By Mark Guarino
Joss Stone talks very, very fast. Which is not a surprise since her life has moved just as rapidly.The British soul singer is 19 but is already on her third album. Signed at age 14 and recording her debut album the next year, she is emblematic of the youth-obsessed culture that gave us Britney Spears, but luckily, Stone hasn’t shaven her hair off. Yet.
Her new album, “Introducing Joss Stone” (Virgin) is her most contemporary album, incorporating elements of pop, hip-hop, production by Raphael Saadiq (TLC, The Roots, D’Angelo) plus remarkable cameos by Lauryn Hill and Chicago rapper Common.
We talked last week when she was on a bus on her way to a show in Portland. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.
Q: A lot of people know you from some incredibly high-profile appearances you made on national television — singing Janis Joplin with Melissa Etheridge and sitting in with Sly and the Family Stone. I imagine that must be terrifying for someone who is still a teenager.
A: I know, totally. It takes a lot of balls to do that. You just have to have a lot of guts. If God gave me one thing he gave me a good gut. You have to have to be a little brave because it’s very scary. But sometimes you have to let go of that. If this goes wrong, no one’s going to remember it. And if it goes right, then pat yourself on the back. There’s two options here! (laughs)
Q: The new album has the word “Introducing” in the title, but it’s your third album. I know how unhappy you were early in your career when you were mostly in the control of handlers. But is that story overplayed? How severe was that for you?
A: I was unhappy with it. But not how people make it out to be. It was overplayed. I put my head up and say, “yes I am a control freak when it comes to my music.” I am, because I love it so much. But the thoughts were there when I was 15 but the knowledge wasn’t. And who am I say to say what I want to do when I don’t know how to do it? I was signed when I was 14. I was a 15-year-old girl making records with legends. I was just grateful. What could I do? Walk I and tell them how to make record? Because I was very shy also, I had these opinions, very strong ones, but they weren’t really being listened to because why would they be listened to? There’s absolutely no reason. I understand that now. At first I was like hey this isn’t me. But now I understand. People weren’t listening to me and rightfully so. You shouldn’t listen to me! I didn’t know what I was doing! You give me a microphone and I could make noises but I wouldn’t know what to say about the drums at that point. I know what I want but I can’t explain it to you. … I was playing this record in my head for five years but I couldn’t explain it to anybody because I had no idea about bass, drums, guitars. So what I had to do, as an intelligent person, was say, “I’m going to sit down, shut up and listen.” That’s what I did.
Q: Were there times when people wanted to make you do things you weren’t comfortable doing?
A: Never ever happened. Although I was shy, I was pretty much like, “absolutely not.” Like, okay, for an example, I had blonde hair and then I had brunette. When it came around to promoting the record and taking pictures, the record company was up in arms about the color of my hair. And it pissed me off quite royally. I mean, the head of EMI had a meeting about my (expletive) hair. I was like, oh my god, “this is about my music. I am not a model and I don’t intend to be.” So what I did was say, “I’ll dye my hair for you” and I turned up with bright pink hair. Sometimes I’m very stubborn and sometimes it’s a flaw and sometimes it’s a plus.
Q: Yet you were convinced to change your name. You were born Joscelyn Eve Stoker. Will you ever consider changing it back?
A: No, I wont change it back. It’s a different world. My family do not deserve the (expletive) I have to go through. They didn’t ask for it. I presently don’t feel like it’s very nice, but I understood the fact you have to give up some things when you want something so badly … I understood that maybe my privacy will be (expletive) with little bit. But while that’s fine with me, it doesn’t mean it is for everybody else. It’s not fair.
Q: You have Lauryn Hill, one of music’s greatest recluses, show up on your song “Music.” How did you manage that?
A: Very difficult. I tried so hard … I felt it was like something I like to do before I die. It’s just so funny that it means so much to me. Lauryn Hill and Aretha Franklin, those two women are so inspiring … Lauryn Hill, I listened to a lot of her songs … and I never disagreed with her once. I totally understand. And it’s kind of nice to have that connection with that piece of music. I thought, “she gets it, then surely, maybe if I send her my thoughts in the song ‘Music’, maybe she’ll understand me. All I need to do is get it to her. If says no then she says no. I will let it be. I will thank god for the opportunity. But she didn’t. I was so happy.
Q: You are 19 and — as we’re currently witnessing with the break-down of Britney Spears — sometimes it’s not a good thing to grow up so fast and without a normal childhood. Are you afraid that you’ll look back one day and wish you slowed down?
A: Sometimes I feel like I’m going crazy. Like, “wow, am I like stable?” But I am, I’m fine. You go through all those emotions that you are meant to go through at that age, but you do it in such a way that is really quite extreme. Because I’m not around anyone else who is going through it. If I was at college I wouldn’t be the only one. But I’m not, I’m surrounded by everyone 30 and up. Which is actually quite nice because it’s made me more mature. I feel like I’ve grown up than the usual because my best friends are 40 and they’re adults. I have two friends my age. But I was thinking, “what if I was in college right now, I could talk to people about this and they would be going through it exactly the same time.” But it’s okay because you just have to find people who remember … Why is there an age limit on emotion? Why do I have to hit a certain age? Do I have to have an I.D. to cry? To love somebody? Do I have to have permission to express it? When I find these adults who do remember, it’s really quite nice. They have handle on it. They look at me now and at least have a little more faith. So I say, “okay I’ll be alright because she’s alright.” So actually that’s the plus. The minus is no one else is going through it with you.
Q: You’re a singer rooted in the past — old funk, R&B. How did you find it at such a young age?
A: It’s everywhere, you can’t get away from it. In England it’s definitely popular. Soul music is definitely a big thing. If you go to England, there’s massive soul love. My dad had CDs as did my other friends and it was on radio and TV. I found it just like I did hip-hop. I just listened. When I heard it I was like, “that’s what I like I’ll have more of that please.”
Q: Why do you think your voice sounds so much older than you actually are?
A: I think because I am very emotional. Sometimes probably too much. I’m an Aries, so it’s like, there’s a lot of fire … But even when I was very young, I’d cry at the drop of the hat … I think I was six and my dad played an Eric Clapton song (“Tears in Heaven”). My made the mistake of explaining that song to me — “this man had a son and his son fell off a balcony.” I cried myself to sleep I couldn’t stop. I don’t know what it is in myself. I think my mom said I’m a Empath. I feel other people too much sometimes. It’s horrible. I have enough (expletive) to deal with but if someone walks in and had a terrible day I have to deal with that too. It’s the energy I can’t help but catch. So maybe that comes through in my voice. It’s not something I want to do. Sometimes I want to be able to sing this song and not think about what happened and not want to cry. But if the song is a sad one and I’m going through it a little bit and I’m a little open to the energy … Last night, I couldn’t hardly sing without (expletive) crying. I want to stop doing this because … sometimes it’s too much.