The Queen frontman and solo star talks Jess Goodman through the songs that made him.
He's been a star of the stage in theatre productions. He's competed to be the voice of a nation on American Idol. He performs as the frontman of one of the world's most esteemed and successful rock groups in Queen. He's a chart-topping artist with a Grammy nomination under his metaphorical belt and a brand-new album waiting in the wings. To put it simply: Adam Lambert has had quite the career.
When Lambert landed his first professional job performing on a cruise ship at 19 years old, he couldn’t have foreseen all the weird and wonderful places his passion for music would take him. On a cold and overcast day in London, the now 37-year-old singer invites us on "A little memory lane trip," a journey through the songs that have changed his life.
Lambert’s enthusiasm for the topic of conversation is evident even before we meet - selecting a list of ten songs that he hadn't had the heart to cut down to nine quite yet. As someone who's been drawn to music for all of his life this enthusiasm is both of little surprise and refreshingly infectious.
"I have a special scarf on," he flaunts, "just for you, actually," he beams as he gets himself comfortable. Smiling and laughing as he talks ever more emphatically, Lambert's passion for his craft and the music that inspires him through it is one that's hard not to get caught up in.
"I definitely dug way back," he says of his choices. "A lot of these songs are much older. I was trying to find songs that were a part of my formative years." From all-out pop to civil rights anthems, from musical theatre to grunge and all the way back again, it's an eclectic set of favourites that Lambert offers.
His fondness for this music and the moments it soundtracked in his life practically radiate from the singer throughout our conversation, as each song sparks a remembrance of its own story. "All the songs here have a personal connection to me," Lambert explains. "They're songs that I've either sung, or I’ve wanted to sing."
Through self-discovery and heartache, darkness and success, the theme that connects these songs is simple: “These are the songs that made me who I am.”
"The connection is kind of obvious! Obviously, I sing for the band and ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ was the reason why I got asked to sing for the band. I sang this song for my American Idol audition about nine years ago and it has a personal significance in that way.
“I remember hearing it for the first time. I grew up doing musicals and the theatricality of it resonated with me at a young age, hearing a song that was considered a rock classic but that was theatrical and so vocal, it just really appealed to me. It felt like something and I connected with it.
"I love the different sections of it. Just when you think you've got the song figured out, it switches gears and goes in a totally different direction, or it goes to the opera section - which is totally insane and out there. Then they finish it off with the searing rock section of the song and then it finishes up again, back into the piano-driven, melodic, quiet place.
“Much like a play or an opera, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ has acts, it has different sections and being a performer, I think that just really appealed to me."
"I remember being a kid when this song came out and I couldn't get it out of my head. I was obsessed with the music video and I kept singing it and dancing around to it. I think the significance now - I don't think I realised it then - was that it's so gay.
"I know now - I didn't know then - that Madonna was referencing the ball culture of New York, which is this incredible culture that queer people of colour started in New York with these underground gatherings. They would fantasise about being different versions of themselves and winning competitions amongst themselves. It was a way to build each other up and to celebrate who they were.
"In many ways, it was very ahead of its time and I think Madonna was inspired by that. She even had that in her video, she had people voguing and people dancing, from that world. I think I remember looking at those dancers and being like 'Huh, they're kind of feminine… Okay.' I didn't really quite process it because I was pretty young. I think there's a lot of subliminal significance for me, seeing one of my pop idols celebrating and being a part of that world for her song."
“Sam Cooke’s voice on this song is just absolutely... It guts you, it's so emotional. It was written around the time of the civil rights movement, really addressing the struggle and trying to maintain hope throughout that struggle and to push through and to persevere.
“"A Change Is Gonna Come" is something that I sang years ago in this thing called The Zodiac Show in L.A. It was the first time that I was stepping out of the world of musical theatre, singing how I wanted to sing and dressing how I wanted to dress and expressing myself.
“The song took on a slightly new meaning for me because I’d been struggling within the theatre world, believe it or not, for sort of being perceived as 'too gay' for a lot of these roles and the things that I was auditioning for. It became a bit frustrating and I thought “Well, fuck, I thought I was in theatre, all the weirdos are in theatre and we're supposed to support each other.” I didn't feel that sense of community as much as I wanted to.
“I also ended up signing it on American Idol and it kind of came back around as a full circle thing. Funnily enough, I sang it in the finale and didn't win. Many would say “Oh, maybe that's because of how they perceived you to be.” It was this repeated concept for me, both times.
“My interpretation of the song was my personal change, that things were going to get better and things were going to become different hopefully, and that I was going to not give up, and strive towards that. This song has that personal meaning to me.”
“Hair is a really cool musical. It's about the late 60s’ hippie movement in America - tribal love, peace 'n' love 'n' rock 'n' roll, people tripping on LSD and expanding their consciousness, all of these concepts that came about in the late 60s’. It's one of my favourite periods in music and in the arts, it was sort of our American renaissance right around then and lot of incredible music came from that time.
“I'm an Aquarius; that's my zodiac sign. I think the song is talking about the Age of Aquarius, which was starting around that time, which was said to be a time of enlightenment. It's such a cool song, it has a great melody and I've always loved it.
“I ended up doing a production of Hair out in Germany when I was about 22. Personally, it was such an eye opener, I was pretty green when I went out there, but not so green when I left. I was doing a lot of things for the first time and experiencing a lot of things for the first time.
“It was a bit of an awakening for me - artistically and personally - with fashion and with sexuality and with all these different things. It was a big transformative moment for me and this song always reminds me of that time.”
“It's such a cool song and it so represents that sound, the grunge of the 90s. I’ve just turned 37, so for me with the 90s’ I remember all the music that was out, I remember turning on MTV and seeing all the music videos and hearing all these songs. Rock videos were at their height at that point - at least in America - I know in the UK you had a little more pop than we did earlier on, but rock music was just everywhere.
“This song reminds me of me coming out of adolescence and smoking cigarettes for the first time, trying rebellious teenage things like sneaking out of the house and going with my friends to the beach without our parents knowing; things that were kind of wrong. Now I look back, they were pretty harmless, but it was me kind of being a rebel for the first time as a teenager.
“’Zombie’ reminds me of a couple of close friends. Actually, the girl that played it for me passed away about eight years later. It reminds me of her and that time.”
“’Mad World’ is a great song and it has some personal significance for me. When I was on American Idol - you know how when you're on these competition shows, and you have these moments? - it was like my big moment. It was the one that people talked about for a while.
“I remember the first time I heard the version by Gary Jules, which is in Donnie Darko. That was the version where I was like 'What?' Both versions of ‘Mad World’ are so brilliant and I think the thing about the song itself that's so brilliant is that it's talking about being disillusioned or disenfranchised as a youth, and with society, feeling like an outsider, and feeling like your voice doesn't matter. I would guess that the song is about dark times.
“I think that now we're in a time where things like suicide and bullying and identity politics are so in the forefront of the conversation, but I think that when this was written, angst was more of a sort of mysterious thing and I think that's the brilliance of this song. It's talking about something that not everybody talked about at that point.”
“I love Goldfrapp, I absolutely love Goldfrapp, I’m a huge fan. I think I first heard ‘Strict Machine’ when I was in Germany actually, when I was doing Hair. When I came back I got really into all of their albums. It just reminds me of another time in my life, another chapter.
“I was really obsessed with Goldfrapp and I would listen to Black Cherry every time I would go out, and at parties. My first boyfriend and I, I think that was our favourite album. It just reminds me of being young and coming into my own and feeling fabulous.
“I'm just going to say it: sex. ‘Strict Machine’ is a very sexual song. I think that was my first boyfriend when I was listening to that. It has a lot of sex memories.”
“Prince is just one of my absolute, all-time favourite artists. He was a genius. I remember the first time I heard ‘Kiss’ and it's so special, because it's so minimal. It's so intimate and it just grabs you. He's singing so quietly and he's got so much space in between all of his little phrases. It's just so good!
“It's a style all of his own and he made that sound his. It's one of those songs where it's become so iconic, and that style has been so distinct; so many people have been inspired by it and you can hear it in their music! I think it's just a great touchstone. For me as an artist, and as a singer, and as a music lover, just hearing that song for the first time, it's such a fundamental song.”
“I just love this song. My Mum was a big Bonnie Raitt fan, so I remember hearing it around the house as a kid. I didn't know this until I was much older, but I think my parents were having some issues when I was a kid at that time. I assume the message of ‘Can't Make You Love Me’ was something that my Mum really felt personally connected to. I don't think I realised it at the time but looking back on it now I think “Wow, that must have been a really cathartic thing for her to listen to.”
“Bonnie Raitt’s voice is so rich and warm and buttery. When you hear her voice, no matter what kind of music you like, there's something about her voice that cuts through any preference of genre. She's got a really good voice.
“I've sung the song a few times. When I was in my twenties I would go to a karaoke night at a bar in town. If there was a boy in the audience who I thought was cute, I would sing this song to try to get his attention. It worked, like eight times out of ten. Thanks Bonnie.”