You’ve seen her sing at the Super Bowl with Stevie Wonder and on the Grammys with Melissa Etheridge and Sly Stone. You’ve seen her in Gap commercials and on Leno and Letterman and at the Live 8 and Live Earth benefits.
You know Joss Stone, but do you know her music?
For a 20-year-old Grammy-winning sensation with 9 million albums sold worldwide, she is curiously better known than any of her songs.
“You reckon? That’s terrible,” said the British wunderkind. “I wish that that wasn’t the case because I’m unimportant compared to the music. It really isn’t about me. It’s about the art.”
The art on her latest CD, “Introducing Joss Stone,” has drawn raves. If you dig an Aretha-like voice wailing over fresh beats, this is one of the best soul albums of 2007, complete with guest appearances by Common and the reclusive Lauryn Hill.
Stone’s relationship with a producer/writer eight years her senior gave her the blues. And she pours her heart out into her songs.
“I have a tendency to analyze myself quite deeply when I get into these situations, and I realized that I don’t love him. I loved what he does,” she explained like a young woman recovering from her first true love gone sour.
After letting go of her beau, Stone figured out what she truly loved and expressed it in a song simply called “Music.”
“I do believe the music is the closest thing I’ll have to a real love, ever,” said the singer, sounding part lovelorn and part New Age. “Love is a funny word. People throw it around a lot. If you’re going to use the word `love’ to me, that’s unconditional. But unfortunately the love that I’m looking for, I have not found in a human being ever.
“But with music, it’s completely unconditional. It loves you back. Regardless of anything you do, it’s never going to leave you. I trust it. Because I know it’ll always be there. I know it won’t let me down.”
Whew! Who needs therapy when you’ve got your music?
But until recently, Stone’s music wasn’t really free and unfettered. Her first album, “The Soul Sessions,” was a collection of covers - mostly vintage R&B plus a White Stripes song - while the second, “Mind, Body & Soul,” contained a batch of pop-leaning originals co-written with pros.
That explains the curious title of her latest CD: “Introducing Joss Stone.”
“This is the first one I’ve actually been allowed to make; the other ones I was just allowed to be part of,” she said, referring to how producers and record companies officials had dictated her direction. “This one I had every single freedom to create something and nobody asked for anything different.”
The CD entered the U.S. charts at No. 2 but hasn’t received much radio exposure. Like such artists as k.d. lang and Lyle Lovett, Stone has had to use television to establish herself.
“I’m not a singles artist,” she said. “I’m more of an album type. It’s a story with a beginning, middle and an end. It’s one piece of art rather than lots of pieces of art shoved into a CD.”
As she speaks by phone from California, her accent effortlessly transforms from a light and charming British lilt to a perfectly Americanized Valley Girl. She’s emotional and garrulous. Sometimes she sounds mature beyond her years, and at other times blithely naive.
Asked to describe herself, Stone says: “I’m still figuring myself out. I know what I like but I don’t know what I actually am. Until I find that space of complete happiness, I’m going to be lost. And I’m happy to be lost.
“At the moment, I’m on the road. I don’t live anywhere. I haven’t lived anywhere in four years. I’m like a little gypsy. I haven’t really found myself. I know I love my music. That’s what I need to know right now.”
Born Joscelyn Stoker in Dover, England, the third of four children, “Jossie” grew up on the classic R&B of Anita Baker and Dusty Springfield. At 12, she made her singing debut in a BBC contest, “Star for a Night,” to try to earn money because her parents couldn’t afford to keep her horse.
“I had to get a job so I could buy my horse back,” recalled Stone, who earned 75 pounds in the contest. (She never bought the horse but still sees it.)
That contest led to another in the United States, which she won at age 14, and a contract with S-Curve Records, whose founder had discovered Hanson. She headed to Miami to record soul classics with producer Betty Wright, the voice of the hit “Cleanup Woman.”
Stone considered her first two recording projects her lessons in the music business. She was on the fast track - she was nominated for four Grammys, including best new artist; she succeeded Sarah Jessica Parker in Gap ads, and she’s shared stages with a long list of stars from James Brown and the Rolling Stones to Kanye West and John Mayer - not to mention the performance with Sly, which finally won her a Grammy this year.
With two albums, the tall, barefoot blonde with the hippie clothes made an indelible impression. Still, her career wasn’t working the way she wanted. Her managers would make decisions - such as turning down a duet with Sting - without consulting her.
Now she is managing herself. “It’s obviously a lot more work and quite tiring, but it really makes me feel better,” she said. “I’m definitely making mistakes as I go along but I’m getting the best people around me. I have a wonderful assistant and a great tour manager. I think it’s going well.”
So how does Joss the manager counsel Joss the artist when she takes a beating in the British press, which writes about her pot smoking and her image makeover (dark hair, high heels)?
“If I could figure out what I’ve done to make people so upset, I could change it,” she said. “I’m just doing my job. I don’t party. I’m not one to make a spectacle of myself. If people don’t like it, they don’t like it. There’s really nothing I can do.
“If people are mad at me `cause I change my hair color, I’m probably going to let that one slide. Because it means nothing. Now if they are criticizing my music and what I do, then I do want to change it. All I want to do is make people feel good through my music.”
// Notes from the Road
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