Angie Stone: Set in Stone

The soul singer Angie Stone found her amazing voice at 11. She tells Fiona Sturges why it has taken so long for her industry to appreciate it
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In a hotel off Hollywood's Sunset Boulevard, on a fabulously balmy February day, Angie Stone emerges from her room in a flurry of trailing scarves, shades and shiny black curls.

"Hi," she says, smiling broadly and offering me her hand. "C'mon out to the balcony. You and me gonna talk."

She has a disarmingly authoritative manner and comes with a voice so loud that the furniture seems to rattle every time she opens her mouth. This forceful personality is at its most potent when Stone's on stage. Last night she performed at a leading magazine's anniversary party in downtown LA. The crowd comprised the typical mix of celebrities and celebrity-watchers more interested in the passing vol-au-vents that what was happening on stage, but it didn't take long before Stone had their attention.

"They weren't there to listen to music, but I like to think I'm hard to ignore," she laughs. "Real soul music can be pretty hard to resist."

Stone is a rare breed of soul diva: small, curvaceous, intelligent and with a singing and songwriting talent that outstrips all notions of egotism and ambition. She's a multi-talented musician, too, able to play saxophone and keyboards, although nowadays she leaves the instrumentals to her band. When I suggest that there are few authentic soul voices around at the moment, Stone wags a beautifully painted fingernail in my direction.

"It would be nice to think that that was the problem," she smiles. "I don't think there's a lack of soul artists; it's just that they're ignored. The industry has a habit of rejecting great artists because they don't feel they fit the ideal of a soul singer.

"Their thinking is: 'Why spend $500,000 on an album for an artist who doesn't look great?' " However, she says that things are beginning to change for the better.

"India Arie came along, and at last someone in the industry took the initiative and said: 'We don't care what it takes; we thinks she's great.' As a result, people have bought into that. The same thing happened to Macy Gray. She is not drop-dead gorgeous, but finally the industry accepts her. Now they've brought her to a level where people cannot resist her."

But Stone wants it to be known that her own rise to fame hasn't been easy. "I've been scratching my way through and getting splinters underneath my fingernails for people to just hear my music. I'm fighting my way to the top. If I don't I'm gonna be buried under the rubble all because I'm not a size 2. I'm no Barbie doll. I'm a heavy-set soul sister who sings about real issues that touch the hearts of real people. In the end it's about what people feel rather than what they see. They love the energy, the sincerity, the sensuality of the music."

I ask her if anyone in the industry suggested that she alter her image? "At this stage, no. They know that what they see is what they get. And, besides, I'm not one to work out in a gym. I've worked out every day of my adult life through shopping and changing diapers and cleaning and doing my thing. If someone tells me to work out I say 'What? What more can I do? I'm going to bed'."

While Stone is generous about her soul-inclined contemporaries, she is adamant that she is working in an altogether different sphere. Lowering her voice to a gravelly whisper, she says: "I'm not gonna allow people to compare me to Lauryn Hill, to Erykah Badu. I was far in the game before they was even thinking about doing soul music. I won't be compared to people who are learning from me."

She agrees that men are lagging behind women when it comes to soul music. Since the golden age of soul in the late Sixties and early Seventies, when Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye were at the height of their powers, male artists seem to have eschewed soul music in favour of its more macho offspring: hip hop. Still, it's rare to come across a genre where women are more powerful than men. The last male soul singer who even came close to earning the same plaudits as his female counterparts was D'Angelo. While he's undoubtedly talented, it's significant that Stone helped him write the songs on his début album (she also bore his child, Michael, though the pair have since gone their separate ways).

Stone comes from a long tradition of soul singers who cite God as their principal inspiration. Like Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight before her, she discovered her singing talent as a child in the church choir in her native South Carolina.

"I was naturally born to do it," she trills. "When I was 11 I didn't know that I had a good voice, but I sure knew that I had a loud one. When the choir started up, I wanted my choir director to know that it wasn't me that wasn't singing."

Stone's father and mother encouraged her to sign up for local talent contests in her early teens, performing songs and dance routines. She started a band at high school and played at sports events. In 1981, when she was just 16, she was spotted by an A&R scout and landed a record deal at Sugarhill records. Stone became one of the three members of the Sequence, the first all-girl rap group. Their first single, "Funky Right on Up", went gold within 30 days, and Stone was catapulted into a dizzying schedule of touring, recording and promotional duties.

"I grew up with the industry, and, believe me, you grow up fast," she reflects. "Unlike someone who goes to college and has a college mentality, your college is the industry. So you have to think fast and move fast – if you don't, you're gonna get screwed. A lot of artists who started young are flat broke – because they weren't smart enough. But by the time I was 21 I knew the industry inside out. I knew I had to get wise about songwriting, producing, managing and publishing."

After the Sequence, Stone was the singer for Vertical Hold, but soon she secured her first publishing deal and began writing with other artists. She also provided vocal coaching and training in the wiles of the music industry. She is generally credited for getting Mary J Blige's career off the ground; Lenny Kravitz has also benefited from Stone's worldly wisdom.

Stone is now 36 and has only just released her second album, Mahogany Soul. I ask her why she waited so long to go solo.

"I like to say that I'm on God's time because I didn't step out a moment too soon. I've been behind the scenes for a long time, I've worked on some great projects. It's just that I've been the silent partner. Most artists are fickle when they're trying to find where they belong, they just fall in with the latest thing. But I've always known what kind of music I was supposed to make. It's only in the last few years that people have developed a taste for soul music. I know that now's my time to do my own thing."

In America Stone's first album, Black Diamond, quickly went platinum and was voted album of the year by Billboard magazine. Mahogany Soul builds on the promise of the first album. It's a glorious composite of gospel-tinged soul and funk that takes on such fierce issues as period pain ("Time of the Month"), love ("Bottles and Cans") and disappointment ("Pissed Off"). It also pulls off the remarkable feat of sounding both old-fashioned (the ghosts of Aretha, Curtis and co loom large) and utterly contemporary.

When I remark on this, she shrieks: "But that's soul music through and through. That's the beauty of it. Girl, it's timeless."

The single 'Brotha' is out now on Arista. Angie Stone plays Shepherd's Bush Empire, London, on Sunday and Monday

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