by Jay S. Jacobs
You can’t help but notice the voice. It is strong, sensuous, assured. It soars to a crescendo or sighs to a whisper. It flat-out belts a soulful, joyful noise that reaches for the heavens and tries to box with God. Yet it doesn’t fall victim to the showiness of the Mariah Carey / Christina Aguilera wannabes. This woman ain’t gonna use ten notes when one is good enough, even if she has the ability to do so. The voice is the sound of a soul mama, a woman who worked her way up from backing vocals and she isn’t letting her no-good man hold her back no more.
Sometimes it’s easy to forget that the voice comes from a cute, quiet, slightly shy 16-year-old British girl.
You wouldn’t necessarily think it to look at her, but Joss Stone is the possessor of those soulful pipes. And they are taking her on a whirlwind ride of recording studios, live shows and industry hype. A few years ago, she was just a little girl in Devon, England. Now she’s traveling the States in a bus with her mom, living through a grueling press tour. She’s been the subject of a feature story in Entertainment Weekly, performed on Good Morning America and Late Night with Conan O’Brien, been profiled in The New York Times and many of the other big name papers. She’s booked gigs in some of the coolest venues in the US, such as Joe’s Pub in New York and the Troubadour in LA.
When Stone speaks, she has a charming Brit lilt to her voice that gets completely erased when she sings. She’s refreshingly real in interviews. She hasn’t gotten her stories all polished up from repeated telling. She says “um,” and “like” and “you know” often enough that you know that she’s still getting the hang of this part of the job. Joss Stone is still a girl who is a little amazed by this merry-go-round she’s taking.
So, just who is Joss Stone?
To look at her, she’s like the girl-next-door, more likely to be listening to Justin Timberlake or Pink than Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson or Otis Redding. But truth is, she was raised on old school soul. The first album she ever got was an Aretha Franklin hits compilation that she saw on a TV advert and she begged her mom to buy it for her. Stone soon became obsessed with Stax and Atlantic Records.
At fourteen, while watching a talent show called Star For a Night, Joss knew she could do better. On a whim she tried out. Stone sang “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and “It’s Not Right, But It’s Okay” on the show. And she won. Through that appearance, she found her management. She, her parents and her managers decided early on to change her name for the singing career. Yes, she did openly tell me what her real name is, but I’m not going to be the snitch…
“That’s my family name,” Joss explains. “I think it’s best to keep the two separate, you know? Then I can put on my stage hat, and my family hat when I go home. It’s good for the rest of my family.”
Stone’s managers knew the British producers called the Boiler House Boys. They were impressed by Joss’ natural vocal ability, and brought her to the attention of Steven Greenberg, a former A&R rep who had started his own label, S-Curve. Greenberg has since said that when he first saw Stone and then heard her sing, he started laughing. He thought it was some kind of joke on him.
No joke. The voice really was coming from Stone. And she really was getting signed to a record label. Stone went to work on her debut album, made up of songs she wrote or co-wrote. Greenberg hooked Joss up with 70s soul siren Betty Wright (who had hits such as “Clean Up Woman” and “Dance With Me”). When the album was nearly complete, Greenbergcame up with a brainstorm. Stone should record some forgotten soul classics.
“He had the idea of doing an EP, like three or four tracks, with these soul legends, with Betty Wright,” Stone says. “Steve loves Betty Wright. Then it turned into this whole album thing, it got bigger and bigger and bigger. It was just meant to be an introduction to my album.”
Greenberg decided that he wanted to celebrate the Miami Sound of the seventies. Other than Wright, artists like K.C. & the Sunshine Band and George McCrae were responsible for sun-drenched southern soul beats. Greenberg asked Wright if she could get some of the biggest names from the scene to play in Stone’s band for the project. Specifically, he wanted Timmy Thomas (“Why Can’t We Live Together”) on organ, Latimore (“Let’s Straighten It Out”) on piano and Willie “Little Beaver” Hale (“Party Down”) on guitar. He asked Wright if she’d ask them to come in. She said it was no problem, give her a couple of days. What she didn’t say was she hadn’t seen any of them in over a decade.
With a bit of detective work, Betty Wright was able to track down her old compatriots. Only Latimore was still in the music biz, Thomas was now a college administrator and Hale works for Amtrak. They all agreed to come in and jam.
Now it was a matter of deciding what they should play. “Steve had loads of different songs cut onto a CD, like, I don’t know, thirty or forty,” Stone says. “We would listen to them, and I would pick the ones I liked, and Betty would pick the ones she liked. And she brought a few songs to the table, too. [Co-producer] Mike Mangini, he had a really big input in that. He was amazing. So, we all sat around in a ring and decided on the songs.”
The songs that made up The Soul Sessions is a tasty gumbo of long-forgotten jams like the wonderful “Super Duper Love (Are You Diggin’ On Me)” by the obscure one-hitter Sugar Billy. “The Chokin’ Kind” was an old country tune which Joe Simon roughed up and took to the top of the soul charts. Bettye Swann’s mesmerizing ballad “Victim of A Foolish Heart” and Laura Lee’s smoky “Dirty Man” are also resurrected.
While they respected the songs, they had no interest in doing note-by-note reproductions of the originals. Stone would use each song as a blueprint, but she needed to sing them in her own way. “I try not to listen to them too much.” Joss laughs. “So, then I don’t recall the melody. I basically try to forget the original melody and make up my own. You know, as much as I could…
“To tell you the truth, I’m just making it up as I go along. Seriously, I’m just singing it how I think it should sound. I’m not using any special techniques.”
Even when they recorded songs that were more familiar, Stone and her band were determined to give the songs their own personal stamp. They did record John Ellison’s “Some Kind of Wonderful” (best known as Grand Funk Railroad’s rocking remake) and the Isley Brothers’ “For the Love of You” (which has also been covered by artists like Whitney Houston and Candy Dulfer in more recent years).
“We listened to the originals. Like, ‘Some Kind of Wonderful,’ we listened to that one, but then Steve had the idea of doing that in kind of a D’Angelo way. You know that song ‘Devil’s Pie?’ Using that kind of rough bassline and drums. That kind of thing. So we’d kind of just mix up two things.”
She also was given a chance to do a tribute to the singer that got her started singing soul, covering “All the King’s Horses” by Aretha Franklin. “I didn’t really want to do it,” Stone admits. “I was scared of covering one of her songs. It’s Aretha Franklin! It turned out cool, I think. It’s not half as good as hers, but…”
The marathon Miami soul sessions were completed in just a few days. She then flew up to Philadelphia to do one last song for the album. A rather surprising one. She does an astonishingly sultry rethink of the White Stripes “Fell In Love With A Girl” (here rechristened “Fell In Love With A Boy.”) It was produced by the Roots leader Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson. (“Ahmir is the coolest person. He’s so nice! I love him.”) The song also featured the Roots on instruments and had backing vocals by R&B star Angie Stone. (“She’s a blast, man. She’s wicked.”)
Stone was so taken with the experience of recording live in the studio, instead of the normal set-up of obsessively recording each note. “Because I had done some stuff in the studio before I did The Soul Sessions, it was very different, but I totally prefer it that way,” Stone enthuses. “Not only do I prefer the making of it, I prefer how it sounds. What we did, we went back, and the stuff I had recorded for my album, we scrapped that and recorded it again, live, because it sounds so much better.”
In the meantime, the media blitz continues. Hopefully The Soul Sessions will reach the audience it so richly deserves. “I think The Soul Sessions could reach any audience. I mean, as long as people listen to it,” Stone laughs. “The thing is, I want everyone to just listen to it. If you don’t like it, then that’s cool, but, I want to give people a chance not to like it.”
Now that The Soul Sessions has been released to rapturous reviews, she is back to thinking about the original album. This one will also include performances by Wright and the Roots, as well as veteran songwriter Desmond Child and Chic songwriter/producer/guitarist Nile Rodgers. (“He’s lovely. He’s a sweetie.”)
We know what Joss Stone can do with another writer’s song, but what can we expect from her originals? “Well, they’re definitely more contemporary,” Stone says. “You’ve got a mix there. On my album next year, there’ll be like, a reggae track on there, and some hip hop influences in there. But, it’s still soulful. I can’t sing without soul. I try to keep a little bit of soul in there, because that’s what it’s all about.”
|#1 © 2003 Karen Fuchs. Courtesy of S-Curve/EMI Records.|
|#2 © 2003 Karen Fuchs. Courtesy of S-Curve/EMI Records.|
|#3 © 2003 Roger Moenks. Courtesy of S-Curve/EMI Records.|
Copyright ©2003 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: September 27, 2003.