March 27, 2007


Joss Stone to debut 'Introducing' album in U.S.: Hopes are high for the new CD but it comes amid cloud of criticism, skepticism (Ann Powers, March 27, 2007, LA Times)

Stone, whose birth name is Joscelyn Stoker, grew up in a privileged household -- her father is a highly successful importer of dried fruit -- listening to soul music. "Somebody told my mum that you get your pitch within the first three years of your life," she said. "She says that I got mine from Anita Baker, because she was playing her a lot." After school, Joss would put on Dusty Springfield's "Greatest Hits" and cook dinner for her family as the original blue-eyed soul singer's voice wafted through the kitchen. Factor in her brother's penchant for old-school hip-hop, dad's Jam fandom and her granny's fondness for Led Zeppelin, and it adds up to a smorgasbord of takes on black music, from both sides of the racial divide.

Unlike many artists who absorb these sources and then take time to make them into something new, Stone became a star in her mid-teens. She won an "American Idol"-style TV talent contest at 14 by singing Donna Summer's "On the Radio" and soon signed with an American manager who brought her to Miami, where she recorded her debut under the guidance of soul singer Betty Wright. Stone's big voice and gift for channeling her sources gained her instant notice, and soon she found herself learning at the feet of the very people whose recordings had shaped her childhood reveries.

"I learn from Lamont Dozier, Gladys Knight, Patti LaBelle," she said, name-checking one great songwriter and two essential divas from soul's greatest era. "I sit around and soak up whatever they want to give me. I've had long conversations with them. My mom told me when I was young: Just be like a sponge. And that's what I'm trying to be."

The problem is, a sponge isn't an artist, especially as defined by Anglo-American pop culture, which values individualism over the upholding of tradition. The "gifted student" approach that Stone took on her first two albums -- which have sold 914,000 and 1.2 million copies in the U.S., respectively -- is now a weight around her neck. "Introducing," produced by veteran R&B auteur Raphael Saadiq, is Stone's attempt to break free of the vintage aura of her earlier work, which she feels was too uniform.

"When you listen to the [new] album, you're going to have to decide what you call it, because I don't know," she said. " 'Less Is More' is a reggae joint. 'Tell Me' has the Bob Marley thing too. 'Music' is more hip-hop, and 'Arms of My Baby' is actually a salsa-ish track."

Saadiq's approach, which he's been refining since his mid-1980s debut with the band Tony! Toni! Ton-!, is retro-futuristic: He blends classic references (punchy horns, bubbly bass, sassy backing singers) with up-to-the-minute studio techniques to create a sound that is modern but not trendy. Enlisting like-minded (if somewhat predictable) souls like Lauryn Hill and Common as guests, Saadiq has created an environment well-suited to a young singer trying to find herself within a daunting tradition.

"I think we both have a love for authentic real music," Saadiq said by e-mail about the collaboration. "That does not mean just a live band jamming; it means that through those live musicians you create a song.... The song, the players' dedication to the song -- not the drum roll or guitar lick -- each player playing a role actually makes it a record. We both hear that."

If there's one fault on "Introducing," it's that Stone's comfort level with that tradition remains too high. Throughout the album, she sings in a voice she learned from those soul albums; the lilt of coastal England never surfaces. Crafting a new self from beloved popular cultural sources, Stone is very much of her generation; it's her sincerity, her refusal to see that identity as artificial, that singles her out.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 27, 2007 6:56 AM

I hate wiggers.

Posted by: tsol at March 27, 2007 12:35 PM

She doesn't look anything like Aretha Franklin . . . but, man! Close your eyes, and you almost can't tell the difference.

Posted by: Mike Morley at March 27, 2007 1:02 PM

Amy Winehouse is like a Joss Stone who puts out. But I guess she is a wigger, too.

Posted by: ted welter at March 27, 2007 4:54 PM