Bold Soul Sister

Joss Stone hits a high note with her third album

Bold Soul Sister
Joss Stone hits a high note with her third album

“I love your boots,” Joss Stone exclaims with an excitable pitch to a stranger passing by. Taking a moment out of FLARE’s exclusive interview, the British soul-stress brings our conversation to a full stop because she just has to get the scoop on a pair of pink boots she’s spotted on a surprised New Yorker. “Where did you get them?” she asks. “Victoria’s Secret? I’m going!”

Five steps and five seconds later, she switches back to focus, giggling about the interruption. With a beguiling combination of youthful insecurity and artistic assuredness, Stone’s power-packed voice is made more improbable by the sunshiny disposition of its owner. She’s 19, yet commands attention like an old pro. And that famed Shakira-esque mane? The one that would make Botticelli’s Venus seek a new colourist? It’s clearly part of Stone’s allure. And the fact that she swapped blond for brown (just before FLARE’s photo shoot) is evidence of the woman Stone is fast becoming: independent, un-categorizable and completely unpredictable..

Those beautiful locks are far from Stone’s claim to fame, though. Since her 2003 debut, The Soul Sessions, she has earned three Grammy nominations, performed with the likes of James Brown, Elton John, Patti LaBelle, Gladys Knight and, most famously, Melissa Etheridge (at the 2005 Grammys, with a cover duet of Janis Joplin’s “Cry Baby/Piece of My Heart” that lighted up the stage. In fact, it was so impressive that the live version was released as an iTunes single—and it topped the charts in three countries).

Recently, Stone has also been able to act alongside film heavyweights such as John Malkovich, Rachel Weisz and Jeremy Irons in her much-buzzed about debut in the fantasy flick, Eragon. Ironically, she plays a wise-beyond-her-years witch named Angela who can see into the future.

Yet, with all that success behind her, it is her inevitable next career move that Stone is currently over the moon about: her third album—as yet untitled and slated for release next month — is, by self-definition, her “proudest and most personal achievement yet” and features a killer duet with one of her idols, Lauryn Hill. While she spent about six months writing from a villa in Barbados’s Sugar Hill, Stone recorded the album (produced by hit R&B producer Raphael Saadiq — the man responsible for Jill Scott’s meteoric rise) in Bob Marley’s oceanfront studio in the Bahamas, with little sea crabs scuttling about the floors.


con’t next page >

“I love these songs. The albums I made before were just kind of OK for me. I didn’t like performing them. Some of the songs worried me. But now I’m confident in the music. It’s really something that’s come from me. It’s my soul; it’s out, I finally got it out of my body, and I couldn’t get it out before, because nobody could help me. Finally, I feel like I found something!”

Born in Dover, England, Stone rejected the expected get-good-grades-and-go-to-university trajectory from an early age. “I hated school,” she says, sharing her disgust with the same enthusiasm as when she talks about the things she loves. “I was a daydreamer. The first day I went to school, when I came home, I said to my mom, ‘I don’t want to go there anymore. I really don’t like to be told what to do.’ So that didn’t really work out.”

She preferred singing to, say, geometry, but her musical tastes didn’t tend toward the conventional, either. “When I was younger, I wasn’t looking at what was popular. I always felt like an outcast from the rest of my friends because they wanted to be the Spice Girls and I wanted to be Aretha Franklin or Whitney Houston,” she says, remembering the lightbulb moment when she first laid eyes and ears on Aretha Franklin: “I’m watching TV and I see this woman, and it was an ad for an Aretha Franklin greatest hits [CD], and I didn’t even know her name. So I see this woman and I hear ‘Respect.’ ” Stone treats me to her very own clip of the song, then continues. “I ran downstairs, grabbed a pen and paper, wrote down her name and said, ‘I want that CD [for Christmas].’ And when I got that first CD, I just thought, I want to sing like that. She is an inspiration. She, to me, is the best singer who has ever walked this earth.”


con’t next page >

Indeed, the British phenom has often been compared to the soul legend. When I mention the similarities, Stone’s voice rises to a bashful, childlike pitch. “Awww. That’s so sweet. I wish. Maybe one day.” But despite Stone’s early addiction to soul music, she was not the little diva of the household. Her father (who runs a business called Western Commodities, importing exotic fruits and nuts) used to ask his daughter to sing at family parties, and she was terrified.

“I was very shy. I thought everybody would think I was really awful. I would cry. It made me feel sick. I didn’t want to stand there and have people look at me; that’s not my personality. It makes me really uncomfortable.”

Although she loved singing, her childhood career fantasies didn’t involve footlights and swooning fans: she wanted to be a vet. It was, curiously, her love of animals that launched her career in performance. She sets the scene with trademark sparkle: “This is what happened. I was 12; I was obsessed with animals and I had a horse, Freddie.” But there came a time when Freddie became too expensive and the family could no longer afford the upkeep. So the 12-year-old decided to audition for a BBC-produced American Idol-like TV program called Star for a Night. “I thought, Well, this is a good way to get a job, and since I disliked school…. That was the reason I did it: I didn’t care about singing, I just wanted to get my horse back.”

Stone won raves for her performance of Donna Summer’s “On the Radio” on Star for a Night. From there, she headed to New York City with her parents and auditioned at S-Curve Records. “I was hugely nervous,” she says. “I was shakin’ in my boots.” She sang “Midnight Train to Georgia.” The then-president of S-Curve, Steve Greenberg (current prez of Columbia Records), collapsed in disbelieving laughter.


con’t next page >

Before Stone’s live debut at the Miami club Tobacco Road, she wept in a fit of fear and nerves, the same little girl frightened of singing at her family barbecue. “I basically shut my eyes for pretty much the whole thing, put my hair over my face and did the best I could.”

Stone is still overcome with nerves before performing, especially if she’s in a star-studded lineup. “I get scared because I feel like [the audience doesn’t] want to see me. I worry that I’m intruding on their night. I don’t want to ruin anybody’s meal. That’s why if I make one mistake, I get so emotional. I want people to have a good time and feel good.” She prefers to be the headliner, that way at least she doesn’t feel like she’s an interloper. “If it’s my gig, I feel better about it, because they’ve paid to see me, so it’s all right,” she explains.

Despite her massive talent, Stone’s modesty comes (in part) from her distaste for diva-dom and all its accompanying artifice. “Certain people in life want to be divas, but I don’t want that. If I don’t like people who are like that, why would I want to be like that myself?” She insists with considerable maturity: “You can’t believe your own hype because it’s not true. Everybody used to tell me, ‘It’s all about you,’ and I’d look at them and say, ‘No, it’s not. If I don’t have a drummer, I won’t have a beat.’ ”

Given her anti-tabloid persona, it’s not surprising, then, that she steers clear of the ’razzi-ridden industry parties. “If I want to go out, I’ll go listen to some live music or play pool. I don’t like to go to those big splashy parties. You’re not going for fun; you’re going to network.”

She shares her philosophy, speaking more slowly and deliberately than usual. “At the end of the day, this is the one thing I must remember.” She pauses. “I am just making a noise that people happen to like. Plain and simple. I’m not saving anybody’s life. I’m not working miracles. I do want to make people feel something, though.” And that’s reason enough to listen.


back to first page >