Allen Stone: In a Car Headed to Portland with His Parents
Chewelah is a small town in northeastern Washington known more for producing the mineral magnesite during WWI than for soul singers. But Allen Stone, a Chewelah native, has changed all that. With his blue-eyes-closed take on soul, Stone has been mounting a nationwide, independent charge, hitting number two on the iTunes R&B charts. He recently played the Conan show. These days he lives in Seattle, he's hungry, and the smoothness of his silk-stroked falsetto is improbable. This hippie goof white boy in thick glasses and a grandma sweater can sing. You may do a double take at the gilded, gleaming Beale Street swirl that beams from his mouth. He's used to the double takes by now, though, being the son of a pastor and looking like a Scooby-Doo character in a Silent Bob film. Hearing Stone sing, it becomes apparent he's here to do that very one thing. We spoke. Stone was in the car with his parents heading south from Seattle toward Portland for a show. Magnesite was not mentioned a single time.
Because your parents are in the car, does that mean we'll have to withhold the use of all profanity?
You're fine, cuss away. I probably won't say many F-words, though. But you can go ahead.
Okay. FUCK! Fuck it. Fuck-ish. Flank steak. Armada of fuck dancers. Sorry, hope I'm not on speaker. When you sing, it gives people the chills. When was the first time you had this effect on people?
You're not on speaker. [Laughs] Flank steak? As for your question, I don't know. I grew up singing in church, and I used to get comments after the service from people saying it was nice. I don't remember giving people chills. I remember someone crying once and people exuding emotion because of the music. Maybe I didn't have my chill-giving chops back then. I'm flattered you would say that. It's not something I can control.
Has your vocal development been a steady climb? Or has it been something that's spiked during the last year?
I think I've been singing this way since I was 15, 16, or 17. It was when I first started diving into soul music. I was basically mimicking that, and those songs that I loved. I didn't grow up with vocal lessons, or in a big gospel church or anything. I wasn't in band in high school; I played sports. I think in the past year it's reached another level because of the people around me. The progression has been directly proportional to the people I've had the opportunity to work with. Lior Goldenberg [Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young; Sheryl Crow; Marilyn Manson; Ziggy Marley], who produced the record, and Andy Rose, who produced portions of it, and the musicians they got really made the songs what they are. Those things combined are what's allowed me to be a soul singer. The band I employ and tour with are incredible soul players. I've always sung this way, but those guys carry it. They make it do what it does.
How do you define soul music?
To me it's not a style, it's not a genre. I feel like soul music is more of a feeling. I feel like there's soul music that fits outside of this R&B description that exists. You know, the Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, Sharon Jones description of soul music. That's a sound to me. I think there are songs and other genres out there that have incredible soul. Like the Foo Fighters. You can hear there's an inner battle going on there. Songs that are about a soul issue, consciously describing inner turmoil.
You mean Dave Grohl's inner millionaire turmoil of inching toward Disney-level production on his songs? Just kidding. "Rope" is a great song. And I listen to "My Hero" often. You're right, though, soul doesn't have to be pinned to R&B. Otis Redding is the soul man. He practically cries in some of those songs. "Dreams" is the one that gets me. Makes me cry.
Me, too. He has that wailing. He's pleading.
How did playing Conan O'Brien's show come about?
The assistant to the booker for Conan is from Seattle. My manager has been talking to her for a while. When my record started doing well, we decided to see what the next step would be, so we called her and sent her a live version of the song "Unaware." She liked it and gave us the main booker's e-mail address. So we e-mailed him with the video and some reviews. Within 30 or 40 minutes he replied saying yes, they wanted us on the show that next week. The time period from when we contacted them to when we were on the show was less than two weeks. It was crazy.
How many times did you play through the song before the live take?
We got to the studio around 9 a.m. and ran through it about six times so they could get camera shots and angles. Singing the falsetto that I sing in that song—nine in the morning is not the most optimal time to be singing a high A.
Checking in on your dad driving there. Is he awake? Where are you now? You're not going 90, are you?
We're just passing through Olympia right now. My Dad is a very legal driver. Not a hair over 60 miles per hour. Usually we just haul ass, let me tell you. Dad hits the nitrous boost, and we'll do 120.
How funny is Conan off camera?
When we were in the greenroom and he was going over the show, he would actually put on a guitar. His creative process for mapping out the show is to noodle on the guitar while he's talking to his writers and his band and Andy Richter. The entire time, he's cracking jokes. It's gotta be the best work environment because you're always laughing. There's a reason they have that job. They're hilarious, quick, and witty as a whip. Spitballing.
Is he a good guitar player?
He's not Steve Vai or anything, but he can play. He's probably a better guitar player than I am.
It was obvious Conan really liked your performance. He was genuinely taken aback.
You know, I had my eyes closed the entire time, I was so nervous. I didn't see anything around me. I was just doing my best to sing the notes right. After the show, he came over and talked for a while, and that was neat. I'm incredibly thankful for that opportunity.
Are you ready for Allen Stone to be nationwide, worldwide?
I don't know. I'd say I'm ready to play music. It's easy for me to be humble because I know where I come from. I know my background. I know my strengths and weaknesses. I was raised well. I surround myself with friends and family who make sure I'm humble. It's weird to know certain people have their eye on you. And the choices you make could potentially be seen and talked about. I grew up in a small town as a pastor's kid, and had to always watch what I was doing. I'm proud of what I do. I believe in what I do. When people come up to me and say they like my music, I'm flattered. If I ever need to be in disguise, all I need to do is put contacts in, put my hair in a ponytail, and wear a nice polo shirt.
Allen, whatever you do, no matter how bad it gets, do not put your hair in a ponytail. Otis Redding will come find you and yank it out himself.
No ponytail. Noted. Thank you.
What music gives you the chills?
Really good folk music. Noah Gundersen. He's from Seattle. He was playing me some songs he'd just written, and I totally got the chills.
What's the hardest part of all this for you?
The hardest part for me is the business side of things. I'm essentially my own label right now, so I'm paying for everything. I'm self-sufficient, and sometimes it's difficult. I'm not a businessman, but I'm learning. I'm growing as a businessman. A lot of people sign to labels so they don't have to worry about that stuff. I have a manager and a booking agent. Together, we do pretty much everything. I spend a lot of time on the business stuff right now, and I would be happy to not have to do it, but realize it's always going to be there. The tour managing gets split between a couple people in the band. Where are we going to stay, how's the oil, making sure everyone has filled out W-4s, and W-2s, and social security numbers, that kind of thing. I designed my own graphics for the newest album. It's kind of all on my shoulders as an independent musician. I'd rather just be performing.
Will you ever sign to a label?
If it was the right situation I would. I've done a lot without a label at this point. Digitally, my record is selling right up there with sales of some major-label artists. I don't have physical distribution, so sales are lower there. But I'm touring the country, and growing a fan base, and I feel pretty good about it. I ask myself: If I sign with a label, how are they going to partner up with me and take me to the next level? If the right deal were presented, I'd sign it. And I've gotten a lot of interest, but nothing yet where I couldn't turn it down. If it ever happens, I think it will be something where I really jell with someone. A big label may have history, yes. But if there are like 50 artists on the label, your representative has to be your champion, otherwise you can get overlooked. If I get to that point where I feel connected to a group of people at a label, and they can put some substantial finances behind the project, I would sign. I'll also say that being self-sufficient and not having to answer to a label, or worry about them pushing for which songs they think should be on the record is kind of nice, too. If I could do it independently and sustain growth, and pay rent and have all my band members pay rent, I'd stay independent forever. But like I said, if the right offer is ever made, I'm not turning it down.
What was your favorite song to sing in church when you were younger?
I would say my favorite song was a gospel song, "It Is Well with My Soul." The guy who wrote the song was a real-estate owner in Chicago in 1871. A large portion of his real-estate holdings was wiped out in the Great Chicago Fire, and he lost his life savings. His son died that year as well, I think. He and his wife and their four daughters decided to go to Europe. At the last minute, some business came up for him, and he had to send them on the voyage without him. The ship they were on was struck by another ship, and all four of his daughters drowned. When he was finally able to get on a ship himself, to go to his wife, he wrote the song as he was sailing through the area where the wreck had taken place. It's a powerful song. After all that had happened to him, losing his children and money, he wasn't angry. He had accepted it. And found peace. I always remember that song.