Allen Stone is a 25-year-old soul singer from the backwoods town of Chewalah, Washington State. The son of a preacher man, he started singing in church at the age of three. His debut EP was released on 19 November and his new album is released on 28 January, 2013, Decca. Already out in the States, Stone has been described as “a pitch perfect powerhouse” by USA Today and compared to such soul greats as Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Bill Withers and Donny Hathaway by the New York Times. Chitra Ramaswamy talks to him ahead of a gig in Scotland.
How’s the tour going?
We’re just lounging on the bus at the moment. I love playing live and have been on the road consistently since I was 22. I think all music should be made to sound live but unfortunately our culture encourages most people to make computer music.
You’ve been called “a pitch perfect powerhouse”, “the real deal”, and compared to the likes of Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. How do you feel about that?
Those guys are some of the greatest songwriters and singers of all time. It’s amazing to be compared to them but very intimidating.
So do your musical roots lie in the socially and politically conscious soul and funk of the 1960s and 1970s?
Without a doubt. That’s the type of music that inspires me and the type of music I try to create. I think my culture has got really lazy, especially R ‘n’ B. The only subject anyone ever writes about is sex and love and going to the club. And R ‘n’ B used to be such a powerful form of music. It used to have an influence on culture and the views of young people. It’s completely lost its way. No one listens to an Usher song and then goes and makes a sign and heads down to picket on Capitol Hill. I find that sad.
So should music always try to be an engine for social and political change?
Yeah, sure. Music has always been a tool for expressing the frustrations of the times. It goes right back to David singing for Solomon in the bible. Those songs meant something and nowadays songs are just beats. No one even listens to the lyrics. I want music that gives me hope and makes me excited about change. I don’t really care about an artist’s personal problems in love.
So how did a song like Unaware, about our economic crisis, come about?
I was 22 when I wrote it and it came out of my frustration at paying my taxes to people who didn’t care about me. It was around the time of the bailout of the banks and all that dirty money getting spread around. A culture of greed. And as a middle class kid in the States, I felt overlooked. It’s the extremely poor and extremely rich who are highlighted in my country. Everyone in between is kind of forgotten.
What music are you listening to at the moment?
Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, Jamie Lidell, Michael Kiwanuka, and Ray Lamontagne.
How did you discover soul music, growing up in Chewalah?
There is a population of about 1,500 in Chewalah. Both my parents sang and played in church and my mum had a really thick vibrato which, thinking back, was actually very soulful. But I had never heard soul music. There were no record shops in Chewalah. If I wanted to buy a record I had to drive an hour and a half to Spokane. I started writing songs when I was about 13 but it was when I was 15 thaT a friend gave me Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions. My parents would never let any secular music into the house so I had to sneak it in... Well, it was like a bomb going off in my head. It was all about the groove, the way he sang, the notes he hit, and the way he hit them.
What was it like singing in church as a boy?
When I was three years old I would sing during service and then hop up on stage now and then with my family. But it wasn’t until I was 14 that I started leading the congregation in song.
Did you love hopping up on stage from the start?
I did. I’m an unashamed attention whore.
You had a very strict upbringing. Did there come a time when you had to rebel against it?
Without a doubt. It was a very strict Christian upbringing. Even finding the music I loved meant a rebellion.
How did your parents take it?
They’re cool with it. I’m not a Christian any more. I’ve left the church and that’s a hard thing for them to grasp. But I’m still a spiritual person. It’s not like I’m Marilyn Manson or mainlining heroin. I’m actually not that far away from who I would be if I was going to church every Sunday.
Why did you have a crisis of faith?
I went to bible school and was training to be a pastor. I learned about the history of the church and the origins of scripture and a year later I just realised it was all manmade. I basically woke up one day and didn’t believe any more. And I truly had believed for the first 18 years of my life. It was a big change. It made me very bitter for a while.
People often express surprise that you’re a white man, a self described “hippie with soul” singing black soul music? How do you feel about that?
I guess we are very visual creatures and I think you’d have to be blind to see me and then hear me and not be a bit surprised. I guess it is a bit perplexing to see some hippie backwoods white kid singing soul music.
• Allen Stone plays the Classic Grand, Glasgow, on 24 November. www.allenstone.com