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ALLEN STONE: Soul w/Conviction

Justin and Robin may have soul on tap, but Allen Stone’s bringing something very different to R&B.

Words: Anna Graizbord
Images: Melissa O’Hearn

At first listen, it might be one’s first impulse to group singer/songwriter Allen Stone into the same slicked-up, “in the club” blue-eyed Soul camp of artists like Justin Timberlake or Robin Thicke. The longer you pay attention though, it becomes clear that Stone has a very different aesthetic and a crunchier vibe — not that he’s more suited toward the faux-emotive Folk-Soul-Pop singer/songwriter genre of Jason Mraz or (shudder) John Mayer.

While Stone’s strong indie sensibility sets him apart from dominant blue-eyed Soul/R&B Pop styles, it doesn’t seem right to lump him in with the ironically winking, electronic-based, Williamsburg loft party-friendly singers like Mayer Hawthorne (whom Stone has played shows with) or Jamie Lidell either. After speaking with Stone and watching his live performances, it became clear that the strongest element setting him apart is his indisputably transparent earnestness in his convictions. The guy is absolutely consumed by empathy, which seems to be the driving force behind his love for and creation of music.

 

Like many Soul and R&B singers much, much before him, Allen Stone started to understand and manage the overwhelmingly emotional feeling that music gave him by singing in church. He says it wasn’t a great leap for him to make from singing Gospel to getting into Soul, as it’s really just about “…expressing your soul”, after all. A lot of this “soul” that is expressed, or at least the aspects Stone says he’s most attracted to are about struggle and pain. In fact, he says that although he respects very polished and clean artists like James Brown, it is more the dirty and messy elements of Soul music that he’s drawn to. So, what does a 24-year-old White guy from Chewelah, Washington have to do with hard living and pain?  Stone says:

“I haven’t experienced any type of harsh reality in my life. I stepped away from the church, and that was kind of hard, but legitimate hardships in life, like what Ray Charles or Sam Cooke had [gone] through, I haven’t experienced anything to that degree…Everyone’s hardship is personal…How do I find myself and my soul in this music birthed upon so much hardship?…[I]t comes from a deep conviction. When you have those sorts of deep convictions, you’re able to express passion. That’s what music is for me. I understand deep conviction. I desire to speak passionately—whether it’s about love, the government or social change.”

One of the convictions Stone spoke to me about is the clash between the importance of self-analysis in the scope of social change and the tendency in immediately finding fault with others rather than taking an inventory of one’s self or one’s position. Stone describes his song “Last to Speak”, the titular song off his debut album Last to Speak (which came out in 2009), to be about “…changing who you are on the inside…instead of immediately pointing fingers.” More specifically, Stone spoke about his passion for mending bridges between religious-based conflicts. He asserts that because religion essentially stems from culture, and that no one can “prove” anyone else’s culture to be “right” or “wrong”, it’s a waste of time for humanity to focus on blaming others and willfully ignoring anything potentially problematic stemming from ourselves.

Though this may sound a bit naïve, Stone’s clear and unabashed empathy for others and genuine love of music shine through his live performances, somehow making it virtually impossible to feel okay about rolling your eyes at him. Plus, benignly nudging a generation of navel gazers and over-sharers to take an honest inventory of themselves certainly can’t hurt. With his church-going background, no doubt Stone understands the importance of packaging his message in the least sanctimonious or dogmatic way possible, and instead, his intertwined sense of fun and passion are tangible in a manner akin to Stevie Wonder—one of Stone’s all-time favorites and strongest influences.

 

Musicians of a high caliber have clearly been taking note of Stone’s extraordinary musical skill and genuine approach, as there are many standout collaborations to speak of on this record. One of the most exciting for Stone was working with Raphael Saadiq’s rhythm section, while other noteworthy collaborations on the album include producer Lior Goldenberg (who produced “Satisfaction”, “The Wind”, “Your Eyes”, “Unaware”, “Nothing To Prove” and “Say so”, all of which also feature Saadiq’s rhythms) has worked with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young); Deron Johnson (who played keys on the same six songs) was a keyboardist for Miles Davis; as well as Brett Dennen’s drummer (on the other four cuts from the project)—a “dream come true” for Stone.

With his new self-titled album coming out on October 4th, Stone has been and will be doing a great deal of touring in support of it, which you’ll surely not want to miss. He reports that he’s feeling very positive and comfortable with the end result of playing for many months with his touring band. It’s truly a refreshing, interesting and rare thing to see an artist who approaches his work very earnestly in the process of reaching to what promises to be a truly exciting potential.

Images by Melissa O’Hearn, exclusively for STARK.

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