The Very Real Heart of Allen Stone
Born in Chewelah, Washington singer Allen Stone started singing at his father’s church when he was just a kid. Eventually, he’d discover soul music and make the shift from the sacred world to the secular one, self-releasing two albums in 2010 and 2011. Radius, his major label debut, arrived early this summer. It’s a fantastic collection of funk- and soul-inspired tunes. On a tour in support of the album, Stone phoned us from an El Paso tour stop.
You began singing in the church when you were three. What was that experience like?
My father was a minister. I grew up singing in the church with my folks. I learned the feeling and the passion of music through that. Soon thereafter, I got turned on to soul and punk. Those things have the same emotion tied to them as the music I grew up listening to.
I read that you had an epiphany at 15 when you heard Stevie Wonder’s 1973 album Innervisions.
It wasn’t the first time I ever heard him. I had heard his music before but hadn’t had the name put to the music. I think it was “Isn’t She Lovely.” I wanted to know more and just dove into his work and catalogue. I then wanted to discover anything from 1960 to 1970—soul, funk and R&B.
You moved to Spokane and then Seattle. You started your recording career in 2010.
I had done some cheap recordings in Spokane but I moved to Seattle to take a job at a small boutique independent record label. They gave me free recording time at the studio where I was working. That was the start of learning the studio and attempting to learn how to make a living in the music industry. I’m still learning everyday. It’s an ever-evolving thing when it comes to the size of venues. That’s especially true if you don’t have a huge record; you have to pinch pennies and do your best to stay relevant and put on a show that leaves people wondering who that was.
Talk about the process of self-releasing your first two albums: Last to Speak (2010) and the self-titled Allen Stone (2011).
When I left Chewelah at 18 I toured on my own and would take any gig I could. We would do house shows and barbeques and college cafeterias. I would play anywhere. I was a total slut. For those situations to have an impact, I had to have some product. That’s what Last to Speak was. I wanted it to be as close to what I was doing live as possible. I would hate for people to like the record and then come to the show and it was just me and my guitar. It was a stripped down record. I put it out and gave it away and got it out to as many people as possible. A year later this cat out of L.A., Lior Goldenberg, took me on and wanted to do a record with me. I didn’t realize who the musicians were. It was Raphael Saadiq’s touring band. I was like, “Holy shit. I’m way out of my league.” I was still super green and these cats were mad generous. We did 14 songs together. It was a blast. We released them independently. I just wanted to get on the road. The only way to make money is to get on the road. We wanted to build a following. We played all the markets we could. We just sold that second record with the help of ATO. I licensed it to them and they re-released it. People would see me live and hear me and be like, “Holy shit. I want to be a part of this and buy this record.” That’s still how it’s kind of been. I don’t sell records but I’m able to stay busy on the road.
And how’d you meet up with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis?
Mack contacted me through Twitter three or four years ago. I was on the rise on the local scene. This was right before things started picking up for me. Both of our careers were on the same upswing. This was before “Thrift Shop” and all those videos that generated millions of views. We got in the studio. He was working out of this closet in the ghetto of Seattle over on Freeway 99. I came to the studio and met Ryan and Ben. They’re the shit. They’re super cool and super clicked on and super aware and extremely creative. In my opinion they’re the top tier of that genre of music. I don’t like what hip-hop is represented by right now. Mack, as far as content goes and what issues he’s pushing and talking about, I commend him for it. He’s filling a void and people don’t want to talk about like gay marriage and white privilege. They would prefer to talk about hot tubs and champagne and shit. We did that song and then he released “Thrift Shop” and the rest is history.
When did you start writing the songs for Radius? Were you going for something specific?
I decided to leave ATO even though it’s an incredible label. I left ATO and when I released my self-titled record, every label was on my heels, from Atlantic to Columbia to Capitol. They were all, “You should sign with us.” At the time, I thought I didn’t have enough going for me that I could walk into those labels and have leverage. I thought if I went to them and they would rape me and take 30 percent of my touring and merch and sign me to a 360 deal. I held off for about three years. When the time came to make Radius, I felt comfortable enough with Capitol. I had built a good relationship with Dan McCarroll and Michael Howe. They were the president and vice president of A&R. I thought I couldn’t sign with any better people at the label. I made the record in Sweden. I signed in November of 2013 and it was finished in March of 2014.
What were the sessions like?
Norway and Sweden do it right. It’s crazy. It wasn’t my first time there but it was my first time meeting the people and getting a grip as to how incredible that culture and those people are. I originally went there to write. I was in talks with Rick Rubin and the musical director and guitarist for TV on the Radio and Eric Valentine. These are all incredible guys who make incredible music. It just didn’t feel right. I got into the studio with them and it didn’t feel like those were the cats that would push me to make a record that was different from what was going on. I was afraid that I would be a carbon copy of Bruno Mars. I thought maybe they would push me into this book and make me look like Sam Smith because I sing soul music. I thought they would want to cut my hair and have me put a suit on and sing break up songs and shit. That’s not me at all. The love song shit is not for me. I went Sweden to write with Magnus Tingsek, this buddy of mine. We wrote the first two songs – “Circle” and “Fake Future.” Those are two of my favorite songs I have ever written. We wrote those songs and I knew this was it. We brought demos back to Capitol and they liked it. I went and did the record and brought it back to Capitol. It was produced and mixed and mastered. A week later, Dan and Michael left and went to Warner Bros. I had this record in my hands. In my opinion, it was the best music I have ever made in my life. The classic case scenario was the fellow who took it over didn’t hear a hit. To me, it’s the dumbest way to process music ever. We went back to the studio with all these pop producers to try to pull these songs out of me. I’m not going to make singles. I’m a concept album artist. We went down that path of fishing for a single. We did a song that they were happy enough to chuck to Top 40. By the grace of God or the universe or Allah, I walked in and pleaded with them to drop me. They were ruining any foundation I had built by putting me in this lane of artists that I don’t belong in. They let me go. I got the record back from Capitol and we’re releasing it on ATO as the record I had originally created.
How different is the version you’re reissuing?
Eighty percent of the record that’s out now is the record I intended to put out. There are a few songs on the current album that are by different producers and have different vibe. That wasn’t my desire. I wanted the same colors throughout the entire record. It will be mainly the same record.
Talk about the meaning of “Fake Future.” What inspired the song’s sentiment?
It’s about the over influx and impending takeover of technology in art. It’s a crutch. It’s a really cool crutch and it makes making music way easy. To me, it’s starting to deteriorate and rob the human element from art, whether it’s movies or graphics and especially music and more specifically live music. For some crazy reason, it’s cool for a computer to be on stage and people are okay with that. It’s super terrifying to me as a musician who plays instruments and sings live. There’s this influx of people using backing tracks and click tracks. It robs it of the element that is most pure and that is human collaboration. That is humanity. The first line of the song is “Tie me to a cinder block and throw me to the sea/Music’s got more roll than rock ‘cause everyone’s poppin’ E.” As artists, we have to be good stewards of what we put out. The food industry is getting revamped because for a good two to three decades, they’ve been feeding us shit. McDonald’s is going out of business because people are finally conscious of what the fuck they’ve been putting in their mouths for the past 20 years. As artists, we need to respect the common demographic and give them real stuff and real energy. It scares me how you can go to a show and there’s acoustic guitars come in through the speakers when there isn’t an acoustic guitar on the goddamn stage. I get mad passionate about it and I look like a cunt. If I’m ostracized by the business, I don’t care.
You’ve recently added two horns players to the group. Talk about how that’s changed the live show.
I have upwards of ten people on stage with me now. I’m bankrupt but I’m having a good time. I’m not only the one doing it. There are Mumford and Sons and Father John Misty and Alabama Shakes and tons of people keeping the music alive. There’s a vein of pop musicians who have computers on stage. I wish they wouldn’t do that. They make enough money. Even Pretty Lights hired all of Lettuce to play shows with him. He didn’t need to do that. He’s hiring musicians to play live with him. That’s cool, even if he has a laptop on stage. I think it’s like a courtesy or a taste. I don’t know how to process it all. I get on this rampage and get super passionate and then I hope I didn’t hurt anyone’s feelings. There are a lot of great people in this industry using backing tracks. I love their music and I think their music is crazy good. I know they often can’t afford to bring a band out, but I toured in a conversion van for six years and paid out of my own pocket, so I know it’s possible. It’s totally possible to make it work.
Upcoming 2015 Shows
Cleveland, OH – Beachland Ballroom
Ferndale, MI – The Magic Bag
Toronto, ON – The Opera House