Joss Stone (Dover, UK, 1987) is one of the blackest white throats of the last decades. More than once it has been said of her that she was like the pale Aretha Franklin. Smokey Robinson even called her "Aretha Joplin", as if she were a perfect cross between Aretha and Janis Joplin. Flattery that she has always been able to carry with integrity. She has won several Brit and Grammy awards and has sold more than seven million albums worldwide thanks to her approach to the idioms of soul, r'n'b and blues since twenty years ago, when she debuted with the sensational The Soul Sessions (2003), when he was only 16 years old. On July 26th she will share the stage at Noches del Botánico with Kokoroko, the Nigerian-born band based in London. The British artist will be zooming in from her home in the outskirts of Nashville (USA), where she has been living for a few years and where her two children were born.
Hi, Joss. I understand you are in Nashville, where you live.
Yes, half an hour from Nashville, actually.
You've been living there since 2022, if I'm not mistaken.
Well, since the end of 2020. Yes, since Violet, our first daughter, was born. We moved there four months before she was born, which was in January 2021.
How is life there for a musician? I guess it will be very stimulating.
I love it. I think it's the best place I've met so far in North America for music. Because there's everything. Other North American cities are great for certain styles, but Nashville has everything. The musicians are so good... if you want to make a bluegrass record, they're all available here. If you want to make a soul or r'n'b record, or pop or classical music, too. It's a very cool place to live, at least as far as music is concerned.
Not just country.
Yes, that's right. A lot of people think it's like that, and it's not. I've never made a country record in my life, but I've made three records in Nashville.
It's been twenty years since your successful debut, The Soul Sessions (2003), composed of covers of classics by Carla Thomas, Aretha Franklin, Bobby Miller, The Isley Brothers and other legends. Twenty years of career. Will your concert at Noches del Botánico revolve around that album or will it be more of an overview of your career?
More about my whole career. Basically, I decided to do that tour to celebrate that record because last year, while I was promoting another record, in all the interviews I was reminded that the following year was the twentieth anniversary. And I was like "really? I didn't even realize it, I don't usually count the years. And they would ask me "what are you going to do to celebrate?", and I would say "nothing, I have no idea". Then I told myself that I should celebrate, because it's very nice to have been doing this for so long. And also the people who allowed me to do it are the ones who are part of the audience. Those who bought the album and sang the songs. The audience. So I let them choose the setlist. We did an online poll where people could choose their favorite songs from all my albums. I asked them what they wanted to hear live. When we were selecting the setlist, we had the results of the poll in front of us, in five different columns, each with its own color. Songs like "4 & 20 Hours" (2009), which I never thought we would include in a concert. People liked it, and I didn't even know it, so I included it. There are a lot of medleys in the show because I tried to fit a lot of songs in. If I had to include all the crowd favorites the live show would have gone to four hours long. I couldn't do it, I had to set a limit. It was complicated, a crazy job (laughs).
Since you're talking about audience participation, I just remembered that in your social networks you interact quite a lot with your fans, answering some of the questions they ask you. Are you one of those who think that social networks are something valuable and not a burden? For many musicians it is a burden.
You know what? I used to feel that way. It wasn't until recently that I realized how nice they can be when it comes to fostering a relationship with your fans. Now I can talk to them directly. If someone says something, you can send a message to that specific person. And talk to them. And that's special for me and for them. That's the positive part. But the negative part is that we didn't sign up for this. We just wanted to sing songs, to make music. As musicians, we can sometimes not be politically correct. We can come across as very smart at times and very stupid at other times. We don't have a clue. We are human beings who are in the business of making art, which means we can very easily offend people. And I don't want to offend anyone. In a way, it forces you to learn a new social skill, and it's something we weren't forced to do when my career started. It wasn't important then. It was just important to make good music. And that was it. Now this has changed, and the artist has to maintain a closer relationship with his fans. And that can sometimes be a disaster. I've met a lot of musicians, whose songs I'm a fan of, who the more I meet in person, the less I like their music. It kind of spoils the art in a way. At least for me, in some ways. It's infrequent that it all embellishes it. So I try to be very careful not to ruin my work in people's eyes, you know? It's a funny and strange job at the same time (laughs).
By the way, when you released your first album you were only 16 years old, did you manage to keep success from going to your head?
Well, the thing is, I was growing up while all that was going on. There's always going to be differences between your twelfth and fourteenth years, which are even bigger between fourteen and sixteen, and huge between sixteen and eighteen. That's going to happen naturally, regardless of what you do. Whether you're a famous singer or you go to high school. Those big changes in your life are going to happen. Whether you attribute it to your job or your studies or your experiences... you're going to have to decide who you want to be in this life, no matter what you're facing. And what I was facing was a unique situation, one hundred percent. Because for anyone else it would be a very rare thing, a situation that they wouldn't expect in any way, but for me that was my world. I was dealing with life like any other teenage girl would. High school can also be a very complicated thing at that age, it's a place where your classmates are going to bully you, they're going to make fun of your skin or your hair or your accent or how you behave in class, or a boy is going to kiss you and then lie about touching your boobs... anything. It's horrible what can happen to you at that age in a high school. In my case, if I made a mistake, I made it in front of millions of people. That can be horrible too. But I was surrounded by supportive people. No one was pulling my hair and making jokes about my pimples. I didn't have to go through that. There are positives and negatives in both situations.
Who were your main musical references in those days? Who were your musical idols?
I would say Aretha Franklin and Lauryn Hill. Those two. I love Lauryn Hill, what she has to say and the sound of hip hop, basically. Her harmonies and everything else. From Aretha Franklin I love her soul, it's so powerful... awesome.
Did you feel you were spearheading a new generation of British soul singers in the early 2000s? It wasn't a genre that was particularly fashionable then, but then you, Amy Winehouse or Duffy came along and things changed.
I didn't feel that at the time, I was just enjoying the music that preceded me. I didn't feel like I was starting anything because I wasn't. I just liked that style of music, which had been around for years, and I wanted to be a part of it. I just liked that style of music, which had been around for years, and I wanted to be a part of it. Now that I'm older, I've learned more things about what actually happened, because back then I didn't realize much of what was going on around me. Now I do. When Steve Greenberg (head of S- Curve Records) released the record, he managed to bring back the British soul movement. But I had no idea then. That door opened because Steve pushed it open by releasing my first record. And then other people came through it, because it was already open. That's great. And hopefully it will be open for a lot longer. Things happen. We were part of it. It's a fad that will come and go and go again and come back again, but in the end soul is a timeless style. It's songs that will still be sung fifty years from now. And that's okay.
How do you feel when you are labeled as the white Aretha Franklin? Does it overwhelm you?
Yes, but I don't think I can ever be as good. I have a lot of confidence in myself as a singer now, I think I'm good at what I do, and that's always a comfortable place to be, but at the same time as those accolades were happening, I was a kid and I didn't even know what I was doing. I had the spirit, the soul, all the intention that soul requires, but comparing me to Aretha Franklin was too much. It was a very kind and sweet compliment, but it was also very dangerous.
"When I worked with Mick Jagger on the SuperHeavy record, the super band I was part of in 2011, I was surprised by his method of writing. It wasn't how I expected it to be."
Throughout your career you have collaborated with artists such as Jeff Beck, Damien Marley, Mick Jagger, The Roots or Dave Stewart, among many others. Did any of them surprise you in some way and change you, or change the mental scheme you had of him?
Every collaboration marks you or changes you, opens your eyes a little bit. When I worked with Mick Jagger on the SuperHeavy album, the super band I was a part of in 2011, I was surprised by his method of writing. It wasn't how I expected it to be. I expected it to be rock and roll throughout. Their music is, but not their attitude. Nor their ways. When you think of rock and roll you picture someone throwing the TV out their bedroom window, you know what I mean? And Mick is a gentleman, very thoughtful and considerate. He thinks about his lyrics in great detail. He writes twenty stanzas and picks one. And he drinks milk and cookies at night, he doesn't throw TVs out the windows (laughs). I was surprised by that.
Well, people usually think of him because of what he does with Keith Richards, who is the rock face of the Rolling Stones.
Yes, exactly. Keith Richards does live like that. But Mick doesn't.
Is there an artist you'd like to work with that you haven't yet?
I love collaborating with others, really. With anyone. Not everyone has the same spirit. With people who do it for fun. Creative people can't be happier than when they're doing something, and for that you don't need to be a big star, you just need to be free. Free-spirited people. That's the kind of people I want to surround myself with.
I suppose that this freedom of spirit also applies to the choice of styles, as you don't close yourself to any of them.
No! Of course. Any style. It doesn't matter. I think soul music is not a genre. We thought it was for years, but it's not. It's a feeling. I've been touring all over the world, performing in every country possible, and doing collaborations in every one of them, and they've been incredible experiences. I've found myself singing with throat singers in Mongolia, and feeling "wow, this is amazing." Music is a beautiful thing. Or I've found myself in Vietnam, singing Ca Tru, a style of music I would never have imagined, something very crazy. You just have to open your heart to it all.
In Madrid you will share the stage with Kokoroko, a Nigerian band based in London. Do you know them?
I don't know them. Sounds good!
You may have more in common than meets the eye.
Yes, maybe we could do something together.