STONE COLD GAS: ALLEN STONE RIDES SOUL TRAIN TO HEAVEN ON RADIUS
BY: JIM VILLANUEVA
Allen Stone, the Chewelah, Washington-bred singer-songwriter is as smart and sensitive as he is soulful. Speaking with him is like taking a trip back in time and having the honor of sitting down with an icon the likes of Marvin Gaye, in that both musicians’ music and message still resonate today – and perhaps more so now than ever. The expanded deluxe edition of Stone’s current album Radius is packed with 19 – yes, 19! – terrific tunes, all of which are as essential as they are entertaining.
Songs like “Love,” “Freedom,” “Faithful” and “Pressure” speak volumes, despite their scant one-word titles. But two-word-titled tracks such as “Fake Future,” “American Privilege” and the current single “Perfect World” are just as powerful and equally prophetic. Regardless of what you call a song, the key is what the song says to the artist who pens it and the listener who hears it.
Stone’s compositions mean a great deal to the composer himself, as I found out in our recent conversation. And if you’re curious at all about what music that includes a sprinkle of Stevie Wonder, a bit of James Brown, a pinch of Curtis Mayfield and a side of Michael Jackson sounds like, they’ll mean a lot to you, too. Unquestionably, the songs on Radius draw a straight line from the center of where these and other timeless artists’ music comes from – the heart and soul – and Stone finds himself right in the center of it all.
(Note: My conversation with Stone took place two days prior to his concert in Sacramento on Friday, July 1. I attended the absolutely packed show at the city’s downtown venue Ace of Spades. Stone’s set included several songs off Radius, including “Fake Future,” “American Privilege,” “Freezer Burn” and “Freedom,” as well as catalog favorites “Upside,” “Unaware” and “Contact High.” Finally, as an added bonus to an already bonanza of brilliant performances, Stone treated the enraptured audience to a brand new, as-yet unreleased tune titled “Naturally.” And, naturally, Stone’s faithful followers loved it. Stone kicks off a six-date European tour on July 8, before returning to the U.S. July 17 in Winthrop, WA. Go to allenstone.com for a complete list of dates, cities and ticket information.)
How are you doing today, Allen?
I’m doing alright today. How are feeling?
I’m good. Thank you for your time. Man, we’ve got lots to talk about, lots of great music to discuss. I wanna begin the conversation with this: in a perfect world, I think you’d be opening shows for Bruno Mars, or better yet, Stevie Wonder. Are you cool with that?
(Laughs) Yeah! I love playing live, so most opportunities, not any, but most opportunities I get to sing I really enjoy. There are a couple of times where I wonder if maybe (laughs) my time is not being utilized as appropriately as possible, but most times I really enjoy it.
Okay, interesting. I could follow up on that but I’ve got plenty of other questions for you, so I’ll just let that lie (laughs). So to me, your songs live in that sweet spot – the heart and soul, if you will – of R&B. I know where the “heart” is, it’s on the cover of your new album Radius, but where do you get all that soul from? How did you get turned on originally to soul and R&B?
I had a friend give me a Stevie Wonder record at a relatively young age and that kind of opened up a Pandora’s box to that 60s and 70s era of R&B, soul and funk. But I also grew up singing in the church. My father was a minister and I sang a lot with my folks. There’s also a correlation between the emotion of soul music that I learned growing up in the church.
Sure. Soul, gospel, the blues, all that tossed into the mix.
Cool. I was gonna ask you, but I think you might’ve already answered the question that I had for you, which was about your proverbial Beatles on Ed Sullivan moment. The big bang when you realized music was going to play as important a role in your life as it obviously has. So would that have been the receiving of that Stevie Wonder record for you?
Well you know, I think that definitely played an enormous part in my life, for sure. You know it’s tough to look at my career in music versus my love relationship with music. Does that make sense?
Sure, yeah, absolutely.
I think I’m still surprised that I’m able to make a living doing music. But on the other side of the coin, my love relationship, that moment, that spark, that north star, sorta speak, definitely was that moment when my friend game me Innervisions.
Yeah, that’s a good one. Let me jump back here: of course I referenced “perfect world” at the top of the conversation, so let me jump back to the current single “Perfect World.” Quoting a line: “In a perfect heart there’d be perfect love.” I love that line. What’s the core message in this great track?
Well I think that for so many years in my life I’ve attempted to manipulate my surroundings in order to find happiness, find joy, find contentment. And I think that I’ve just come to the realization in recent times that that’s completely the wrong way to do it. It’s actually like spitting into the wind, really. There’s no such thing as a perfect world. Everything is everything all at once, but joy and contentment and peace and happiness is an internal battle. It’s an internal war that you can choose to win or you can choose to lose. In a perfect heart there’d be perfect love; that line to me speaks so true to what is needed for that contentment. It’s an internal evolution. So often I try to manipulate my surroundings in order to make everything perfect, so that I can enjoy myself, and that level of enjoyment is fleeting.
It starts with the man in the mirror, doesn’t it?
It does! It starts with the man in the mirror. I could go for days on this, but you’re totally right – the man in the mirror. It starts with you. It starts internally.
There are 19 tracks on the expanded, deluxe edition of Radius, so I could go on for hours. To me, songs don’t get any funkier – or more frank – than “Fake Future.” Sonically it’s a seamless melding of James Brown and Michael Jackson, so in other words, Bruno Mars! If you haven’t picked up on it already, I’m a huge Bruno Mars fan, so that’s a compliment. So how do you really feel about the current state and the future of music, based on lines like “Creativity is gone, music is a sport?”
The reason I wrote that song is because I feel an overstepping of technology in art. There’s a theory called singularity that describes the next step in evolution being the oneness between man and technology. To me, art has always been the best reflection of the times, of culture. It has always been ingrained in progress, in civil rights, in community, and when you lean too much on something that is inhuman, you’re robbing the receiver of that art from what is right about art, which is the human element. The reason why music has been so powerful for so long is because it brought people together. And now what you see it’s doing is its alleviating people when it comes to live music. I’m going through a stage in my life where I can’t even listen to records, because I don’t know if those are real humans on the record. If I go to a live show and I see a laptop onstage, it’s very hard for me not to walk out. Part of it is because I’ve seen behind the curtain and know how music works. I know how many shortcuts people in the industry take. That’s part of it. Some people would call it jadedness (laughs), I don’t like that word, but it’s just scary for me. I hate to have a completely negative view because a guitar is a form of technology. But when that art form is alleviated from the population, then all you have is the tool. You don’t have the user you just have the tool. There’s an element of humanity or an element of the artist that is not a part of art anymore because it’s so easy to use a computer. Computers have made things so easy that people rely on them. It’s just f**kin’ scary.
Well I couldn’t agree with you more. It’s the pulling away of a couple of words I mentioned earlier, the heart and soul of music, and art. There’s so much to chew on in the messages found in your lyrics and so much to groove to in the music. I love the balance that you strike with the important issues that we’re discussing in this conversation, and the fun, the human element of songs and why people go to shows and listen to records. Do you consciously consider achieving a balance like that in your work, generally speaking, or is that just what you do?
(Laughs) Yeah I’m just psychotic!
It’s weird, man. The music that excites me is protest music. That’s the music that got me wanting to write music. It was Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City” and Donny Hathaway’s “Little Ghetto Boy.” Those songs made me go like, oh s**t, like these songs did something!
They meant something.
Yes, they meant something. I mean any music throughout history that’s done that, like Rage Against the Machine or Tupac. Music always inspires people to do something. It always does. That’s the type of artist that I wanna be. I wanna write songs that when people hear them they go, s**t! So I don’t know, man, I battle with it. Part of me wants my next record to be like a Jimmy Buffett thing; sing about cheeseburgers….
Well I’m in the camp of listening to Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions’ “People Get Ready” and U2’s War; that’s what moves me. There’s room for pure pop stuff and what not. Of course there’s only two kinds of music – good and bad – and it’s strictly up to the person listening to decide which is which. But I’m planting my flag in your camp.
God bless you, brother!
So by my count eight of the 19 – yes 19 – tracks on the deluxe edition of Radius have one-word titles. In previous conversations with so many songwriters I’ve jokingly said about one-word song titles, “what’s going on? Are you just lazy, just throwing in a word and moving on (laughs)?” But I wanna ask you a serious question about that: is it more difficult, or maybe easier to encapsulate what a song is about when you give it a one-word title?
When I write a song I want it to reach as many people as possible, and if I’m blessed enough for that to happen, for that phenomenon to take place, I’m understanding that that song is gonna be taken in so many ways. So for me, the title is pointless. I should just name my songs one, two, three, four, five, six (laughs). You know what I mean, because somebody can listen to a song or a line and get something completely different than what it’s intended for, and that understanding of the song is perfect because it’s for them. Music is for the people. It’s not even for me. I’m just recycling. I’m just like this beacon, this thing that’s able to hear specific sound frequencies and I have an idea of what sounds good to me, and I take these things that have already been invented and already been created by something somewhere long before me and I just put ‘em on this thing. I don’t know, there’s no intentions on the one-word titles, but I get where you’re going.
Yeah, you answered my question in the sense that titles, regardless of one word or 10, in a sense don’t matter because in another way the title could be steering the listener into a preconceived perception. If the song is called “Love,” is it a love song? If the song is called “Pressure,” is it about something tense? But it shouldn’t matter if the song is called “One,” “Two,” “Three,” “Four” or “Five” because the listener is gonna get out of it what the listener is gonna get out of it, if that makes any sense, huh?
I wanted to extract just one quote from your bio, and it’s related to your songwriting approach, in which you said you wanted to “get past the boundaries of what I felt comfortable with, so that I could progress into a whole new level of creativity.” Tell me what you felt comfortable with in your past works. What’s the “comfort” that you wanted to get past?
There’s a lot of different comforts, but specifically in being vulnerable in songwriting and in words. Because if you say something on a record or in a song that you’ve written, the majority of the time that’s taken as, well that’s what he believes. And for me, when I write songs I really just want to say something that people aren’t saying. If that makes sense.
A lot of discomfort comes from my family. My family is very conservative and I never wanna say anything that offends them. There’s that fear, still. There’s that fear of saying something that my grandmother’s gonna hear and that that’ll cause a divide in the relationships that I hold highest. There’s emotions, there’s feelings that you keep inside, or at least I personally keep inside, and that’s why songwriting is such a huge part of my life. Songwriting is therapy. It allows me to release those tensions that are inside of me, and a lot of times those tensions can be heard by people that I love and be perceived the wrong way. That’s always a fear. Everything’s a fear when you’re on a pedestal. When you step up to a microphone or a pedestal, especially nowadays when everybody has a voice, when everybody feels like, you know, I’ve got a Facebook account and I got a Twitter account and so I’ve gotta stand up for something. You see people just like, spouting off, just to spout off, just because they have a voice finally. What am I gonna get offended by today? What did Beyonce do at the BET Awards that I can just rip her apart for?
Yeah. So this was really, really hard for me to do, but the best way I found to sum up the body of your work, and this album, is that the music is as funky and fun as the lyrics are fundamental. First, does that make sense to you, and do you have anything to quibble about with my synopsis?
No, man, I think that’s well put.
I think we’re constantly trying to get across how we feel and how we see the world and the words don’t really necessarily always touch.
Yeah. I think that there was no better example on the album of what I was talking about, of my synopsis, if you will, than the two song segue of the very laidback, nearly seven-minute long “I Know That I Wasn’t Right” right into the mile-a-minute, less than three minute somewhat celebratory – musically – song “Loose.” When I got to those two songs, in my head I thought this sums up what I’ve been listening to in the time it took to get to tracks 12 and 13. Those are disparately different songs, but it’s all you, and that’s cool.
Thank you, man.
Final question for you. I’m in Sacramento, so I’m gonna find out this Friday night (July1), but for those who haven’t seen you live what can they expect to see onstage at an Allen Stone show?
Man, it’s tough because it’s hard to step out of my own body and interpret how shows go. It’s feel-good music. Me and my band, we get up onstage every night and we want people to have a good time. We want people to enjoy themselves, to be relieved of whatever burdens they brought into the venue. The utmost importance is that people feel a sense of community and that people feel connected to the music and to me and to the band. It’s an exciting show, we hit hard, it’s not a crooner show, it’s a high energy, feel-good, fun show.
I can’t wait! Sounds good to me. It sounds like a party!
Right on, man! It is!
Well Allen, thank you, man. And I will see you on Friday.
Alright, brother. And thanks so much.