Joss Stone: Soul Child

At seventeen, the singer has covered the White Stripes and sung for the President. Now she just needs a driver's license

Musician Joss Stone attends the press room for Motown 45, a celebration of music that established the record label at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, April 4th, 2004. Credit: Mark Mainz/Getty

JOSS STONE'S BRIEF LIFE ON EARTH sounds like the daydream of a high schooler in math class after a few lunchtime bong hits: Wouldn't it be great if I got a record deal? And then maybe Elton John would have me sing at his Oscar party in Hollywood. And then I could duet with Mick Jagger and hang at the White House. and Tom Cruise and I could become friends; I could go over to his house for lunch. that would be so cool.

That this all happened to a girl from Devon, England's rural southwest county, who still doesn't have her driver's license is even more hallucinatory. "People are like, 'Isn't this crazy?"' says Stone, 17, as she lounges in a Los Angeles coffee shop. "I don't know. I can't really compare it to anything. I was fourteen when I got my [record] deal, and I've never had another job." She thinks for a minute. "Well, I did baby-sit a couple of times."

Stone burst onto the scene last year with The Soul Sessions, a collection of obscure R&B covers. Originally intended to spark some underground buzz, it sold more than 2 million copies after word got around about the teenager with the startlingly rich old-soul voice. Stone's vocals can soar sweetly or drop to a sultry purr (check out her sensual take on the White Stripes' "Fell in Love With a Girl").

Now she has a follow-up album of original songs, Mind, Body and Soul, most of which Stone had a hand in writing (including the first single, a catchy kiss-off tune called "You Had Me"). The tunes may be new, but they hark back to the golden age of good old seventies R&B.

It's hard to reconcile Stone's pipes of power with this pretty blonde who boasts an infectious laugh and a sparkly nose stud. She wears a red tank top and jeans, similar to the no-nonsense gear she sports onstage. "There's some people who can't sing for shit and they just take their clothes off," she says. "It makes me think, 'All right, I'm bored.' I want to hear the music. If I wanted to go to a strip club, I'd go to a strip club."

Onstage, she'd rather reveal herself emotionally. Stone's supremely self-assured performances, in which she strolls around barefoot and sings directly to individual audience members, have made a believer out of her writing partner and mentor, soul diva Betty Wright. "This is gut-wrenching, fall-down-on-your-knees, sing-until-you-sweat, make-somebody-feel-something music," says Wright. "This ain't no 'Put four girls around you to dance and you got a hit.' " Critics carp that Stone can't possibly have lived through the joy and pain required to sing soul, but she contends that as a teenager she knows full well what becomes of the brokenhearted. Wright agrees. "What is the greatest love you can remember?" she asks. "Puppy love. Remember when you got that piece of paper that said, 'I love you. Do you love me? Check yes or no'? When you're a shorty, you're just as serious about your puppy love as people are serious about their marriage. Shoot, I think a newborn baby can coo the blues."

Actually, Stone was steeping herself in R&B from the time she was in the cradle in the village of Ashill, in Devon. "My mum told me that between the age of one and three you develop your pitch, and I was listening to Anita Baker at that time," Stone says. "Janis Joplin, Whitney Houston, James Brown." At ten, she saw a commercial for an Aretha Franklin CD and excitedly wrote her name down. "All of a sudden, I really wanted to be a singer," Stone says. Even though she sang into a hairbrush at home, she was so shy that her school's music teacher didn't know she could carry a tune.

Her first foray into music was strictly for the cash. When Stone was twelve, her family had a dispute with the neighbors about rights to a field, on which she often rode a beloved horse named Freddy. When her family couldn't afford to buy the field, her father, an importer-exporter of fruits and nuts, was forced to sell the horse. "I was really upset and pissed off that we didn't have enough money," she says. "And I thought, 'Well, if nobody else will help me, I'll get a job myself."' The enterprising preteen decided to try out for a British TV talent show called Star for a Night, acing the competition with her version of "A Natural Woman (You Make Me Feel Like)."

She didn't get Freddy back, but she did land a contract at S-Curve Records. She was happy to say buh-bye to school. "I hated it," she says. "I would cry in the morning. I hated getting up early. And I'm dyslexic, which made school a lot worse." In America, S-Curve's head, Steve Greenberg, hooked Stone up with Wright, and they began to pen songs. Halfway through the process, Greenberg had a thought: What if Stone were to record some obscure soul classics and use some of the seasoned musicians that were a part of the Miami soul scene? Wright was dispatched to find the session guys. Of the musicians she chose, only Benny Latimore ("Let's Straighten It Out") was still in the music business. Guitarist Willie "Little Beaver" Hale was working for a commuter rail line, and organist Timmy Thomas was a teacher. In the meantime, Stone, Wright, Greenberg and producer Mike Mangini sat down and picked out lesser-known soul cuts such as Laura Lee's "Dirty Man" and "Super Duper Love," by one-hit wonder Sugar Billy.

It was slow going in the studio at the beginning. "When they got together that first day – oh, my goodness," says Wright. "You talk about a train wreck? Because no one had been playing together, and then it took them two hours to do the reminiscing thing – you know, 'How have things been since 1979?' "

Eventually the group jelled and knocked out the whole album live in four days. Stone recorded one last track, her cover of "Fell in Love With a Girl," in Philadelphia, co-produced by the Roots, with backing vocals by Angie Stone. "I'm like, 'This is the wrong way around; I should be doing her backing,"' says Joss. "She's so into real music, and she and the Roots didn't care that I'm not from the Bronx. I'm not black - whatever. The only question they ask is, 'Does she sound good? All right, then I'll work with her."

Slightly more nerve-racking was her first gig, at a little joint in Miami called Tobacco Road. "It was packed because Betty Wright had organized the whole band, and their families were there, and it was a teeny little place," Joss says. "I just cried beforehand. I told Steve, 'I don't want to do this. I don't want to perform. Can I not just sing in the studio?' " When the tears stopped, she was coaxed onstage.

AFTER THE RELEASE OF "THE SOUL Sessions," Stone's life began to take a surreal turn as the famous lined up to meet her. Elton John asked her to perform at his Oscar party. There was a mad scramble before she took the stage at John's because she had forgotten to bring a bra. It was so late that no stores were open, so her hairdresser raced down to a laundromat, found a woman pulling a wet bra out of a washer and offered her twenty bucks for it. As Stone sang onstage, she got fleeting glimpses of the audience: Sharon Stone, the Osbournes, Katie Holmes. "It was really scary," Joss says. "Elton was interested in my show, but the audience at that kind of thing, they're all working."

The whirlwind continued. Stone met the president twice, when she sang at the Christmas in Washington concert and at a Kennedy Center tribute to James Brown. ("I get the feeling George Bush is a little silly," she says.) Mick Jagger and the Eurythmics' Dave Stewart tapped her to sing the title cut on the Alfie soundtrack, which Jagger and Stewart produced, and Jagger and Stone duetted on a holiday song called "Lonely Without You (This Christmas)." After Tom Cruise mentioned on a TV talk show that he was a fan, he and Stone became friends. "I went over to his house for lunch," she says. "He has this trampoline in the back garden, and of course he does all the flips, because he's Superman; he can do anything. He's so nice, just a normal guy. And I love it because he has no agenda. What does he need from me? He's Tom Cruise." She was more nervous meeting Jack White of the White Stripes outside a hotel. ("I'm sorry I ruined your song," she told him. "Don't be stupid, we loved it," he answered.)

One night she was approached backstage by Lamont Dozier, of the celebrated Motown songwriting team Holland-Dozier-Holland, who offered to write a song for her next album. He and his son Beau collaborated with Stone on Mind, Body and Soul's best track, "Spoiled." The collaboration with Beau, now her boyfriend, continued. He sits at a nearby table at the coffee shop, waiting for her to be done so that they can go to a nearby park. "He's so cute, isn't he?" Stone says, throwing a beaming glance in his direction. "When I'm here in L.A. I live at his house."

Stone co-wrote eleven of the fourteen songs on Mind, Body and Soul, an impressively accomplished album of soul with flourishes of gospel and reggae. It has the same warmly organic feel as her debut. But the self-effacing Stone is merciless when she critiques her album. "I know people are going to dis it when it comes out," she says. "And if they didn't, I'd never learn. I mean, I'm making this up. I have no idea what I'm doing."

Mention the song "Don't Cha Wanna Ride," a sassy up-tempo romp, and she groans. "I get embarrassed every time I sing it," she says, pointing to lyrics such as "A car this fine don't pass your way every day." "I was having a good time when I was singing it in the studio, but then afterward, I was like, 'How can I do this onstage?"' She's right, actually. Because her songs were co-written by seasoned R&B veterans, some of the words are jarring: No adolescent on planet Earth would say things such as "Won't you tell me/Where's my mister man?"

Her songwriting still sparkles with potential. With that voice, fame is imminent, and soon she will not regard the paparazzo who followed her to the drugstore recently as "really cool, just doing his job." Hopefully she can enjoy this giddy time where everything is "mad" and people are "really nice." Hell, maybe she'll never be jaded, because she seems equally excited by both the major events in her life and the smaller ones - getting her driver's license, for instance. "I really can't wait," she says, practically lifting off her chair.