Joss Stone: The Prodigy

Tom Cruise, Elton John and Lenny Kravitz are fans. She's sung for James Brown, David Letterman and George W Bush (twice). And recently she even sat her GCSEs. Nick Duerden talks to Joss Stone, Devon's teenage soul sensation
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It's all Michael Parkinson's fault. The veteran TV talk show host and radio presenter is rapidly establishing himself as a 21st-century Alan McGee. But while McGee, the founder of indie label Creation Records, brought us guitar-based rock bands such as Oasis and Teenage Fanclub, the 69-year-old Parkinson is largely responsible for encouraging a major renaissance of that most derided of musical genres: easy listening.

It was he who first gave exposure to the likes of British jazz newcomer Jamie Cullum, and his Canadian counterpart Michael Bublé, as well as winsome folk singer Katie Melua. He's also a big fan of Dido and Norah Jones who, between them, now dominate almost every chart on the planet, and he was last heard encouraging Kylie Minogue to ditch the pop princess persona in favour of becoming a silky, older-person-pleasing chantuese.

At just 16 years old, Joss Stone fits into this burgeoning scene with ease: you can currently hear her music on heavy rotation in Starbucks coffee shops across the country. But Stone's appeal is more incongruous.

In the flesh she looks like a regular teenager (though rather better looking than most), 5ft 10in of willowy bashfulness and long, centre-parted hair, dressed in what looks like her skater boyfriend's cast-offs. But on her debut album, The Soul Sessions, she sounds like a veritable blues veteran from the Mississippi Delta whose rich, magnificent voice is born of a lifetime of pain and suffering. People have compared her, favourably, to Aretha Franklin, Janice Joplin and Mavis Staples. When they do so to her face, Stone stutters and blushes and says, "Really? I don't think of myself as a great singer at all, so it's very weird to hear stuff like that. Weird, and embarrassing."

She must be used to it by now, however. Her promotional tour of America (accompanied by her mum/manager Wendy Stoker), which began in October, has so far included appearances on all the major chat shows, MTV and even at Elton John's post-Oscar bash in LA. And, jet-lag aside ("Man, I'm knackered!"), Joss Stone is having a ball.

"I've no idea why things are going so well," she shrugs, insouciance personified, "luck?"

If all this sounds a bit too good to be true, it should be added that in concert the young singer has yet to fully overcome a sometimes crippling shyness. When she played London jazz institution Ronnie Scott's last December, she shuffled on stage barefoot, peered out at her paying audience with unmasked terror, and spent much of her time apologising, but for what it wasn't entirely clear. Mind you, what she lacked in stage presence was more than compensated by her voice, which she managed to deliver with soaring confidence as long as she remembered to keep her eyes tight shut. And a few months on, she has gained at least a modicum of courage. When she appeared in New York recently - still reassuringly barefoot - Lenny Kravitz was so bowled over that he asked to meet her.

"I only ever sang for fun, so I can't quite work out how I got here," she adds. "But, man, I'm glad I did. It beats school! It's actually been quite a slow process, all this. OK, I know I'm only 16, but I signed my deal two years ago, so the whole thing has been quite gradual. Now, though, I'm so busy there is hardly time to think. But when I do, it really hits me. All this is, like, really fu..." The expletive fizzles and dies on her lips. "It's really, you know, bizarre."

Bizarre isn't quite the right word, but her career trajectory so far has certainly been unusual. Joscelyn Eve Stoker was born in 1987, and brought up in Ashill, Devon. Most people assume that her parents must have been musicians, but her father has a dried fruit business, while her mother used to manage holiday cottages. Stone was hugely influenced by her parents' record collection, however: the Beatles, Devo, Anita Baker, Tracy Chapman. She loved music almost to the exclusion of everything else. Certainly school.

"At school I never paid any attention, ever," she shrugs. "I couldn't even if I tried. Something else was always on my mind, and that was singing. My best subject, at a push, was art. My worst? Christ, I don't know. There were so many. Science, I suppose. What's that one all about the body called? Chemistry?"

Biology, perhaps?

"That's it. Biology. I hated biology."

And so she decided to find a way out. It came from an unlikely source, and one she can only recall today with much embarrassment. "It f was proper cheesy, man," she says, reddening. "Let's not mention it, OK?"

No, let's.

One Saturday night, four years ago, the 12-year-old was watching a BBC talent show called Star for a Night, in which members of the public came on to sing songs. Stone thought it would be an excellent idea to get herself on to the kids' version, Junior Star for a Night. This she duly did, singing two songs, "Natural Woman" by Aretha Franklin and "On My Radio" by Donna Summer. The panel of judges, which didn't feature Simon Cowell but did feature Barbara Windsor, deemed her the winner.

"God knows why," she says now, "because I thought I was really shit."

This being four years ago, pre-reality-TV insanity (a relatively innocent time in our lives when Peter Andre really was just a forgettable passing fad), Star for a Night failed to elevate Stone into the blues equivalent of Charlotte Church, but it did secure her a manager. For the next two years, she sought a record contract, first in the UK, then the US.

"We spent a lot of time travelling to meet with record executives," she remembers. "So much so, I ended up having to leave school. I was glad, obviously, but it wasn't actually my choice. They asked me to leave, because my, you know, record of attendance was so poor."

Her mother employed the services of a home tutor, a chap called Peter who, the singer says, "was really sweet, really nice. I felt so sorry for him, because I wasn't very good. In fact, I was hopeless."

During the summer of last year, while her friends were taking exams in 10 different subjects, Stone scraped low passes in just three GCSEs.

Meanwhile, she had signed a deal with an American label, S-Curve, whose boss, Steve Greenberg, hooked her up with venerable Miami sound pioneer Betty Wright. Initially, Wright - a much-respected and seasoned professional who had seen a great many voices ignored simply because the singer didn't have the right look - was suspicious of a blonde, British, white teenager.

"And I don't blame her," Stone says. "I think most people are wary when they first meet me. But I sang for her, and she seemed to be impressed. Betty's terrific. She is completely delightful, like my second mum now." A coy smile. "I think it's probably to my credit that I bring out the maternal in people, don't you?"

The original intention was for Stone to sing a handful of obscure R&B songs from the Sixties (by forgotten artists such as Joe Simon and Bettye Swann) for an EP, which would receive a limited release to gauge audience reaction. But Wright was so impressed with the singer's ability to inhabit each song that it became a fully fledged album. When it came out in the US last September, it received not just praise, but considerable disbelief. How could a 16-year-old white girl so effortlessly sing the blues with so little life experience?

Stone sighs. She receives this accusation daily. "I don't really understand the fuss, to be honest. For starters, how can you put colour to a voice? And anyway, I didn't have any problems singing the songs I sing, because I can relate to every one of them."

Even "Dirty Man", a song which throbs with the ache of a woman who has been wronged by one too many men?

"Hey, I've been in love," she says.

Irrespective of the sceptics, Joss Stone's voice has reaped her an awful lot of attention in a very short space of time. In the last six months, she has performed twice for the US President, and once for James Brown. She has appeared live on David Letterman's Late Show, and has toured with Simply Red. Tom Cruise, of all people, apparently has The Soul Sessions on repeat play on his car stereo. And now, after her appearance at Elton's post-Oscar bash, it is probably safe to assume that she has made a similarly strong impact with the rest of Hollywood's élite. Stone's reaction to all this?

"I don't handle compliments particularly well, but it's all really nice, of course. It's good to keep things in perspective, though, isn't it?" she says. "I mean, the album hasn't even gone top-100 in America yet, so I'm not that famous, am I? I'm more of a novelty at the moment."

Perhaps by the time she finally steps off the promotional mill, the novelty value will have receded. This autumn, she plans to go back into the studio with Betty Wright to work on a second album, this time of original material.

"I suppose I've got two main ambitions," she says. "I'd love to become a truly great singer, and for some reason, I'd really like to win an award. You know, any award. I think that would be fun."

Her thoughts on being in the limelight are less sanguine.

"The whole idea of fame is quite scary. Soul divas seem to suffer a lot, and I really don't want to turn out like, I don't know, like Whitney Houston or somebody."

Nevertheless, she is already the recipient of unwanted attention. Her hometown was recently besieged with reporters keen to learn about her new boyfriend, a local man five years her senior. Stone says she is grateful to be 3,000 miles away, here in America, where the tabloid intrusion can't "mess with my head so much".

"What's all that about?" she shrieks. "Paparazzi outside my house! It's all quite unpleasant actually. It creates a lot of weird pressure on us, but my boyfriend is lovely, you know. He's so sweet."

Curiously, she doesn't appear to know exactly what he does for a living.

"I think he's doing some kind of building work right now," she says, hesitantly. "He wants to get into music. But, yeah, he's lovely, and my mother adores him. She's always going on about him. In fact, I sometimes think she loves him more than I do!" She barks with laughter, and then she frowns. "Well, I hope she doesn't."

She does confess that the problems of a long-distance relationship is exerting a strain, but I suggest that this is all good grist for the mill. To really become a classic blues singer requires at least a little heartache, right?

Her eyes light up. "Hey, maybe you're right!" She stops laughing as quickly as she started. "No, but it is difficult to spend so much time apart. Right now, he's convinced I'm going to leave him and run off with Justin Timberlake."

And is she?

"No! I haven't even met him." She pauses, and allows the silence to hang in the air for a while. "... Yet."

'The Soul Sessions' is out now on S-Curve Records

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