‘Fred­die was an icon but we won every­body over’

Adam Lam­bert on how he proved early doubters wrong and is do­ing Mer­cury’s legacy jus­tice

The Herald Magazine - - Arts / Music - GRAEME THOM­SON Queen + Adam Lam­bert play TRNSMT in Glas­gow this Fri­day

YOU think you know nerve-rack­ing? Think again. Adam Lam­bert sees your fraz­zled synapses and raises the stakes. In 2014, the former Amer­i­can Idol win­ner was in­vited to di­vert tem­po­rar­ily from his suc­cess­ful solo career to try out as the singer in Queen. Four years later, he’s made the role his own. At first, how­ever, singing those leg­endary songs in front of Brian May and Roger Tay­lor re­duced him to a pud­dle of anx­i­ety.

“I was in awe,” says Lam­bert, speak­ing from his home in Los An­ge­les. “I couldn’t be­lieve it was hap­pen­ing. It’s still sur­real but right at the be­gin­ning I was like, ‘Are they re­ally trust­ing me to do this?’ In re­hearsals I was so search­ing for val­i­da­tion from Brian and Roger, to make sure they were ap­prov­ing of my choices and my ap­proach. And they al­ways were. They have al­ways been so sweet and sup­port­ive.”

Few rock stars stamped their per­sona onto a band quite as defini­tively as Fred­die Mer­cury. Nev­er­the­less, since the singer died in 1992, May and Tay­lor (bassist John Dea­con re­tired some years ago) have kept the Queen flame – and name – alive in a va­ri­ety of en­ter­pris­ing ways. Be­tween 2004 and 2009, the bullish former Free vo­cal­ist Paul Rodgers led the line, but Lam­bert has proved an in­fin­itely bet­ter fit. While re­main­ing very much his own man, the 36-year-old pos­sesses the req­ui­site mea­sure of flam­boy­ance, style, wit, show­man­ship and soar­ing vo­cal prow­ess to do Mer­cury’s legacy jus­tice. It took a while, mind you. Lam­bert ad­mits that he has grown into the role, while ini­tially there were muti­nous mur­mur­ings among the Queen faith­ful: Who was this re­al­ity show up­start dar­ing to step into the shoes of a legend? Lam­bert knows all this, be­cause he was un­wise enough to search the in­ter­net to find out.

“Right at the be­gin­ning, the first thing I did, of course, was go on­line and look at the com­ments,” he laughs. “Even if some­thing is con­sid­ered a 100 per cent success, you look at com­ments on the in­ter­net and you’re go­ing to be proved wrong. There were def­i­nitely some ques­tion marks – ‘What? Who? What’s go­ing on?’ – but I un­der­stood. It was new, and it took peo­ple a minute to get the idea wrapped around their head.

“But hon­estly, any sort of crit­i­cism that I no­ticed early on, I think it charged me to be bet­ter. I pushed my­self. We’re at the point now where I don’t re­ally see any of that crit­i­cism any more. We’ve won every­body over.”

The key to the project’s success has been en­sur­ing that it tran­scends mere trib­ute or imi­ta­tion. “Ob­vi­ously Fred­die was such an icon, and we make sure that his spirit stays with the show,” says Lam­bert. “Lean­ing on that legacy is beau­ti­ful, and an hon­our, but at the same time it’s about mak­ing sure it feels cur­rent. A lot of that is down to just al­low­ing the mu­sic to be in my body – af­ter a while it be­comes an in­stinct, very much like it is for Brian and Roger.

“It took me a lit­tle time to catch up but af­ter a cou­ple of years on the road you con­nect into a liv­ing, breath­ing unit. We’ve be­come a real team and I’m very grate­ful that my ideas are heard. It didn’t have to be that way. If they had said, ‘No! You have to do it this way,’ I’d have said, ‘Yes, sirs! What­ever you say’. But they’ve been re­ally lovely.”

Lam­bert de­scribes per­form­ing with Queen as “like climb­ing a big moun­tain. It’s daunt­ing. I def­i­nitely have to do a lit­tle men­tal trick­ery with my­self. The au­di­ence tends to be the thing that re­ally pushes me up the moun­tain. They know ev­ery word to ev­ery song, it’s a dream to per­form to peo­ple who are that con­nected to the ma­te­rial.”

When Queen last per­formed in Glas­gow, in De­cem­ber, Lam­bert re­calls, “the au­di­ence was on fire, re­ally loud and warm and in­ter­ac­tive. The con­nec­tion that those au­di­ences have to the mu­sic of Queen is un­de­ni­able, and gives me such a lot. It’s charged my con­fi­dence and my am­bi­tion.”

Which are his favourite songs to per­form? “It changes day to day, depend­ing what mood I’m in. Some­body to Love is time­less and I iden­tify with those lyrics. I feel like I’m al­ways search­ing for ro­mance! An­other One Bites the Dust is pretty ther­a­peu­tic, for get­ting out any kind of ag­gres­sion I might be feel­ing. Who Wants to Live For­ever is a soar­ing, emotional nose­dive. It feels su­per-cathar­tic ev­ery night. Then there are songs that are silly and fun. I like get­ting goofy on stage with Brian and Roger. There’s a lot of play­ful­ness there. There are so many gen­res and moods, the show kind of takes you ev­ery­where.”

LAM­BERT shot to promi­nence as the win­ner of Amer­i­can Idol in 2009, an achieve­ment he recog­nises as a dou­ble-edged sword. “There’s a slight stigma with the re­al­ity TV show singer thing, es­pe­cially within the in­dus­try,” he says. “There’s a bit of a raised eye­brow, to which I al­ways say, ‘Look, it’s a hard busi­ness to break into and I did what I needed to do to get my foot in the door’. And I did. Here I am nine years later do­ing it, so why do you care? It was a great launch­ing pad. I would hope that when peo­ple lis­ten to what I do, that all of that doesn’t re­ally mat­ter.”

From the start, Lam­bert stood apart from generic re­al­ity show fod­der. At 27, he was fully formed: gay and out, proud of his iden­tity and un­will­ing to tem­per it to gain main­stream ac­cep­tance. Since then, he has be­come an out­spo­ken ac­tivist for a range of LGBT is­sues.

“I try to ap­proach these things by

Be­ing queer and in the main­stream mu­sic in­dus­try has been an in­ter­est­ing jour­ney

leading by ex­am­ple: not mak­ing apolo­gies, be­ing upfront and bold in my iden­tity.

“Nine years ago, when I started, not a lot of my con­tem­po­raries were iden­ti­fy­ing like that. I had some great icons like Fred­die, El­ton John, Boy Ge­orge and Ge­orge Michael, but it was a dif­fer­ent time.

“Some of them weren’t out at the height of their ca­reers – so do­ing it in 2009 was a whole dif­fer­ent ball game. Be­ing queer and in the main­stream mu­sic in­dus­try has been an in­ter­est­ing jour­ney.

“There’s def­i­nitely a bal­anc­ing act be­tween be­ing an artist with per­sonal in­tegrity, and the busi­ness side of the in­dus­try. It’s not ever clear cut. There’s no hand­book, it’s not black and white, which is tricky. I’ve had to read be­tween the lines a lit­tle.”

He is none­the­less op­ti­mistic that the in­dus­try is be­com­ing bet­ter at ac­cept­ing and re­flect­ing a broader spec­trum of sex­ual iden­ti­ties. “There has been so much progress made at striv­ing to tell sto­ries and con­nect au­di­ences to all dif­fer­ent types of iden­ti­ties,” he says. “I think the in­dus­try now re­alises it has a moral re­spon­si­bil­ity to con­nect to peo­ple, and there’s an au­di­ence out there for ev­ery­one. The top 40 tends to ho­mogenise things but I can see it di­ver­si­fy­ing. The au­di­ence is telling the in­dus­try what they want, which is ex­cit­ing, and ed­u­cat­ing peo­ple greatly. It’s a good time.”

Lam­bert’s last al­bum, The Orig­i­nal High, was re­leased in 2015. In be­tween gaps in Queen’s tour­ing sched­ule, he’s been work­ing on the fol­low-up. “I could have pumped out an al­bum su­per-quick, but I re­ally want to get it a par­tic­u­lar way. Time and per­spec­tive are my friends on this.” Per­form­ing with Queen has, he says, in­evitably af­fected the new mu­sic he is mak­ing. “There is some cre­ative cross­over, for sure. I don’t think I’d go as far as to say that my new al­bum sounds like a Queen al­bum, it’s just that it has opened up my sen­si­bil­i­ties. Some of the in­flu­ences of that mu­sic and that era have in­flu­enced my own mu­sic.”

He is hop­ing the al­bum will be fin­ished later this year. How­ever, the one thing we will never hear, he in­sists, is a new Queen al­bum. “You me­dia folk love that ques­tion,” he says. “In terms of the ma­te­rial, Queen is what hap­pened with Fred­die. That was the cre­ation of these songs and I don’t know if it makes sense to record any­thing new, it’s kind of not what we are. We’re a live per­for­mance col­lab­o­ra­tion rather than a writ­ing col­lab­o­ra­tion.” One that – nerves be damned – has be­come su­per-skilled at con­jur­ing up the kind of ex­trav­a­gant, thrilling and slightly pre­pos­ter­ous spec­ta­cle that Queen’s legacy de­mands.

Above: Singer Adam Lam­bert, who has made the role of front­man his own, per­form­ing on stage with Queen’s gui­tarist Brian May Be­low: The band’s orig­i­nal line-up (clock­wise from top left), John Dea­con, May, Fred­die Mer­cury and Roger Tay­lor

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