INTERVIEW BY JOJO KHOR
Allen Stone // Soul Brother
Straight off, Allen Stone doesn’t look like your typical soul singer, and he knows it and it’s exactly that reason why listeners turn to fans as you stand in awe of his mind-explosive vocal talent. Flaunting giant pensioner spectacles, golden curls and a brown fedora hat, Allen is much of a gentleman as he shakes my hand warmly with firm eye contact. I feel nervous and become overwhelmed in his presence. We sit down and as I begin the small talk, he moves closer and studies every word I say until I finish presenting my question. At this point I can feel his breath on me and I’m having the most intense interview of my career as he reels me into his life, politics and his connection to soul music.
Hailing from a small town Chewelah, Washington (it’s so tiny, there’s only a population of 1,500), Allen’s singing career began in his father’s church at the age of 3 and eventually discovered soul music as a teen. At 15 years old, he picked up Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions and it’s been that turning to bring Allen Stone to where he is now, with us in London about to perform a sold-out gig with a huge band behind him on stage. Allen and I discuss his rise to fame, growing up and the political views behind his songs.
WN: American music artists always say they’re quite anxious to play a show in London. Purely because they think the London crowd is a bit tough to please. Do you feel the same?
ALLEN: Yeah, a little bit stand-off-ish but that’s just any major city because there’s so much talent that comes through and there’s so much stimulus in a big city that it takes a little bit more to impress the crowd. But it’s a good challenge.
WN: How do you feel the response has been so far from the UK crowd? I know you’re huge in America!
ALLEN: I don’t know about that… I’m not huge in America and I’m less huge in the UK [laughs] but people are starting to hear about the music and my name is starting to be on the tip of some people’s tongues, which is good. I think everyday you wake up and I have to pinch myself because I’m in London, playing gigs and getting paid to do it, and people care about it. They’re selling out venues to come see me. It’s an enormous blessing. You count your blessings every day.
WN: You can actually say, “Yeah this is my job.”
ALLEN: Yeah, it is. It’s kind of crazy and it’s hectic. You know, I’ve been up since 7 o’clock today doing interviews. I do it for the music in order to get the music out there you have to tell people about it so it’s not as glamorous as everybody says and everybody thinks but it’s really, really frigging cool. At the end of the day, it’s all about the music.
WN: What do your family and friends at home think about what you’ve achieved so far?
ALLEN: I think a lot of them are still shocked. I come from a really small town of about 1,500 people and a really small community of people. I think what has happened to me in the last year is astonishing. Especially nobody thought I could. Like I’m a white, hippy, weird kid trying to be a soul singer, and a soul performer. Soul music is usually mad sexy and about the club, and like shiny stuff, and I’m approaching it from a backwoods country Seattle, North West vibe. I still think people doubt me. It’s every day I wake up and I’m on campaign I have to convince people like, “No, I belong here, I deserve this…” You just got to win people over.
WN: Have you always felt like that from a very young age?
ALLEN: No, no, no. When I moved to Seattle, for sure. When I moved there it was like, man there’s a ton of incredible singers out here and there’s a ton of really great musicians here that are way better than I am. [I thought] “How am I going to separate myself from them?” That’s always kind of been the challenge, especially being a white kid from the country who is a hippy, a weirdo a little bit.
WN: So what was growing up like for you in your hometown…? I still can’t pronounce it properly.
ALLEN: Chewelah. It was calm… It was almost slow motion compared to how fast my life is right now but it was a great upbringing, my parents are incredible people and when you grow up in a small town like that you know everybody and everybody knows you. It was a great upbringing and I hope to end up there someday like move back there, get property and if I’m lucky, maybe raise a family there.
WN: It sounds like a really peaceful place to grow up. So the turning point of your musical taste was when you heard Stevie Wonder, do you remember the moment you heard a Stevie Wonder record and what did you feel?
ALLEN: Yeah! Well for the first time, I heard Innervisions and it was like an epiphany. It really hit me… the groove, the tones and mostly Stevie’s voice. I just felt something in his timbre and his delivery of it. I was like, “This is real. This is legit.”
WN: Obviously many soul singers around Stevie Wonder’s era have also influenced you but do any modern bands influence you?
ALLEN: Oh, yeah, sure! I really love Jamie Lidell, Nikka Costa… Um I’m really into Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, Soulive and Lettuce, and that whole Brooklyn-Soul-Funk unit. Yeah, there’s a lot of soul music out right now. Not so much on the Pop side of R’n’B. I really, really, really dislike that kind of music. Not dislike it but it just doesn’t do anything for me.
WN: It’s not really your thing, is it? Your lyrics in ‘Unaware’ are clearly about politics, do you use music as a tool to express or vent your frustrations in politics or would you say you’re using music to educate people?
ALLEN: It’s not an education because I’m not ever going to stand on a poll and be like, “I know what I’m talking about!” For me, it’s more of an expression of, ‘why’s nobody talking about this’ and why is nobody in my country like, why aren’t the young adults extremely upset about how high tuition fees are? Why is nobody in my country upset about the disappearance of the middle class? Why is nobody in my country pissed off about the incredible waste of tax dollars that happens in our country? To me, that song in particular, I just wanted to dialog about it, I wanted people to talk about and when it came out around the same time the ‘We are the 99%’ movement happened [Occupy Wall Street], the bank bail outs and the stock markets crashing, and the seediness that occurred. For me, it was just like, why was nobody talking about it? Why is everybody like hopping on the bandwagon and ‘praise our country’? I understand patriotism but in reality ‘patriotism’ comes from the word ‘patriot’ and a patriot traditionally is somebody who distrusts the government and dislikes authority and that’s what my country was founded on. It was distastes for the current establishment at that time. I see a lot of complacency. And I see a lot of complacency in myself, I have a lot of complacency but I want to talk about a lot more than, [he starts singing] “I’ve got a girlfriend… and she’s so hot…”
WN: That’s really cringe! Everybody knows, and for people who don’t know they have to know, that you dress very unique for a soul singer. Can you tell me who are your style icons or inspiration?
ALLEN: As far as the way I dress and stuff? I just came from a boutique shop like trying on clothes and stuff. It’s so weird that people ask. There’s really no method… It’s like, “That looks cool, that looks cool, let’s wear ‘em.” I don’t read fashion magazines. I just wear what looks cool. I try to look as original as possible. I think there are so many people who just look the same and I don’t like that at all. People are always like, “Oh my god. Like, who’s your dude?” I just don’t. I don’t have a ‘dude’. I just wear what I wear.
WN: You seem to really like your accessories… Your jewelry and bracelets…
ALLEN: Yeah, I do. I dig my jewelry but I wear all this stuff because… it’s normally a lot more. My tour manager is like, ‘you’ve got to get rid of that stuff, it’s stupid-looking.’ I’ve played close to 300 shows this year and I forget where I’ve been so I keep this stuff on because I’m like, “Oh, yeah! This festival was really cool.” It’s almost like a Hansel and Gretel breadcrumbs kind of thing. Like all these bracelets [shows me his crowded wrist] people have given them to me at shows, and look the colour coordination is so bad. It’s just awful.
WN: Like who cares! So could you name me your top 3 dopest records?
ALLEN: Innervisions by Stevie Wonder, What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye and this is actually one of my favourite records of all time, which is The Evolution of Robin Thicke by Robin Thicke. It’s one of the sickest records ever.
WN: I love that record! And what’s the first hat you’ve ever bought? I know you like your hats!
ALLEN: The first HAT? Oh, wow. The first hat I’ve ever bought, well the most memorable hat… I did a baseball tournament. Me and my family drove from Washington State to Cooperstown, New York in my family’s ’87 [Chevrolet] Suburban for a baseball tournament and I bought a New York Yankee’s hat in Boston but I was like an ignorant country kid and I had no idea there was a rivalry between New York and Boston and I was like rocking this New York Yankee’s hat around Boston all day. And everybody’s giving me like mean looks and giving me shit about it. I was like ten year’s old and had no idea about it.
WN: So that’s where it all started with your collection of hats…
ALLEN: I guess…