Why have we fallen out of love with Joss Stone?
The alleged plot against Devon's soul superstar is just the latest chapter in the singer's increasingly uneasy relationship with her home country
Friday 24 June 2011
So, what is it about Joss Stone? Exactly what has the British soul princess done to prompt an alleged plot to rob and physically harm her? The alleged plot was possibly prompted by the recent estimation, in the Sunday Times Rich List, of Stone being worth £9m – but that seems small beer compared to Daniel Radcliffe (£48m), his Harry Potter sidekick Rupert Grint (£24m) and even the embattled Cheryl Cole (£12m). So why choose Stone? Perhaps they assumed that, having a reputation as a lackadaisical hippie chick, she might be less security-conscious than other celebrities – both a softer target, and a softer touch. Who knows? But it's hardly likely to enamour the singer to her native land, which she perceives, with some justice, as adopting a rather spiteful attitude towards her success.
In large part, this antipathy is due to our version of what Australians call the Tall Poppy Syndrome, whereby those who excel are ruthlessly cut down to size. For musicians, the essential component in this is to have become successful in America first – not to have gained our permission, as it were, for their success (Radiohead being the classic example of an act which initially took UK flak for its US acclaim). In Joss Stone's case, this was crystallised by her catastrophic appearance at the 2007 Brit Awards, where her natural ditzy ingenuousness was exacerbated by being delivered in a broad American drawl: from golly-gosh to aaw-shucks, that most unforgivable of betrayals. Even the event's host, Russell Brand, no paragon himself, was moved to cast the first stone at Joss's glasshouse, referring to her as a "poor cow"; and the tabloids weren't far behind, lacerating her in the following morning's reports.
Stone herself was hurt and bemused. As she pointed out, she had been almost constantly in America since she was 14, and had naturally assimilated the dialect. "All I'm doing is working," she said. "At the end of the day, I don't give a fuck if people have a problem with my accent." But then she compounded the perceived offence by complaining that her country had turned its back on her. When that year's Introducing Joss Stone failed to perform as well as her previous albums, both of which had gone triple-platinum in Britain, she moaned on BBC radio, "The only country that hasn't liked it is my own... It's like coming home and having them be like, 'Go away, we don't like you'. It's the whole country, and it's like they're mad at me for being in the US."
As it happened, Britain wasn't the only country that didn't like Introducing Joss Stone. Though it charted higher than both its predecessors in the US, it failed to equal their platinum sales, a situation repeated in most other territories. The reason was probably that as her profile had risen, her work had lost some of its individual character: just as US residence wore down her distinctive Devonian accent, so too had it eroded the very characteristics that made her work special, sculpting her Southern Soul style to fit the mainstream R&B market.
When Steve Greenberg of EMI America first signed Stone in 2002, he recognised the deep-soul heritage in her voice, and helped protect it from the melismatic antics of modern R&B by entrusting the singer to soul veteran Betty Wright, best known for the classic "Clean Up Woman". Wright put together a Miami session crew of 1970s soul legends such as Timmy Thomas, Latimore and Willie "Little Beaver" Hale, whose light, swampy funk settings brought out echoes of Southern soul belles like Mavis Staples and Dorothy Moore in Stone's voice. In a pop landscape dominated by identikit R&B divas whose showboating style had lost touch with its emotional roots, Stone's powerhouse performances made a huge impact, ensuring that The Soul Sessions' success would be repeated on the follow-up, Mind Body & Soul.
Unfortunately, that wasn't as impressive – there were moves towards modern R&B, and Stone's first efforts as composer were lacklustre, with too many of the songs sounding forced, their conflicts bogus. It was as if she felt there needed to be some form of antagonism to animate their emotions, another great failing of modern R&B. She seemed to be always dissing suitors, rivals, even herself, when a simple assertion of devotion was often all that was needed. And much of the album was simply dull, leaving purchasers less likely to repeat their mistake the next time round. And in the case of the mediocre Introducing Joss Stone, their reluctance was prudent.
In the wake of its relative failure, Stone's disastrous Brits brouhaha, and her attempt to extricate herself from her contract with the ailing EMI, the record company effectively torpedoed her career by delaying the release of her fourth album, Colour Me Free!, for a year, whereupon it eventually bellyflopped into a lake of public indifference. Which was a shame, as it represented a distinct improvement on her last two albums: she had reverted to the retro-soul stylings of her debut, drawing on Miami and Memphis funk and soul sounds, incorporating a few well-chosen covers, while her songwriting partnership with fellow blue-eyed soulster Conner Reeves was starting to pay dividends. Unfortunately, few heard it, and while she continued to feature as a guest vocalist – most notably essaying a gripping "I Put a Spell on You" on Jeff Beck's last album – her own career seemed to be drifting rudderless as she set out under her own steam.
So it could be said that the alleged plan to assault Joss Stone is the best thing that could have happened to her: not only did it apparently fail miserably, it provided the kind of publicity that money can't buy, mere weeks before the release of her first album on her own Stoned Records label, the uninspiringly titled LP1. Recorded in a six-day burst of activity at Nashville's Blackbird Studio – a treasury of vintage instruments and equipment – it was co-produced by Joss with Dave Stewart, who as a borderline functioning space-cake himself, might be considered a risky choice for helmsman of a becalmed career. Stone herself has no qualms. "This is the most fun I've ever had making a record, with Crazy Dave Stewart at the helm – and yes, the players in Nashville are unbelievable!" she claims.
And to an extent, the results bear out her enthusiasm. Stewart's encyclopaedic knowledge of pop, soul and rock makes for a genuine fit with Stone's energy, enabling her to elide smoothly between genres in a way which recalls The Black Crowes' psychedelic Southern Soul raunch on albums like The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion, albeit less indebted to any specific retro influences. It will be interesting to see how the album fares in Joss's homeland – though perhaps not quite as interesting as the forthcoming alliance which finds Stone partnered with Mick Jagger, Dave Stewart, Damian Marley and soundtrack composer A R Rahman as the cross-cultural supergroup Super Heavy. What do you suppose that's all about?
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