As the lines continue to blur between R&B and EDM and urban genres become increasingly pop-centric, much has been opined about the imminent extinction of pure soul music. To be sure, this merging and melding of musical forms isn’t entirely a bad thing, nor is it new; if nothing else, the ways in which artists are collaborating to create fresh sounds has the potential to introduce audiences to rhythms and grooves they may not have experienced otherwise. Still, for true soul enthusiasts in search of something a little more substantive and perhaps less ephemeral, the pickings appear to be abysmally slim. And while some may attest that perception is reality, we know that if we’re willing to explore deeper beyond the surface of things we will find whole new worlds brimming with unharvested gems laying in wait.
Allen Stone is, without a doubt, one of those gems.
A relative newcomer to the scene, the Seattle-based Stone is fast becoming one of the most critically-acclaimed and publicly adored musicians to emerge in the past few years. His debut EP Allen Stone dropped in late 2011, but even before its release this gifted native of Washington state was doing the thing he loves most and–one could even go so far to say–does best: Touring. As we prepared for his SoulTrain.com Artist to Artist exclusive, Stone shared that he’d been on the road almost non-stop for the past two years and some change, building on the momentum that started while he was playing locally in the Seattle area and which has continued to grow by leaps and bounds as he and his band have made their way from state to state, city to city. With a raspy voice and lyrical perspective that at times seems far beyond his 25 years, Allen Stone’s music is a definite nod to soul music’s pioneers. The self-described “hippie with soul” has blazed the late night talk show circuit this summer, and wowed crowds at this past weekend’s Outside Lands festival in San Francisco and then at a solo performance at San Francisco’s Rickshaw Stop. Up next, the Vail Soul Music Festival , where he’ll share the stage with the likes of Anthony David, the Brand New Heavies, Kindred the Family Soul, and Sugarfoot’s Ohio Players.
SoulTrain.com: Tell our SoulTrain.com audience how you got started.
Allen Stone: My dad was a minister, so I grew up singing in the church. I had a super- conservative upbringing, but I discovered soul music and snuck it…when I was about 15 someone gave me Innervisions by Stevie Wonder. I grew up in a small town with like 1,000 people out in Washington state, so not a huge metropolis for R&B and soul music. I picked it up through records–Al Green, Marvin Gaye, Donny Hathaway. That’s where I learned to sing soul music.
SoulTrain.com: As a “PK”, have you ever felt conflicted about choosing to write and perform secular music, given your musical training in the church? How has your church upbringing influenced and informed your music now?
AS: I’m completely removed from the church at this point. I wouldn’t consider myself religious; I mean, to a degree everyone is religious because we all attempt to do the same thing: to bring happiness to our lives. I’m a very spiritual person, so when I made the move to stop doing Christian music and started doing soul music it wasn’t like, ‘Well, I’m going to completely about-face and start writing Insane Clown Posse songs.’ I still write, in my opinion, very positive, spiritual songs, songs that would uplift people and positively add to our culture. It’s not that far away from it–I just don’t talk about Jesus. Everybody always says Christian music is just love songs that, instead of saying “girl,” they say “Jesus.” Christian music is for Christians. I don’t want to change Christian culture; I want to change the masses. I want people from every walk of life to be positively influenced. So [it was about] how can I write songs and create art to do that?
SoulTrain.com: I like that. In listening to your songs on your website, that’s one of the things I picked up on immediately–that your music is very positive and uplifting. So, let’s switch gears a bit. You released your first album, Allen Stone, digitally via your own independent label Stickystones. You’ve recently signed with ATO Records (co-founded by Dave Matthews of the Dave Matthews Band), a label that is known for being extremely supportive of its artists and which boasts a roster including The Alabama Shakes, Patty Griffin, and Mariachi El Bronx among others. What drew you to ATO, and how do you anticipate that partnership impacting your subsequent releases?
AS: What drew me to ATO initially was their roster; they have people on their roster who are, in my opinion, career artists that aren’t just trying to find a hit and continue with non-conscious “whipped cream” hits that are about the same thing. There’s a lot that’s popular in R&B and soul music that’s about love and sex, and stuff that we’ll forget about in fifteen years. Personally, when I think about songs that impact me I’m thinking about “What’s Going On,” “Living for the City,” and “Sir Duke” and “You and I”–songs that mean something more.
When I think about ATO, they’re more involved and excited about promoting an artist to a degree that’s going to keep them touring and on the road playing shows in ten years, rather than trying to make $1 million off of a single. Also, I’ve always been a huge fan of Dave Matthews’ career, the fact that he can go out and tour every single year, plays two hours a night, and creates an experience for the audience. I’ve attempted for the past five years to surround myself with people who not only believe in the live show, but a career based around my live shows. So that’s what drew me to ATO. Their focus is to create artists who are consciously driven to perform and work for awhile, in long-term.
SoulTrain.com: Seattle is probably best-known for the grunge movement of the 90s. As a soul artist, how did you find the scene in and around Seattle? Was it difficult tapping into an audience there as you were getting started?
AS: It was always a grind. I moved to Seattle when I was 19, and people are just now starting to gravitate toward my music and I’m 25 years old. It was well-received for sure; people love good music, whether it’s soul or rock or funk–people just enjoy a good show in Seattle. The uphill battle was creating that experience for people. From the local media in Seattle for a bit, it was like, “What is this? Some weird white hippie boy from the country trying to sing ‘black’.” (laughs)
SoulTrain.com: And just to add to that, you’ve got artists such as Adele, Mayer Hawthorne, and the late Amy Winehouse who’ve kept the “blue-eyed soul” thing alive. Have you encountered any situations where the fact that you are a “hippie white guy” from Washington state has been used against you, to attempt to diminish your talent?
AS: If there’s been any resistance, it hasn’t been out in the open. People are always like, “You sound nothing like you look.” That’s true–I believe it. I think a lot of people feel it’s genuine, like ‘This is just him and the music that he loves, he’s not attempting to be anything other than himself.’ So if there is backlash for me not being of African American descent, I don’t hear much of it. People have been very receptive.
SoulTrain.com: You’ve got an insane tour schedule, which has to be exciting! What else is in store?
AS: I’ve always felt that if I can get in front of people in real time, I can win them over. So as often as I can play live with my band, I’ve always felt that I can create that following that will follow me for a long time. We’ve got the Vail Soul Music Festival coming up, and then we start our fall tour at the Gorge in Washington state with Dave Matthews. We do about three dates with him up the California coast, then after that my fall tour starts. We’re doing 50 national shows and about 20 European shows. It’s gonna be a long one, but it’s gonna be good! I love playing, I love the opportunity to build upon my craft. Of course, I’m writing a new record and thinking about that record coming out.
SoulTrain.com: Every artist has a tale or two (or several!) about crazy experiences while performing. Share with our SoulTrain.com audience one of your most embarrassing, harrowing, or outrageous experiences on stage.
AS: One actually happened with Nikka Costa. I was touring with Nikka and opening for her back in June. We were in Hermosa Beach–which is basically LA, and we had just played in San Diego the night before. For some reason I introduced myself and then said, “How’s everyone doing, San Diego?”…and we were in LA. That was awful! They all kind of looked at me like, ‘What? You’re an opening band and don’t even know where you are?’
And then, I did two nights in Seattle with a twenty-piece orchestra. We played two nights to 1,000 people, sold out both nights; it was amazing! Right after the first night, I got off stage to go to the merch table to meet people and take pictures and chat. I’m walking toward the merch table and this man who must have been in his 50s walked up to me, didn’t say a word to me, just grabbed my face and kissed me on the mouth, and then took off. It was hilarious!
SoulTrain.com: Wow! Sounds like he might be a fan for life! If you weren’t a musician, what would you be doing? Are there other career interests you may pursue in the future, whether or not they are music-related?
AS: It’s funny, I’ve actually started to think about that; now that I’m a musician, I’m gonna need to make some money at some point in my life (laughs). I’m making a little bit now, but who knows how long that will last, so what can I invest that in now to prepare me for the future? I’m really interested in veterinary work, I love animals. I come from a lineage of farmers; my grandfather was a wheat farmer for about 50 years, and my father resigned from the church about four years ago and took over my grandfather’s farm. I love the idea of creating wine and ciders and maybe cultivating the earth for good, healthy alcohol. I don’t have a ton of time to think about that stuff but there are bits and pieces of me that have danced with the ideas of what I’d potentially do if I didn’t sing. I try not think about it too much, though, because I’m like, ‘I just really wanna sing! I don’t want to do anything else!’
Rhonda Nicole is an independent singer/songwriter, lovin’ and livin’ in Oakland, CA. Download her EP “Nuda Veritas” on CDBaby and iTunes, visit her online at rhondanicole.com and on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter and Instagram @wildhoneyrock.