Joss Stone: 'I just think some people are genuinely nasty characters'
An outspoken audience with Joss Stone
Saturday 28 November 2009
No sooner have I sat down with Joss Stone on the patio of a fashionable Hollywood restaurant than she pulls out a packet of cigarettes. "Do you mind?" she asks. "Not at all," I reply. "But the waiter might." We are, after all, in California, the world capital of health paranoia.
People don't smoke here, ever. It's almost certainly illegal and... "Bollocks!" she says, sparking up. "That's the spirit," I tell her. What I'm actually thinking is: "This is very naughty and you're going to get us arrested," but she takes such pleasure from small acts of rebellion that it seems churlish not to play along.
Amazingly, no one complains. Either this is because the place is almost empty, since it's mid-afternoon. Or Joss escapes censure on a technicality: the patio is virtually outdoors. Either way, she goes on to tell me that her cigs are a brand called Parliament Lights, but she usually smokes roll-ups "because I live in Devon". She likes the fact that "you can put a roll-up down and smoke it later". Also, "it doesn't smoke itself, so it's cheaper, and they taste better." There is, I realise, something of the student about her.
At 22, Joss could easily pass for an undergraduate. She's dressed in campus chic: maxi-dress, purple leopard-print shawl, trademark nose ring. But, as we all know, university never happened for the talented Miss Stone, who was born Jocelyn Evelyn Stoker. Instead, she shot to fame, just after her 14th birthday, singing gorgeously rich soul music – and has been a full-time multi-millionaire pop sensation ever since. The previous night, I'd seen her in action, rehearsing a charity gig in Los Angeles, with Dave Stewart and Roger Daltrey. "How did it go?" I ask. "They fucking loved it!" she replies.
"They" were a mostly American audience. This is important, since in the US, almost everyone loves Joss to bits. In Britain, by contrast, she gets a mixed press, partly because of an unfortunate PR debacle at the 2007 Brit Awards, and partly because she was unfortunate enough, on her journey from child star to grown-up entertainer, to acquire a feisty personality and a handful of personal opinions. She's a natural gossip, dropping bloke-ish exclamations like "way-hey!" and "havin' a laugh!" and swearing with abandon. When I ask how this affects her image, she laughs: "Well, I'm supposed to be a diva bitch."
Joss also has a habit of falling out with fellow celebrities and some of her colleagues in the executive ranks of the record industry, about whom she takes a delightfully dim view. Adding to her rebellious image, she's got some discreet tattoos and sometimes dyes her hair pink. She has also, repeatedly, been accused of selling-out and "going American". We'll discuss this at length in a minute, she says.
First, along comes a waiter. Joss orders iced tea and an ashtray, and fumbles around in her enormous handbag. Since I've not yet lunched, she tells me to get food (her exact words are "Go on: have a munch!"). Then we settle down to talking about her latest album, Colour Me Free!, which has just been released and is being supported by a mini-tour of the US and Europe. It's her fourth record, in a career that began with The Soul Sessions in 2003, and represents something of a comeback: she's been off the radar since 2007's Introducing Joss Stone, which for various reasons didn't do all that well.
The new album is, on the face of it, classic Joss: full of ballsy, retro soul and R&B numbers delivered in a deep, husky voice that sounds like it ought to belong to a vast, middle-aged black woman but is instead owned by a petite white girl. It has garnered plenty of buzz, on both sides of the Atlantic, thanks to some arresting tracks, including a deft collaboration with Jeff Beck, a song called "Governmentalist" adopted by the US Democrats during Barack Obama's election campaign, and a hugely catchy original track called "Could Have Been You". I also love her cover of the classic soul tune "You've Got the Love".
That, however, tells half of the album's extremely convoluted story, which began when Joss made it at the start of 2008. She was supposed to be taking a year off at the time, "but it was a really sunny day, and I woke up at home in Devon, and said, 'I think I should make an album'," she recalls. It was produced, with her backing group, in a home-made studio at her mother's jazz club in Exeter. "It's a very raw record. We just jammed and wrote stuff, and finished the entire thing, artwork and all, in a week, which was fucking great!"
Unfortunately, Virgin, Joss's record label, didn't see the project that way. In fact, they were positively outraged by it. When you sign a record deal, you see, part of the arrangement is that men in suits from the music company get to liaise with you. They sign off recording expenses, write big cheques, and in return are allowed to push your career in whatever direction they feel would help make money. Typically, this involves getting you to record tracks that might get played on Radio 1, which apparently still dominates the comically generic listening habits of today's music-buying public.
Joss neglected to allow the firm to do that. And they duly got very cross indeed. "I just made a record. I didn't invite them down to the recording sessions. I didn't ask what songs I should sing. I just made the album, and gave it to them, and said, 'Look, here we go, here is my album.' " It was a big mistake. "They turned round and said, 'Hang on a minute. We have had no creative input into this.' I said, 'Why would you? You're not musicians.' That started the most enormous row."
Over the ensuing year or so, Joss traded insults, mostly in private, with Virgin, which is owned by EMI. Her chief sparring partner was the firm's head of A&R, Nick Gatfield. Lawyers became involved. Tantrums were thrown. At one point earlier this year, newspapers reported that she offered to pay £2m to be released from her contract. "They told me that there were no hits on the record, and demanded 'input' on three of the songs," she recalls. "I got their point. I had to. I was in breach of contract. But in the end, I couldn't let them just do that."
In this creative dispute, the Gaza Strip, so to speak, involved attempts by Mr Gatfield and his colleagues to bastardise some of Joss's tracks so they sounded more commercial. "They took two of my songs from the album and re-mixed them. The tracks were 'Could Have Been You' and 'Free Me'. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry ... They used fake drums. Put effects on my voice. Made it sound like a pop song of today. But it just sucked the soul out of it ... So I refused to have it. The fight went on for ages. It actually made me quite ill at one point."
Eventually, a resolution was reached. Joss isn't allowed to say exactly how, but insists Colour Me Free! remains as she originally intended. Reading between the lines, the album will not count towards the quota of records she's contracted to produce for EMI, and will be marketed as a "creative" venture. Tensions are still simmering, though: earlier this month, it even emerged that her cover design for the album (a picture of Joss behind bars, intended as a sly dig at the label for not releasing her from contract) had been replaced.
The very fact that Joss is happy to volunteer information about this long, damaging dispute tells you some important things about her. She is impulsive, free-spirited, honest and occasionally eccentric (down to her career-long refusal to wear shoes when performing). She is also proud, fiercely protective of her work, and has an instinctive mistrust of authority. Amy Winehouse, a white British soul singer who arguably followed in her artistic footsteps, may be pop music's smack-taking bad girl du jour. But Joss, whose leisure pursuits involve nothing more exotic than the occasional spliff and lots of red wine is, in her own way, just as rebellious.
These character traits – which are all, it must be said, to be generally applauded – conspired in 2007 to produce what we shall call the Brit Awards debacle. It saw Joss stride on-stage, at UK pop's showpiece event, in a flamboyant mini-dress, and criticise the event's host, Russell Brand, for cracking a joke at the expense of Robbie Williams. The papers tore into her with glee, wondering how a small girl who had been bought up in rural Devon had suddenly morphed into a feisty 20-year-old with what appeared to be a transatlantic accent.
When I ask about this, Joss gets extremely animated. It's a subject she is anxious to lay to rest. "So I had a funny accent. Deal with it!" she said. "It's not a deliberate thing. It's not like I was rejecting the UK, which is what the papers said. It's just that when you spend a lot of time in your formative years around an accent, you're going to pick it up. I had been living in LA for a bit and that's what happened." It was disapprovingly noted at the time that she was shacked up with an older, American boyfriend. He is now long gone (she currently claims to be single but "dating") and her accent is back to normal. But she adds: "You know what? I may pick up an American one again. So what?"
Her performance on the podium that night was, she said, inspired by loyalty towards Williams, who had recently entered rehab, so did not deserve to be publicly ridiculed. She has still not apologised to Brand ("Why would I?"), and it would seem that they do not exchange Christmas cards, either. "He's a disgusting pig. Mean, mean, mean. What he said about Robbie was horrible. You can't kick someone when they're down ... But that's the kind of person Russell Brand is. He's just unpleasant. Look at what he did with Jonathan Ross. I just think some people are genuinely nasty characters, and he's one of them. I'm glad I don't know him."
Another person whose behaviour she disapproves of is the rapper Kanye West, who recently interrupted country star Taylor Swift's moment of glory at an MTV awards show. "What Russell Brand did to Robbie is just like what Kanye did to Taylor," she says. "I don't care how talented you are: doing things like that is not nice. So fuck off ... Kanye just wants attention. As simple as that. He was like it before his mum died. So let's not make excuses. It's not fair to judge other people and to try to destroy their careers. Come on! Just stop it. Be nice!"
But we digress. The Brit Awards dispute came just weeks before the release of Joss's third album, Introducing Joss Stone. She blames it for the disappointing performance of the record which, in contrast to her first two albums, failed to break into the UK top 10. "My idiot record label decided it would be a really good idea to cancel all of my promo appearances because of what had happened," she recalls. "It actually made things worse. People started saying I was ignoring my country, making up stories about me. Ludicrous things, like that I throw tea on my assistants. I couldn't answer back."
Listening to all this, it's hard not to wonder whether what Joss really needs is a good, strict manager, to censor some of her more combative urges, and provide a buffer between her, her record company, and the music-buying public. But she doesn't have one (having previously sacked three managers). Instead, she runs her life with two PAs (one, Tasha, in the UK, the other, Courtney, in the US), with occasional help from her mother, Wendy, and father, Richard, who amicably separated a couple of years back, but allowed her to buy the family home in Culmstock, Devon.
Joss has organised her career this way since she came to public attention in 2001, aged 14, when with no formal training but an admirable quantity of pluck, she won a TV talent show called Star for a Night, a precursor to The X Factor. She was then signed by an American producer, and dropped out of school (which, as a dyslexic, she'd not much enjoyed anyway) to record her first album, The Soul Sessions. Released in 2003, it was a collection of cover versions, and became an instant hit on both sides of the Atlantic.
As a result, she spent her formative years largely in the company of elderly session musicians, who "gave a lot of advice and guidance, and maybe made me grow up quicker". This has possibly turned her into a musician who is unwilling to be shaped by the saccharine conventions of showbusiness. She despairs of most contemporary pop (with the exception of Kings of Leon, James Morrison and Paolo Nutini) and, despite her own path to fame, has little time for TV-talent-show stars and their brand of manufactured pop.
"I don't like listening to music that isn't real. When they take a voice and auto-tune it, I can hear that. It just makes me irritated. Music is just the most delicious thing in the world. So what makes you think a computer can make it better? A lot of times when I've been making albums, record labels will say, 'It's too complicated for the public. We want a simple hook. We want you to repeat it three or four times in a song. The verse pattern has to be eight bars.' Music executives seem to think the public are dumb. But they're not."
Hit or miss, Joss intends to continue her career in this impulsive, haphazard manner. She recently took an acting job on the TV series The Tudors, opposite Jonathan Rhys Meyers, and will shortly begin work on a second series ("I'm not very good at acting," she claims). Working hard now, she hopes to enjoy time off later in life. "When I have kids – and I want to have lots of them – I'm not going to do this. I'll hopefully go on tour for three months of the year, and the rest of the time I'll just be at home in Devon, being a mum."
It's a noble ambition. And given the woeful record that the entertainment industry has with its child stars, it's heartening to leave our meeting thinking that the talented Miss Stone has turned out OK. "If you remember one thing from talking to me," she says, shortly before we say our goodbyes, "remember this: I am just a girl who makes noises – and I'm incredibly lucky that people happen to like those noises. That's it. That's all I am. Done!"
'Colour Me Free!' is on sale now, EMI
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