Allen Stone aims to change perception of soul singers
“Look at me, I sing soul music and I look like this,” Allen Stone jokes early on in our conversation.
He’s the first to make light about his appearance and how deceiving it is for those used to one particular mold of soul crooners.
Instead of slick tailored suits and perfectly coiffed hair, Stone’s long curly blond hair, thick-rimmed eyeglasses and homely attire have some publications remarking that he is a “crunchy white guy.” But Stone’s dress-for-comfort approach hardly diminishes his unique brand of soul.
The 24-year-old singer-songwriter from tiny Chewelah, Wash., is generating buzz with his self-released eponymous sophomore album, which came out in October, and his late-night television debut on “Conan.”
“I got a hold of Stevie Wonder when I was about 15. I wasn’t allowed any secular music in my house growing up and so I had to sneak records. Somebody gave me some Stevie and the first song I heard was ‘Isn’t She Lovely,’ ” he recalled. “That initial hook, once he starts into that [begins singing the lyrics] you’re hooked on the rest of the song. I just mimicking what Stevie was doing vocally as best as I could.”
In its first week of release, his self-titled second album, a follow-up to 2009's "Last to Speak," soared to the No. 2 spot on iTunes' R&B Top Charts.
He's also drawing big interest at his shows -- when he plays live, he routinely packs the house. His Friday gig at the Echo is already sold out and he got rave reviews for his recent set at New York’s famed S.O.B.'s.
That attention has not gone unnoticed by major labels.
“We’re getting hounded by majors," he says. "But these days you’ve gotta have your … together before you go to a label. I want to develop that cult following where I can just go to a label and say, ‘All you’ve gotta do is take it to radio,’ ” Stone laughs. “I’m really trying to do it independently as best as possible. When you’re signed to a label, they have all of their chickens in a row already, they know how they want to do it.”
“Allen Stone” has won over critics for its retro-soul vibe. His lyrics recall the days of Wonder and Marvin Gaye, artists who sang more about what was going on in the world, and a little less about what’s happening in their bedroom.
“There is so much music at the forefront that really drops the ball. R&B especially. It’s always about sex. R&B and soul music has the power to change minds and affect people emotionally and spiritually. It has the power to ignite change. And that’s where I get passionate,” Stone said. “I miss music that stimulated like ‘What’s Going On’ … songs about social change, what are we doing, what’s our government doing, what are we doing as a country? I like music that says stuff besides I want to [expletive] you.”
True to his word, one of the tracks getting the most attention is “Unaware," a ballad fueled by the current economic crises. A video of Stone performing the single in his mother’s living room (of all places) has racked up more than 350,000 views. Recently, Stone visited The Times. It was at the height of the Occupy L.A. demonstration nearby, and the movement swiftly caught his attention.
“I love it. I love that people are getting out and congregating for a purpose, beyond church. It's really the only thing in this country beyond church, sports and work where people come together for a purpose,” he said. “I don’t know what it's changing. It’s not going to make the 1% change, but I am anxious to see if it’ll do anything. The biggest downfall of my generation, we’re so Web-based. The only ranting and raving we ever do is on Facebook or Twitter. [So this] is beautiful to see.”
Check out Stone's "Unaware" below:
-- Gerrick D. Kennedy
Photos courtesy of Allen Stone