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Interview: Allen Stone, the Next Great Soul Singer?

“Wait, so who did you interview last night”, asked Amos as we finished another round of beers and stories.

This question directly followed his story of travelling to Atlanta to interview Big Boi, which immediately followed Chris‘ story of travelling to Virginia Beach to interview Pharrell.

“Um, this guy Allen Stone.” In my head, saying “Allen Stone” after hearing Big Boi and Pharrell was like matching a 1909 Honus Wagner and a 1914 Babe Ruth with a 1993 Chuck Knoblauch. As to save face and retain the smallest bit of credibility, I started throwing disclaimers left and right. “He’s this unreal up-and-coming soul singer. He’s super chill and really down to earth. He was on Conan a few weeks ago and did an in-office performance at Complex yesterday and is getting interviewed at a ton of other music outlets and has a show tonight at SOBs and I think he might be the next big thing.” They seemed semi-impressed, either in my description of him or in my ability to construct a disgustingly long run-on sentence.

Had I not spent almost two hours with him the previous night, my description of him would have been completely different. I probably would have simply answered with, “He’s this crunchy White guy from Washington who sings R&B and sort of looks like a Fraggle Rock character, but has a better voice than pretty much anyone I’ve ever heard in my life.” While the “White” thing and the “crunchy” thing and the “Fraggle” thing all make up his outer persona, they are all simply distractions from the single important factor at hand: his voice.

As it happens with the Internet, every so often someone forwards something to you and it shocks and surprises you so much, you immediately go out of your way to share it with anyone. That was the case with the first Allen Stone song I heard, “Unaware” (listen above). I tweeted about it, emailed it, put it on my blog, and threw it up on Facebook, just to make sure all bases were covered. The video is a five-minute-plus experience, with minute 4 serving as his Sister Act 2/”Oh Happy Day” moment, in the sense that he cranks out a series of high notes that will give you chills.

These were the high notes that I was attempting to crank out as I walked to meet Allen for ice cream in New York’s East Village Tuesday night. As I got a few blocks away, I stopped “singing” (if that’s how you choose to classify the squeals) and started freaking out. The thoughts running through my head:

    I’m not prepared enough. I’m definitely not prepared enough. Should I be more nervous or less nervous? Is my nose sweating? Should I tell him that this is my first “celebrity” interview ever? No. Of course not. For one, I definitely shouldn’t say “celebrity”, he probably hates that term. Is he even a “celebrity”? I wonder if I have more Facebook friends than him? Maybe I should walk in, barely acknowledge him, and just start firing questions like I know what I’m doing. Eh, can’t do that, because I actually have no idea what I’m doing. Uh oh, there he is. This is about to get weird. Let’s do this.

I arrived, set up, and jumped into my questions. Within 30 seconds, I realized I had nothing to worry about.

Do you feel like, at 24, you are on the young end of things, or you are constantly playing catch-up?
Man, I have no idea what I’m doing. Age is such an interesting thing in the music business. You have people who have started their career at like 30, like Bill Withers, who didn’t pick up a guitar until he was 32. But then Justin Bieber has conquered the world before he’s 18. So yeah, it depends. It’s tough to answer because I feel young, I feel like I still have that 16-30 age bracket demographic that would like my music and my shows. But yeah, I would say I’m on the young end, I think. I think?

I guess it’s all relative.
Yeah, I don’t care about age. To me, it’s like if you’re putting out good music, that’s all that matters. I mean, I’d rather hear someone like Charles Bradley sing about life than Justin Bieber sing about love. I mean, what the fuck do you know about love, Justin? I mean, I love you, you’re talented as hell, I envy the hell out of you, but honestly what do you know about life? Maybe that’s wrong of me to say because I’m not Bieber and don’t know what it takes to be him, but as a listener I’d rather listen to someone who’s gone through the shit, like a Mavis Staples, a Sharon Jones. I’d rather listen to someone who’s experienced hardship sing about it because it’s more believable than [sings] “Baby, Baby, Baby.” It is catchy as hell, though. And if I were 14, I’d probably eat it up and listen to everything he said.

Talk to me about R&B in 2011. I don’t even really know what the genre is anymore. I think this is one of the first times in its history that the genre is having an identity crisis. Do you think that puts you at an advantage or a disadvantage?
I like it. I think there are a lot of people doing R&B/soul music right now, in a number of different ways. You look at Adele, she’s doing R&B/soul music, and Adele’s music is absolutely nothing like Jason Derulo’s, but he would still be classified as R&B/soul. You look at someone like Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, that’s R&B/soul music, but that’s completely different than what Christina Aguilera’s doing. I like that broadened perspective because I think it broadens the lane and allows someone like me who’s essentially not a fit-in-the-pocket R&B musician to exist.

Taking a step back, how did you get to the point that you’re touring America? Where are you from originally? How did all of this happen?
I’m from Eastern Washington. This little town, Chawelah. Just 45 minutes North of Spokane. About 1500 people. Born and raised. Actually, born in the bed that my parents still have, my mom was a OBGYN.

And were you there until the music thing really took off?
Until I was 18, then moved to Spokane when I graduated from high school. Moved to Spokane, went to a community college for a semester, went to bible college for a semester, and then from there moved to Seattle when I was 19.

So, one of the weirdest things about my childhood was I was a huge Seattle sports fan. Where you’re from, was there still love for Seattle sports? Were you into them?
I grew up a Sonics fan, I was really into basketball. I don’t remember being a huge Mariners fan, though. We didn’t have cable, so we only had like 4 channels, and so it was just not available for us as readily.

Switching it up a bit, what has this 2011 been like for you? What were some pivotal points that have gotten you to this point?
I played Sundance, which was a pretty pivotal point. Got a standing ovation and that was crazy. It was sort of what got the snowball going. And it was all industry execs, so that was extremely flattering. The year has been sort of a blur, I’ve played almost 200 shows this year I think, so it’s been non-stop. I’ve just been on the grind of trying to convince people, “yes, I can be an R&B musician.” I mean, you send my record to some A&R and then send my picture and they’re like “what the hell do I do with this guy? Grease him up and give him some contacts and maybe …” But as far as the real Allen Stone, at first it just doesn’t compute with people. So it’s been a process of getting people out to see the live show. And it’s a battle, I’m still fighting to convince people that I can exist and operate in this lane.

A few days ago, someone asked me how it was going being a “black writer.” It caught me slightly off guard, because I had begun thinking of myself as simply a “writer”. I have to assume the adjective “white” comes before R&B soul singer more often than not. wWhat do you make of that? Is it tiring?
For me, as far as music goes, skin color is so stupid. You like a song or you don’t. I’ve always been like “I’m a soul singer.” It’s funny, I was just in Washington DC, 95 percent of the room was African American. Seattle, 95 percent of the room is Caucasian. New York, salt and pepper everywhere. For me, it’s extremely gratifying. I mean, I grew up in the country. No racial diversity, and somehow, through my writings and my singing, all nationalities are enjoying it. What a blessing. So for me, I’m a singer. I sing songs. I just hope you like them.

Are you aware that there’s an amazingly awesome, racially-mixed Allen Stone cover band?
[laughing] Yes I saw it this morning and was so flattered. It’s hella dope.

They are so serious. My favorite part is when I asked them what they were going to name their Allen Stone cover band?
What’d they say?

“Allen Stone Cover Band.”

As we wrapped up the interview and started walking from the Eastside to the Westside of Manhattan, some NYU punks from the fifth floor of a building dumped a bucket of liquid on our heads. “Is this urine or water?” Allen asked. I smelled my hat and confidently, but completely unsure, said, “Water. Definitely water”. Allen seemed not to care and said, “Even it was piss, I’d still probably wear this sweater to the show tomorrow night.”

Fast-forward 22 hours and I’m standing in the site of Allen’s show. I’m looking around the room and the “salt and pepper” demographic of a NYC show that Allen described is as present as ever. People who I know only frequent hip-hop shows or only rock shows are not only present, but also excited. There’s a rumor that someone from The New York Times is around. You can almost taste the buzz in the building. When he finally makes his way on stage, Allen is wearing a v-neck Supersonics shirt that caused a friend to lean over and whisper to me (“How jealous are you of that shirt right now?”). The answer: frighteningly jealous. And on top of that jersey, wouldn’t you know it, he was wearing the same potentially piss-drenched sweater from the previous night. What a guy.

When he started singing, I can’t say I’ve seen many happier individuals on stage in my entire life. The crowd sensed this, allowing Allen to pull off a feat few new artists are capable of: making a New York City crowd act noticeably uncool. By show’s end, the talk was that we may have just seen our next great soul singer.