Washington-born singer, Allen Stone, has a voice touched by god — or is magic, or whatever other special metaphor you want to use. His singing voice leaps from his tonsils, serenading — as if sonically sunlit — whoever is around to hear him. It’s almost like the Grand Canyon — you can prepare yourself for the grandeur, but you can never imagine it quite the way it is when experienced in real life. And Stone has a new record, slated for release this fall. He dropped the first single, performed live, mid-April. Following the album release, Stone will hit the road for a lengthy U.S. tour. But before all that, we thought we’d catch up with the golden-voiced musician and ask him about the new project, how his life has changed over the years, and when he realized he could really sing.
KEXP: Why did you choose Nashville to record the new album?
Allen Stone: Well, my producer lives in Nashville, Jamie Lidell, who I worked with on this record. You can throw a rock and hit a nice studio in Nashville that’s relatively cheap. And I had a connection with a hotel in the city that gave me and my band free rooms for, like, a month, so it helped me out by like 20-grand in the budget for the record. I know that’s not super sparkly, nice and coated, but, yeah, it was simply just a business angle, trying to do things for as cheap as possible. We wanted to track — we tracked the record live — and there’s only so many studios that are not only capable of doing that but also cheap enough for you to get in on an indie-label-Allen-Stone-type of budget.
What threads of inspiration did you follow while writing and recording?
I always try to write from the heart. I always try to write from a stance or a position that feels real to me. And I think this record was a lot about growth and evolution. Trying to — I think the overwhelming topic in the record is just putting in the work and chipping away. You know, it wasn’t the easiest process. Sometimes, like your first record, you’re so amped — you get 10 years to throw it together and get all the songs buttoned up and you’ve been waiting for it to get out into the world. But your second record, you’re like, “Oh, man. I have to be really good!” and when that doesn’t happen, it’s like, “Oh, shit! I gotta make a third record.” And I think this record was a testament to kind of wake up and understand not only how lucky I am to be doing what I’m doing, but also just reevaluating music, art, and life. Sometimes it just flows right out of you. Other days, you just have to wake up and put your nose to the grindstone and do the thing.
Why did you decide to live track most of the album?
I’ve live tracked all my records live prior to this one. I’ve had a few songs here or there that weren’t tracked by live humans in the studio. But for the most part, all my records are done live. I just love the energy, of really being in the same room with the people who are playing the music. I think music is a kind of communication or language of energy and when you’re sitting in the same room as the folks attempting to try and make music, to speak a certain way, I’ve always felt a specific energy that not only helps me sing to the best of my abilities but also to arrange and let the song live in the way that it should.
Did anything surprise you about the sessions?
I’ve been playing with this group of guys, who were on the record, for about five years now — a couple of them, four or so maybe. And this has been the first time we’ve been in the studio working and writing and putting music together as a unit. I was just really surprised at how well it worked. I’m always a little cautious about letting people into that circle because it really is an intimate piece of real estate. But surprisingly enough it was a blast. Everybody was patient and kind and open to criticism and receptive of what it takes to really get inside a studio and hopefully get the best things out — or, at least, just come out of the process saying, “That was really fun!”
What did you do in Nashville between studio time — any favorite spots?
I would love to recite all these incredibly fun things we did. But it was like a noon-to-midnight trip every day in the studio. We really didn’t have much time to do anything else. Pretty much the hotel bar was it if we had any time after the session to grab a drink. For as many incredible places to be and hang in Nashville, we didn’t dip our toes in really any of them, unfortunately.
What do you realize you love about music while you’re performing it?
It’s therapeutic, almost like meditation for me, singing. I kind of recently started really getting back into exercise and yoga and running and trying to keep tabs on my physical being, as I’m out every night just torturing it with travel and caffeine and alcohol and all these awful things — great awful things — that we chuck into our bodies. And music feels along those same lines — when you’re really in love with the song or piece of music or melody, it’s very meditative. I’ve always put it this way: I love performing because it brings me into the moment. I think I have a tendency quite often to get locked up into this mind of mine and I get lost in future thought and past thought and it pulls me out of the present and keeps me from actually living in the only thing that matters, the current moment and current state of being. I think music has always allowed me to get out of that and be really present in moments on stage or in the studio or even at a friend’s house. Music and song have always been that retreat from my mind.
When did you realize you could sing — like, really sing?
Well, I mean… Yeah. I think I’m still trying to figure that all out currently. I’m a mimicker, really. If you hung out with me for a day you’d probably hear every single accent I could come up with. I’ve always mimicked things my whole life. My dad was really funny when I was growing up. He was kind of an impressionist. We’d watch Jerry Lewis and Don Knotts movies, Jim Carrey. There was always this joy of being a different character than yourself. And I think that played a lot into my ability to sing. My folks sang — my mom is a beautiful singer, she has this deep vibrato. But I wasn’t really raised in a Baptist Church or in a culture where R&B music or soul music or funk music was out in the forefront. There were always shadows of it because it all comes from the same place but there was never this, “Hey, this is a Donnie Hathaway record.” Or, “Hey, this is Muddy Waters.” It was a discovery I had to find on my own. But when I think I first heard what I would call R&B music were recordings from when R&B music peaked in the late 60s and 70s. And I just started mimicking. I loved those sounds. I wanted to try and sound like that! And, to this day, it’s still kind of that sort of thing. I listen to people sing and I say, “Oh, I want to sound like that! Let me try that on for size!” I never really arrived at this place where I can puff my chest out and say, “Dude, you know who’s REALLY got it going on???” That’s not my spirit.
You’re getting married soon. Has this big life step affected the way you look at your art?
Totally. That’s what “Brown Eyed Lover” is about. That song is about that tug between knowing that if I continue this path of art and music, I’m going to be gone all the time. But I don’t want to stay away from the thrill of love and relationship and family either. Those are things that are important to me. But it’s also an obstacle that’s tough to navigate at times, for me personally. Since you and I met, I’ve probably been on the road 75-percent of my life, living out of a suitcase. And it doesn’t seem like it’s going to be able to stop anytime soon. It might become more comfortable — like if I have a hit record. But it’s still going to be the same existence. On a plane or bus or in a studio somewhere. I’m, like, never going to be home. So, “Brown Eyed Lover” is about that internal battle of being totally infatuated and in love with another human being, but also being completely enthralled with my craft. How do I make those two work together in a world where seemingly every obstacle is built to prove that won’t work?
But I think it’s made me a more intentional human being. I think it’s definitely helped me understand which relationships in life are important and which I shouldn’t have time for. I’m naturally an empathetic person who just believes the best in everybody and I just give so much to strangers who — not to sound pessimistic — but strangers who couldn’t give two shits about me. They want a piece of a thing that they believe will make them happy or feel better about themselves. I think it’s definitely helped me learn the importance of family and the importance of strong relationships to people who can catch your energy and send it back. It’s this beautiful almost dance of friendship. Whereas, I think in the past I have just given out my energy in so many different places to — not bad people, but to people where there’s not going to be any more distance to our friendship path then, “Hey, let’s get drunk and laugh at things!” So, that’s helped me a lot.
[My fiancée] has also taught me how to take care of my body - that was a huge one for me, too. Being on the road you have to be very kind to your physical form if you want to keep doing this thing. Traveling as consistently as we do, I can’t imagine it being very good for your being. At least not for mine and my emotional point of view. It’s pretty treacherous. Being good to your body, eating right, meditating, all those classic practices that people say you should get involved in. They have really helped me grow and land on my feet.
Allen Stone's new single "Brown Eyed Lover" is out now; a full-length album will be out later this year. Stone will be on tour this fall across North America.
While promoting his third album, Radius, smiling soul Allen Stone stopped by the new KEXP offices to grace us with his second in-studio performance. The Seattle singer-songwriter peddles in pure analog: there isn't a drop of electronic on the third album, and he brings the danceable retro of Leon...