Standing on stage at New York City's tiny, cavelike Mercury Lounge, a striking young songstress is explaining that the jaggedly melancholic ballad she is about to play was inspired by a former beau. ''He's been a huge influence on my songwriting,'' she confesses, her British accent more pronounced when she speaks. The young woman is smiling, but not joking. Later, after returning to the stage for an encore, she will introduce another tune to the rapt crowd with the words ''This song completes the file on my ex-boyfriend.'' She isn't a star yet her debut album won't be out for several more months but in this room tonight, the possibility hangs there like a promise.
The girl in question? Her name is Lianne La Havas, a 22-year-old Londoner with a haunting, jazz-inflected voice and a fresh record contract. And the reason that anyone except a deranged lunatic could think that an unknown female singer from the U.K. just might ride her heartbreak all the way to the top of the American charts can be summed up in one word: Adele.
In just over a year, the artist born Adele Laurie Blue Adkins has sold some 19 million copies worldwide of her second album, 21 an intimate, confessional collection of songs that, like La Havas', are not an obvious fit for America's often rigid mainstream-radio formats. Not surprisingly, its success has prompted a frenzied search for ''the next Adele,'' just as left-field phenomenons from Nirvana to Norah Jones did in the past. ''Obviously in meetings there's a lot of 'Why didn't you sign Adele?' '' says one veteran British A&R man, speaking anonymously. ''Everyone goes out, tail in between their legs, and says, 'Right, give me a girl singer with a voice!' ''