Joss Stone has sold more than 7.5 million albums worldwide; been nominated for four Grammy Awards; appeared onstage with James Brown, The Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder, Elton John, Patti Labelle, Mavis Staples, Donna Summer, and Smokey Robinson; sat for an interview with Oprah Winfrey; starred in two major ad campaigns for the Gap; and performed for more than 200,000 people at the 2005 Live 8 Concert in London - all before reaching the ripe old age of 19.
And yet, only now, on her third album, Introducing Joss Stone, does the British soul singer and songwriter feel she is expressing her true musical vision. "This is the first album I've made that is truly me," she says. "That's why I'm calling it Introducing Joss Stone. These are my words, and this is who I am as an artist."
Knowing she needed to write the album alone, Stone decamped to the Caribbean island of Barbados in April to come up with lyrics. There, amid the sandy beaches and warm tropical breezes, she had an epiphany. "I'm driving along in my car and I'm thinking, 'Why am I going through life looking for unconditional love from a human being, when it's music that's unconditional?" she says. "It's always there for me. It's the love of my life. I've found it."
That simple realization became a major theme, both lyrical and musical, on Introducing Joss Stone, and it explains the album's electrifying mix of warm vintage soul, '70s-style R&B, Motown girl-group harmonies, and jazzy grooves performed by a live band conducted by Stone's main musical collaborator and producer Raphael Saadiq (known for his work with D'Angelo, The Roots, and Macy Gray). "Raphael [who plays bass on the album] is the most mind-blowing musician I've ever met in my whole life," Stone says. "Musically, I feel like he reads my mind. I'll give him a look and he'll know exactly what I want." Stone and Saadiq spent two months recording in the Bahamas, and then mixed the album at the legendary Electric Lady Studios in New York City.
From the first beat of the languid opening track, "Music", every note, groove, and harmony is infused with Stone's love for the gift of song. On "Music," she sings: "I'm so in love with my music / The way you keeping me moving / Ain't nobody do what you doing." The track, originally inspired by "The Mask" by The Fugees, features a rap by Fugees singer Lauryn Hill. Stone's collaborator on the song, Novel, a writer and producer who is the grandson of soul legend Solomon Burke, jokingly suggested they ask the famously reclusive star to make a guest appearance. "And of course, being me, I was like, 'I'm going to get her.'" Stone called Hill's mother every day for a month and a half, asking if her daughter had listened to the song. "Every day I'd say, 'Have you heard from Lauryn?' and she would just be like, 'No.' Click. But I just couldn't let go until it happened."
Then there's the Supremes-esque "Girl, They Won't Believe It," which is about finding happiness through music. "When I was in school, I wanted to be a singer and everyone said I was crazy," Stone says. "They'd be like, 'Get your head out of those clouds and come do your math work.' So now I'm telling them, 'Girl, they won't believe it, I finally found some sweet through the bitters of life. All I need is a kiss from a melody."
As any soul album worth its salt must, Introducing Joss Stone features its share of relationship songs, from the blissed-out "Catch Me I'm Falling," with a shuffling groove and string arrangement that would make Marvin Gaye proud, to the sweet, dreamy "Tell Me What We're Going To Do Now" (featuring guest rapper Common), to the classic Motown vibe of "In the Arms of My Baby," which Stone wrote about feeling lonely on the road. "That song is about needing to be back somewhere where I feel like home," she says. "Sometimes you need a hug or affection from someone. You can't have that over the phone."
Of course love ain't always rosy. On the bitter, regretful break-up song "I Wish" Stone sings: "I wish I never met you / I finally had enough of your shit / I should have left your ass a long time ago." "It's all cool now," she says with a laugh. "We're friends, but when something ends, all you have left is that deep hurt. But I had to go through that hurt in order to write these songs." The superfunky, playful first single "Tell Me 'Bout It" finds Stone moving on, looking for new love, but wondering why he can't step up to the plate. "That is my life story," she says, sighing. "It's like, come on, tell me how you feel. Don't be such a wuss. It's clear that you like me and I like you, so just do something about it!"
From the time the Devon, England-bred Stone emerged on the music scene at age 16, she has always displayed a strength and intensity, despite insisting that back then, being so young, she didn't know what she was doing. Critics disagreed, calling her a singer who possesses a "rich, deep, soulful belt," as the New York Post put it, and "unlike any singer of her generation." In 2003, Stone released The Soul Sessions, an album of covers of obscure soul tracks, hit the road for a year, then recorded 2004's Mind, Body & Soul, her first album of original material. Of that album, Newsweek noted: "Stone can croon it sad, deep, and throaty, belt it out juke-joint style, or get down and funky for the bump-and-grind crowd," while Interview heralded her "gutsy voice, which can sting like aged bourbon, or melt like strap molasses."
Stone was nominated for three Grammy Awards in 2005, including Best New Artist, and performed a memorable tribute to Janis Joplin with Melissa Etheridge at the ceremony. Their rendition of "Cry Baby"/"Piece of My Heart" was released as a single, and became Stone's first Top 40 hit in the U.S. That same year, Stone appeared on every American late-night and morning talk show, and scored magazine features everywhere from Rolling Stone to Vanity Fair as well as the cover of fashion bible Elle.
In February 2006, she joined Stevie Wonder, John Legend, and India.Arie for the Super Bowl XL pre-game show, while on the night of the 2006 Grammy Awards, she appeared with Legend and Van Hunt singing a medley of hits by soul star Sly Stone. Their cover of "Family Affair," which appears on the Sly Stone tribute album Different Strokes By Different Folks, has been nominated this year for a Grammy Award for "Best R&B Performance By A Duo or Group." Always game to honor the legends who came before her, Stone brought down the house with her rendition of Dusty Springfield's "Son of a Preacher Man" at the UK Music Hall of Fame Awards in November.
Stone will be no less busy in 2007, when Virgin Records releases Introducing Joss Stone.