The nice lady from the record company tells us that she’s -putting us through to Joss Stone now’ so we prepare ourselves. Silence. A few beeps, then more silence. Finally a well spoken, young and very English voice comes on the line. We make small talk, commenting on the nightmare of these trans-Atlantic hooks ups. She knows what we mean. Where, we wonder, is she talking to us from? Without a pause she answers. ‘I’m in Devon.’
It’s not the last surprise that Joss Stone will throw our way, but certainly the first. We had, we tell her, assumed that she was resident somewhere in the US, most probably Los Angeles. ‘I know’, she exclaims. ‘That was the rumour. I think that was made up deliberately, they wanted England to hate me so they started saying that I lived in LA. No matter how many times I said, -no I don’t, I still live in Devon’ it just kept going and going.’ Who is this -they’? ‘The English press. It’s really strange, I don’t know why. Here I am, happily living in Devon and every now and then I get gyp as to why I’ve moved away. I’m still here, it’s very strange. If I had of moved there, so what? It’s quite nice, I’d just never live there.’
She has a point but our image of Joss Stone as an increasingly US affiliated soul star wasn’t helped by her public appearances, including this one at the Brits – where her accent seemed to be hovering somewhere over LA….
In conversation today however, she is a million miles away from that persona – down to earth, charming and most definitely not some brattish diva. She has also a new album Colour Me Free to promote, one with a back story that has taken two quite dramatic twists. We’ll start with the good stuff, just how Stone came to record the album in a single week in early 2008. Yes, that’s early 2008, but more of that later.
Tell us the story of making the record….
It was quite a shambles really. I was back in Devon after promoting and touring Introducing Joss Stone, I was really tired and I decided to have a year off. I’ve worked since I was fourteen, I felt I deserved a break. Even so, I knew I was going to get bored so I started a radio show and a couple of my friends came down to do some writing with me. They must have inspired something in me because I woke up one morning after two days and said I want to make an album and I want to make it now. They were saying that we didn’t have any songs, that we didn’t have a studio.
What was your response?
OK, so we didn’t have a studio but we had the space for one in my mum’s venue, Mama Stone’s. It has a club downstairs and a bar and cafe, upstairs there are some writing rooms and a studio space. The builders were still in and the first thing they’d put in was the vocal booth. There was a piano downstairs from the last owner that sounded wicked. I thought we could put the band in there, hire in some more stuff for upstairs and the builders could help us run the leads, we could just do it. They all thought I was mad but I said just tell me what you need and I’ll make it happen. The band came in, the equipment came in and we started.
Sounds like it was your project from the start?
Yeah, yeah, we just made it up. I didn’t just do it by myself though – there was the guys, the band, my mum’s husband did the engineering, my friend Paul who shot a documentary to go with it helped out, my guitar player stayed with me adding stuff while everybody else went to sleep. Everybody just jammed for a week and then we were really tired but we were done. When you come up with an idea and record it at that moment, it’s brilliant, but if you sit on it, make a bunch of demos, pick at it, it just becomes too perfect.
Has that been how you’ve worked in the past?
Totally, many times. I’ve recorded so many different ways now. The Soul Sessions were the closest to the way I did this but there were still songs that were already written for us, and we rehearsed for two weeks. With this we just did it and saw what came out – if it worked we had an album, if not we had a fucking good time.
That approach would have more in common with the artists who inspired you…
Exactly. No-one sat round a table in a board room and said, who’s our market, we need three singles, we have to get on this playlist. There was none of that shit – here’s our budget, this is the studio you’ll be using, here’s your producer and here’s your artwork. I hate that, I couldn’t do it again.
Which again has nothing to do with the modern interpretation of -soul music’. How do you find urban music these days?
You know it doesn’t bug me too much because I don’t have to listen to it, I don’t have to listen to anything. I love Paulo Nutini, James Morrison, I love their voices. They’re fucking great, real and husky with no effects going on. Real musicians making real noises with real emotion. Other than that I don’t really know much new music, I’m a bit out of the loop. I don’t listen to the radio and I don’t watch TV. The way that I find music is that I wait for someone to tell me about it because then it must be good. That weeds out the crap for me. (She scrabbles for a pen and paper as we recommend that gives Marina and the Diamonds a listen).
Colour Me Free has a fair few guests on it – Nas, Jeff Beck, Shiela E and David Sanborn. We’re assuming they weren’t hanging out at your mum’s?
Oh no, but that would have been cool. I made the album and then went to mix it in LA as I was doing some random stuff out there. I used Raphael Saadiq’s studio and I knew that Shiela E was just around the corner and I know her anyway. When we got back to England I rang Jeff Beck and he had no problem doing it either. That’s the way it should be. There are lots of brilliant musicians in this world but for many of them it’s just a business transaction. It is a job and I understand that but we should just make music, it’s nicer when you can share it. If you can play on my album that’s great, if you’re busy don’t worry. It’s not about featuring famous people, it’s about having a laugh.’
If the record was born from a bunch of people -having a laugh’, the second part of the story is not quite so jolly. There is a reason why it has taken the best part of two years for it to see the light of day. ‘It has been a world of shit’, says Stone pointedly of the battle with her record company EMI, ‘but at the end of the day it’s all been sorted out.’ Totally sorted out? ‘Well….it’s been fixed enough for the album to come out. We have had our words.’
So you have an album that you’re happy with and proud of. What’s the problem?
The problem was, and I should be able to tell you the truth about it, EMI were upset with me because I did breach my contract, although not deliberately. I made an album without them. That’s not allowed when you have a record deal. You have to ask them if it’s OK to make a record in the first place, if you can use a certain studio, may I use this producer, may I sing this song. That’s in general unless you’re a huge star. When you look at it from a business side it makes some sense, they want control of a product that they’ve put a lot of money into, some security. You’d think by now though they’d have a little security that I know how to sing. At the end of the day though it doesn’t really matter, it’s been dealt with. I feel that it was my fault but then again should it really be that way. There are people all over the world making music in their bedrooms but I can’t do that because I have a record deal and I don’t think that’s entirely fair.
Is it a problem with EMI in general, especially since the Terra Firma takeover?
It’s not the same company I signed to. Artists have left, one after another. They’re trying to mix business with art and you can’t do that. You can only mix business with pretend art. Real art can’t be controlled. It’s all a fucking sham, without being too blunt. I try everyday to see it from the other side of the fence. They’re trying to make money and I try to give them as much of that as I can but only if they let me make my music. If I can keep that the way that it is I don’t care what happens after that. I don’t care if they never pay me again.
You know (X-Factor winner) Alexandra Burke don’t you? Surely she’s entering into all this now?
I’ve known her for ages, she’s the sweetest girl. She’s become part of the industry machine now but that was because she wanted to. Everybody has a different mission and everyone wants to be a different type of artist in their own mind. I want to be the kind of artist who is free to make music whenever it feels right, without any rules whatsoever and put out what music I want. That’s a luxury I’ll probably never have but at the end of the day that’s what I’m going for. Some people want to be very, very famous and worldwide, be a celebrity and sell out stadiums. That’s a different dream. Some bands just want to do festivals and never make a video. Alexandra got what she wanted so good for her. I would suggest to anyone who wants that career to go on X-Factor.
Do you feel a pressure for this album to be a success?
Not really. They didn’t spend any money on this one; I made sure that they didn’t. I didn’t want it to be unfair. They had no input so therefore I shouldn’t waste any of their money. They don’t feel like it’s a good record but they’re being nice enough to put it out.
Your own record company still don’t like it?
No they don’t, they don’t think it’ll sell anything. Basically I’m very grateful that, with that in mind, they’ve released it. It’s not the people who work on the ground, they love it, but it’s not about them. The man who makes all the decisions doesn’t like it and everyone has a different opinion on art. If he doesn’t like it, you’re fucked. I understand that he’s probably right in some senses, I don’t know how to make a radio song as I don’t listen to the radio. They asked me to and I tried but I felt ill for even attempting it. So this album probably won’t work commercially but fuck it, I had a laugh and a half. The music is good, it won’t be number one but is that what I want? No.
Joss Stone is also probably right in her expectations for her record. Despite the heavyweight names involved, it has a definite homemade, at times sprawling, feel to it and is absolutely old school in its approach to soul music. What it is, above all, is an honest record. You wonder why EMI really have that much of a problem with Joss Stone. Joss Stone herself thinks she has the answer.
‘Their frustration is that they signed a young girl who they thought they could turn into a number one pop artist and I wouldn’t let them. Of course that’s what they wanted, that’s why they put so much money into it and I feel like I’ve disappointed them by not being that girl, but I’m just not. I’m fine in Devon. I’ll make my music and go on tour but I’m not going to do all that silliness. If you have to do that you may as well go home and make music in the pub because that’s just as much fun.’
Colour Me Free is out now on EMI, whatever they might think.