“I’m not sure that I ever felt old,” confesses old school R&B wailer and steeped-in-the-patchouli soul child Joss Stone on the phone from England. “But I don’t know if I ever really felt young, either.”
Having just turned 24, the woman who’s won one and been nominated for five Grammy Awards holds her own in a band called SuperHeavy with Mick Jagger, Dave Stewart and Damian Marley. Stone, who has been called “Aretha Joplin” by Smokey Robinson, packs serious cosmic heat. But when you listen to her laugh, hear the depth of her convictions, it’s obvious soul is really the quantifying element for the scorching vocalist who’s not yet lived a quarter of a century.
With LP1, her fifth album and the first release under her Stone’d Records label, Stone finds freedom as a vocalist, freedom that matches the responsibility of running a label. Still, the fiery vocalist—capable of reigniting a vintage R&B classic like Betty Wright’s “Clean Up Woman” as easily as she reworked The White Stripes’ progressive alternative “Fell In Love With a Girl” for her debut Soul Sessions album—demonstrates solidity and versatility in her ability to make all times and duties her own.
With that honey tangle of hair and daisies, Stone seems more authentic to Woodstock than today’s Girls Gone Wild sleaziness and market maximization strategies. After a protracted battle with EMI Records, who contractually held the free spirit to her four firm album deal which resulted in Colour Me Free!, Stone found her emancipation. Whatever she’s gained in terms of the responsibility of running a business, it pales in comparison to what she’s gained artistically.
“You gotta be careful,” she cautions. “In the world today, the times are so charged … it can water down the reasons you began doing this. Suddenly, there are all these people who have no idea, telling you things like, ‘It’s gonna sound like this and we’re gonna promote it that way.’ It has just nothing to do with music.”
Suddenly, Stone finds herself talking about business, and not just business but business penetrating the music. It’s what led to the breakdown with EMI, and it’s what made the girl whose third album, Introducing Joss Stone, was produced by nu-soul visionary Raphael Saadiq, finally clear on her own needs.
But talking business isn’t what she’s here for. Stone doesn’t look back. Instead, always moving forward, she uses lessons learned to inform the way she reads her map. The EMI struggle inspired her to find a new model, and that model has given the young woman the freedom to get beyond anything she previously believed about making records.
“She’d been having a horrible time,” says producer Dave Stewart, who first befriended the Bohemian groovester while he was helming the soundtrack of Jude Law’s Alfie.
“With EMI, she felt so trapped. It was a huge label where everybody was having a say in the record … and a lot of those people didn’t know music.
“She’d gone out with people, broken up with them, had huge schedules, commitments—and that’s quite heavy. She came out of all that more free-spirited, more knowing what she wanted. Now… her life matches her voice. Her soul’s prowess, which was always there, her body and her mind have finally caught up.”
Indeed, Stone was so ready for something else, so willing to fall straight into what music could offer, that she followed Stewart, the former Eurhythmics and Traveling Wilburys lead, and came to Nashville. In a move straight out of the Dusty in Memphis playbook, the young Brit arrived in a strange land and let the music lift her.
“Dave and I were on the phone, chattering away,” she says of the birth of the unlikely, yet almost preordained LP1. “And he was telling me about making his record, how genius it all was … and musical. Being an English girl from the countryside, it sounded so exotic.
“Dave and I work real quick. We can sit down with a guitar and have a song in half an hour. He knows me. And he knew those musicians—he’d just worked with them. Jamming with these players was amazing.”
Stone pauses. She knows what we’re really talking about is the big leap. It’s the leap into fate, the future, what her music will be. She’s talking at it, and she knows. She laughs.
“It’s a different want,” she admits, calling her own truth. “Some people want to tour and play, to get girls, to be famous. Some want to have a platform to stand on … to share their political ideas.
“Sometimes I turn on the radio and think, ‘Yeah … no …’ I don’t want to be a part of that ‘cause that’s not right. Maybe it’s me being too intellectual about music, but I think you are what you eat, and it’s the same about music!”
“At the age of 14, she was in the studio holding her own with all these great soul players in their 60s and 70s,” Stewart offers. “She can hold her own anywhere. I was explaining there were such great players [in Nashville]. I suggested she go in with no fear, just wander in with a few things written and we’ll write some more. It was about letting the music happen, creating a mini world for everybody to let go.
“For certain people, that might create fear, but for Joss, it allowed her to be in the music. It became this organic thing, a little bit like she was singing to the band and the band were responding to her. It was all one.”
“It was a creative maelstrom,” acknowledges renowned bassist Michael Rhodes, who’s played with Steve Winwood and Larry Carlton and has been a member of Rodney Crowell and Vince Gill’s celebrated Cherry Bombs. “They came to play! A lot of the songs weren’t finished … and Dave has such an organic presence in the studio. He knows how to seize a good moment or spark and focus on that, so it was truly an environment of simultaneous creation.”
Though the seen-it-all, been-there-and-yeah-whatever studio players are conditioned to recognize greatness, even Rhodes knew this was something else. Pausing in his assessment, he concedes, “It was remarkable.”
Indeed, LP1, which Stewart describes as “Joss unleashed,” has that spontaneous combustion that only comes from faith and kinetics. Opening with the high gospel churn “Newborn,” Stone hurls herself at a song that could be her vision of the new world order, exhorting: “Everybody get over hate/You turned up too late/That trick’s over/We’re not bleeding weak from strong/Knowing right from wrong.”
Hope on her sleeve, Stone knows the world as it is will not be a utopian ideal. Much of LP1 focuses on betrayal, on consequences and comeuppance. It’s fraught with urgency in the rippling piano and slight percussion of “Last One To Know,” which twists in the doubt, realization and rejection, while the almost folk “Cry Myself to Sleep” is tempered by Stone’s dusky huskiness of loss and the struggle for clarity in the separation: knowing that being apart for sanity’s sake is not enough to balm the pain.
There’s “Karma,” the slithering thrust ‘n’ slash soul killer that captures the unraveling of a spurned lover, moving from self-recrimination to a furious hurl of emotion at the rejecter. With an almost blunt-force trauma level performance on the final verse, Stone churlishly wails the kind of threatening truth all men fear:
“Now I got a loaded gun now, baby/Gonna love to watch you run like a lady/Watch you cry like a baby/Like I did when you were gone.”
“When I sing, I really do mean it,” she says brightly when confronted with the song’s vocal intensity. “When you get angry [in a song], you just wanna cry, and it’s strange because it’s three to five minutes, and it’s over. But you can put yourself completely into it and get it right!
“It kinda knackers me out a bit,” she continues, offering a sense of how it feels to be Joss Stone giving herself over to a song. “I give it a massive amount of shit. I do—and I really mean it. I just go and go until I’m on the floor. That’s the trick: to give until you give it all, and you’ve got nothing left. That’s when people will believe you.
“And, you know, it’s supposed to be a journey that makes you feel. If not, what’s the point? I mean, really? Anything less, and it’s not enough.”
Not enough, indeed. Stone isn’t going to phone it in. That’s why her second album, Mind, Body & Soul, made her the youngest woman to top the UK charts and opened the door for industrial train wreck Amy Winehouse and modern diva Adele, as well as a coterie of lesser vocalists.
The music on LP1 is—as the interview’s underlying thematic suggests—freer. Stewart did everything he could to encourage that. “There’s something very exciting about doing something dangerous!” he says.
“The whole idea: We’re going to do something in six days, and we’re going to leave victorious! You light a spark and let it happen. There was a massive amount of drinking vodka and smoking, talking about life and love and the world around her … and it’s a bunch of brilliant musicians looking at her, recognizing how good she is, going, ‘Sing your heart out.’
“She’s always had a soulful thing,” Stewart continues as his car snakes through the Hollywood Hills. “But it’s an old soul, from another life almost. She needed to grow and catch up with herself, then put all that experience into the songs. There was a lot of laughing and crying going on in the studio, but it was all real.
“That’s the idea: to capture those things! Joss’ voice is incredibly sexy, but it also has incredible power. She’s like a racehorse … she can go from a whisper to a scream with this incredible control, or she can wail like Janis Joplin. So you put her in a room with these incredible musicians who respond to a singer like that—it’s like driving a Ferrari. You only have to turn the wheel a tiny, tiny bit or else you go flying off the road.”
Flying off the road isn’t beyond Stone. One thinks there’s a part of the free fall that this woman, who’s played Live Aid, Bonnaroo and every award show around the globe, might enjoy.
Full-tilt is the only option. And that can encompass a broad band of desire, like the smoky, sultry “Drive All Night,” Stone’s favorite and the last track recorded for her album. A witness not just to desire, but to being desired, it is emotionally naked enough to be almost embarrassing, and it certainly evokes the raw want of Barry White.
“There’s this heavy groove to it, and we’d been working for six days, so the band really figured out how to sit into me,” Stone recalls. “It’s funny: I was actually on the sofa asleep when they started playing it. I was literally under the covers and was like, ‘That sounds good!’ It was that easy.”
Rhodes recalls that moment as well. “She did the vocal, literally, lying down on a foam sound baffle. She’s that good, and you never know until you record someone how much is artifice, how much contrivance and how much is work done after!
“But she’s got this combination of tone and pocket … She’s gotten to know who she is. That makes for a strong presence because there’s a big difference between an artist and an act. But her sense of self … it translates to how completely she sings. A lot of this went down on the fly, and her vocals happened first take while we were playing. She raises the ships all at once. Literally, she galvanizes and calibrates the experience for everyone as it’s happening.”
For a girl who’d never seen a steel guitar before, who’d been working under more restrictive marketing-based conditions, the notion of freedom gave her the latitude to hush as much as hurl that massive voice against the universe. With the elegiac pledge “Boat Yard” and Dan Dugmore’s road-slick shimmer steel on “Take Good Care,” a song drawn from a war reporter’s reality, Stone is as tender and strong as a woman can be.
“I only wrote one verse of ‘Take Good Care,’” she explains. “Paul Conroy, in Libya right now, is like my best friend and a war reporter. He’s been on tour with us, and I’d told him I’d go help him clean the bottom of his little boat in Spain. I spent several days there, and he played me this when I was down there.
“He’s so funny. But the thing is, he’s seen the disgusting shit that war is, and the idea that everything in this song comes from what it’s really like … well, there you go!”
There you go. It’s that simple. Gather the tribe, make the music. Call Stewart, write the songs, create it in an atmosphere of hyper-creativity and let people find the waterline. It’s this same attitude that informs Stone’s notion of making the business happen.
“Everybody has a role, and each is as important as the next,” she says. “When I was younger, there was this guy who said, ‘Joss, it’s all about you,’ and that roughed me up a bit because there’s so much to it, and you want everyone who does what they do to do it well! This [business] stuff can be stressful, so you find someone who can help, who understands and knows what you want, like Brian (Stone’d’s general manager).
“The business is not a kind thing. It’s like everyone hates doing taxes but they have to get done. Knowing it’s not kind and loving, it’s a quality of life thing. And even if I wanted to be the biggest pop star in the world, I just couldn’t. I couldn’t take the stress of it or all the judging people. I like to make my cakes!”
Her father’s waiting. They’ve driven down to Mama Stone’s, the club her mother owns, and she’s trying to make a point. Joss Stone isn’t complaining, isn’t whining, isn’t trying to play the woe-is-me card.
Not only did she get what she wanted; in the end, she got it on her own terms.
“You’ve got to have respect for yourself,” she says finally. “And it’s OK to be angry, if someone’s being an absolute wanker. But it’s so much easier to just feel it, then get on with it.
“Get on with it,” she echoes. “Yes, you know, bring on love, bring on the loss of love. It’s all good. It’s quality of life. Look at this: We had a little giggle. We did it my way, made some noise and had some fun!
“I can honestly say, now I’m free. I feel free, and I’m going to be free.”