Joss Stone: They’re listening to her now
August 29, 2007
SNOWMASS VILLAGE Speaking about her years as a teenage soul-music star, Joss Stone reflects calmly and wisely about what was often a difficult experience. Back then, a relatively compliant artist sat back and watched as producers, record-company executives and other handlers made decisions about the music that would ultimately be credited to Stone.”I sat there and listened, and disagreed with some of it,” said Stone by phone from Los Angeles. “But that didn’t matter. If I disagree, no grown man in his right mind is going to listen to a 15-year-old.”Stone, now all of 20 years old, strikes a noticeably accepting stance toward that time, which covers her first two albums: 2003’s “The Soul Sessions,” which yielded the hit “Fell in Love with a Boy” and earned a nomination for Britain’s Mercury Prize; and 2004’s “Mind, Body & Soul,” which earned three Grammy nominations, including one for best pop vocal album. “It was a good thing, in a way, relying on all these professionals,” she said. “Now, I understand it. How could I bloody expect people to give me that leeway?”Of course, that’s looking at it with benefit of time having past. When it was happening – when Stone would record a track and have others mess with it, regardless of her input – it was a different sort of experience.”At the time, you never feel like you’re learning,” she said. “At the time, it was, ‘Why isn’t anyone fucking listening to me? Am I just being ignored?'”Stone’s perspective on the first stage of her career is only part of what has changed in recent years. She has also rectified the root of those early frustrations, so that she won’t be gritting her teeth, watching someone else take control of her music and career.
In March, Stone released “Introducing Joss Stone.” It’s a curious title for a third album, especially when that album follows two others that received so much attention. (“The Soul Sessions” entered the top five album charts in the U.K.; “Mind, Body & Soul” hit No. 1.) But the new album marks the arrival, Stone believes, of a new artist and a new person. Stone co-wrote virtually all of the songs on “Introducing Joss Stone,” in contrast to the debut album, which comprised mostly covers of little-known soul songs. Where “Soul Sessions” featured a handful of producers, the new album has one, Stone’s hand-picked artistic mate, Raphael Saadiq.”Basically, I had a certain amount of years before ‘Introducing Joss Stone’ where there were a lot of people involved,” said Stone, who makes her local debut Saturday at the Jazz Aspen Snowmass Labor Day Festival, opening for R&B singer John Legend. “It wasn’t one person making the art.”Now, there is one person directing the music-making, and it is the person whose name is on the album. Stone is credited as executive producer on “Introducing Joss Stone.” She has also taken the reins of her career, acting as her own manager. Stone’s views on music, she says, haven’t changed. But her willingness and ability to voice those views have.”Now, I have those same opinions,” she said. “But I’ve gained enough respect over the years to have people listen to me.” During the making of “Introducing Joss Stone,” she continued, “Raphael would sit behind the glass and look up every 15 minutes at me, to see what I thought. What was so brilliant was having people check with me, to see if it was all right.”It’s cool, and quite scary, to have that freedom.”Stone’s instincts have been rewarded. “Introducing Joss Stone,” which features vocal contributions from Common and Lauryn Hill, hasn’t been quite the smash her previous albums were in the U.K. But in the States, it made the highest-charting debut for any British female artist (edging Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black,” which had been released a few weeks earlier). The album also reveals an artistic step forward, mixing more of a contemporary sensibility with the throwback soul sound Stone unveiled on the first two CDs.Change, it should come as little surprise, is the dominant theme of “Introducing Joss Stone.” In fact, “Change” is the opening track – though that is just a brief spoken word credited to actor and former soccer star, Vinnie Jones. Throughout the album there are hints that Stone has romantic change in mind. But the love story seems to be folded inside bigger changes in attitude and personal identity.
Stone recognizes that it’s peculiar for a 20-year-old to have so much to put behind her. “It’s weird, isn’t it?” she said.But Stone hasn’t been living life at the normal speed. After gravitating toward the soul sound of such female singers as Dusty Springfield and Aretha Franklin – she says the world pinned soul music on her – she appeared, at 14, on a British TV talent show, singing Donna Summer’s “On the Radio.” Two years later, she released “The Soul Sessions,” a remarkably accomplished and popular album, no matter who was steering its course. Since then, Stone has made the A-list music rounds. With Bono and Coldplay leader Chris Martin, she remade “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” for the benefit Band Aid 20; the single was the U.K.’s biggest seller of 2004. She has performed at the Super Bowl and the Grammy Award ceremonies, and contributed to Herbie Hancock’s “Possibilities” CD and to the soundtrack for “Fantastic Four.” Known for a neo-hippie sensibility – which includes performing barefoot – she has even broken beyond the musical realm. She appeared in (and contributed a pair of songs to) a Gap ad campaign. Last year, she made her big-screen debut in the fantasy film, “Eragon.”All of which has made the last five years a dynamic half-decade, and explains the need for abrupt changes.”In a normal life, 20 might be a bit young,” she said. “But I’ve been forced to grow up. Not by anyone. But my life requires me to be a lot more wise. The life experiences I’ve had are too many for too few years. Very concentrated. People say, ‘You’re an old soul,’ but I tell them, no, it’s just that I’ve done a lot of things in a few years.”Predictably, some of that activity has generated controversy. At the 2007 Brit Awards, in February, Stone, appearing as a presenter, used a put-on L.A. accent and made some perplexing statements. The tabloids had a small field day with it. Stone says she’s handled it fine, accusing the press of being “just mean.””What’s so annoying,” she said, “is if I could figure out what was annoying people so much, I’d change it. But I’m just doing my job. I get onstage, I sing, and I go offstage. I do my job, and then I go home.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org