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Allen Stone: Better than Silver or Gold

“You know what I’m sick and tired of?”

Allen Stone is asking the question. Based on looks alone, the answer is anyone’s guess. Dressed in an oversized orange and indigo cardigan, red pants and a brimmed black hat that frames his mop of blonde hair and thick orange-rimmed glasses, he looks like someone who might have strong opinions about marijuana strains or Game of Thrones.

But Stone is not what he seems. Backed by a well-appointed band in front of a sold-out crowd at the Triple Door, the 24-year-old Seattleite is one of the most talked-about young soul singers in the nation.

“I’m sick and tired of soul music looking so crisp and clean and proper,” he answers as screams, mostly from women, erupt from the crowd.

“Because my soul…” he continues, pumping his fist as his drummer hits the snare three times in quick succession. “I said, my soul …” hit-hit-hit “…is just a little bit greasy.”

With that, the seven-piece band behind the showman kicks into a churning groove for a song called “Nothing to Prove.” Stone stomps, flaps his arms, claps along—and then grabs the mic to sing.

Out comes a voice that astounds everyone who hears it, a rich caramel tone as full as it is limber, reaching back into the annals of soul’s greatest hitmakers, rippling like Stevie Wonder, swaying like Bill Withers, ascending like Prince. It’s a voice that has attracted his young, talented bandmates and the night’s adoring crowd. It’s a voice that shatters prejudice. And it’s a voice that is trying to say something. “I learned at an early age,” Stone sings, “that hate can debilitate the power to see straight.”

The performance was one in a string of shows Stone has played across the country this fall that have left crowds stunned and sweaty. The audience at the Triple Door was special because it included Stone’s earliest fans—his parents, who had traveled from his tiny hometown of Chewelah, Wash. After the show, they went backstage to congratulate their son and have a talk.

“I said ‘hell’ and ‘damn,’” Stone later recalls. “Out of the whole performance, that’s what they wanted to talk about. My mom said, ‘You know, it didn’t offend me, but I feel that you can stay away from those words and still get your message across.’”

Stone’s message—like his sound—recalls the heyday of soul music, when social justice and celebration were intertwined. And as with his predecessors, that sound is connecting to a wide audience, filled with hip-hop fans and old soul fans, as well as Stone’s parents. So, he told his mom, “A lot of the people in that crowd, hearing those words brings comfort to them, just like when you go to a service and you hear the pastor say ‘Holy Spirit’ and ‘slain in the Spirit.’ All those things make some people freak out, but it makes you comfortable, because that’s what you’re used to.”

For most of his young life, Stone was more comfortable with the language of Sunday mornings than of Saturday nights. Raised in a non-denominational Christian church where his father was pastor, the goofy “country bumpkin,” as he describes himself, grew up in a culture of worship. The first time Stone sang alone in front of a crowd was in his father’s church. He was eight and his family had just returned from Ukraine, where they trained to be missionaries and learned Ukranian translations of American worship songs.

“My dad played guitar. My mom sang and my brother and sister sang,” Stone recalls. “We came back and sang the songs in front of the church and I had a little solo part. It wasn’t a big deal.”

That first performance marked the beginning of an unlikely, and still young, career. Today, Stone is earning raves from MTV, USA Today, Billboard, Vibe and NPR. “His songs don’t hide their kinship to the past, but he gives them clear-cut melodies of his own,” wrote New York Times critic Jon Pareles in a glowing recent review. “Mr. Stone has also absorbed the pacing and showmanship of his heroes.”

In October, Stone’s self-titled second album debuted at No. 2 on iTunes’ R&B chart, bested only by the crisp and clean retro soul phenom Mayer Hawthorne. Stone has composed alongside veteran soul journeymen, and though he isn’t privy to say whom yet, current Top 40 artists are asking for his help with their songs.
All of this without a record label, a publicist or a physical record to sell. The path that Stone is on, he is walking alone, without the help of the major record labels or the more forgiving Christian music industry he left behind.

On a quiet, overcast Tuesday afternoon in late October, Stone and his bandmates are perusing racks of clothing at a high-end boutique on Los Angeles’ Melrose Avenue. Tomorrow, they will perform for a million viewers on Conan, the late-night TBS talk show. The store has offered Stone three items of clothing and each of his bandmates a pair of jeans for their national TV debut.

Mark Sampson, the band’s keyboard player, is not having much luck. “These clothes are made for tiny people,” he says. The band’s manager, BJ Olin, arranges for him to get a shirt instead. Guitarist Trevor Larkin tries on a slim, form-fitting, trench-length sweater that costs more than the rent on his Ballard apartment. “This is the men’s section, right?” he jokes. Organ player Greg Ehrlich emerges from the jeans section and shrugs his shoulders. “Nothing fit,” he says. “My $35 Levi’s are fine for Conan.”

The band is in high spirits after a productive morning. Arriving from Seattle on an early flight, they spent the morning at a guitar showroom in Beverly Hills, rehearsing “Unaware,” the final track on Allen Stone—and the album’s verifiable hit.

Over the summer a viral video of Stone playing the slow-burning ballad in his mother’s living room helped attract much of his current following. “Unaware” is the album’s longest track—a beefy 5 minutes and 49 seconds that had to be cut down to 4 minutes for Conan. Rather than discarding a verse and sacrificing the message, Stone eliminated the song’s ornate intro, halved the refrain and meddled with the vamping bridge. The quick-and-dirty song surgery is a tall order for a band that formed just six months ago. The first time they tried it, the song clocked in at 3:59.8 and, to the untrained ear, sounded almost flawless. To Sampson’s ear, it wasn’t. After some adjustments—adding a drum hit to set up the song’s money shot, a triumphant falsetto by Stone—the band played it again. 3:59.6.

Wandering through the store on Melrose, Stone has yet to find something to wear. Drab sweaters and work shirts hang on the racks in hues of gray and blue, purposely stretched, stained and torn, in gloomy contrast to the joyful melodies that escape in spurts from the singer, to his toothy grin, to the bright blue vintage Seattle Seahawks jersey under his trademark cardigan sweater.

The Seahawk’s jersey is new. Moments after landing at LAX, Stone’s manager handed him a package from Jim Zorn, the quarterback who lead the team through its first seven seasons. Zorn’s daughter introduced her dad to Stone’s music after she saw Stone perform at the Crocodile in July. Zorn liked the music so much that he sent the jersey with a short note pinned to it: “Proverbs 22:1.”

“Proverbs 22:1,” Allen said as he pulled the jersey on. “I can’t remember that one. I’ll have to look it up.” The verse, according to the New International Version Bible, reads, “A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold.”

Later in the day, Stone is sitting in a small $50-a-night hotel room in Simi Valley, 40 miles from the Warner Bros. lot. Tomorrow at 7 a.m. a shuttle will take him and the band to the lot to tape Conan. While the others rest in neighboring rooms, Stone talks about how he got here. A popular singing competition plays at a low volume on the television; Stone curses at the TV, disparaging the show for prizing looks above talent. Then he apologizes.

“Tell me if I’m swearing too much, okay?” he says.

A self-described “drama brat,” Stone was the youngest of three siblings until his parents adopted two more children when he was a junior in high school. He always enjoyed being the center of attention and auditioned for lead roles in every church production. As a teenager, he sang songs of worldly struggles and the solace of faith with his father’s congregation.

Stone recalls one of those early hymns, a song written by an immigrant who lost his three daughters during a transatlantic trip. He sings the chorus—“When sorrows like sea billows roll, whatever my life, thou has taught me to say, it is well, it is well with my soul”—and then motions to the television and calls out one of its judges. “L.A. Reid wouldn’t classify that as soul music,” he says. “But it came from the depths of that man’s soul.”

When he was 14, Stone started to lead worship at his father’s church, singing traditionals as well as worship songs that he wrote. He began taking his own music more seriously, playing the Christian music circuit, and befriending Stacie Orrico, a Christian pop artist  from Seattle who had recently toured with Destiny’s Child and released a debut album that sold more than 500,000 copies. Trying to follow in his friend’s footsteps, Stone attended a conference of the Gospel Music Association in Colorado, where a Nashville producer offered to work with him.

The resulting songs did not earn Stone a record deal, but he posted them on his MySpace page, where a Grammy-winning hip-hop producer in Atlanta named Bangladesh (best known as the producer of Ludacris’s “What’s Your Fantasy”) found them. Bangladesh invited Stone to Atlanta.

“It was like jumping off the deep end into secular culture,” Stone says. “We were down in the studio and everyone is rolling up blunts and drinking cognac and partying. And I’m this 17-year-old kid who’s never been around that my whole life.”

No recorded material ever surfaced from those sessions—and Stone never went back to that studio—but the experience bolstered his confidence.
After high school, Stone attended Moody Bible Institute in Spokane where he began studying to be a pastor. He quit a year later and moved to Seattle to become a professional musician. The local Christian music community embraced him.

Though he was beginning to question his beliefs, Stone continued playing worship songs, recording and releasing an EP. He also played shows at the Christian-friendly Q Café in Interbay—and that’s where BJ Olin saw him for the first time in 2007. Olin was a fledgling band manager working exclusively with Barcelona, a Seattle pop group with a respectable international audience, and he was immediately drawn to Stone’s voice.

“I remember he opened with a Brian McKnight song,” Olin recalls. “I’m a Brian McKnight fan. It wasn’t a single—it wasn’t a typical one—it was a deep album cut. And I was like, dude, you got me.”

Stone’s worship songs weren’t as impressive. “His first reaction was ‘You gotta get rid of this,’” Stone says. “I totally agreed with him.”

Since then, Olin has moved to LA and connected Stone with an array of opportunities, like collaborations with members of Raphael Saadiq’s backing band, Miles Davis’ band and Tower of Power.  Olin works hard for his artist, but he knows Stone’s voice is what really opens industry doors.

“All I have to do is get people to a show,” he says. “Everyone who has seen Allen perform wants to work with him.”

The singing competition gives way to the evening news and Stone says he should be getting some rest. “Allen, I need you to check your email,” Olin says. “I’ve changed some of the settings on your YouTube account so we can put an iTunes banner up. You need to confirm it.”

“I need to do that tonight?” Stone asks.

“Yes. There are going to be a lot of people searching for you after tomorrow’s performance. We gotta make sure we sell some albums.”

Before ending the interview, Stone shares one more thought: “I believe everybody goes to church,” he says. “I think my church is involved with music and ushering people into a good time. I want people to feel good and enjoy the songs and music and the experience of congregation.”

Conan O’Brien is a music geek. During rehearsal for his show, he noodles on a beautiful Gretsch guitar stowed behind his desk. He played “Free Bird” with a band of music veterans to end his final Tonight Show episode. He prefers vinyl to CDs.

Unfortunately, Allen Stone doesn’t have an LP of his record. He doesn’t even have a CD. A digital download card doesn’t make for good TV, so when O’Brien introduces the band during his show, he holds up a fabricated version of a full-length album—a fake—which Olin had made for $84.

No one seems to notice, or care. After the introduction, the camera opens on Stone, wearing his favorite sweater and a new hat, strumming his guitar. As the band plays, it’s hard to tell if the audience—here in a dark, cold space on a sunny Wednesday afternoon—is bored or transfixed as the lush soul ballad fills the studio. They are motionless, trained to be silent until an “APPLAUSE” sign flashes at them.

Then that drum hit gives way to Stone’s show-stopping falsetto. It won’t be heard when the show airs, but the audience is shedding its complacency while Allen finesses the line. Some people in the audience are clapping, and three small groups of women stand and cheer.

Away from the cameras, Conan O’Brien’s jaw drops before he mouths the words “Oh my God.” The final chord fades and the entire audience erupts. O’Brien takes the stage, shakes Stone’s hand, says goodnight to the audience and turns back to Stone to say something.

Fifteen minutes later, the band is gathered in the green room, exchanging hugs. Stone holds out his hands. They are shaking. He laughs. “They’ve never done that before,” he says.

Someone asks Stone what O’Brien said to him as the credits rolled.

“He said, ‘That was fucking awesome.’”

Allen Stone's next Seattle performance is on Saturday, January 14, at the Neptune Theatre. Purchase tickets here. For more dates, look here.

Photo by Jason Tang.

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