gay and why he wouldn’t say so — all without having given an interview. (Idol contestants are prohibited from giving individual interviews while in competition.)
He came out in Rolling Stone and appeared in a provocative photo spread in Details magazine suggestively grabbing a naked woman. When he did agree to appear in a gay publication, in Out magazine (owned by Here Media, the parent company of The Advocate), his management issued so many conditions for the photo (“must accompany a straight woman”) and interview (“not too gay”) that Aaron Hicklin detailed the conditions in his editor’s letter. Lambert responded via Twitter, suggesting that others not force their own agenda on him, and then shocked media watchers on his first post-Idol TV performance by kissing his male keyboard player at the American Music Awards.
“I kind of asked for it in a way,” he says of the fuss surrounding the kiss, which prompted CBS to censor a later broadcast of the performance and led ABC to cancel a morning show appearance. “Not everything is so premeditated as people think it is. There are things that just happen, there are things you just do. It was an impulse.”
Lambert admits it was “a bit reactionary on my part. I think I was a little overwhelmed with everything. It was me reacting a little bit to that ‘you’re not gay enough’ thing. At that moment for whatever reason I was like, Well, is this gay enough? It was me being a little bit pissed off!”
And that Details photo shoot? “Taking a picture with a girl — I thought it was just sexy. Most of my fans are female, and it was kind of a fantasy for them, and why not? There’s no question in their minds” that he’s gay. “No question in my mind, not an ounce.”
A generally more speculative matter is the content and release date of his new album, which is untitled and tentatively scheduled for a spring 2012 release. Lambert describes a more personal album, driven by vocal singer-songwriter tracks, electrofunk, and synth-pop in a “Nine Inch Nails meets George Michael” sort of way. “I know that’s a weird mash-up, but that’s what it feels like,” he says.
“No matter what the genre is, it’s all very personal, even on upbeat, fun tracks. The last album was a little bit more of a fantasy escape…even my image for that last album felt very theatrical and kind of over-the-top and intentionally tacky. I get a kick out of making artistic statements that are kind of ridiculous.”
The pop sensation thinks the last album cover was more campy than provocative. “But in America, camp is not something that is mainstream. It’s not something that is always grasped. You kind of have to hit people over the head with things, especially in pop music.”
He’s going slow with the sophomore release. “It takes time to get it right,” he says. “I don’t know how other artists do it, but for this project I’m adopting the mentality of just keep writing and keep recording as much as possible, and then when we know that we’re ready to decide which tracks are going to be on the album, we’ll look at everything and narrow it down.”
There’s a different pressure with a second album, especially with the helpful hype of the TV juggernaut a full two years behind him. “But people recognize me, people know who I am, so hopefully that’ll help. I don’t know. It’s hard.”
Of the new album’s personal nature, he says, “I think it’s going to let people underneath my facade a little bit — a self-created and totally admitted facade. I’m trying to convey to my audience that you really can’t judge a book by its cover, and there’s more to the universe than you can see with your eyes. It’s like existential pop.”
Lambert is of two minds when it comes to gay visibility and his place as a gay cultural figure. He’s become increasingly involved with gay rights organizations, yet he asks, “How many ways can I spell G-A-Y? Everybody knows I’m gay. And the thing that’s hard is, where’s there balance for me? I’m a musician and I’m writing music. I’m also becoming more involved sociopolitically, I’m getting involved with the Trevor Project and Equality California — these are things that I really do care about. But I do want to maintain a balance. What am I going to be known for in 15 years? I want to be known for my music, that’s my art. That’s what I’m contributing actively. I think visibility is a great tool, and that’s one other reason that I’ve been so verbal about it, but the irony is that here we are, talking about it.”
“It’s been the weirdest battle with identifying as a gay man in mainstream culture,” he says. “I think The Advocate is an exception — I think a respected gay publication treats it differently — but in regular journalism they make such a big deal out of homosexuality! I’m starting to grow really fond of the post-gay concept.”
Before Idol, Lambert’s life, he says, “wasn’t defined by my sexuality,” but now “all of a sudden it’s all about being gay. In some respects a lot of good can come from that. When I was a kid I didn’t have that many people to look up to. And if I’d had people in the public eye who were really up-front about it, it probably would have helped me. I feel like this is a conversation [Advocate] readers will understand where I’m coming from, because it’s tricky — I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing sometimes. Seriously. No one teaches you how to be a gay celebrity.”
Lambert says he’s become increasingly at ease in the media spotlight. “I’m more comfortable with myself in the public eye. That’s an adjustment.… There’s also a flip that comes from being in a relationship; it changes your perspective and your frame of mind and what you want. I’m lucky enough right now to be in a relationship.”
Though he’s tight-lipped about the nature of his relationship with boyfriend Sauli Koskinen, the 2007 winner of Finland’s Big Brother, he will say they met in a Helsinki bar last year after one of Lambert’s shows. Without knowing he was a TV personality, Lambert approached Koskinen to say hello, and they’ve been dating since last November.
“You know, honestly, when you start talking so much about your relationship, it opens the door too much. I’ve only been in one major long-term relationship prior to this, and I’m really, really happy. It’s done a lot for me, and it’s grounded me, and it has inspired me as a writer as a performer,” he says. “I just think everybody wants that connection, and I’m really happy to have found it.”
Lambert’s more forthcoming about his gay fans: “From what I can tell, there’s more of a gay presence internationally than domestically, which I found interesting. I feel like the [gay fans] that I meet are the ones that kind of feel weird.… I pick up this kind of energy among young people that it might not be the coolest thing to say you like Adam Lambert’s music. People don’t think that I’m cool. So I love that I have the kids who are like ballsy enough to be like, ‘Fuck it, I like Adam’s music.’ I mean, I am kind of a nerd. I feel like there’s a collective eye-roll when it comes to me, in the media and just in general consciousness — with the exception of my amazing Glamberts, my hard-core fans who are the opposite.”
But he’s taking it all with a grain of salt.
“It really is a dream job, and it’s really cool. I do stop and keep it all in perspective. This is pop music, and it’s not fucking brain surgery. I mean, some of it’s serious…but some of it’s just really fun dance music. And I’m wearing eight pounds of makeup because I fucking want to. Why not?”