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).”