By Matthew Breen (@matbreen)
In the complete interview, Adam Lambert describes his fashion influences, 1970s glam inspirations, his song “Outlaws of Love,” and what it’s like to be in the media spotlight.
The Advocate: When did you first know that you could sing?
Adam Lambert: I had been doing children’s theater for a while, at a theater company in San Diego and we were doing a production of Fiddler on the Roof. There’s this part the Russian soldier who sings this big powerful operatic solo in the middle of the song “L’Chaim” and I’d been cast in that role, and I just opened my mouth. You have to hold this one kind of high powerful note for a long time, for dramatic effect, and I just remember this director was like, “Wow,”and stopped me had me do it again, used it as instruction for the other kids. When I finally did it in front of an audience I heard a few gasps. It was children’s theater so the level of expectation was kind of low. So that was the first time I went wow, maybe this is something I’m better at than the other kids. I’m good at something.
Performing was a natural impulse as a child?
Yeah, I was pretty precocious. My mom thought at one point I had ADD, and took me to the doctor and the doctor was like, “no he’s just precocious, he’s just got a lot of questions and has a lot of horsepower.” I always had a pretty vivid imagination, playing dress up and make-believe, and when I had my toys I had a story.
You also talk about knowing that you were different. How did that manifest itself?
I just knew there was something kind of taboo, that felt wrong but so right, about some of the other guys — like looking at the other boys. It was when I started becoming a sexual human. When puberty started setting in, I was like, that does something for me that the girls don’t quite do it the same way. It’s still a struggle at that point because obviously that doesn’t feel “normal” so I was still trying to see if it would change, that I just hadn’t met the right girl.
Your mom asked you if you wanted a boyfriend. But before that, when did you understand that for yourself?
In high school. I didn’t really date in high school. I didn’t have any girlfriends. My friends were mostly girls. I pretty much knew at that point. I was like any boy, gay or straight, you know, like jerking off looking at porn on the computer — you know, really slow Internet connections at the time, like in 1997. You could see like a blurry one frame per minute. At that point I knew, but even though I was in southern California, it was a pretty conservative upper middle class area. I don’t think any of the other students were gay — not out anyway. It’s hard. I was really secretive and worried about my sexuality, and I definitely didn’t do anything to indicate that, yes, I was definitely gay. But I also didn’t do all that much to try to convince the other way, I was kind of in the middle. I was really involved in theater and choir and all those performing arts things. In a high school of kids that were all dressing in Quick Silver and surf clothes, I was going to Banana Republic. And I found it really necessary to have a messenger bag. I definitely went against the grain early, so not much has changed — except I would never shop at Banana Republic ever again. You couldn’t catch me dead in a pair of chinos.
Even though I was uncomfortable dubbing myself gay I wanted to express my individuality. A love for fashion and costume and the way I presented myself visually was always very important to me. But I was kind of bougie, I want nice things, I want nice clothing that looks classy and professional — that was back then.
Your aesthetic now is obviously very different. You talked making a change in your style in Germany.
That was the most dramatic turning point. Slowly but surely moving out of San Diego, moving to Los Angeles, living here, just discovering myself, meeting new people, turning 21, getting to go out, go to bars, just you know, expression, it’s just something that sort of develops.
Being out of the country helps, too.
There was a whole other world of options, to dive into a new community, a new pool. There was a lot of hardcore clubs and ravey type places, and different music. It was really exciting.
Who do you look to for style inspirations?
Even back then and to this day I get a kick out of looking at runway show stills and videos. I love fashion, for the longest time it wasn’t something that I could afford. I mean high fashion is really expensive! Growing up here in L.A., coming into my own here, the best thing I could do was going to Wasteland on Melrose Ave. and buying something from six seasons ago and try to make it work. Or cut something with a pair of scissors. I was pretty adventurous with my homemade alterations — even though I can’t sew to save my life. And what’s funny is, I look back and most of the stuff I tried to pull off was rather tacky and horrible, but fuck it! I also feel that’s part of the expression in fashion. At some point it just kind of has to be for you, and not for everybody else. So if I feel great in the weird asymmetrical blousy cotton shirt [gestures to his shirt] then I’m going to wear it.
That’s part of the fun of it, trying something new. One of the things I hear a lot, especially when making small talk with somebody and I’m wearing something kind of eccentric, is, “Oh, I could never pull that off.” It’s one of my pet peeves, that phrase, because the only thing you need to pull it off is the desire to do so. That’s what separates people who are taking fashion risks from those that aren’t, is that they just choose to do it. It’s just a choice.
It seems reasonable to me that a designer or label should approach you and ask you to put your name on something.
That’d be really cool. I’ve had some discussions. It’s not something that I’m pursuing yet, but I totally would, when the time is right. The focus right now is — for the past five months I’ve been writing and recording at least a couple days a week, so that’s my focus. And I’m not the best multi-tasker in the world. When I get involved in a project I put all my eggs in that basket. It’s a blessing and a curse. It can be really great because I have a lot of energy to put into it but I don’t always juggle other things as well as I could.
Today is “A Day in Gay America.”
I got a smoothie and I pumped gas!
What are your days like now?
What I did this morning before coming here [to the recording studio] is truly a normal day for me. When we got the schedule they were like, “We need you at the studio on Friday and we’re doing this [photo shoot] on Friday,” so it just makes sense. These are my days. 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 because this is called “The Singer’s Remedy” and it’s like lemon and cayenne. It clears your throat and gets your chords ready. And it’s something I actually do. And I need gas to drive, it’s a normal day.
How much time are you spending in the recording studio?
It’s a tedious process, it’s really time consuming. It takes time to get it right. I don’t know how other artist do it, but for this project I’m kind of 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, and when I say we, it’s myself, my A&R for my label, and my manager.
You don’t know what will be on the album now? What are you recording now?
You never know. I have no idea what’s going to be on there and what’s not.
How would you characterize the music that’s driving you most right now?
There are three lanes I’ve been chasing down, depending on who the producer or the writer is that I’m working with, there are about three different kind of vibes. I’ve been experimenting with a lot more funk this time —
With Sam Sparro?
Yeah, I did a song with him, and we’re going to do some more work next week. He’s great. I love Sam. He and I wrote a song on my last album, as well. It was on the international release, called “Voodoo.” He is so easy to work with and we laugh a lot because we have a similar sense of humor, and we write really well together. It’s a really balanced equation. We throw the ball back and forth. He’s got amazing ideas, amazing melodies, great style vocally and conceptually, and I think we kind of share a similar head space.
So funk is one track…
I guess you could call it electrofunk, and then there’s some darker synth pop — a little bit Depeche Mode, a little bit ’90s industrial. Nine Inch Nails meets George Michael. I know that’s a weird mashup but that’s what it feels like. Then there’s some more singer-songwriter emotional, vocally driven. No matter what the genre is that we’re working on, it’s all very person. Even on upbeat fun tracks it’s all very real. The last album was a little bit more of a fantasy escape with the exception of maybe “Whattya Want From Me?” and a couple of other songs, but even my image for that last album felt very theatrical, and kind of over the top and intentionally tacky. There was a choice there with the album cover — I get a kick out of making artistic statements that are kind of ridiculous, you know? There’s something like overtly weird about it, or tongue in cheek or campy. I think it 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 pop music, so there were some challenges with that.
That last album cover reminded me of a Jobriath album cover.
That’s definitely a reference — ’70s glam. Also the ’80s hair metal bands with their high glam. There’s something really fun about that because it’s so ridiculous. But I think it was also really unexpected for someone coming off of Idol because of what the audience is used to seeing from that show, which is a bit more boy next-door, girl next-door, wholesome, normal. And I’m definitely not normal. In fact sometimes I try too hard not to be normal. I’ve always tried to do the opposite — I don’t even know why I do it. I think contrarian is a good word for it. I like to do the other thing, just to do it.
Are you worried about sophomore slump?
There’s a different pressure. There are more expectations in certain respects, but there’s less in certain respects. I think an artist breaking into the scene without American Idol, without a platform like that, it’s a different set of circumstance. But for me I [had] all the hype of a TV show, and now that’s two years in the past, so now we have to create hype, attention, and focus on the music, so we have to re-splash. But people recognize me, people know who I am, so hopefully that’ll help. I don’t know. It’s hard. Any sort of creation of art is hard to present to people if they have a very strong idea of what you are or were. This album is more personal, and I think it’s going to let people underneath my façade a little bit. It was a self-created and totally admitted façade. There was something very theatrical about the last album, it was glam, it was intentional. And I think that’s pretty popular in pop music right now, a cartoon sensibility, like a heightened kind of gimmick, and that was the gimmick I wanted to run with. But this one is a lot more current, it feels a lot more now, and lot more personal. I think the thing I’m trying to convey to my audience is 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. Without being pretentious or preachy, there’s a lot of themes in the album that are kind of spiritual in a way. It’s like existential pop. There’s some things that I’m writing about and exploring that are a bit deeper than where I went on the last album.
I knew I was doing this interview with The Advocate today, and the VH1 thing [“Behind the Music”] just came out, and it’s so funny because it’s been the weirdest battle with identifying as a gay man in mainstream culture. Because there’s not a lot of us, especially in the music industry. After I was given the opportunity to open up and do interviews after Idol, I was like yeah, yeah yeah. I didn’t want to do that. I came out, but this isn’t what I wanted to do.
I think The Advocate is an exception. I think a respected gay publication treats it differently, but regular journalism they make such a big deal out of homosexuality! It’s gotten to the point where I feel like fans and gay people know that I’m gay and I feel like we’ve beaten it over the head. It’s nothing I’m ashamed of. I’m totally proud of it and open about it but I do feel like there’s something really, it’s creating like a vicious cycle. Because of the sensationalism that the media lends to sexuality I feel like it’s holding us back from moving past it. I’m starting to grow really fond of the post-gay concept. Because I haven’t really thought about being gay since I was coming out of the closet. It just was after the fact. In my whole 20s in L.A. before I was a celebrity, I went to gay clubs and I met guys, but I also had a life outside of that. My life wasn’t defined by my sexuality, and becoming a celebrity it’s kind of gone backwards, and all of a sudden it’s all about being gay. And it’s not for me, that’s not how I feel, but that’s how I feel the media wants to spin me. To almost use me as a catalyst. In some respects a lot of good can come from that. Kids coming up — 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 upfront about it, it probably would have helped me.
Is the fact that you don’t think about being gay very much a function of living in a big city and being surrounded by a culture where you’re less likely to be beat up or spit on? Post-gay is a nice idea.
Describe the feeling of the scrutiny for the first time when you are able to do interviews.
I’m getting used to it now, but when it all started it was really overwhelming. I was being asked questions that I hadn’t really thought about in 10 years, since coming out. It’s tricky. It brought a lot of things to light that hadn’t really crossed my consciousness since I was struggling with it.
After Idol and your first album was coming out, you’ve variously said, and I’m paraphrasing, “I want to be an artist, not a gay artist. I want to be a performer, not a politician.” But it seems you’ve changed your approach. You are doing activism now.
Yeah I have gotten further into that. I’m more comfortable with it. I’m more comfortable with myself in the public eye. That’s an adjustment. It was such a quick experience. Being on Idol you’re catapulted so fast. It took me a minute to figure out what I wanted to contribute, how I wanted to contribute. I’m far from perfect, I fuck up, I make missteps, I wear the wrong thing, I say the wrong thing, I sing the wrong thing. I hope I’m also singing, saying, and wearing the right thing.
I think you can see how some in the gay media were confused by you. You said, “It’s not about wearing a t-shirt that says ‘gay,’” but then kissing your guitarist at the VMAs.
I kind of asked for it in a way. That’s the other thing about being a celebrity and being an artist. Not everything is so premeditated as people think it is. There are things that just happen, there are things you just do.
You mean the kiss?
Yeah, it just happened. It was an impulse. Because we’re in L.A. there’s such a film industry, and everything is so scripted in film. Songwriting is scripted, but live performance is something else. I love being spontaneous — there are spontaneous notes I hit when I sing a song from this time to that time, I don’t stand in the same place, I don’t have moves — unless it’s a choreographed routine. Things do have a life of their own —that’s where the magic is. But what you say is true, there was a certain level of — I think it was a bit reactionary on my part. I think I was a little overwhelmed at that point with everything, and I’d faced some criticism from a gay publication over another choice that I’d made, which was a post-gay decision — me taking a picture with a girl I thought it was just sexy.
Yeah, I didn’t think it was intended at all to make me straight. I thought it was kind of funny. I thought it was like two girls kiss at a bar for a guy to kind of toy with him, that’s what it felt like to me. It was to fuck with people a little but, like, “Oh weird, I didn’t expect to see him there.” I’ve made out with girls, I may have done more than that too, but so what? I’ve heard people criticize that, “Oh, he’s just trying to seem bi.” No I’m just being, I’m not trying to seem anything, that’s just the truth. It’s not as premeditated as it seems, I don’t know how to do that.
Is this all something you have to think about in a different way than before?
If anything the photo shoot for Details was to toy with a double standard, and to just kind of mess with stereotypes and with people’s perceptions of what is and isn’t. And it was a fantasy. Most of my fans are female, and it was kind of a fantasy for them, and why not for a minute?
Because there’s no question—?
There’s no question in their minds — no question in my mind, not an ounce. And I do believe in a gray area of sexuality. I don’t think it should be so black and white.
But you’re subjected to a different level of scrutiny, when people see a narrow sliver of your life and project more about you based on that. When people see certain things, do they expect that you’re sending a message, conveying a deeper meaning about something in your life?
That performance was really spur of the moment, when I look back with hindsight it was kind of me reacting a little bit to that, like you know, 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!
I come from a theater, which on one hand is very controlled, but on the other hand, in my 20s I would do performances at clubs and Burning Man, and the Zodiac Show, and a lot of what I did was very performance art, free spirited, ad-libbed, spontaneous expression, and that’s the part of the art form I’m in love with. I don’t like being told what to do or how to do it, I don’t like every step being choreographed. I like being spontaneous.
You’ve talked about having an epiphany at Burning Man about the direction of your career. You were in Wicked, but not feeling satisfied.
I just wasn’t satisfied, and I didn’t know what I was looking for. And at Burning Man, it just sort of clicked all of a sudden. I realized I was kind of in my own way, I wasn’t really going for it. Somewhere in my head I thought I wanted something and I wasn’t making it happen. And I think that was the kind of flip, it’s like, you have control over your destiny, you have to be proactive to achieve your goals and dreams, and that was the thing I wasn’t doing. I was being lazy about it.
I wanted to make music and do my own show, and do my own expression my own art, where I could be at the helm of it, making decisions. I’ve been in professional theater where you’re directed, and I wanted to direct myself. I wanted to write my own music. I’d started to write stuff on my own, and I had done stuff with a couple of producers. The other thing I realized was, if I could just get with some of these major writers and producers that make things sound amazing, we could collaborate and make amazing songs. So I started thinking, how the fuck am I supposed to get myself in front of some of these people, because it’s a hard business to break into. And the big pop mainstream music industry is very heterosexual. A lot of the pop girls that you see coming up, they use their feminine wiles to persuade producers to work with them. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, that’s part of their charm. But a lot of the music industry is driven like that. If it’s male artist, they make the feel the producer feel cool, because they’re cool. It’s kind of high school.
The fame wasn’t part of the desire. Another motivating factor was that I had nothing saved in the bank. I wasn’t struggling, I had a theater job, I was able to pay the rent and live pretty comfortably, go out to eat, go out to a bar, see a movie, go buy an outfit. But I had no savings. I was in a studio apartment and getting older, talking to my parents about taxes and life. So I started thinking about how do I make some money — that was another motivating factor.
The fame part is the weirdest thing — the fame part is like a job unto itself.
How much can we talk about your boyfriend, Sauli Koskinen?
You know honestly, it’s when you start talking so much about your relationship… it opens the door too much.
When did you meet?
In Finland in Helsinki in a bar after a show I did there.
He is a reality TV personality in Big Brother — so he’s famous.
Which is great because he understands some of the things I go through. It was an instant connection, but I didn’t know [that he was famous] until after we met. I approached him. There was physical attraction but also a great energy, like a glow. There was something very connected about the eye contact, the communication just flowed very easily.
And you went on a date from there?
That’s all I’ll say. [Laughs]
How long have you been seeing each other?
That was in November.
And he lives…?
That’s all I’m going to say. 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, and I just think everybody wants that connection, and I’m really happy to have found it.
He’s inspired a lot. I’m writing about love and relationships. Before meeting Saul —which is a great positive healthy exciting relationship — I had some not so healthy situations. Heartache is great for songwriting.
Tell me about the song “Outlaws of Love.”
Even though I’m trying to go to this post-gay mentality, which also I think is a generational thing, 100%, “Outlaws of Love” — I just wanted to write about the struggles the frustration that many gay people face. And I wanted to do it in a simple portrait and compare it to being on the run from the law. You just can rest, you can’t settle, you’re always on guard, you’re always looking over your shoulder, looking for that peace, that solace. That is a concept we’ve all seen in movies, like Bonnie & Clyde or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I wanted to write it to communicate it to someone who doesn’t understand. I’m really proud of it, because I feel like it’s important and says it in a really accessible way.
I’m learning so much about songwriting on this album, I’m learning so much from the other people that I’m writing with. I’m very lucky to have the opportunities I have. I wrote it with BC Jean and Rune Westberg.
Gay marriage is like, our love is outlawed, literally.
Let’s talk about your fans. Do young gay fans come up to you at shows?
From what I can tell there’s more of a gay presence internationally than domestically, which I found interesting. It’s great [when gay kids come up] because I feel like the ones that I meet are like the ones that kind of feel weird. I don’t think I’m cool, I think I’m kind of a dork. I pick up this kind of energy among young people that like, it might not be the coolest thing to say you like Adam Lambert’s music. I just feel like people don’t think that I’m cool, but I think that’s great. So I love that I have the kids who are like ballsy enough to be like, “Fuck it, I like Adam’s music,” and who have the guts to say that “I don’t care if you don’t think he’s cool because I like the 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 hardcore fans who are the opposite.
This shit’s hilarious. When I’m not being stressed out by fame or Oh my God, am I gay enough for you, or not gay enough for you?, when all that’s said and done there’s something really funny about this, I mean really ridiculous, especially because this happened to me at 27 years old and I went though my 20s not having this job. And so that’s the thing that kind of keeps me fine about it. That’s the part of me that keeps it in perspective and keeps me grounded. And it’s pretty funny. 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 and some deals with issues like outlaws of love but some of it’s just really fun fucking dance music. And I’m wearing eight pounds of makeup because I fucking want to. Why not?