Joss Stone sometimes has trouble standing tough onstage. The reason she gets wobbly? Stage fright. The 19-year-old singer and songwriter, whose third album, "Introducing Joss Stone," makes its American chart debut on Wednesday, learned a few years ago that the best way to avoid a crowd's scrutiny is to avert your gaze.
"I close my eyes a lot," Stone said recently as she unwound after taping a promotional appearance at a Burbank soundstage. "I don't want to know that everybody is staring at me, and judging me, whether they like my clothes or the color of my hair. So I go into another place. When I open my eyes, that's when I start giggling and everything, when I realize, 'Oh no, everybody's looking at me.' "
Stone's nerves have been afflicting her lately, and for good reason. "Introducing" hits the American charts with panache, as it's expected to debut at or near the top of the chart, with a record-company projection of first-week sales in the neighborhood of 100,000 copies. Yet it has been dogged by mixed reviews and growing skepticism about her integrity. The album, which debuted in her native England at No. 12, along with a plummeting first single, is a painful disappointment in light of the Devon-born artist's insistence that her two previous, multi-platinum efforts did not reflect her vision and that this her first real artistic statement.
Add a slagging from Fleet Street after she behaved nervously at the Brit Awards, online fuss over her new pink coif and alleged marijuana use, and cheap gossip about her relationships with male collaborators, and Stone is facing a savage spring. Success in the U.S. may be her revenge, but one thing is sure: The days of simple amazement at Stone's monumental chops are gone, replaced by the challenges of adulthood.
Are the criticisms of Stone fair? In both conversation and performance, Stone comes off as a big talent still discovering herself but getting sick of doing so in public. She's a hot-button girl, but it's more than just her youth and gender that set people spinning: The flap over "Introducing" brings up issues of race, authenticity and artistic license that have been debated since the dawn of pop.
Stone, whose birth name is Joscelyn Stoker, grew up in a privileged household -- her father is a highly successful importer of dried fruit -- listening to soul music. "Somebody told my mum that you get your pitch within the first three years of your life," she said. "She says that I got mine from Anita Baker, because she was playing her a lot." After school, Joss would put on Dusty Springfield's "Greatest Hits" and cook dinner for her family as the original blue-eyed soul singer's voice wafted through the kitchen. Factor in her brother's penchant for old-school hip-hop, dad's Jam fandom and her granny's fondness for Led Zeppelin, and it adds up to a smorgasbord of takes on black music, from both sides of the racial divide.
Unlike many artists who absorb these sources and then take time to make them into something new, Stone became a star in her mid-teens. She won an "American Idol"-style TV talent contest at 14 by singing Donna Summer's "On the Radio" and soon signed with an American manager who brought her to Miami, where she recorded her debut under the guidance of soul singer Betty Wright. Stone's big voice and gift for channeling her sources gained her instant notice, and soon she found herself learning at the feet of the very people whose recordings had shaped her childhood reveries.
"I learn from Lamont Dozier, Gladys Knight, Patti LaBelle," she said, name-checking one great songwriter and two essential divas from soul's greatest era. "I sit around and soak up whatever they want to give me. I've had long conversations with them. My mom told me when I was young: Just be like a sponge. And that's what I'm trying to be."
The problem is, a sponge isn't an artist, especially as defined by Anglo-American pop culture, which values individualism over the upholding of tradition. The "gifted student" approach that Stone took on her first two albums -- which have sold 914,000 and 1.2 million copies in the U.S., respectively -- is now a weight around her neck. "Introducing," produced by veteran R&B; auteur Raphael Saadiq, is Stone's attempt to break free of the vintage aura of her earlier work, which she feels was too uniform.
"When you listen to the [new] album, you're going to have to decide what you call it, because I don't know," she said. " 'Less Is More' is a reggae joint. 'Tell Me' has the Bob Marley thing too. 'Music' is more hip-hop, and 'Arms of My Baby' is actually a salsa-ish track."
Saadiq's approach, which he's been refining since his mid-1980s debut with the band Tony! Toni! Tone!, is retro-futuristic: He blends classic references (punchy horns, bubbly bass, sassy backing singers) with up-to-the-minute studio techniques to create a sound that is modern but not trendy. Enlisting like-minded (if somewhat predictable) souls like Lauryn Hill and Common as guests, Saadiq has created an environment well-suited to a young singer trying to find herself within a daunting tradition.
"I think we both have a love for authentic real music," Saadiq said by e-mail about the collaboration. "That does not mean just a live band jamming; it means that through those live musicians you create a song.... The song, the players' dedication to the song -- not the drum roll or guitar lick -- each player playing a role actually makes it a record. We both hear that."
If there's one fault on "Introducing," it's that Stone's comfort level with that tradition remains too high. Throughout the album, she sings in a voice she learned from those soul albums; the lilt of coastal England never surfaces. Crafting a new self from beloved popular cultural sources, Stone is very much of her generation; it's her sincerity, her refusal to see that identity as artificial, that singles her out.
For years, she's fielded questions about her right to sing in a black style, and on that subject, she's beyond irritated. "That's a very childish way to look at things," she huffed in response to the assertion that white artists have sometimes stolen from black artists. "I don't want to make any money from my records. It's really not about stealing.... This is soul music, we're technically calling this soul music. OK? So they're saying, 'You're not black, you're not American, so how do you expect me to believe that you have a soul?' It's just ridiculous."
This view was once fairly common among white musicians steeped in black culture. "As a kid, I decided that if our society dictated that one had to be black or white, I would be black," the late bandleader Johnny Otis once said. Dusty Springfield, Stone's idol, described her own transformation in terms the younger singer would understand: At 16, she looked in the mirror and said to herself, "Be miserable or become someone else." So she did.
For Saadiq, Stone's affinity for black music is simply part of the pop tradition. He sees her as operating in the tradition of legendary acts such as Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. "I can't answer why others might come down hard on Joss," he said, "except that they might be short of a history lesson."
This kind of fluidity isn't so easily claimed now, since the civil rights movement and identity politics have laid bare the realities of white privilege. Stone, however, isn't much engaged in such intellectual debates. Most of the musicians she's worked with have been black, and her great love -- the source of the more painful breakup songs on "Introducing" -- was Beau Dozier, the son of Philly soul icon Lamont.
Stone's refusal to analyze the racial leap her music makes is connected to her view that singing is about feeling more than thought. "It hurts," said Stone, when asked what she's learned about singing in the last few years of performing. "The kind of singing I do, I'm feeling it so much; if I were actually paying attention I could probably not hurt myself. My vocal coach is like, 'Joss, you just have to control yourself.' But that's not something I could do."
This view, heavy on intuition and unfiltered passion, runs counter to the highly savvy, stylized approach of many young pop artists, including Stone's rivals, Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen. It's bound to invite scorn and even offend some people. For better or worse, Stone doesn't care. She sounds more like a heavy-metal rocker than a postmodern pop star when she talks about why she sings. "I've a funny thing with pain, I guess," she said. "I like to pierce myself a lot, and get tattoos. Sometimes I feel real numb, you know? So that's how I shake myself up and break myself up. Sometimes you've got to get to the point where you're on your knees for people to hear you. I don't know why, I can't really calm it down."
Coming up: Corinne Bailey Rae