by Asher Wolf
The small woodland town of Chewelah, Washington is not known for soul music. But export Allen Stone is one of the most soulful singers currently active. Beneath the glasses and shoulder length golden locks, Stone possesses a musical mind that churns out consistently gripping work and a powerful, distinctive voice that bludgeons the audience with the emotional content of his writing.
In the midst of a frantic touring schedule (marked by consecutive bus breakdowns). Stone made time to chat about the state of the present day music industry and the origins of his involvement in it. Our discussion ranged from his creative process to the influences that first sparked his interest in the broad lineage of American music commonly classified as soul.
“Soul Music is anything,” Stone explains in response to my question about his category of choice. “American music, it all comes from blues, and jazz, and gospel.” The singer draws his primary inspiration from African-American traditions, but so do all American musicians in some way or another. He approaches soul not as a self-contained style but rather as a quality and ethos that he mixes in with the aforementioned genres, as well as the music of his own generation. He simply tries to be soulful with everything he creates, and the vocabulary for this type of expressiveness happens to come from music of the ’70s and ‘80s.
Throughout his childhood, Stone honed the soulfulness of his voice by singing in church, where his father was a preacher. It was not, however, until later in his musical development that he would discover and fall in love with the music of Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. He picked up the guitar before adolescence and spent the ensuing years “learning Green Day songs” and writing “sappy love songs for neighborhood girlfriends.” When a family friend (an R&B singer) succeeded in getting a record deal and airplay, Stone realized that being a musician was a somewhat viable career, shattering that the common childhood assumption that “anyone who’s on TV or radio is somehow not a real person.”
Stone ultimately fell in love with music for “its ability to communicate with whole groups of people in a different way.” Music is a particularly potent form of communication because “people can have all kinds of different relationships with the same song.”
And clearly, he has a lot to say. Stone’s 2015 release, Radius, is his most diverse and expansive set to date. Its title, he explains, refers to the different extremities of his personality and musical character that he sought to explore – a sphere with him at the center. Accordingly, the lyrical content ranges from personal topics to sociopolitical stances with songs like “American Privilege” and “The Wire”. Stone describes both songwriting and the act of singing as “therapeutic”, and his cathartic attitude comes across clear as day in the genuine investment he makes in each performance.
Radius is also the most stylistically sprawling of his releases. With each new album, Stone professes to intentionally alter and develop his sound, relating the process to that of “making a painting.” Frustratingly, not all of the songs on Radius provided “the color he was looking for.” This tension derives from Stone’s switch from ATO to a major label, Capitol Records. For the majority of our interview he described the experience of having his music commoditized against his will, as well as the balancing act between commercial and artistic aspirations that taxing than ever in today’s music industry.
“At a major label, if you’re not Katy Perry nobody knows who you are there. You’ll get shelved unless you put out a hit.” Paradoxically, artists aren’t given the opportunity to create a hit until they win the label’s faith. The song “Freedom” is the most blatantly popularity-oriented track on the album. It is a well-written piece sporting energized vocals and a contagious dance beat, but the Maroon 5-esque pop hook that strikes within the first two seconds is a noticeable peculiarity in the context of the album. Though Stone is proud of the song’s lyrics, he admits that the label-mandated slick production “stresses him out.”
Fortunately, he has moved back to ATO for his next release, and is excited to have a more constructive and empathetic relationship with his publishers (albeit a less lucrative one). After four months with Capitol, Stone and his band realized that they “weren’t putting any more wood on the fire,” and decided to escape the contract. Doing so was a ballsy move in an industry with an unprecedented amount of competition and a lower payoff than ever for artists on independent labels.
Though it produced a fabulous, bold, and marketable album, Stone’s tenure with Capitol was a “trying time in [his] life.” Despite an overwrought touring schedule (this is how artists make money now), he still comes off as immensely grateful to be able to do what he loves and share it with the world: “I’m out of [Capitol] now, and I’m back on a label that cares about me and understands my music.”
I can’t wait to hear what he comes with! Allen Stone will be at World Cafe Live this Wednesday, June 22nd, with Great Caesar.