Monday 24 October 2016

'I don't make music to have hits... I do it because I feel empty if I don't'


In a homely, crowded kitchen, Joss Stone's mother dispenses tea and cake. Three huge dogs nose around - one with the pointed alertness of a Rottweiler, another a shaggy beast with the dimensions of a small bear - all torn between keeping a watchful eye on the stranger (that would be me) and snaffling up loose snacks.

A tiny cat slinks cautiously through, wary but unmolested. The slender, twinkly-eyed pop star, Joss Stone, is telling a story about travelling with a boyfriend incognito through Europe for a whole summer in a camper van.

"We lived in a forest for a month," she says, laughing. "Nobody bothers you in a forest."

It was at this kitchen table where Stone's parents sat down with her in 2001 to discuss the 14-year-old prodigy signing a major deal with EMI. She recalls them asking: "Do you really want to do this? And do you know what you're getting yourself into?"


She laughs, saying: "And the answer is of course you want to do it, and you have no idea what you're getting into."

Stone was launched into a whirlwind career as a blonde, blue-eyed soul sensation. At 16, her debut album, The Soul Sessions, was a multimillion-selling transatlantic success. Over the next decade, she sold more than 12 million albums worldwide, won Brit and Grammy awards, performed with such legendary stars as James Brown, Rod Stewart, Stevie Wonder, Jeff Beck and Ringo Starr and formed a side project, SuperHeavy, with Mick Jagger, Dave Stewart and Damian Marley.

She befriended the heirs to the British throne, attended the Royal Wedding and hung out at Buckingham Palace with Prince Harry.

In 2011, she was estimated to be worth £9m (€12.5m).

But her career has not been all one-way traffic. The singer, born Jocelyn Stoker, has been characterised in the media as a bit of an airhead and criticised for her very public endorsements of dope smoking. In 2007, after an appearance at the Brit Awards, she was roundly mocked for her accent, which seemed to have transmogrified from West Country to some sort of transatlantic drawl.

Her third album, Introducing Joss Stone, received lukewarm reviews. "[Stone] is currently as lost as her Devonshire vowels," said one critic.

Soon afterwards, she embarked on a fierce fight with her record company, with whom she eventually parted company, at a personal cost of several million pounds.

It is probably fair to say the music public fell out of love with her a little bit.

There was also a bizarre incident in 2011, when two men equipped with knives, hammers, balaclavas and a samurai sword were arrested near her home and subsequently found guilty of planning to kidnap and murder her. (They are now serving lengthy prison sentences for their part in the plot.)

So one would understand if the singer, on the cusp of releasing her seventh album, Water for Your Soul, was experiencing some trepidation. If she is, she is hiding it well.

"I want life to be fun," she says. "When I left EMI, I decided to base decisions on how much joy they are going to bring. If something doesn't sound like it's going to bring a smile to my face or someone else's, what's the point?"

Her break from the record company was driven by frustration at attempts to shape her career, in which she says she was not just told what to sing but forbidden from getting tattoos or changing her hair.

"They take artists who are bright, shining lights and just kind of dampen them, because they only care about making money," she says. "It creates a bad product, with a bad feeling. I want to make music and I don't think you have to do all the other stuff.

"There are too many businessmen who feel like they've paid for things, and expect you to do what you're told. I find it quite abusive."

Judging by the content of Water for Your Soul, Stone's new freedom has had a positive impact on her music. The album is her strongest yet - a funky, fluid set of meaningful songs weaving through reggae, hip hop and r&b with tones and nuances drawn from world music. Vinyl albums from all of these genres are stacked in front of her record player.

"I can't read music or play an instrument," she admits. "I'm not particularly educated in any of it. Information, names, years, song titles, I don't have any interest. I just like listening to music and becoming a part of it. I hear it in my head, and then I can sing it to you."

Stone, 28, is delightful company - solicitous, curious, kind, full of nice things to say about people, humble, constantly laughing or breaking out into song.

Home is still the same sprawling rural converted farmhouse she grew up in, given something of a hippy makeover: open-plan rooms decorated with colourful rugs and throws, mysterious lights, floral bouquets and framed pictures.

At 18, Stone bought it from her parents when they split up, though both still live close by and, like her three siblings, are a constant presence in her life.

Her father, Richard Stoker, runs a successful fruit and nut import-export business. Her mother, Wendy Joseph, used to rent out guesthouses on the property, one of which Stone has converted into a studio.


Her accent has reverted to well-spoken, middle-class Englishness, with no trace left of the transatlantic wobble caused, she says, because she spent most of her late teens and early 20s in the United States. She comes across as a hippy child, utterly without guile.

She has been a vocal advocate of dope smoking and her new album includes a paean to the herb sensimilla.

"I think it's a very positive plant," she says. "At no point do I advocate smoking it, although I do - but not often."

Her darkest hour must have been that attempted kidnapping but she seems to have found a way to encompass it into a generally positive world view, adding: "I try to make a silver lining out of everything and so I got two new dogs, which is great.

"I feel nervous in this house anyway, because it's the middle of nowhere and I'm a bit of a scaredy-cat."

Her new album shows her to be a maturing artist of considerable verve. I wonder if the music public might be ready to fall in love with her again? Stone seems ambivalent on the issue.

"I don't make music to try and have a hit record. I sing because I have to, I feel empty if I don't do it," she insists.

"You don't have to walk down all the red carpets. They can always find another blonde girl willing to do that for them."

Promoted articles

Entertainment News