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theartsdesk Q&A: soul singer Joss Stone | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk Q&A: soul singer Joss Stone

theartsdesk Q&A: soul singer Joss Stone

Soul star discusses international collaboration, freedom from big labels, and how Freddie the horse started it all

Joss Stone: heart and soul of the music

Joss Stone is one of our most popular and successful soul singers, with a rich bronze voice and supple delivery that’s already earned her two Brit Awards and a Grammy, and made her Britain’s richest woman under 30. She burst onto the scene at the age of 16 with Soul Sessions, an acclaimed album of soul classics from artists including Arethra Franklin and Carla Thomas.

She has also had some high-profile acting roles, and her choice of musical collaborators is refreshingly eclectic, from Damian Marley and virtuosi of the Indian tabla to English hard-man footballer Vinnie Jones.

She has always been keen to retain full artistic control of her career. After a disagreement over the album Colour Me Free with previous label EMI in 2009, she set up her own record company, Stone’d Records, to secure total control over her own releases. While working on with the supergroup SuperHeavy, with Dave Stewart and Mick Jagger, she got to know Damian Marley (son of Bob), and with his encouragement she began recording reggae songs. Her latest album, Water For Your Soul, marks a new departure, with reggae songs and a range of other sounds from world music.

In person she is warm and attentive, without any hint of rock star attitude. She has a broad appeal, managing simultaneously to sustain a high profile with a wide range of fans, securing prominence in the more conservative papers and an invitation to the wedding of Kate and William, while also being a sometimes outspoken supporter of marijuana. I met her as she was planning where to go next on the world tour that will not only see worldwide performances, but establish international musical collaborations for the next stage of her recording career.  

Your new album, Water For Your Soul, includes reggae, Indian tablas, even a snatch of Celtic fiddle, all new to your sound. What was it like working these new sounds into your music?

The reggae sound hasn’t been so difficult because it’s been part of the food of my life. I’ve listened to it since I was born. The tablas, the sarod, and the flute on “Sensimilia” are new to me, but [producer] Nitin Sawhney made it easy to adapt. Nitin’s influence is much bigger than people realise, and he was so easy to work with, so adaptable, that it was never an issue to get the sound I wanted. The musicians hold the power, but Nitin is sweet and kind with that power. He teaches me a lot. Learning to play the tablas was cool as well. Arif Khan, who played tablas, taught me the language and rhythm of the tabla, and only when you know the language can you start playing it. A guitar is made beautiful by the person playing it, but the tabla is beautiful in itself, and the history of it. I’m so intrigued by that.

Love is important in our lives even if we have it just for a minute

I hope I’ve managed to include the world influence without swaying me into a world that’s not soulful. I want to remain soulful – that’s where I am, that’s my spirit. So I want to keep that, but I don’t want to be stuck. And I don’t have to be stuck, because now I’m completely free.

So having your own label, and the freedom to design your own work as you see fit, has liberated your creative process?

Musically, having that freedom has changed the sound. If I had made this record and given it to Nick Gatfield at EMI, there’s no way the world would hear it. It’s too much of a departure. It’s written in the contract, with big labels, that new work must be “in keeping” with what you’ve done before. It stifles an artist from growing. If you’ve got a five-album deal, all those albums have to sound the same. That’s too depressing, man, I can’t do that, I want to enjoy music. Some people might hate this one, but that’s ok, there’ll be another one, and they might like that.  

Cows were my first audience

You Released a Yes Sir Boss EP on Stone’d, but otherwise, the label is all your own albums. Are you tempted to roll it out to other artists?

The Yes Sir Boss experience was lovely for everyone. I never want to tell anyone what to do, but they ran with it from the start, so it worked brilliantly. I do have plans, but nothing I can confirm at this stage.

The world tour is really the project I’m doing at the moment. This is my focus. In each country I visit, I try to make a collaboration with somebody who’s born in that country and makes music in that country, and each time I try to spread the word for that person, and learn something from them. Along that road I meet people I want to sing with again and again. If our team is effective, I can help other people with that team. I need to get Stone’d Records into a place where it can help other people.

I couldn’t do it by myself. It totally comes down to having good team. At first I had a fun time without a team, but it was crazy. Now there’s a great management team: a lawyer, accountant, book-keeper, radio guy, PR. The team is so important.

What would you advise a young artist about relations with record companies?  

For every decision, big or small, whether you’re doing a day or promo or playing Wembley Stadium, write it down. Sometimes you’ll forget why you chose to do certain things, and it’s crucial to stay in control. When you forget or lose your focus, people can sway you. Why do you want to do music? To be famous and rich? To inspire people? To meet similar artists? As long as you know why, it’ll help you stay focused. You don’t need labels as much today; you can be much freer. Best to go with an independent if possible.

Joss StoneWhen I first signed, when I was 14, I was too young to know how to do things myself, and I learned loads. I was so lucky I signed to Steve Greenberg, because he loved soul music, and I did too. The other labels said I had to do the pop thing, but I was lucky to be taught by a group of people who wanted me to do what I wanted to do. When I’d learned what to do, and that group dissipated, that’s when I needed the freedom. I didn’t know how to have that freedom on album one.

Have there been disadvantages as well as the obvious advantages to having a life in music from the age of 14?

From 11 to 14, I spent a lot of time drinking cider in the bus stop and smoking weed, and doing things that weren’t good for me, but I got very bored, and decided to get a job. My first job was singing, and that’s been my only job. I’ve only missed out on a lot of time in the bus shelter. I’ve had so much fun signing. I wasn’t a great student at school, and it was better that I was travelling round the world singing with fantastic people than at home skiving off.

It was Freddie the horse that started my career. At the age of 12, I was worried about how to solve the issue of my mum’s horse, Freddie. My mum was going to sell Freddie, because we didn’t ride him a lot, and he was very expensive to keep. I thought that since mum and dad already had a job, and couldn’t afford him, I should get one to help pay. I was racking my brains thinking – everyone says I’m stupid, I can’t do maths, science or English, so I can’t get a job. One evening, when I was watching TV, feeling disillusioned, I saw Star For A Night, which I watched every week, and suddenly it struck me that people do that for a job, and I could do it too. So I wrote off, sent in my cassette tape, and queued up for audition.

So that was the beginning. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the horse back. The girl who bought Freddie was there every day, and it worked out better for both of us. Freddie was very happy until he died a few years ago.

Cows were my first audience. Go out to the top of a hedge and sing. The cows will come over. They’re an awesome audience. The brave ones come to the front and play. I still sing to the cows. I also used to sing round the house a lot. I was too shy for the school choir. I sang at a friend's wedding when I was 11, and I was incredibly nervous. I still am; I hate that feeling. I stood up to sing “Amazing Grace” in front of 200 people, and everyone was looking at me, so I said, “Can you not look at me please?” and they turned away and listened. That was my first performance to a large group of people.

Was it meeting Damian Marley through the supergroup Superheavy (with Mick Jagger and Dave Stewart) that encouraged you to include reggae in this album?

Meeting Damian Marley gave me permission. I was already doing reggae before that. I had a few songs, one called “Wake Up” (see below), which is on the album, and another called “Underworld”. I wasn't writing an album, I was just jamming. When I met Damian, it was a big deal for me – he’s reggae royalty – and I listened to him. Playing on the SuperHeavy album, there’s a track called “Miracle Worker” with a reggae vibe, where we play off each other. We really connected, worked on some songs in his studio, and he said, “Joss, you should make a reggae record.” I thought I would get into trouble doing that, just as I did when I first sang soul. But nobody owns genres any more, and Damian said, “Just do it!” I sang “Wake Up”, then Damian went to his studio and cut his contribution straight away. He’s such a nice guy, and so honest, which is crucial for a musical partner.

You’ve been associated with soul since the first Soul Sessions album more than 10 years ago. Covering songs by Arethra Franklin and Carla Thomas's "I've Fallen in Love With You" and Aretha Franklin's "All the King's Horses," not to mention John Ellison's memorable "Some Kind of Wonderful," was bold for a young debut album. There’s a lot of life experience in those songs. Is that hard to do at 16?

I was more emotional then than I am now, and songs like “Super Duper Love”, “I’ve Fallen In Love with You” or “Victim of a Foolish Heart”, I’ve always been able to put my school friends into song, if it’s a cover. Betty Wright taught me that. She told me to work out who it was about, and properly feel it. It’s exhausting doing that for a whole gig because you’re going from one feeling to another. It changes over the years, but as long as you totally feel it, it works. It is a crazy headspace, though. I use that skill in other parts of my life now.  

The time they were encouraging me to sing pop was for my third record, when I was working alone. That relationship was uncomfortable. But Soul Sessions was an amazing experience. Steve Greenberg is obsessed with soul music. He knows the back catalogues in incredible detail. He had the idea to do the Soul Sessions years before he met me. So when this little blonde girl turned up, it was a perfect match. I’d just started writing, and I didn’t want to do covers to begin with, but in fact it was perfect for me, and I learned so much. The Carla Thomas was a bit too heavy for me. We had tears over that.

Finding a new sound is my favourite part of this job. There are lots of different parts of this job: what I do in front of a camera, and writing, the artwork, the business side, but my favourite part is meeting someone new and collaborating. It’s different every time, and it’s a moment you never get back. And it’s important to my musical growth, putting myself in a strange situation.  

You’ve said elsewhere that you learn music by ear, and by practice, not by reading sheet music. That sounds like really hard work...

With acting, you have to take that shit seriously, and I wasn’t

It’s all I've got, my ears and my voice. I try to fiddle about on piano, but it sounds terrible. My way of learning is to listen and repeat. If I’m learning a song in a different language, I listen maybe a thousand times. There are no rules. When you listen you know immediately if it’s in my range. It’s a bother not knowing what key you’re in – little things like that are important to have. But I have a wonderful group of musicians who know my language, who can interpret everything for me. I’d be lost otherwise. If I could take a pill and know it that would be great, but I’m not very good at studying stuff on paper. I’m slightly dyslexic and it stresses me out.

You’re an advocate of marijuana – do you feel a responsibility to set an example? You’re a public figure: you were even invited to the royal wedding!

I did go to the royal wedding. I hope I’m not a role model! There is a certain pressure, but I’ve never really taken that on. My belief, truly truly truly is that marijuana is a healing plant. Science and doctors all over the world have proved that. I feel lucky to be able to express my opinions and I won’t be put off because it’s taboo. I’ve never done that and I won’t start now. And what a great opportunity to write a song about it if I’m making a reggae record. Robin Thicke wrote a song about cocaine, and melody wise I like that song, but if I’d written that sort of song about cocaine I’d be embarrassed. People can die if they take ecstasy or cocaine. But marijuana, man, it shrinks tumours. If I didn’t believe in it, I wouldn’t play it. If there was a campaign, I’d be right there with them. It’ll change.

How did you meet Vinnie Jones? Why choose him to introduce Introducing Joss Stone (2007)? Not an obvious personality match?

I asked him purely because of the sound. These decisions are all sound based. I absolutely love his voice, I think it’s really sexy.

As an actress, you’re best known for depicting Anne of Cleves (The Tudors, 2009). That must have been rather miserable. She doesn’t even get to have her head cut off, she’s just pushed aside. How was that role?

Yes, Anne of Cleves was the biggest thing for me. The rest has been little cameos. With me, they made her out differently. She was so ugly, they couldn’t consummate the marriage, and that saved her life. He gave her a house, and apparently she turned into being some kind of fashion icon because she had a different look. She was good to her step kids, had lots of money, and had time to play cards and listen to music. It wasn’t that bad – she lived. I wish I could tell a story about her romance. Love is important in our lives even if we have it just for a minute. I hope she had that. Apparently Holbein, who painted her, he was in love with her, and he made her look more beautiful in the portrait, which is why Henry accepted her without meeting her.  

I’ve never done anything else since so it can’t have been that good! I’ve come to the conclusion that if you’re going to do that, you have to take it seriously, and I just didn’t. I don’t take too much seriously. It stresses me out and makes me enjoy it less. Singers don’t go to work, we go to play. We have to be emotional in music. With acting, you have to take that shit seriously, and I wasn’t. Every time they said cut, I was laughing about something else. It takes a different mindset. Once I’m done with my world tour and these other projects, I’d like to see if I can get myself into that headspace. I did really enjoy it.

Can you share any future plans?  

If I do the world tour, it’ll take three and a half years. I’ve only visited 44 countries so far, and I keep getting sidetracked by projects like the album. I really need to get on it. After that, God knows. I will have worked with lots of different charities. I’d love to work with the orangutans in Borneo, for example.

The collaborations that I make on the world tour are like laying down the ground work for me, and I hope it’ll lead to new music. It’s so interesting, and so important to me to get the know the places I visit. It’s nice to play the songs on tour, but the other 23 hours a day are a bit boring, I’m just travelling in a bubble. I went to Jamaica for a gig once. I arrived at night, sang, left at the arse crack of dawn when it was still dark, then 20 mins from the airport I saw Jamaica outside my window, and I thought: "I want to experience that, hear their music!"



Every time I read her interview I can't beleve how warm and natural person she is. So much on the ground, always sending good and positive vibes. Its nice to see there is someone in that show bizz world who doesnt care only about money and fame. I'm enjoyin her music very much. Thanks Joss

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