Clark Collis
December 12, 2008 AT 05:00 AM EST

On Dec. 3, Adele stayed up late to find out if her former schoolmate Leona Lewis had been nominated for any Grammys. ”I didn’t think I had a chance,” recalls the 20-year-old British singer. ”But I Googled to see if Leona was nominated, because I’m her biggest fan. I couldn’t find anything. And then my phone started buzzing…”

As it turned out, Lewis had been nominated in three categories. Adele, meanwhile, scored four nods, including Record of the Year and Song of the Year. The Grammy noms cap an extraordinary couple of months for the singer-songwriter. On Oct. 18, she played Saturday Night Live, and benefited from a ratings spike caused by the appearance of Gov. Sarah Palin. The following week, Adele’s debut album, 19, shot up the Billboard 200 chart, from 46 to 11. ”I’m not a fan of hers,” laughs Adele, when asked about the former vice presidential candidate. ”But I’m very pleased she was on the show!”

Born in London, Adele Adkins attended the arts-oriented Brit School, whose previous graduates include Lewis and Amy Winehouse. ”I know Amy a little bit,” says Adele. ”She’s got a wicked sense of humor. But everyone’s concerned for her.” While still in school, Adele started promoting her songs on a MySpace page, and eventually people started to take notice — including XL Recordings (which has released albums by Radiohead and the White Stripes). ”I’d never heard of XL,” she confesses. ”I took one of my friends with me [to a meeting] because I thought maybe it was some weirdo on the Internet.”

XL ended up signing her, and she set to work on 19, a lovelorn collection of pop-soul inspired by a failed relationship. Released in the U.K. last January, the album immediately hit the No. 1 spot, powered by the single ”Chasing Pavements.”

Now Adele finds herself at the forefront of a wave of female soul singers from Great Britain (Estelle, Duffy) — and amid something of a new British Invasion. Just look at the Record of the Year category, which is practically an all-U.K. affair: Adele, Coldplay, the London-based M.I.A., and Robert Plant (along with Illinois-born Alison Krauss) are in competition. ”We’re all English,” she says diplomatically, ”so I feel like we’ve won already.” Meanwhile, the singer has also found the inspiration for her next collection: another failed relationship. ”I broke up with my boyfriend about four months ago,” she says. ”He was a bit annoying, but I can write about that. It’s not quite ‘a victim of love’ this time. It’s a bit like, ‘Oh, f — off.”’

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