'Introducing' Joss Stone

Chad Berndtson

It’s not often an artist who’s already a worldwide sensation releases an album called “Introducing,” but for Joss Stone, it was necessary to take one step back to progress.

She’s barely 20 and has already sold more than 9 million albums worldwide. It all happened so fast: growing up in Dover, Kent, England, weaned on American R&B and soul, appearing on BBC television at age 14 and zooming into New York to record with BMG Music Publishing at 15. Her debut covers album, “The Soul Sessions” (2003), came a year later.

Her second album, 2004’s “Mind, Body, and Soul,” was even better but precipitated a number of starts and stops: big-ticket appearances on international television juxtaposed with abandoned tours and too much talent-obscuring emphasis on image.

Now Joss is ready to shore up her considerable talents anew.

“I’m probably more confident, but I still get really nervous. I can’t shake it, I don’t know why,” she said in a recent phone interview from the U.K., discussing her evolution as a performer. “Nerves are just going to be a part of it, and it’s quite annoying. I think I have more control over the music, though. I was very nervous to lead the band before, with no faith in my ability to do that. Now I know what I want, so I feel like I can lead them.”

As faithful observers might expect, Stone is a charmer in conversation: alternately coquettish and determined. Many of her answers are flitting rambles, as if she’s working out what she wants to say piecemeal, punctuating her summary sentence at the end with extra emphasis.

In other words, she sounds like someone who has been spoken for by press agents, press releases and music bigwigs for years and is finally getting to express herself.

“When you don’t play an instrument, it’s hard to understand how music is put together,” Stone said. “But doing it over and over again, you can’t not learn it. I learned that if I want it to sound a certain way, the bass has to go like this, and I needed someone else to make it happen or show what I wanted.”

Stone cut much of “Introducing Joss Stone” in Barbados with producer Raphael Saadiq, with guest appearances by no less than Common and Lauryn Hill. It’s straight vintage, of the Aretha strain, with some Janis Joplin and Dusty Springfield detours. Someone unearthing the album in a time capsule 100 years from now might need convincing that it wasn’t cut in the mid-1970s.

The album claimed the highest-selling debut on the Billboard 200 for a British solo female artist with 118,000 copies moved in week one, breaking the record that Amy Winehouse broke set just weeks before.

Beneath the weird imagery – Stone is in suggestive poses all over the album art, covered in swirly, hallucinogenic-looking body paint – is a terrific, way-paving collection of 14 tracks that prove Stone wasn’t merely a great voice bossed around by music execs the first few times around.

As her songwriting continues to develop and she adds to her soul grounding more of these same R&B, disco and rock flavors, “Introducing” will hopefully be remembered as the album that bridged Stone to her best material.

Having now collaborated with everyone from Stevie Wonder, Sly Stone and Melissa Etheridge to Herbie Hancock and the late James Brown, Stone feels lucky to have been able to absorb so much.

“I was really young, and I’ve been very lucky,” she says. “I just got plucked out of the middle of Devon (where she grew up), and I find myself in these rooms with these people, and I’m just like, 'How did this happen to me?' My mom calls me her little sponge. Those people are such special beings.”

Stone’s songwriting is what’s especially changed in the past five years. Hesitant to express herself before, she now plays a “little guitar” and a “little bass,” enough to show more skilled players what she wants.

“I really enjoy it – it makes me feel so much better,” she said of her writing. “When I was in school I wasn’t very good but the one thing I was good at was poetry. I spelled everything wrong, but the poems totally flowed, and that was the only time I wasn’t in trouble (laughs). When I first started to write I was really shy, and I had all these ideas and I was so scared to say them.”

Mostly, however, for Stone, it’s good to be free.

“I’ve grown up obviously over the last couple of years, but then I’ve always been very free,” she said. “You think what you think and do what you do, and everybody wants that, but to really embrace that you have to stop worrying. If it goes well, wicked! If not, so what? I’m excited to share everything.”