Looking further afield than the mainstream pop-soul that has made her famous, Joss Stone has a real interest in the world and its music. She talks to Simon Broughton about the music that inspires her
“I like to find an artist that somehow sounds like the place that they come from. And to find a special sound that we don’t have.” Joss Stone is talking about her choice of singers with whom she’s collaborated around the world. “It’s a very cool thing for me, even if it’s just for a day, because it helps me think differently about melodies and the way a language works with them.”
British soul singer Joss Stone burst onto the UK music scene with The Soul Sessions released when she was just 16. She’s now 28, has sold over 12 million albums and won a large worldwide following. Her seventh album, Water for Your Soul, features collaborations with Damian Marley, Nitin Sawhney and others.
But she’s also involved with a much longer-term project – what she calls her ‘Total World Tour’. This is literally a plan to perform in every country in the world and collaborate with local musicians where she can. So far she’s played several countries in Western Europe, Morocco, Dubai, Southern Africa, Australia, New Zealand and has just finished a tour in South America. So every artist on this playlist is someone that Stone has met and performed with, learning the words in whatever language it might be. Two of the songs are ones that Stone has sung with the artists, the others are tracks the artists suggested for this playlist.
“My opinion on soul music is it’s not a genre,” Stone says, “but it’s a feeling and it can be applied to anything. For instance, Oum who sings in Arabic, but she’s very soulful. OK, it’s not Motown, but fucking hell, it’s still soul.”
Casablanca in Morocco was where Stone did her first gig on her Total World Tour and the artist she chose to work with is Oum, whose album, appropriately enough, is called Soul of Morocco. The song ‘Taragalte’ is named after the Berber town on the edge of the Sahara. “Oum introduced me to a friend of hers who played a funny bass instrument with three strings.” A gimbri? “God you’re good! It was very cool and earthy. I liked working with her song, it was the first one I did. She wrote everything down in phonetics for me. She says she suffers a lot of naysaying because she’s not traditional, but mixing it with what’s going on today. She gets a lot of shit for that. But she says ‘I just have to do what I have to do.’”
In South Africa, Stone was joined onstage by Bongeziwe Mabandla, a young singer whose debut album Umlilo was released in 2012. “Bongeziwe is just beautiful. The way he played and sang was soft and sensitive, but manly at the same time. He tried to teach me how to sing in Xhosa with a click. I just laughed and said ‘I can’t do that!’ and he goes ‘yes you can.’ The worry I have is trying and failing and insulting people. He went through it slowly with me, which was really cool.”
Mabandla has selected a new song, ‘Mangaliso’, which means ‘Miracle’ in Xhosa. It’s about chasing sunrises and sunsets, he says, and seeing beauty in ordinary things. Everyday miracles.
In neighbouring Swaziland Stone performed with Bholoja who sings in SiSwati. “I’m noticing something about his singing,” recounts Stone, “and I said ‘What did you listen to?’ I was thinking Tracy Chapman, and he goes ‘Tracy Chapman and Joan Armatrading.’ This is a man, but I guess both Tracy and Joan have very low voices. His music was very different to anything I’ve heard before, but influenced by Tracy and Joan. There are instruments I don’t recognise but they hold a little bit of the culture too. It’s a lovely morning album called Swazi Soul. That’s what he calls his genre too.”
Stone’s overriding memory of Swaziland, though, was the venue called House on Fire. “Oh my god, it was gorgeous. You have to go to this venue. It was covered in mosaic and poetry and art – it was stunning. People had said they don’t really have gigs in Swaziland. No gigs in Swaziland? Only the most beautiful venue I’ve ever played in my life. That was my favourite spot out of everywhere we went in Africa – very green, full of freshness and people from lots of countries. A very nice community of people.”
It was great to discover that Stone’s chosen singer in Portugal was fado singer Gisela João, who’s performed in London at Songlines Encounters Festival in 2015. “It seems that fado is yet another version of soul music – just with a different language and sound. Most of the songs are about lost love or some sort of desperation – what they call saudade. You can hear it in her voice. It is a very powerful sound.”
Stone does a lot of gigs in the US and rehearses with her bass player in Nashville. The American band she chose to perform with was The Infamous Stringdusters, a dynamic newgrass band. “I’m good friends with the guitar player and I thought ‘Who better to represent the US?’ There’s a lot of bluegrass going on there. A lot of fast, crazy stuff. We played a concert in front of the big statue of Charlie Parker in Kansas City.”
One of Stone’s reasons for doing this Total World Tour is to “open up doors to other styles,” both for her and her audience. “World music isn’t massive, but it’s so cool and there are so many different things going on. Nitin [Sawhney] says he hates the ‘world music’ label because it’s just music. He says don’t put it on the ‘world music’ stage because only ten people go to that stage. So we need to get more people to that stage because the music is, I reckon, better. That’s what I’m about too.”
This article originally appeared in Songlines #109