This interview is the first in a series of four with Adam Lambert, published recently by Fred Bronson of The Los Angeles Times. Many of you may have read these already, but I wanted to wait until all four were published before I started posting them.
This interview series with Adam is by far the best I’ve ever read him. The questions are more than the standard ones asked by every other reporter. He gives answers that are much deeper and more personal, and really tell more about him.
This first-of-four articles begins at Adam’s infancy and goes to when Adam dropped out of Cal State Fullerton at 18, worked at Macy’s, moved to North Hollywood and ended up getting his first job on a cruise ship.
“American Idol” runner-up Adam Lambert sat down with writer Fred Bronson for a wide-ranging interview. In Part One, Lambert talks about his early musical influences.
We know from watching “American Idol” that you were raised in San Diego, but where were your parents living when you were born?
I was born Jan. 29, 1982, in Indianapolis, Ind. I believe I was conceived on their honeymoon in Puerto Rico. I should have a little T-shirt that says, “Conceived in Puerto Rico.” They had me about nine months after their wedding.
My parents moved me out of Indianapolis when I was about a year old. My mom and dad said: “This isn’t the right fit for us. We want to go somewhere else.” So a job opportunity opened up for [my dad] in San Diego and we moved.
Where in San Diego did you grow up?
North County, mostly. When we first moved out there, it was Rancho Bernardo and then we ended up moving when I was 4, maybe 5. Right around the time my brother was born, [we moved] to Rancho Peñasquitos, which is just inland of Del Mar, and that’s where we settled.
What is your earliest memory of music?
My dad was a college DJ, so he had a really huge record collection and he is very proud of it. There was always music playing in the house, all vinyl. He was a Deadhead, so there was some Grateful Dead, which I never really got into. There was a lot of classic rock. Bob Dylan. Bob Marley was playing a lot. My dad has really good taste in music.
Do you remember playing his vinyl albums?
At some point later in my life he would let me touch the records. That was a big deal though because I didn’t know what I was doing.
Where else did you hear music? Did you listen to the radio or shop at a local record store?
I never was a big radio listener, probably because my dad listened to his records. As I got older, I had a stereo and I had tapes. I was more into playing the tapes than the radio.
I remember going to the Wherehouse and buying the two-for-one CDs. The first tape I remember having was Paula Abdul’s “Shut Up and Dance” remixes tape, which I was very into. I remember having an Elvis karaoke tape.
And singing along to it?
Oh, yeah. This karaoke machine was really cool. I also had Wilson Phillips, Mariah Carey’s “Emotions.” These are my first CDs. I remember them quite clearly.
When did you realize you had musical talent?
At 10 years old, I was put into a musical theater company, a children’s theater company. I was really creative early on and I think my parents were trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I had a lot of energy. I was hyper and they put me in indoor soccer and T-Ball and I didn’t really love it. I was in the Cub Scouts at one point. They tried everything — swimming lessons and other activities — but I was very creative at home and wanted to play dress-up and make believe and recite things, so they figured that theater was a natural fit.
I got into all the musicals and the first time I realized [I had talent] I was doing a production of “Fiddler On the Roof” and there’s this scene where this Russian guy has a featured solo in the “L’Chaim” number. It’s like a bar scene. He’s the big guy that holds the note forever. It’s that big showoff moment, and I was playing that part.
How old were you at that point?
I was 12 or 13 and I really enjoyed singing it and all of a sudden, everybody was saying, “He’s got a really great voice,” and there was all this buzz. All the parents were saying, “He can really sing,” and the director said, “You sound great. Do it again,” and he was showing me off, having me do it for all the other kids. That was when I started taking voice lessons and knew this is something I really like. I’m good at it.
And that was kind of my thing. I didn’t like doing stuff unless I was good at it and I didn’t like trying to get good at something. I wanted to just do what I was already good at. Like soccer, I was having to work at it so I didn’t like it. I didn’t like to practice piano, it was so foreign to me. But there was something about singing — the idea of using my voice, I was very comfortable with that.
A lot of my early singing was more mimicking. I copied things. That’s how I learned how to sing at first, by copying.
What were you copying? Songs from musicals?
A lot of theater stuff. I listened to a lot of cast albums. I had “Les Miz” and “Miss Saigon.” I was obsessed with “Phantom of the Opera.” I remember when the revival of “Grease” came out, I had that CD. Right as I was going into high school, “Rent” came out. That was a big deal. The cool thing is that my dad had the concept recording of “Jesus Christ Superstar” and showed it to me, and “Tommy.” That was really cool for us because it was his world and my world kind of coming together, the idea that they were musicals. He loved that we had something in common and we both loved the “Jesus Christ Superstar” recording and we sat and we listened to it a couple times.
In 1994, there was a production of “Tommy” at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego, and that’s how it became a Broadway show. We went together and he got really into it.
Was “Tommy” the first Broadway show you ever saw?
No, I remember seeing “Phantom of the Opera” in L.A. when I was a kid and it was very exciting and I think “Les Miz” came through the Civic Theater in San Diego. “West Side Story” was on tour. I remember seeing a couple national tours come through. When I was a kid, because I had gotten into theater, my younger brother started getting into it, too, and my mom got us head shots and an agent up here in L.A. So we would commute for auditions all the time.
Hardly ever for theater. It was for commercials, TV, jobs like that. I did one commercial when I was a kid and you can hardly tell it was me. My brother got a ton of work. He was luckier than I was.
What was the commercial?
It was a Century 21 commercial. I must have been 11. I ran around with a dog in the front yard and they did a crane shot. I was out of school for the day and I thought it was the coolest thing. That was the first professional thing.
Were you cast in any of your high school’s musicals?
Yes, back in San Diego, as an after-school activity. Plus I was in the Metropolitan Educational Theatre for eight years. It was run by a man named Alex Urban.
Is that the theater group we saw you visit on “American Idol”?
Yes. That was a highlight. I also worked with a woman named Lynne Broyles, who is my voice teacher. And she had a little community theater company and we did some performances with that. Then in high school, I was in chorus and I was also in the drama club and I sang with a jazz band, so I had a bunch of different outlets. And there was also a thing that they did in high school called Air Bands. It’s a big deal in San Diego and it’s almost like a staged music video. Everybody lip syncs but it’s like a performance. It’s hard to explain. It’s like a choreographed staged costume concert. You know, if you look at Janet Jackson or Madonna or Michael Jackson, their concerts are really stylized. And it was like kids taking music and creating medleys and costuming and building sets and creating a storyline through them. It was this big competition in San Diego and I got really involved in that in high school and I look back now and realize there was so much that went into it and I got so passionate about it that I think that kind of mentality of putting together a show from start to finish is definitely going to come in handy in the future. It did on “Idol,” [the idea that] I had to put a number together.
What did you learn from taking voice lessons?
I reconnected with my voice teacher because of “Idol” and I invited her to come to the show. I asked her, “What was it like when I first came in? What was going on?” And she said, “You had this seamless sound to your voice, but you wanted to understand it. You wanted me to explain physically how it worked all the time and when you couldn’t hit a note, you wanted to know why and you wanted to fix it.” She told me, “You were really intense about it,” and that was very interesting to me. I remember [bringing her] the “Jesus Christ Superstar” recording and all those high screams that they do, and I said, “Teach me how to do this,” and she replied, “You don’t teach that sound. That’s something you just make. I think you might have to get older to make that noise.” So I waited.
Aside from the commercial you did when you were a child, what other early professional work did you do?
At about 16, I auditioned for the Starlight Theatre, which is an outdoor theater company down in Balboa Park. It’s a semi-professional thing; we got paid a little bit but it wasn’t union. We would literally have to freeze for planes going over because it’s right in the path of the San Diego airport. So there were little stoplights in the orchestra pit and if a plane was coming, it would go yellow and red and you would freeze. It was crazy.
I was in the ensemble for both “Hello, Dolly!” and “Camelot” and then the next summer, I did shows at Moonlight Amphitheatre, in Vista up in North County. I did “The Music Man” and “Grease” and I played Captain Hook in “Peter Pan.”
While you were doing this theater work, were you also listening to rock music?
In high school I started watching MTV and listening to pop music. As random as it sounds, I was really into Missy Elliott and I remember that Britney and Christina had just come out and ’N Sync and Backstreet Boys. I liked all the dance remixes.
You mentioned being in a jazz band during high school, so you were exposed to all kinds of music.
When I was younger, I listened to a lot of musical theater and then as I got older, I wanted to hear cool pop music.
The jazz band would have guest singers for their concerts and that was a really good educational experience too because that was the first time that I was singing with a full band. Even in the theater company, we didn’t have an orchestra. It was all piano because it was cheap. But then at Starlight, there was an orchestra and all the school musicals had an orchestra, so I started finally getting experience working with a full band. But the jazz band was cool because it wasn’t musical theater. It was swing standards, so that was a departure for me and I did some Sammy Davis Jr. You know, standards like “Paper Moon.”
Were those standards new to you?
I had heard them here and there but a lot of them were new and I would have to learn them. We did some blues. It was very educational. And then in choir, we were like a classical choir. So we were doing a lot of Latin and various languages and it was all a cappella and very orchestral and complicated. That taught me a lot about using my ear and harmony.
At this point, did you know what you wanted to do with your life?
I wanted to perform. Even in high school, I was saying, “I want to be on Broadway. I want to go do theater.” So I had this dream that I was going to go to New York and do Broadway and go to college first. My grades weren’t ever amazing because I was so distracted with all the outside activities that I never really cared enough. I was like, “Eh, I don’t want to do my homework. I don’t want to study for the test.” I just got by. I was a B student and so I didn’t have good enough grades to get into the good schools for theater. I wanted to go to NYU. I wanted to go to Cincinnati. I applied to them and I didn’t get into any of them. I did get into California State Fullerton.
Were you a drama major?
I went into the school as a musical theater major because they had a BFA program for musical theater and right as classes began, I had started rehearsals for “Grease” at Moonlight and it was my first time playing a part. I was Doody and I was so excited that I got to sing my own song and that I was going to be in the show and featured and I was so distracted that I didn’t go to class at all. And so by the fifth week, I didn’t really want to go to school. The show had closed and I wanted to learn on the job. I thought I could get more jobs, and it was kind of wishful thinking. It was a little idealistic. Youth, you know, but I thought, “How can I be in school anymore?” The last 18 years of my life, I’ve been learning and I want to live and I want to go and be in the real world. And I had sat through a couple classes and I thought, “I’m not going to learn anything here. They’re saying stuff that I already know.” I was being a little bit ridiculous, and I learned the hard way that it doesn’t really work that way. I left school and my dad said, “I’m not paying your bills. You’ve got to get a job.” So I got a job working at Macy’s in Orange County at the Main Place mall right near Fullerton. I was doing retail and I stayed there for about six months and then I moved to North Hollywood. I had a couple friends that had moved up. I hung out with them and I was miserable. I couldn’t find a job. I couldn’t work. I was fat. I was a little lonely, and then I got my first job, which was on a cruise ship. I was 19.
— Fred Bronson