Adam Lambert Played the Industry Game — Now He’s Rewriting the Rules With New EP: ‘It’s My Turn’

Adam Lambert Played the Industry Game — Now He’s Rewriting the Rules With New EP: ‘It’s My Turn’

For most of his career, Adam Lambert has been playing characters. Whether in his musical theater roots, his touring role as the frontman of Queen or even on American Idol, the 42-year-old singer says much of his career has been about performance.

But he’s ready to change that. “I’ve watched other artists express this very real, authentic part of themselves over the last few years,” he tells Billboard. “Now, it’s my turn.”

Lambert’s new solo EP Afters (due out July 19) sees the singer embracing a new, dance-focused sound to talk about sex, desire and romance in a more honest way than he ever has before. The first pair of singles off the project, “Lube” and “Wet Dream” (both due out Friday, May 31), give audiences a glimpse of what the singer has in store for them, with Lambert’s rock-inspired sound swapped out for pounding club beats and uncensored lyrics.

“I wanted to make a project that felt like the kind of music I listened to with my friends, talking about the things I talk about with my friends,” Lambert explains. “Sometimes, things get a little naughty, and I wanted to capture that energy.”

Below, Lambert breaks down the inspirations behind his new project, what it means to be rediscovering himself 15 years into his career, and how advancements for LGBTQ artists in the music industry have fundamentally changed the way he approaches music.

Let’s talk about your new project, Afters. This is a very different direction that you’re taking — can you tell me a little bit about where the idea for this project came from?

I’ve experimented with so many different sorts of directions and genres and sounds over the years. I’ve done a lot and for this, I was like, “Okay, what have I not really done?” I wanted whatever I did next to feel as authentic as possible — I wanted it to feel real to my life. I started my career on stage playing different characters and then stepping onto American Idol, and then stepping in with Queen. I get to sing the most amazing music and tour the world with them. But it’s all serving specific audiences, you know what I mean? And I wanted to do something that sounded like my social life.

Here in West Hollywood, I love going out, I love having after parties at my house, I love nightlife. I love dressing up and and interacting with people and and getting that charged up and flirty feeling with people. So I just was like, “I want to capture that energy of sexuality and desire for connection and liberation.” And that’s the after party.

That’s an interesting point about you playing “roles” in your past music career — was there any trepidation in making this project about fan or industry reactions to this very raw sound? 

Yeah, there might be some fans out there that might go, “Whoa, what is all this” and not understand it. But it’s the most honest that I’ve gotten to be in a really long time because there’s no filter. When I first came onto the scene in 2009, the scene was very different. The music industry was very different, and being a gay man in the music industry was uncharted territory in some ways. We had other greats before us in other genres, but doing contemporary pop, I felt like I didn’t have anybody else to sort of see as an example in that world.

It was a trial and error experience; I had that first single that was kind of sexy, and then the performance where I kissed a guy and I got a big slap on the wrist for it. I had so much support from the industry coming off of Idol, and I think there was this collective sort of gasp and clutching of the pearls at that performance. They didn’t turn their back on me, but it felt like the audience took a collective step back. 

I had to play the game at that point, because I wasn’t going to lose my opportunity. So I just kept moving forward and doing my thing. And obviously there’s a lot more to me than just my sexuality, but that is a big part of who I am. Romance and sex and heartbreak, we see all of our favorite hetero artists sing about all that stuff all the time. So I was always a little frustrated with the double standard early on, because I was like, “Well, why can’t I?” The game, for a while, became me asking how I could push things.

I feel like [now] we’re in 2024, and the rules have completely been tossed out the window. It’s a totally different playing field. Now, the way people get music and find music is completely different. I think the fact that we can go straight to the listener as an artist changes the politics of all of it. Back in the day, radio was this gatekeeper — and it was like, and if you really wanted to be successful, you had to play the game on the radio. Now that’s completely different, too. So there are less hurdles you have to jump over.

When it comes to “playing the game” and the rules changing, do you think the industry has reached a point where the old playbook when it comes to artist authenticity is entirely outdated, or are we still in a transition phase?

I mean, it’s still a bit of a game — you still have to strategize, and you still have to figure out what people like and how they’ll respond to things and marketing and all that. But I think that identity politics has become such an important part of an artist’s whole package. People are not stupid: They know when someone’s being who they are, and when they’re not. If anything, with this next project, the people that know me will go, “Oh, yeah.”  The other thing is that in today’s world, where we’re showing so much more of ourselves with social media, the audience want in on our lives. So in a way, this is a glimpse. This is my experience. 

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I was listening to “Lube” right before we started, and even as a queer person who’s been following you for a long time, I was like, “Whoa, okay, we’re going there!” 

Yeah, I really did sing the words “gonna make you nut.” [Laughs.] I actually wrote this song with Vincint and Parson James, and we had a different chorus originally. I walked away with the song, and I was like, “That chorus is not really doing it for me.” So I had the producer take the chorus vocal off of it, leaving it as an instrumental, and I just kept listening to it. I opened the program up and I just started running the track and recording ideas. When I thought of the rhyme and I was like, “Oh, that’s crazy, I can’t say that.” And then I was like “…maybe I should just say it? Just f–king say it! Why am I editing myself?” 

I recognize that this is literally a dance song about lubrication; it’s ridiculous, I’m aware. But there was a part of me that was like, “I want to make music that sounds like the way I dress.” Sonically, like the aesthetic, I want it to sound like how I like to look. Because I’ve been very inspired by fashion lately, and I keep finding things that are just really weird. And I get inspired by that, as well.

I also love that you let fans get an early listen of “Wet Dream.” How closely were you watching the fan reaction to it? How much were you letting that dictate the rest of your release strategy?

I was definitely taking note, and I think the overall impression was really strong. People were surprised by it, because it’s different. It’s a different sound for me, and it really goes off in a way the audience seemed to like. It was so fun to perform live down in Australia — and that’s sort of why we put it out. I really wanted to perform it on stage, especially for Pride Month. So that was why I was like, “Let’s kind of put it out. If you want to check it out, you can on SoundCloud, let’s just have it around.”

Part of what I love about the songs is that you are really leaning into the gay club aesthetic — because oftentimes, this house, dance-pop sound has a tendency, especially when coming from queer artists, to be written off as “gay music” and taken less seriously. It feels like that has changed a lot in recent years where that brand of music has become much more high profile — why do you think that is?

That’s a really good point, and I actually hadn’t thought a lot about that. Even before American Idol, the music that I was listening to in my 20s was a lot of electronic music. It was all dance-y electronic stuff. To be honest, I don’t really listen to classic rock in my free time, but when I auditioned for Idol, it was a lane that I saw opened up for me. And I was like, “I can do that. I like classic rock.”

I think when I first started wearing makeup and heels and all of that, the “rock star version” of all that was like a way to justify looking that way and wanting to express myself that way. It got me past certain people. I think even artists of those genres — like Freddie Mercury, first and foremost, and Bowie — gave me permission to express myself that way. It made sense for me to go and sing glam rock and classic rock, because that era was such a beautiful expression of men being able to be feminine and messing with gender. It made it feel safer for me to go there. 

As you get older, you get way more comfortable in your own skin and you accept everything about yourself. Now I’m just like, ”This is just who I am — I’m basically a blouse, a feminine top.” It’s amazing the way that society has shifted, because you go online and you see tons of boys doing makeup tutorials. The idea of of expressing yourself in any way shape or form — whether it’s your feminine side, your masculine side, the queer umbrella — [has] gone through this prism and expanded. There’s so much more visibility on all corners of it right now than there has ever been. That’s one reason why I feel like it’s just completely blown open, especially when it comes to music. 

These songs are going to be coming out right at the same time that you’re going to be doing your headlining performance for WeHo Pride. What does that mean for you to be getting to headlining this event, and what can fans expect to see? 

The lineup over the weekend is crazy. When I saw that I’m on the bill with Kesha, it made me smile so hard, because we go so far back — when I first got signed to RCA, she was on RCA, right after “TiK ToK” had come out. We were at a lot of these industry events together and we just totally clicked, and so it’s it’s a pretty full circle moment. I mean, the fact that Kylie’s playing on Saturday, I just … it’s gonna be a really amazing weekend.


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