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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

Saadiq's approach, which he's been refining since his mid-1980s debut with the band Tony! Toni! Tone!, is retro-futuristic: He blends classic references (punchy horns, bubbly bass, sassy backing singers) with up-to-the-minute studio techniques to create a sound that is modern but not trendy. Enlisting like-minded (if somewhat predictable) souls like Lauryn Hill and Common as guests, Saadiq has created an environment well-suited to a young singer trying to find herself within a daunting tradition.

"I think we both have a love for authentic real music," Saadiq said by e-mail about the collaboration. "That does not mean just a live band jamming; it means that through those live musicians you create a song.... The song, the players' dedication to the song -- not the drum roll or guitar lick -- each player playing a role actually makes it a record. We both hear that."

If there's one fault on "Introducing," it's that Stone's comfort level with that tradition remains too high. Throughout the album, she sings in a voice she learned from those soul albums; the lilt of coastal England never surfaces. Crafting a new self from beloved popular cultural sources, Stone is very much of her generation; it's her sincerity, her refusal to see that identity as artificial, that singles her out.

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.

For years, she's fielded questions about her right to sing in a black style, and on that subject, she's beyond irritated. "That's a very childish way to look at things," she huffed in response to the assertion that white artists have sometimes stolen from black artists. "I don't want to make any money from my records. It's really not about stealing.... This is soul music, we're technically calling this soul music. OK? So they're saying, 'You're not black, you're not American, so how do you expect me to believe that you have a soul?' It's just ridiculous."

This view was once fairly common among white musicians steeped in black culture. "As a kid, I decided that if our society dictated that one had to be black or white, I would be black," the late bandleader Johnny Otis once said. Dusty Springfield, Stone's idol, described her own transformation in terms the younger singer would understand: At 16, she looked in the mirror and said to herself, "Be miserable or become someone else." So she did.

For Saadiq, Stone's affinity for black music is simply part of the pop tradition. He sees her as operating in the tradition of legendary acts such as Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. "I can't answer why others might come down hard on Joss," he said, "except that they might be short of a history lesson."

This kind of fluidity isn't so easily claimed now, since the civil rights movement and identity politics have laid bare the realities of white privilege. Stone, however, isn't much engaged in such intellectual debates. Most of the musicians she's worked with have been black, and her great love -- the source of the more painful breakup songs on "Introducing" -- was Beau Dozier, the son of Philly soul icon Lamont.

Stone's refusal to analyze the racial leap her music makes is connected to her view that singing is about feeling more than thought. "It hurts," said Stone, when asked what she's learned about singing in the last few years of performing. "The kind of singing I do, I'm feeling it so much; if I were actually paying attention I could probably not hurt myself. My vocal coach is like, 'Joss, you just have to control yourself.' But that's not something I could do."

This view, heavy on intuition and unfiltered passion, runs counter to the highly savvy, stylized approach of many young pop artists, including Stone's rivals, Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen. It's bound to invite scorn and even offend some people. For better or worse, Stone doesn't care. She sounds more like a heavy-metal rocker than a postmodern pop star when she talks about why she sings. "I've a funny thing with pain, I guess," she said. "I like to pierce myself a lot, and get tattoos. Sometimes I feel real numb, you know? So that's how I shake myself up and break myself up. Sometimes you've got to get to the point where you're on your knees for people to hear you. I don't know why, I can't really calm it down."


Coming up: Corinne Bailey Rae

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