Joss Stone. Mail On Sunday Live Magazine 2008

Words: Dan Gennoe

Joss Stone is smoking a fag. Crouched on the pavement outside the BBC’s Maida Vale studio, a grey cardigan pulled around her, a skinny roll-up between her fingers, the soul sensation who’s spent much of the last year dodging tabloid accusations of erratic behaviour and diva-like tantrums looks more frozen smoker than prima donna. When a builder from across the road approaches with a pen and paper she smiles, chats cheerily and signs her autograph between shivers.

It’s a bitterly cold December day but Stone is observing the smoking ban without complaint or proper coat, laughing with a couple of BBC employees, pulling faces and saying, somewhat indiscreetly, that she’s definitely eaten too much chocolate. Thirty bars already this morning to be exact. Her reason for being at the studio, used to record live music sessions for radio, is supposedly top secret. Paparazzi photographers are waiting around the corner and reporters have apparently been going to extreme lengths to find out if the rumours of her latest performance are true. But they needn’t have bothered. Still laughing at the day’s chocolate intake she pulls her best smouldering expression and blows her cover with a sweet and soulful burst of ‘Only the crumbliest, flakiest chocolate…’

At 20 years of age – she turns 21 in April – Joscelyn Eve Stoker, to use the name her fruit importer dad and house wife mum gave her, has already had an amazing career. Discovered in 1999, at the tender age of 12 on the BBC’s decidedly cosy pre-X Factor talent show, Star For A Night, she signed a record deal at 14 and has since released three albums with combined sales of 8 million. 

She’s won two Brit Awards and a Grammy, duetted with James Brown, Mick Jagger, Lauryn Hill and Robbie Williams, replaced Sarah Jessica Parker as the face of GAP and performed in front of both Presidents Clinton and Bush – she’s met the latter twice and wasn’t impressed either time: ‘He was nice enough, but he doesn’t come across like he actually knows what he’s doing. He told me there’d be world peace when he’s done and I thought, you don’t mean that do you’. 

With her latest album, Introducing Joss Stone, charting at No.2 in the US, the girl from Devon with the voice of a forty something gospel singer officially claimed the prize of the highest ever US chart entry by a British Female Artist. And now, to top it all, Joss Stone is becoming a Flake Girl.

In the warm of the studio, a very different Joss Stone is holding court. Surrounded by her band, instruments and film cameras she’s belting out an as yet unfamiliar song at the top of her voice. She throws her head of fittingly chocolate brown hair back for the big notes, punches the air for the chorus and then stops everything to suggest that the sax player, who’s clearly twice her age, should play it as, ‘la, la, la, LA.’

‘It’s just a normal day at work for Joss,’ explains one of the army of ‘chocolate people’, on hand to ensure everyone understands the ‘concept’ of the ad which makes its TV debut in March. ‘Joss is in the studio, writing a new song, then, during a break she has her Flake moment.’  

A national institution since 1959, when it comes to chocolate advertising there is no one more iconic or powerful than the Flake Girl. She’s enjoyed the ecstasy of her favourite confectionary in poppy fields, an overflowing bath and in the ‘70s was even taken off air after complaints about the suggest way in which she bit into her chocolate. Now Cadbury are hoping that, in the shape of Ms Stone, she’ll stop a two year decline in sales and save Flake from falling out of the chocolate top 10.

‘I break a bit off and put it in my mouth,’ says Stone with a knowing smile in answer to the question of how she eats hers. Crossing her legs Buddha-style on the Green Room’s sofa as filming breaks for lunch, she issues an I’m-not-that-stupid look. ‘I’m not gonna do that.’ She mimes pornographically wrapping her lips around an imaginary chocolate bar. ‘That’s very sexual, and it’s OK to be sexual, but I just don’t want to do it.’

 

While having the fortunes of a £60 million brand resting on her slight shoulders may be an incredible pressure, it’s also a welcome vote of confidence for Stone at a pivotal time in her career. Joining the growing number of established artists, from Radiohead to Madonna, who are swapping conventional music industry wisdom for greater control of their own destiny,  Stone has been making a series of brave, or some might say foolhardy stands. 

Although hugely successful, she was less than pleased with her first two albums, 2003’s collection of vintage covers The Soul Sessions and 2004’s sunny ‘70s influenced follow-up Mind, Body & Soul, not least because of her lack of input into either. Not content to play the obedient popstar a third time, she issued an ultimatum to her record label, which resulted in her co-writing all 14 tracks on the tellingly titled Introducing Joss Stone, and as Executive Producer, being given full creative control.  In a similar vein she also decided to sack her manager and now takes care of all her own business affairs – a move which has only gone to fuel press speculation that she must indeed be an uncontrollable diva. 

‘I was 15 when I first came out, I’m 20 now,’ she fires back with a defiant and surprisingly intimidating smile in reply to the observation that she’s come a long way from the shy girl, all blonde curls and giggles, she once was. ‘I can’t stay 15 forever. I think as anybody grows up they get stronger within themselves. I’ve always been a very strong person. That’s how my mum and dad brought me up. Never say ‘can’t’ and never let anybody make you do anything. If I want to do something, I’m going to do it. It’s like when I said I was gonna get Lauryn [Hill] on this record, everybody was pissing themselves laughing. That just made me want to do it even more.’

So determined was Stone to get the notoriously reclusive ex-Fugee on her record that she called Hill’s mother everyday until she agreed. ‘I put so much effort into it because I really love Lauryn and I didn’t want the negative people to win. But then that’s the tone of the whole record. It’s young and defiant because this time I got to put myself into it.

‘I wasn’t in a position to make my first two records,’ she observes with a philosophical calm which suggests that she’s given the topic a lot of thought. ‘I wrote on the second album, but I didn’t pick the songs that went on there. I didn’t even get to choose who did my artwork. Which I understand. I was a baby girl, no one was really listening to me. Of course they weren’t. But this album I got to make.’

While it might seem brave of a record company to hand over the reins of a multi-platinum career to a 19 year-old with no previous experience, as Stone tells it, they didn’t have much choice. 

‘I said to them, “Let me be an artist or drop me”,’ she informs with another unnervingly reasonable smile. ‘Record companies are run by business men. I understand that. And if you’re a 40 year-old man who’s been in the industry for 20 years you’re not going to want to give a young girl a million dollars to make a record. That’s a lot of money. You’re going to want to appoint the right people. Otherwise you’re just gambling. So I said, “I understand that it’s hard for you to just say OK and hand it over, but if you can’t, then let me go.” At the end of the day I choose to give-up my life to music. I don’t have a proper home because I’m always touring and that’s fine while I love music. If I don’t love the music though, there’s no point in making myself miserable. I said to the then head of EMI, who’s a lovely man, I said “It’s unfair to keep me in a deal where I’m being forced to make music I don’t like. It’s cruel.” Obviously he didn’t want to let me go, because he said, “OK.”’

The resulting album’s swagger of sexy R&B struts is about 30 years away from its retro-soul predecessors – no surprise she says given that ‘the guys who made those albums were aged 50 and up’ – and is all the proof needed of just how unhappy she was with the songs and style of her early records; although she maintains that her dissatisfaction shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone.

‘I’ve never lied. I can’t lie. People would ask me in interviews [adopts smiley interviewer voice] “Hey Joss, do you like your new single?” And I’d say [wide-eyed and shouting] “NO.” But no one would listen. I swear I’d do hundreds of interviews and they’d ask me about Don’t Cha Wanna Ride and I’d say, “I DON’T LIKE IT!” But it just washed over them, they just said, “Ah, bless.”’ She lets out a snort of a laugh before offering as evidence: ‘I know you got the hummer for the summer baby, I got your number.’ She shakes her head. ‘What the f*** kind of lyrics are they?’

As for the subject of managing herself she’s equally forthright and unfazed. ‘It’s not difficult. Not when you’re at the point I’m at. If you’re starting out, trying to get a record deal, that’s different. But once you’re there it’s easy. All managers do is organise things that you tell them to.’ She shoots a stern, take note stare before leaning in conspiratorially. ‘All you need to know is how to say four words: ‘Yes’, ‘No’, ‘More’ and ‘Less’. That’s it. The hard part is knowing how to say them without upsetting people. But that’s it and anyone who makes it out to be more difficult is a bulls*** liar. And they take 20% for doing what? I manage my life like you do. All I’ve got to do is pick up the phone and answer emails. I’ve got a lawyer and accountant for everything else.’

Sacked former manager Ron Stone (no relation) argues that it’s not quite as simple as that. ‘Managing herself is a big mistake. She knows what she wants but she won’t know how to get it. And when she enters negotiations with record companies and music publishers, they will have negotiated hundreds of contracts previously and she’ll be going in with only what she knows. It could be a recipe for disaster.’

Nonetheless, Joss is typically undeterred. ‘Sometimes it goes wrong, sometimes it goes right, but now at least I’m learning. There’s no point being here if you’re not gonna learn, otherwise you’re just another product.’

Having finally wrestled creative control from the powers that be, it would be reasonable to assume all Stone’s troubles were behind her. Yet the biggest battle in her war of independence had nothing to do with her music.

‘I dyed my hair brown,’ she growls looking like her head’s about to explode. ‘And suddenly the record label are having meetings about it, telling me I’ve got to dye it back. So I said, “OK, I’ll dye my hair for you,” and I went away, got some bleach and some pink hair dye and that was the start of my rainbow hair year. 

‘I really don’t like being told what to do. If you ask or suggest, I’ll do it for you a thousand times, but if you talk to me like I’m an idiot… If I feel myself being pushed in one direction, I’ll probably end up going in the other. Which sometimes is a bad thing.’ She shakes her head again and takes a deep breath. ‘They never mention anything about my look now though.’ What about musically, does anyone ever attempt to tell her what to do? ‘Oh no. Those days are gone, and everyone’s happy because the music’s good. If it was s***, then we’d have a problem. Actually, I wouldn’t do it if it was s***.’

 

Contrary to popular belief, Joss Stone doesn’t and never has lived in America. Though very successful in the States, she still calls Ashill in Devon home. And while touring and recording schedules mean she’s yet to actually live in the one bedroom house she bought in the village two years ago, she envisages ‘living there forever, because everyone has known me for years and are never going to treat me like a different person. They’re just like “Alright Joss”, end of story.’

‘I hate parties,’ she says to the suggestion that as a soon-to-be 21 year-old who counts Tom Cruise and Robbie Williams among her LA friends she must have an enviable social life. “I’m such an old woman. Clubs I can’t do, the music’s too loud and I can’t talk to anyone, and I don’t want anything to do with aftershow parties. It’s all networking and having your picture taken. I just want to go home and go to sleep. I sleep a lot.’ So she’s never tempted by the glamour of an A-list Hollywood pool party? ‘It’s all bollocks. They don’t happen. It’s not true. When I see Robbie I don’t’ see him at parties. I go to his house and we write songs.’

There’s similarly disappointing news for purveyors of luxury goods the world over. Joss Stone isn’t likely to fritter away her millions on Cristal. Indeed, so far her spending is limited to her own modest, unlived in abode, a house for her gran and a luxury car which she’s selling. ‘It’s a Lexus, a pretty flash one. I bought it in LA, but it was too flash. I was always worried that I was going to crash it.’

‘I just don’t fit very well into that world,’ she offers apologetically on the subject of the glitz and glamour of the popstar existence. ‘Obviously every now and again I’ll go to the pub and have a few drinks, but it’s a different type of scene. It’s too normal for the papers. They don’t like normal people. But I don’t like going out and making a spectacle of myself, which is why they just make up stuff off the top of their heads about me.’

She’s referring of course to the flurry of tabloid headlines and stories of strange and unreasonable behaviour which followed in the wake of her appearance at the 2007 Brit Awards. It seems a slightly dodgy American accent and well meaning, if mis-judged defence of her friend Robbie Williams against host Russell Brand’s rehab gags, was all it took to turn her from the nation’s darling to a red-top stooge.

‘I like America,’ she laughs though clearly not amused. ‘People are nice over there. When you do well they don’t hate you for it. They say “Hey, well done,” instead of “Hey f*** you”. I know it’s mainly the media, but millions of people believe what the media says. My sister’s at university. She lives in a house full of girls and they read Heat magazine like it’s their bible and they believe every word. When she says that the stuff about me isn’t true they look at her like she’s crazy.’

Mentally re-reading her most extreme cuttings her face runs through angry, hurt and frustrated before settling on bemused. ‘Now the papers are just making up crazy things. They said that I flew mayonnaise in from America and I was meant to have thrown a cup of tea at my assistant the other day because my hair wouldn’t take to blue hair dye. 

‘I think they do it because I don’t do anything interesting for them to write about. I’m not addicted to drugs. I hardly ever drink. I smoke cigarettes every now and again. I’ve admitted to smoking weed already, I mean I told them that, so that’s not interesting. So they’ve just decided to make me into a crazy diva.’ For the first time in the interview her professional cheeriness slips to reveal someone who genuinely has no idea what, if anything, they’ve done to upset anyone. ‘I mean, I went to the MTV Europe Awards and I only took one person with me. Everyone else had a massive posse of people, but I don’t need that. The MTV guy was like “Wow, is this it?”’

Only time will truly tell how wise Stone’s bold moves to take charge of her future are. But whatever the outcome, she’s clearly far happier with the strident, Introducing Joss Stone than she is with any of her other albums and the first major business venture under her new management came with a full package of benefits. ‘I negotiated the Cadbury’s deal myself,’ she informs with a proud grin. ‘I thought, how hard can it be? And really, it wasn’t hard. I even managed to get my mum what she wanted.’ Which was? ‘A lifetime supply of Flakes.’


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Dan Gennoe

Dan Gennoe is a London based freelance journalist & author. He's written features, interviews and reviews for the likes of Esquire, GQ, Arena, FHM, Q Magazine, Mojo, Red, Time Out, The Independent and The Mail On Sunday. Dan also writes books, both fiction and non-fiction, and has ghost written the odd celebrity biography.

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