Stone on a Roll
Joss Stone is all about the love. Obsessed with it actually. Over the course of a phone call from Vancouver, the last in a series of whirlwind press interviews to promote her new album, Introducing Joss Stone, she uses the word to describe much of what motivates her. "I don't make music for fame and wealth," she insists. "Money just messes people up. I do it for the music ... for the love and for the feelings it gives me. If I was doing another job, I'd be a midwife, a hairstylist, a therapist ... something that would let me look out for other people, to give love.... But nothing can stop me from making music. There are a lot of people who like taking drugs or getting drunk or sleeping with the world. I understand that, because my pill is music. The love of music is what keeps me going."
Her protests notwithstanding, Stone has in fact gained fame and wealth from making music. Lots of both, and all at a very early age. Just nineteen years old, she is releasing her third album, despite its belated and bewildering title. In the strictest sense, the CD isn't an introduction at all, but an ambitious progression away from her R&B regimen. Where her first two discs found her emulating classic Sixties and Seventies soul, Introducing moves her musically and mentally into the new millennium, injecting her R&B with a fresh infusion of rap, reggae, hip-hop, and pervasive dance grooves. It is, she says, a statement about who she really is and what she wants to represent as an artist.
"I started recording when I was fifteen, and no fifteen-year-old can walk into a record company and demand artistic control," Stone maintains. "I had to wait in order to do that. Plus I had very little trust in myself back then. I didn't know what I wanted. So I had to learn some lessons."
Those lessons came quickly. Born Joscelyn Stoker in Dover, England, she immersed herself in classic R&B from a very young age, soaking up the soulful styles of chanteuses like Anita Baker and Dusty Springfield, whose greatest hits she would play every day after school. At age fourteen, she entered a talent competition in New York and won by singing Donna Summer's "On the Radio," which resulted in a contract with S-Curve Records. Whisked away to Miami to record, she was teamed with what was once the cream of the city's soul squad -- Benny Latimore, Timmy Thomas, Little Beaver. (In fact coproducer Betty Wright's own hit, "Cleanup Woman," was a massive crossover in the early Seventies.)
The result, the aptly titled Soul Sessions (2003), was made up entirely of covers, proving a fitting introduction to Stone's extraordinarily emotive vocal prowess. It sold two million copies and launched her career on a rapid upward trajectory, which was further fueled by her sophomore effort a year later, Mind, Body & Soul, a set comprising mostly Stone's own compositions. Sales soared into the platinum-plus category as the album inched its way toward the Billboard Top 10.
With the dawning of 2005, Stone was already a major star, having garnered three Grammy nominations, among them one for Best New Artist. And in a further sign that she had indeed arrived, she was added to the Live 8 lineup and tapped as the opening act on the first leg of the Rolling Stones' American tour.
However, with her success, Stone has found herself mired in controversy. Some critics have complained that a young white girl from England has no right singing songs so ingrained in America's black experience, and that along with interpreting the material, she is plundering them for her own profit. Allegations of marijuana use, snippy comments about an intimate personal relationship with one of her producers, and a radical hair and fashion makeover have brought the newly crowned Devon diva further drubbing from the press.
"Why does color have to be attached to a song? I'm just trying to make real music. Real music isn't owned by anybody," she says. "I can't hear any country or color when I sing these songs. I woke up in the UK one day and I stumbled over Aretha Franklin. I thought that kind of music was universal. To say it's just for Americans is silly. I love it because it's great music."
Despite the air of confidence, Stone admits she still gets stage fright, a predicament that plagued her even before her professional stage debut -- which, trivia buffs might someday note, took place in Miami at Tobacco Road. "I find performing in front of a live audience very scary and quite frightening," she concedes. "But if I let myself be afraid, then I wouldn't go out my front door."
No doubt about it, Stone seems more than happy with her gig. And though she tosses platitudes about freely, her ebullience and enthusiasm are genuine. It's as if she sees herself on a mission. "The ability to spread my music as far as I can, that's one of the good parts of my job," she gushes. "People chasing you home from a shop, around to the house, I'll be bugged by that the rest of my life. It can be a real pain in the ass. But it's worth it because music fixes me. Life is different every day, and sometimes it's not so great and sometimes the bad days follow each other quite closely. Sometimes it's hard to carry on in this stupid world. Sometimes it really sucks the life out of me. The music industry can be cruel. But nothing can stop me from making music, and that's what saves me.
"I love the music so much," Stone says again, emphasizing the point a final time. If you're young, beautiful, talented, and flush with fame and fortune, perhaps it's true -- all you need is love.
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