Anyone who has only heard Allen Stone’s voice probably imagines a young Stevie Wonder. So to see a guy with long blond hair, blue eyes and unconventional specs throw himself on stage may just come as a bit of a surprise.
The singer has just finished a short tour of Europe, bringing his own brand of socially-conscious soul across the Atlantic after four years of touring tiny venues across the States.
He released his eponymous first album last year in America on his own stickystones label and an EP of tracks from the album was released last month in the UK. The full album is out in the UK in February 2013.
The Void’s Julia Collins caught up with Stone between the soundcheck and his sold-out show at London’s Cargo.
The town you’re originally from (Chewelah, Washington State) is very remote – what was it like growing up there?
I was really in a bubble, very cut off from mainstream culture, even more so because I was sheltered growing up in the church, I didn’t have TV and any kind of glimpse into the secular world.
You starting performing in churches, has that had a big influence on how you perform now?
Not a big influence but I try to be more of a leader than a performer and get people involved. And the church taught me that, through leading songs in the church with a lot of communal singing and performing songs.
Did that help with learning how to perform to big crowds?
Sometimes it helps, sometimes it hinders, you know?
So the church was a big influence when you were growing up, how did that change over the years?
I grew up in church and then after that the Bible called and I was going to become a minister, learning about the church and the origin of religion and the interpretation of scripture and then it totally turned me off, I woke up and I didn’t believe it so I left the church and went a completely different way with my life.
What age were you when that happened?
I was about 19.
So you’d already had the influence of soul music prior to that?
Yeah, I discovered soul music when I was about 15
Was it a big realisation or something that just crept up on you?
It kind of hit me blindside, I got Innervisions by Stevie Wonder from a friend of mine and it was like a Pandora’s box opening of a whole realm of music.
Living in Washington State were you influenced by the whole Seattle grunge scene at all or was it soul all the way?
I heard some Pearl Jam and some Nirvana but that was in the early Nineties and I was born in 1987 and I was so sheltered as a kid that I didn’t really get any of the whole grunge influence at all.
Is the church side of things reason you write about social commentary instead of the whole boy-meets-girl thing?
Definitely, pairing that whole side of me, that moral code, that value system, definitely originated by the way I was raised but I don’t think that it’s particular to the church, I think I would have learned those thing regardless of whether my father was a minister or not.
Where does the inspiration for your songs come from?
A lot of inspiration just comes from the drive of coming from nothing and attempting to impact the culture and the world and the people around me in some way.
When did you start writing?
When I was about 13 or 14, just stupid love songs for my little seventh-grade girlfriends, who were very sweet about them. I think they were just being sweet about what were actually horrible songs.
You’ve had about several years on the road since deciding the music was the path for you, what was it like to leave that really remote town and travel to so many new places?
It was tough for sure, it was a lot of sleeping on people’s floors and couches, it wasn’t easy at all, but it was good to get out and good to just get better at playing and singing, the more you play, the better you get.
Was it an eye-opener?
It was definitely an eye-opener about how hard it is to make it in this industry, it gave me an incredibly tough skin and it made me want it even more. (yawns) – sorry, it’s been a very long day.
Did things change a lot after the release of the album, did you notice a real swell of support?
There’s kind of been a snowball effect. After the record was released I did a video in my mom’s living room that caught on virally and I was able to get on the road and line up venues and it’s grown really fast.
The video, for the track Unaware, brought Stone to the attention of those all-important chat show music bookers across America, leading to appearances on the TV shows of David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel, Conan O’Brien and Craig Ferguson.
The national exposure must have really pushed things along.
I dunno, TV’s not what it used to be but they were incredible opportunities and they definitely gained me some followers and people bought records because of it but (another yawn) – sorry, excuse me, it used to be like you could get on David Letterman and that was your big break and you had a career after that but now people are just so overwhelmed with entertainment. I think either I really sucked on the shows or the late-night shows don’t really have the weight that they used to.
Is this your first time in Europe, in the UK?
This is my second time, I did about a week and a half in March and we’ve got about two weeks now.
How are you finding it?
It’s been great so far, we’ve only been here a couple of days but the London show has sold out, which is really cool, we played at the Jazz Cafe last time and it’s good to know that people still give a shit.
Other places are selling pretty well so hopefully they can continue to build and Europe is something that I can make stops at for quite a while.
Have you started thinking about a second album?
Yeah, for sure, I’ve definitely been writing a bunch for it and coming up with ideas but I’ve been on the road doing close to 250 shows this year so I don’t have a ton of time to sit down and think a lot.
What else do you do in your downtime?
I don’t have any downtime, baby! I haven’t had a real day off in probably two years. It’s of my own doing and my own choice, I don’t want people to forget about me so I work really hard. I haven’t got lucky and had a hit single or anything so it all comes from word of mouth and the live shows.
So what are your plans for the next few months?
More touring hopefully I think. We go up until Christmas and then we’ve got a couple of dates in January and then hopefully some more stuff in Europe if the record takes off, then we’ll probably come back and tour a bunch but I’ll probably end up heading back into the studio and working on another one.
So music has always been your only option.
Yeah, I’ve been doing it since I was about 18 so it’s about seven years.
That’s pretty good going to have been able to make a living from it so far.
It comes by me being broke for a lot of it (laughs) but yeah, it’s a blessing to be able to do this full-time.
Could you imagine doing anything else? What would you do if you had to?
I’d work with animals somehow, I really like animals so that would probably be something I could do.