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A young soul with the blues

September 27, 2004|Randy Lewis | Times Staff Writer

British singer Joss Stone breezes into a Los Angeles rehearsal studio and folds her 5-foot-9-and-still-growing teenage frame onto a utilitarian sofa. As is her penchant onstage, the lanky blond kicks off her shoes, preferring to go barefoot any time she's around a microphone.

The shoeless approach is perhaps a symbol of her comfort level despite a slight case of nerves from anticipation surrounding a House of Blues showcase in West Hollywood for which she and her band were gearing up.

Much of that anticipation is keyed to how material from her new album, "Mind, Body & Soul" (in stores Tuesday), will go over with the fans and music industry executives who will be on hand.

A day before the show, she hasn't ruled out the prospect that she might bomb.

"We'll just have to see," she suggests with a laugh.

For one who's just 17, Stone exudes a refreshing wariness toward fame, even though she easily might get caught up in it given the celebrity admirers she's won, including Elton John, Lenny Kravitz, Tom Cruise and Mick Jagger. (She's recorded three songs, two with Jagger, for the upcoming remake with Jude Law of the 1966 film "Alfie.")

They're among fans who latched on to Stone through her 2003 debut recording, "The Soul Sessions." That 10-song collection, mostly little-known R&B nuggets from the '60s and '70s, introduced a voice and style that made many listeners think she was a veteran soul singer from the American South rather than a gangly white teen from rural Devon, England.

It has sold more than 600,000 copies in the U.S. alone, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and remains on Billboard's Top 200 Albums chart more than a year later.

That wasn't what Stone expected or even wanted out of the project, which she envisioned essentially as a calling card for "Mind, Body & Soul," the work she likes to call "my real debut."

"The Soul Sessions" was never meant to be an album. "The only way they got me to agree with it was by saying it would just be an EP [extended-play mini-album] that would sell a couple thousand," she says, her long, wavy hair cascading past her shoulders and over a V-neck T-shirt toward the trim waist of her belly button-revealing, form-fitting blue jeans.

"It's nice it was selling, but in a way I felt like 'Please stop,' " she says. "It's good, really, but it makes it harder for this [new] one because people are going to be looking at it really hard."

For a time last year, Stone was everywhere, a natural media magnet because of the novelty of a white British teen with such a soulful sound. But for all her TV and print exposure, "The Soul Sessions" landed on year-end Top 10 album lists of only a dozen of the 732 pop music writers polled by Village Voice. Despite many raves, some critics disagreed, calling her treatments overwrought.

For Stone, there's more of herself in, and on the line with, "Mind, Body & Soul." Instead of old R&B songs done the traditional way, the album consists of 14 songs, 11 of them co-written by Stone, melding classic soul elements with hip-hop beats and other contemporary pop and R&B textures.

"I think it's going to do really well," says Bob Feterl, Southwest region director for Tower Records. "The last one sold very well, and that was just an EP.... We're ordering heavily on it ['Mind, Body & Soul] for all of our stores."

The new songs that Stone had a hand in writing help give the new album a stronger sense of personality than came through on "The Soul Sessions." The opening track, "Right to Be Wrong," lays out an assured young woman's declaration of her prerogative to make -- and live with -- her own choices.

In what may be a first in pop music history, "Snakes & Ladders," which Stone wrote with Connor Reeve, quotes Shakespeare and Wilson Pickett in the same song. ("Ninety-nine and a half it just won't do / You gotta give me all of you....Time for us to face the fact, whether to be or not to be, that is the question so it seems.")

"That was my favorite thing on the album," she says cheerily, crediting Reeve with the odd-couple pairing. "He always comes up with stuff like that. He's crazy."

Her new single, "You Had Me," a sassy kiss-off from a girl who's been jilted by her boyfriend, rides on an insistent groove that puts her in the mainstream of 21st century R&B and has a shot at snagging some of Beyonce's fans.

It's generating some radio airplay around the country but hasn't caught on with programmers at L.A. Top 40 powerhouse KIIS-FM (102.7). "I think she's a great artist," says KIIS program director John Ivey, "but [I'm] not sure where she fits as a 'singles' artist on the radio."

Stone's voice sounds richer and more confident on "Mind, Body & Soul," growth underscored during her loose but forceful show at the House of Blues, part of the buildup to the new album's release.

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