It’s just after 4 p.m. on Aug. 14 and Joss Stone is standing in a soundproof booth at a Manhattan recording studio. Well, maybe standing is the wrong word. Because when the 16-year-old British soul singer gets in the vicinity of a microphone, her hips grind and swivel like she’s trying to tilt an invisible pinball machine.
She’s recording a song called ”You Had Me.” And like most of the songs on ”The Soul Sessions,” her new album of old-school R&B covers, it’s about a guy who’s done her wrong. To her left in the studio is famed guitarist-producer Nile Rodgers, leading a five-piece backing band through a sweaty ’70s-style funk workout. To her right is Betty Wright, a soul hitmaker herself (1971’s ”Clean Up Woman”) who’s Stone’s vocal coach and coproducer. Grinding and swiveling in the middle is Stone, belting out lyrics of brokenhearted payback in a voice as ferocious as a tiger protecting her newborn cubs until… tilt…all the lights in the room go dark.
Wright cracks up. ”Girl, you blew the damn power out!”
Joss Stone might be guilty of more than that. Because at that exact moment — 4:09 p.m. on Aug. 14 — the power didn’t just go out in the recording studio. It went out in Ontario, Canada. Cleveland, Ohio. And most of New York State. Coincidence?
A week after the Great Blackout of 2003, Stone hardly seems like the fierce, circuit-blowing diva she was in the studio. Actually, she seems like any other 16-year-old girl. She’s shy, giggly, and so nervous about doing an interview that her neck breaks out in splotchy red bumps. Her favorite TV show is ”Friends.” She thinks Bruce Willis was dreamy in ”Die Hard.” You get the idea. But here’s the thing: Joss Stone isn’t any other 16-year-old girl. Because when she sings she sounds like the second coming of Gladys Knight. She’s heard this a lot lately. ”When people hear me, they’re always shocked that I’m 16, I come from Devon, England, and I’m white,” she says. ”I don’t really know what to say other than ‘Thank you.’ I take it as a compliment.”
Stone says she’s always been more interested in Otis Redding than Britney Spears (”Well, I’m not a fan, but I like the beats”). In fact, the first album she ever owned was an Aretha Franklin greatest-hits album. ”I saw an advert for it on TV when I was 10. I had no idea who she was, but I couldn’t stop singing ‘Respect.’ Finally, I asked my mom if I could have it for Christmas.”
When Stone was 14, she tried out for the British TV talent show ”Star for a Night.” ”I used to watch it every week and go, ‘Oh, I could do so much better than that!”’ She was right. She won. Later that year, Stone was in New York auditioning for record labels. ”I went to see one guy, and the first thing he said to me was ‘I would never sign a white girl with a black girl’s voice.’ And I was like, Okay, why am I here? It’s funny, the only people who have said to me ‘You’ll never get on black radio’ are white people.”
Steve Greenberg, the president of S-Curve Records, saw something else. ”When she started singing I just doubled over laughing,” he recalls. ”I was half convinced there was a hidden tape recorder somewhere.” Taking a page from the Norah Jones playbook — an upstart tackling material beyond her years — Greenberg paired Stone with ’70s R&B greats like organist Timmy Thomas and guitarist Little Beaver on songs first sung by Laura Lee (”Dirty Man”), Joe Simon (”The Chokin’ Kind”), and of course, Aretha Franklin (”All the King’s Horses”).
The natural next step would seem to be a Lady Legends of Soul tour with Chaka Khan, Patti LaBelle, and the surviving members of the Pips, right? Wrong. Although a record of originals (including ”You Had Me”) is already in the works, Stone and her label just want to put ”The Soul Sessions” out and see what happens. With any luck, people will have the same reaction Nile Rodgers had on the day of the blackout. ”This girl has a gift. Stevie Wonder had it at 16. Michael Jackson had it at 16. Joss has that same thing,” Rodgers laughs. ”Either that, or I’m the victim of the world’s greatest fraud.”