Photo: Courtesy of artist

No Plan, No Problem: An Interview with Joss Stone

With Project Mama Earth, soul singer Joss Stone lets the music guide her through her most natural stylistic detour yet.

Perhaps more than any other singer of her generation, Joss Stone has experimented with as many musical genres as possible. Her breakthrough came with soul and funk back in 2003 when she released
The Soul Sessions: a collection of covers which showcased the teenager’s incredible vocal range. She earned a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist two years later after releasing Mind, Body & Soul, which comprised mostly of her own compositions including the majestic “Security” and the earworm “You Had Me”. After leaving her record company in the early 2010s, Stone took control of her career by starting her own label and going for a reboot of sorts, with LP1 she began experimenting with harder rock sounds, and in the stunning Water for Your Soul she explored reggae and world music.

It’s no surprise to find her reinventing her sound once more, this time exploring African sounds with Project Mama Earth, an
Avengers style project which sees her join forces with guitarist Nitin Sawhney, percussionist Jonathan Joseph, bass player Étienne M’Bappé and keyboardist Jonathan Shorten. The five of them got together over the summer in Devon, England without a plan in mind, other than making music together. After ten days together the result is a self-titled EP that pays tribute to our planet. Through gorgeously layered arrangements, uplifting melodies and often thought-provoking lyrics, the EP is a promising start for one of the most exciting musical projects in recent years.

Stone’s voice is at the center of the EP, her incredible instrument having only matured in the 14 years since her debut album. PopMatters spoke to her about how Project Mama Earth fits within her body of work, the refreshing process of making music without a gameplan, and her firm belief in how we’re all connected.

* * *

I always admire when an artist puts so much of their spiritual life into their work, and after sitting with Project Mama Earth for a week now, it seemed to me like an album that felt like a prayer in a way.

That’s a lovely thing to say. It’s a simple concept to me really, we all have our personal beliefs, I believe mostly in Mother Nature really, that’s everything, how life is born and dies, or how it never really dies. Some people call that Mother Earth, some people call it God, but that’s what I think. So writing the lyrics I didn’t want to write another song about a man, I’m over that, I wanted to write about something important. We were working with a rhythm that I’d never heard before that came from Cameroon and Africa, so I wanted to write about something that mattered to every person and every living thing. “Entanglement” is a track on the record [that] explains how we are all linked, everything is linked. Elephants have a sixth sense that we as humans haven’t used, but it’s there. We have many senses.

Does art help unleash that sixth sense?

Sure, art is something quite unique to us as humans. Animals have dance for instance, but it’s for mating purposes, animals have things that look like art, but human beings use art for enjoyment, to have a little of a relief in our lives. It doesn’t always need to be something deep, music can be used to worship, to party, to listen to, to fill up a space. It isn’t one thing. Music is in everyone’s life, I think it’s the closest thing to magic that I’ve ever come across.

There are interludes in between songs that give listeners the chance to think about what they’ve just listened to. Why was it important for you to add those moments?

The interludes are little thoughts, I like that it’s a “no stress” kind of record, we made it in a short amount of time, the songs and interludes are just what they are. We didn’t procrastinate while making it.

Some of the songs felt like they could go on and on because they kept revealing new layers which I thought was fantastic. How did you know when you had finished a song?

I’m probably the worst person to ask that cause I have the most boring answer, I literally write a song until I run out of ideas and then that’s the song [
laughs] I deliberately, unconsciously don’t take too much time on that because I’ve done it in the past, and trust me you can do it. I’ve made records that took me a year to finish, I’ve written 70 songs and picked 12. Are they better records? No. The process was just more involved, careful and less enjoyable. Now I like using my first thought because they’re usually the best. Once you start thinking and honing it, you question yourself and the most raw version of yourself, thinking it’s not good enough. But guess what, it is your best version. If something sounds like shit, you just don’t put it out. I don’t even know if anything’s really finished, it’s just a moment.

What do you learn about yourself as an artist when you make music with other people rather than writing on your own?

I don’t write on my own that often, I do a lot of collaborations on the road. At the moment I’m on a world tour where I play a gig in every country in the world and I make a collaboration with someone from that country in their language. Every now and then there’s been collaborations without lyrics so I have to write a song, and I love that. Every time you create something with someone else, even if you don’t understand their rhythms or the notes, you take something. It’s like a sponge, you take something put it in your pocket and it never goes away. The more you collaborate the more well rounded you become. Music is supposed to help people connect. If you only use music to express yourself you’re not experiencing yourself. You become more inspired but also more inspiring.

I was actually born in Honduras, so I hope you make it there at some point.

I already went! [
sings in Garifuna] Honduras was like my 70th country, we collaborated with a singer who taught me that song, it was about the fisherman boats going out and then coming home. I learned about the Garifuna people, it was so beautiful, it was one of my favorite places.

I agree but I’m biased. By going on this tour it’s like you’re on an empathy pilgrimage, how has this helped you stay sane given the chaos of the world right now?

I think the more of this world you see, the more you realize what matters and what’s worth having a drama over or not. We have a lot of fears and the only reason we have these conflicts is fear. Sometimes you go to a place that’s supposed to be scary, like Honduras, and you have the most amazing experience, it’s nice because you’re putting it into a real place. You meet people there, people who are falling in love, who are falling out of love, people who fight … no matter where you go we all bleed red. Whether you live in a mansion or a slum we all have dramas. The ridiculousness of life is not there, life is simple if you want it to be. How you stay sane is by staying conscious, pay attention to your surroundings.

The record tells a story, so I wonder how will Project Mama Earth be incorporated into a Joss Stone tour for instance? Do you intend to play the record from beginning to end?

It probably won’t, because this is an EP so far. This piece of music is not a representation of me, it’s not a Joss Stone album, it’s a representation of five people and we’re all equally important. Because I’m the singer people might think it’s my album, but it’s not, it’s as much mine as it is Nitin, Jonathan, Étienne, and Jonathan’s record, so I can’t go on a tour of this album without them. The singer is always the front person, but in this case, we’re all equal.

As someone who believes in how people are connected you’re probably not surprised when you realize other people are exploring similar themes in their art, so I wonder if you’ve had a chance to watch Darren Aronofsky’s mother! which deals with the same territory as the EP?

I would love to see that, I love
Black Swan and Jennifer Lawrence is one of my favorite actresses. It’s really lovely when you learn you’re not alone in your own thoughts. When we talk about Mother Nature I’m in good company, music allows people to not feel alone in their thoughts, in music you realize you’re linked to all the people listening with you. To hear someone made a film about Mother Nature is lovely.

Having been to so many countries already what have been some of the treats you wish you could always have with you?

There was a wine in Armenia, it was in a ceramic jug and it was very specific to that place. You need to get some when you can! Sadly I can’t always have the wine because I don’t drink the day before I sing.