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Joss Stone

Rolling Stone Australia (March 2004)

How old do you have to be to sing the blues? It's a question that's bound to dog Joss Stone for years to come yet - at least until she hits twenty. On record, the 16 year old from the English west county of Devon sounds like she's endured a lifetime of heartache, her voice dripping with the kind of emotional depth that can only come from lost love and too many late nights drowning in a whole heap of sorrows. Critics have breathlessly compared her to Aretha Franklin, Janice Joplin and Mavis Staples, and then thrown her tender years back in her face.

"How old does someone have to be to sing a song?" Stone asks incredulously when the age question is raised. "How old do you have to be hurt or to love or to be angry at somebody? Like five. Really not very old at all. So it really doesn't matter about age, where I come from or whatever. It doesn't matter."

But, of course, it does. Stone has been slammed for both her age and her origin. The first accusation, that she's faking the obvious emotion in her voice because she simply can't have the requisite life experience to know what she's talking about, is easily dismissed. Teenagers fall in and out of love harder and with more regularity than their elders - who better to understand the all-encompassing misery that comes with rejection and betrayal? Stone isn't the only teen to have experienced heartbreak, but she's one of the few able to satisfactorily express it.

The second charge is much more complex. One American music critic responded to Stone by declaring that there were countless black female singers with equally as fine voices who weren't getting exposure because they lacked Stone's looks and skin colour. By releasing an album of classic soul covers - Stone's debut 'The Soul Sessions', in which she tackles Aretha Franklin's 'All The King's Horses' alongside The Isley Brothers' 'For The Love Of You' and The Drifters' 'Some Kind Of Wonderful' - she was supposedly guilty of appropriating and repackaging black culture.

"It's upsetting because how are they blaming for me for wanting to sing?" Stone responds simply. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry I'm white. I'm not going to apologise for who I am. Yeah, I'm white, I have blonde hair, what can I do about that? I think it's very strange. And it's hard for me to please everybody. All I'm trying to do is bring some music to the world and make people feel good. That's all I'm trying to do. I'm not doing anything nasty. I don't want to piss anyone off but then again I want to say my opinions too. I want to let people know what I think. Maybe it's wrong, maybe that woman [the critic in question] was right. Maybe I wouldn't have come this far if I was black. Maybe. I hope that's not true."

Is she surprised how much of an issue her colour has been?

"It's weird," she says, shaking her head. "Not only is it strange, it's also really silly. Because you can't see music. So I don't understand their logic. You can't see it so therefore what should it matter what I look like or what colour I am. That's not really anything to do with music. People who really care about music and actually really want to listen, don't think about things like that. And I never realised how racist people can be until I started to be a singer. And then I realised. I was shocked. People were saying to me in America, when I first started, 'you're never going to get on black radio, you do realise that?' No I don't have to realise that. Because I am. I'm going to get on whatever radio wants to play me. It doesn't matter if I'm white or black. And it shouldn't. Oh my god. I just quoted Michael Jackson! I didn't even realise that."

Stone is no racist; the jury's still out on the music industry as a whole, which can often favour young fresh white faces in the dubious name of marketability. Happily for Stone, a raft of big names have leapt to her defence. Stevie Wonder is a huge fan. Acclaimed soul singer Betty Wright stepped in to be Stone's mentor. Stone's performed for James Brown and Elton John, and Lenny Kravitz asked to meet her after seeing her sing in New York. All were impressed by that voice - the one part of the Joss Stone package that no advertising exec could possibly have a hand in.

"Where does my voice come from?" Stone asks, smiling. "Ask the man upstairs because I don't know. My parents can't sing. I think it's a gift."

When it comes to talking about the specifics of her music, Stone is every inch a naïve sixteen year old. She grew up listening to "soul stuff. Like Aretha and Lauren and Tracey Chapman and Whitney, Anita Baker, James Brown", but is at a loss to explain what attracted her to it. She shrugs and giggles with shyness, struggling to say much beyond the fact that she liked the "voices and the melodies". Her talent, it seems, is entirely instinctive. She opens her mouth and there's that voice. She learns classic songs and finds she can inhabit them. She doesn't know how or why, just that she loves doing it.

It's here that the two sides of Stone's personality come into conflict. While the likes of actress Scarlett Johansson are clearly wise heads on young shoulders - when Rolling Stone interviewed Johansson when she was sixteen, she was sly, sarcastic and brilliantly sharp - in person Stone is sweet, shy, and more than a little naïve. A showcase at the legendary Ronnie Scott's jazz club in London finds her battling nerves, often appearing as if she wants to hide behind her hands rather than sing, and her between song banter extends to little more than endearing giggles. But something inside her - perhaps that unquantifiable something responsible for that voice - pushes her to face up to her fears.

"I just have to do it," she explains. "If I really want to do something, I have to do it, whether I like it or not. Like the process I might not like but I know the end product I will. So I have to get on with it. I just gulp down my fear."

She's spent most of her career thus far being "terrified". Her first big break came at 13 when she entered a BBC TV talent contest called "Star For A Night", singing "Natural Woman" by Aretha Franklin and "On My Radio" by Donna Summer to a panel that included former Carry On actress Barbara Windsor. It was, astonishingly, her first proper public performance.

"It was very embarrassing really," she laughs. "I just did it for a laugh. I'm not really very good at school so I thought I might as well do something with my life. It was very scary. I didn't really know anything live performance which is kind of embarrassing." Hadn't she ever done karaoke? "Oh god no!" she squeals. "I'd never do karaoke. It's too embarrassing."

Winning "Star For A Night" won Stone her management deal and by the time she was fourteen she was travelling to America to audition for S-Curve label boss Steve Greenberg. "That was really scary," she says. "I've been going through my life scared constantly." Greenberg introduced her to Wright who continued her soul education. One day Wright passed over the phone saying that a friend wanted to say hello. That friend was Stevie Wonder.

"Yeah, that was funny. I could have killed her, man. I was laughing so much it was hilarious. He was like 'I've heard a lot about you, I want to come and see your gig' and I was 'oh my God'." Is she a fan? "Yeah. I don't know all of his stuff, but I know the big hits. Come on, who doesn't know Stevie Wonder? If you don't know Stevie Wonder then you need a smack around the head."

The original idea was for Stone to record an EP of obscure soul tracks by the likes of Joe Simon and Bettye Swann, but Wright was so impressed with Stone's natural affinity for the songs that they went on to record an entire album. Critical response veered from the dumbstruck to the outright hostile, but Stone's career took off anyway. She performed twice for George W, once live on the Letterman show and toured with Simply Red. And picked up the tag "the soul Britney" along the way.

"That's hilarious!" she howls. "I wish. Did you see her body? No way. Oh my God. That would be so cool. She is gorgeous. But no, it ain't never going to happen."

Britney's made a clumsy transition from sweet teen to highly sexualised twentysomething, something that Stone may have to tackle in a few years to come. What does Stone think of the way Britney's embraced adulthood?

"I think they're really mean to her, the press. Nasty, really nasty. Because I see her in interviews and I think she's so nice. She has a really sweet little vibe. She seems like the kind of person I'd get on with. She's just trying to make something of herself. And I think the reason why everyone's so nasty to her is because she's so successful. They're jealous. They must be. I don't understand how people get angry with the whole Madonna thing, saying 'my kids saw that'. Well, turn over. There's all sorts of stuff on TV nowadays, that's a ridiculous thing to say. It's not her fault. She does not hold responsibility for all those little kids. And anyway, about the responsibility thing, in a way she does but so does everybody else. I mean, 'Will And Grace'. Two gays. And what was the other one? 'The Ellen Show'. There's so many things on TV nowadays that they cannot be moaning at Britney for snogging Madonna on TV. So what? It's not like they stripped off and got down on it because they didn't. It's so over the top. People should just chill out."

Not perhaps the most articulate diatribe about personal freedom, but her heart's in the right place. What will be interesting is watching what kind of woman Stone becomes in a few years time and how that voice and her songwriting is affected. For now, though, Stone's having the time of her life, bouncing through her nascent career with a mixture of nerves and charm.

"I'm obsessed with hugs," she admits, cheerily. "My drummer Jonathan was saying 'what I really hate is when people give me a dishonest hug'. And I totally agree with that. Hugs are very important. I couldn't do a whole day without a hug, I don't think. Because it's just not right. You need to share the love."

She beams a carefree sixteen year old smile.

"Hugs are good. And chocolates."

Ian Watson
Music, film, comedy and travel journalist based in London

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