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THE NEW CHANTEUSES

Will the real Stone rise up?

Hopes are high for her new album, but it comes amid an early swirl of criticism and skepticism.

March 27, 2007|Ann Powers | Times Staff Writer

Joss Stone sometimes has trouble standing tough onstage. The reason she gets wobbly? Stage fright. The 19-year-old singer and songwriter, whose third album, "Introducing Joss Stone," makes its American chart debut on Wednesday, learned a few years ago that the best way to avoid a crowd's scrutiny is to avert your gaze.

"I close my eyes a lot," Stone said recently as she unwound after taping a promotional appearance at a Burbank soundstage. "I don't want to know that everybody is staring at me, and judging me, whether they like my clothes or the color of my hair. So I go into another place. When I open my eyes, that's when I start giggling and everything, when I realize, 'Oh no, everybody's looking at me.' "

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday March 28, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 57 words Type of Material: Correction
Joss Stone: An article in Tuesday's Calendar section on British singer Joss Stone referred to musician and DJ Johnny Otis as "the late bandleader." Otis is 85 and living in Northern California. The article also described songwriter-producer Lamont Dozier as a "Philly soul icon." Dozier was a key member of the Motown Records hit-making team in Detroit.

Stone's nerves have been afflicting her lately, and for good reason. "Introducing" hits the American charts with panache, as it's expected to debut at or near the top of the chart, with a record-company projection of first-week sales in the neighborhood of 100,000 copies. Yet it has been dogged by mixed reviews and growing skepticism about her integrity. The album, which debuted in her native England at No. 12, along with a plummeting first single, is a painful disappointment in light of the Devon-born artist's insistence that her two previous, multi-platinum efforts did not reflect her vision and that this her first real artistic statement.

Add a slagging from Fleet Street after she behaved nervously at the Brit Awards, online fuss over her new pink coif and alleged marijuana use, and cheap gossip about her relationships with male collaborators, and Stone is facing a savage spring. Success in the U.S. may be her revenge, but one thing is sure: The days of simple amazement at Stone's monumental chops are gone, replaced by the challenges of adulthood.

Are the criticisms of Stone fair? In both conversation and performance, Stone comes off as a big talent still discovering herself but getting sick of doing so in public. She's a hot-button girl, but it's more than just her youth and gender that set people spinning: The flap over "Introducing" brings up issues of race, authenticity and artistic license that have been debated since the dawn of pop.

Stone, whose birth name is Joscelyn Stoker, grew up in a privileged household -- her father is a highly successful importer of dried fruit -- listening to soul music. "Somebody told my mum that you get your pitch within the first three years of your life," she said. "She says that I got mine from Anita Baker, because she was playing her a lot." After school, Joss would put on Dusty Springfield's "Greatest Hits" and cook dinner for her family as the original blue-eyed soul singer's voice wafted through the kitchen. Factor in her brother's penchant for old-school hip-hop, dad's Jam fandom and her granny's fondness for Led Zeppelin, and it adds up to a smorgasbord of takes on black music, from both sides of the racial divide.

Unlike many artists who absorb these sources and then take time to make them into something new, Stone became a star in her mid-teens. She won an "American Idol"-style TV talent contest at 14 by singing Donna Summer's "On the Radio" and soon signed with an American manager who brought her to Miami, where she recorded her debut under the guidance of soul singer Betty Wright. Stone's big voice and gift for channeling her sources gained her instant notice, and soon she found herself learning at the feet of the very people whose recordings had shaped her childhood reveries.

"I learn from Lamont Dozier, Gladys Knight, Patti LaBelle," she said, name-checking one great songwriter and two essential divas from soul's greatest era. "I sit around and soak up whatever they want to give me. I've had long conversations with them. My mom told me when I was young: Just be like a sponge. And that's what I'm trying to be."

The problem is, a sponge isn't an artist, especially as defined by Anglo-American pop culture, which values individualism over the upholding of tradition. The "gifted student" approach that Stone took on her first two albums -- which have sold 914,000 and 1.2 million copies in the U.S., respectively -- is now a weight around her neck. "Introducing," produced by veteran R&B auteur Raphael Saadiq, is Stone's attempt to break free of the vintage aura of her earlier work, which she feels was too uniform.

"When you listen to the [new] album, you're going to have to decide what you call it, because I don't know," she said. " 'Less Is More' is a reggae joint. 'Tell Me' has the Bob Marley thing too. 'Music' is more hip-hop, and 'Arms of My Baby' is actually a salsa-ish track."

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