Nine Songs: Allen Stone
Ever since the release of his 2011 self-titled breakout album, the cult following that adores Allen Stone has remained enamoured by his unique take on R&B and soul.
Stone quickly found himself a phenomenon in the music industry, with superstars like Daryl Hall, Justin Bieber and John Mayer lining up to work alongside the Seattle-native soul singer. Despite such attention, growing up as a devout churchgoer laid the foundations for the young Stone and ignited a love of music that lived beyond his faith. He signed to Capitol Records for his third album Radius, but then asked them to drop him shortly after its release and returned to ATO Records for his fourth, Building Balance.
"A lot of the time, especially when you're a solo artist, you promote music or entertainment, even though at the same time you're selling yourself.' Stone tells me, as he's fighting his way through New York City morning traffic. 'I don't mean that as in ‘Selling your soul in a negative way’, but you're selling a persona, you're selling your likeness really."
Stone's laid-back attitude is balanced by his sharpness when it comes to music. A seemingly goofy joker in his online skits and Shower Sessions, there's something to be said about a musician this far into the game who can overcome choosing to leave a major label. "Any time you're mixing art and commerce you can get caught up in the rigamarole of running a business. Sometimes I forget how insane it is that I get to pay my rent with music, creation and art. It's such an incredible feeling."
Before we speak about the songs that soundtracked the years between his third and fourth records, Stone briefs me about how starting a family became the best refresh button for his writing. “It takes all the attention that was heading your way and redirects it." Writing for the sheer catharsis of creating art is something he mentions frequently, where he’s always seeking to stay away from the established measures of success.
Accordingly, Stone has a selfless talent to spot what it is that makes new artists worth listening to, When I point out the number of independent artists in his choice of songs he says "The point of contact that we all reference for success are these astronomical stories. When we reference success as musicians, actors or entertainers, it's Michael Jackson, Elvis or Brad Pitt. These stories and lifelines are so absurd and so many musicians end in tragedy.” What Stone loves about modern success stories is instead it’s lack of grandeur. “You can start a YouTube channel and literally not a single entertainment magazine would ever know or write anything about you. Yet you can have a legitimate fanbase, make a living doing your art and creating positive momentum. That's the best.”
"There's just so much good music out there” he continues. "It's crazy, the world we're living in right now. There's so much art and so much creativity. I feel it's the greatest time ever in the history of the universe to be an artist and create."
“Madison Cunningham is 21 years old and plays the guitar like she's been doing it for fifty years, she's unbelievable. I've been obsessed with her for almost a year and I'm so impressed with her song-writing, lyrics and musicianship. Everything about her is out of this world
“In a musical landscape where sexuality is overused, I really appreciate female musicians that don't lean too much on that. I know this is a difficult subject, so I'll tread lightly, but I love any musician who mainly leans on their art.
“Artists like Brandi Carlile and other amazing country musicians are cultivating the pillar of what I really find wonderful about music in general, but specifically women in music. Obviously, I'm a man speaking about female sexuality so I'm not the go-to guy here, but that's what I love about Madison. She is solely leaning on her talent and that’s so much more empowering than sexuality - that stuff is baseline. When I see artists doing that too much, I feel ‘It is what it is’. I wouldn't judge anyone for how they find empowerment, but I feel more elated when I see somebody really using the power of song-writing.
“I love this song. You’ve got to watch her live videos, she’s unreal and fantastic. When it comes to musicians, when I hear a song I may think, ‘Oh wow, what a wonderful tune’, but then I'll go research it and find live videos to see if they can pull it off. If they can, then I'm a fan for life.”
“Oh my goodness, Foy Vance is the king. I believe he's Irish, from Dublin maybe? He’s written a fair bit with Ed Sheeran - it was either on Ed's latest record or one of the others that Foy worked with him a lot.
“This song really spoke to me and the chorus rings in my ear constantly. When he released that record From Muscle Shoals, I listened through it a bunch of times and “Moving On” stuck with me. I don’t think it's for any specific reason; the melody really stuck with me and the groove really got me itching when I first heard it.
“If you've seen him live, you'll see that he has this voice that is next to nothing, he’s a very special singer. I have a tendency to like musicians that people don't know about and like most music snobs, it feels like they're mine. If Foy got as big as Ed Sheeran I'd probably be like, ‘Oh man, it's time to move on.’
“Louis’s newest release Open is fire and every single song on that record is great. He's this young kid from New Zealand and he couldn't be a better person, he's so sweet and such a powerful singer, he writes so well too. “Black Crow” has to be my favourite from Open, and all the fellas in my crew, we rock the hell out of that song.
“We hand-picked him to play with us in New Zealand earlier this year and he's an artist I really cannot say enough good things about. He's young, he's new, but he's got everything an artist needs to be successful in this business. I really enjoy being able to speak about him and spread the word.”
“I've been addicted to this song ever since she released it. I love it and it sticks in my head like crazy. Have you seen the video? It's so rad, she's in this room and there's sand everywhere; just thinking about the logistics of the video blows my mind. Robyn is such an artist, she's dancing the whole time with the microphone stand as if it's her dance partner and she manoeuvres it like a wizard. Those visuals blow my mind.
“I've never seen her live, I’ve only seen her videos. I knew some of her songs before this big comeback, but nothing much. When "Dancing On My Own" came out I definitely starting paying attention, that song’s an earworm for sure. She's Swedish and during my last record I tracked most of it there. I never met her, but I definitely feel a connection with that song.”
“Bobby Caldwell is one of those timeless artists and I've been into him since early on in my musical pilgrimage of sorts. As you do, you find new music and artists and they just stay on repeat. I definitely found this kind of music later on in my life, it wasn't something I grew up with. To be honest, I found all the staples of my R&B addiction later on in my life when I was nineteen or twenty, I started digging into that world of ‘60s and ‘70s R&B and Bobby was part of that.
“I had a friend who used to play in my band who passed away recently and at every soundcheck before we played, he would sing Bobby Caldwell. When he passed away I revisited these songs and throughout the process of Building Balance I was researching his music and lineage.
“Open Your Eyes” is one of the jams. We used to cover “What You Won't Do For Love” in tribute to Mark, my friend who passed. He would always sing that song specifically and he was such a sweet, interesting character. We've put that song to bed now, it might come up again, but it's a very sentimental song. It's actually quite hard to get through with the memories attached to it.”
“Oh man, I love them. They're a three-piece and I really connect to his voice, the singer’s voice pierces me. I'm terrible, because I don't know the first names of the band members, but their records were on repeat on the last tour that we did.
“I do breathing exercises as a vocal warm-up and then I throw on songs that I love to sing. When you're constantly trying to maintain healthy vocal chords, joy has a lot to do with it. A lot of times I'll get into a regimented practice of vocal runs, but that becomes so boring, it starts to feel like work when you're doing it every day, but the Wood Brothers have definitely helped me on this last tour. They did a Live From The Lab session that I really need to check out. We've done one as well, so I'm excited to see theirs.”
“Matt Corby is the greatest singer alive right now in my opinion. The shit he is capable of doing with his voice is out of this world, it's above and beyond, I can't even begin to understand how he does what he does. I hope he keeps making music and doing his thing.
“He isn't covering anything up with the production, he could sing a capella and make you leave your wife. I'm a bit obsessed with him and so is my wife, it's kind of concerning, actually! She's more obsessed than I am. Whenever Matt Corby is coming to town it's ‘Listen, I'm going to see Matt Corby with my best girlfriends, and you can't come." It's so funny. I'm like ‘Come on, I want to come.’
“Miracle Love” was the song that really hit me hard. He released his latest record Rainbow Valley in the fall of last year. I was on a big headline tour in the States and that whole record, top to bottom, is filthy. It's his best work and I'm pretty sure he played almost every instrument on the record.
“He's a freak of nature, not only can he sing but he played the drums on that thing. The drums. Some of the percussion work on that album is out of this world and that's the 'not fair' level. People like Jacob Collier and Prince, they can play every instrument way better than anyone you know. It's like, "I give up."
“I got back into the Q-Tip swing recently. I'll tell you a story, I've put a hot tub into my house recently. When I was twenty-four, I moved into this house in Seattle and there was a hot tub there too. A bunch of my friends would always come over, we'd play music and sit in the thing. It felt like we were in the Taj Mahal, because we had this hot tub.
“Because we were all twenty-four years old - and a bunch of idiots - we broke it pretty soon after. The hot tub had this CD player built into it, so we'd put CDs in there and listen to it. We put Q-Tip's “Vivrant Thing” in there before we broke it and it was stuck in there forever - for a year and a half we didn't listen to anything but that. I'm filled with emotion towards Q-Tip whenever I'm in a hot tub now, so whenever I'm in the new hot tub I bring some speakers outside and jam that song again.
“J Dilla produced that record and it's extraordinary. His craft and work - in regard to his fingerprint on the world of R&B - to me, that's greatest era of hip-hop. It's like what Innervisions was to R&B. Q-Tip's voice and his legend are unmatched in my opinion. I always go back to him and Common, those are my go-to guys.
“I've been doing my Wim Hof breathing and rocking that Q-Tip. He's a powerful man, Wim Hof. I met him last year in L.A. It was brief, but you could really sense the radiant power booming out of his eye sockets. The hot to cold breathing exercises have changed my life without question. I'm yet to totally lose my voice, and that's something that used to happen all the time.”
“I’ve been a fan of Benny for many years and he’s one of those artists I will always play at a party. If people are like, “Dude, what have you been listening to?” I’ll be ‘Have you caught Benny Sings?’
“I heard about Benny back in 2007 and I found his music on Myspace. He's been an unsung hero of our friendship group and he’s starting to get a bunch of traction - which is really cool - but I always like to say I found him first! This newest record he did, Not Enough, is some of his best work I think. He’s constantly pushing forward, I feel like he’s the Burt Bacharach of my generation.
“I think "Not Enough" is an inspiring and uplifting tune for me because I’ve followed him for so many years. He’s from Amsterdam, Holland and he's kind of only been over there, he hasn’t done much touring in the States, but now he’s starting to catch a wave and people are starting to find out about him. He just did a song on newest The Free Nationals record which is really great.
“It’s always inspiring and exciting for me to see people who are really talented, but also staying true to what they do. Every record isn't this huge departure trying to catch the wave of what's cool. Its sturdy and he always manages to hold it down.”