Angie Stone: Hard act to follow
Born Angela Laverne Brown in Columbia, South Carolina in December 1961, singer/songwriter/producer Angie Stone initially grew up within the Southern gospel tradition, while simultaneously absorbing the gritty and impassioned anthems generated by Sixties/early Seventies soul icons like Aretha Franklin, Ann Peebles and Marvin Gaye.
Stone’s own first taste of chart success, meanwhile, came as part of groundbreaking female rap/funk trio The Sequence, who - signed to the legendary Sugarhill label - enjoyed a US Top 15 hit in the early Eighties with the single ‘Funk You Up’. Moving from there to work with early hip hop pioneers Mantronix before later singing background for iconic black rocker Lenny Kravitz, Angie next hit the US R&B charts during the early-to-mid Nineties as a member of melodic soul trio Vertical Hold; while at the same time playing a significant, behind-the-scenes role in kick-starting the decade’s neo-soul movement via her songwriting contributions to genre-figurehead D’Angelo’s seminal 1995 debut LP ‘Brown Sugar’.
Eventually moving on to a solo career under the auspices of legendary industry “star-maker” Clive Davis (Whitney Houston/Alicia Keys), Angie immediately hit US Gold-selling status with her critically-acclaimed first two albums - 2000’s ‘Black Diamond’ and 2001’s ‘Mahogany Soul’ - while simultaneously becoming universally acknowledged as one of the leading ladies of contemporary soul. With two further albums being released for Davis’ J Records (2004’s Stone Love’; 2005’s ‘Stone Hits: The Very Best Of Angie Stone’) Angie - following a potentially-life-threatening illness - nevertheless signed with the rejuvenated, iconic soul label Stax in 2006. Following which, 2007 found her hitting Number One on the US R&B chart for the first time with her Grammy-nominated LP ‘The Art of Love & War’.
This month, meanwhile, sees the release of her second Stax set, ‘Unexpected’. With its title partly referencing Angie’s sudden and devastating loss of her father - who unexpectedly passed away in the midst of her recording sessions for the album - ‘Unexpected’ marks a slight move away from Stone’s established soul home-base to incorporate more upbeat R&B and funk influences.
All of which a typically-forthright Angie discusses in-depth with long-time industry acquaintance Pete Lewis, just weeks prior to her upcoming UK tour.
What Angie wanted to achieve musically with ‘Unexpected’
“Well, I’ve been in the business for a very long time. I’ve been in groups, I’ve worked as a songwriter/producer for other people… But, at the same time, as a solo artist I think people have kinda got used to just hearing one style of Angie Stone. So I felt they needed to know that I am a diversified artist, and that I have been a part of the montage of changes in music over quite a few decades now. So, being as I’ve delivered four or five decent albums already, I felt it was safe to switch up and do something different this time. And musically overall I just wanted to have FUN! I wanted to do something that embodied a jam kinda feel, so that we could have some fun in concert and show people everything doesn’t always have to be so serious.”
The main ways she feels ‘Unexpected’ differs from her previous sets.
“I think this current album represents a shift away from moody soul into a lighter, spunkier vibe. You know, while you’ll always have Angie, this time you’re getting an Angie who’s free to do WHATEVER - as opposed to being confined to one particular style. And I think that was also reflected in my choice of producers. Like with Jonathan Richmond, who’s previously done some of the standard hits of mine that you guys have come to love so much. This time he only did one song - ‘Maybe’ - because I felt his style embodied the LAST few albums I’d done, and this time I thought it was necessary to veer away from that style and to try something different. Which is why I actually used a new guy named Sly Williams on five songs. You know, this was his first time producing on a known artist. But, because I thought he was very talented and gifted, I decided to work with him.”
The impact her father’s sudden death had on Angie’s new album
“Well, it was totally unexpected - which was how I came up with the album title. I mean, at first I really didn’t think I could finish the project. But then someone told me ‘Either this is going to be your best year or your worst year. You have to channel that grief into which of those two things you want it to be’… So, in the end, I went back in the studio within a couple of weeks. I’m not saying it was easy - it wasn’t, and I had to do a lot of the vocals a second time - but I did it for my dad. I basically had to lean on my dad’s wisdom and energy, and try to be open to what he would have wanted me to do in order to finish the songs. And the fact that his spirit was literally there in the studio with me definitely influenced the overall direction of the album - in the sense that musically it’s something that no-one would have anticipated coming from me. You know, my father always encouraged me to reach out and make a leap of faith - and that’s exactly what I’ve done with this record.”
How Angie now looks back on her nine-year tenure (1997-2006) with legendary “star-maker” Clive Davis’ labels Arista Records and J Records. Which produced the highly-acclaimed albums ‘Black Diamond’ (2000); ‘Mahogany Soul’ (2001); and ‘Stone Love’ (2004)
“It was a bittersweet point in my career. You know, I’ve always had the utmost respect for Clive’s decisions, and how he picks his artists. But I do think that, as the industry began to tighten up with the internet and other things, the focus at J was lost on a lot of great artists like myself, Next, Deborah Cox, Monica - who all became a victim of circumstance. The label was basically wanting to broaden their horizons and get multiple artists that mimicked OTHER artists. So at one point there was talk that Clive was trying to find another Angie Stone, or a few more Angie Stone-style artists. Which is when Heather Headley came along. Then of course you had Fantasia, Jennifer Hudson... When the truth was, at that time we still had not maximised the leverage of what Angie Stone herself COULD have been or SHOULD have been!”
The immediate difference leaving J Records and moving to Stax in 2006 made to her career
“When I moved on and went to Stax, I straightaway did great with my first album - ‘The Art Of Love & War’ - which here in The States was my first Number One chart entry. Which to me proved I was RIGHT! Because it showed that, when I had the focus and attention that was necessary to catapult Angie Stone to the top, we went straight to Number One! So, while I’m not blaming anybody at J Records, I am showing you the difference that focus and attention can make to an artist’s career, as opposed to a label just being comfortable with an artist being able to sell on name value alone.”
Why she initially chose to sign with Stax, and what being with the label has meant in the long-term
“I signed with Stax because I thought the legacy of the label, combined with their genuine desire to work with Angie Stone, was perfect. And, in terms of the difference it’s made, you have to look at the fact that J Records was a major label and Stax is an independent label. Which, on that score, means the difference between them is like night and day. But, having said that, in terms of the actual day-to-day workings, I guess the only difference really is that the budgets are shaved down with an independent. Which makes things like the promotional game a lot harder, because they don’t have the money that a major has to put BEHIND an artist. And so the only reason being at a label like Stax can work for an artist like me, is because I already had a built-in audience before I WENT to them.”
Angie’s ideas on her current Stax labelmates
“Well, I see it like this. Someone has to lead, and someone has to follow. And with Stax right now - and with record labels overall - what I’ve noticed is, once they start wining with one thing they have a tendency to over-saturate with that one thing. And Stax have now signed three other artists that are similar to Angie Stone - which, in my opinion, is not a smart business move. You know, if I were a label that had charge over an artist and their style, I’d go in four DIFFERENT directions, as opposed to ONE direction with all my artists. I mean, the only one of those three that has their own identity is Lalah Hathaway. But then you also have N’Dambi, who’s worked with Erykah (Badu) and very closely with me over the years. Plus you have this little girl Leela James… And everybody’s doing the same THING, and singing in the same TONE! You know, all of us have that alto register! And to me it defeats the purpose, because you’re competing with YOURSELF! You’re not WINNING that way... And also, from the artist’s point of view too, I would never sign to a label that already has two or three artists like the artist that I’m trying to BE! I just wouldn’t GO there!”
How she feels about the seeming collapse of the neo-soul movement, which she was very much a pioneer of in the late Nineties
“The reason it disintegrated was because there was overkill. I think everybody was trying to duplicate what they’d heard before, or even straight-up mimic someone that already had success. None of these people were innovative or creative enough, in my opinion, to be a leader and think ‘Let me come out with something DIFFERENT’! Whereas my thing has always been ‘Who’ll be the one to take it out of its genre?’... You know, another reason why I decided to make an album called ‘Unexpected’ right now is because, with Maxwell coming with an album, I knew all the attention would be focused on him because he’d been off the scene for quite a while. Plus D’Angelo is now coming with a record that people have been waiting for EVER for! And so, by the time that drops, no-one else will MATTER! You know, anyone dropping an album within that genre around that time is gonna SUFFER - because all the attention will be focused back on the heavy hitters. So, being that I was coming out at this time, I definitely didn’t want to be competing with my peers. You know, I just think you have to be smart enough to go left when everybody else is going right. Which is how I’ve stayed in the game for so long.”
Angie’s ongoing acting career
“I’ve just done a film with a bunch of Def Jam artists called ‘Schoolgirls’, which marks the directorial debut of (Mariah Carey’s husband) Nick Cannon. Plus there’s also a movie called ‘Pastor Brown’ that I’ve just completed with quite a few celebrities - (Nineties R&B chart-topper) Monica is in that one too. And both of them are scheduled to come out within the next six weeks or so. ‘Pastor Brown’ is a very religious movie coming initially from a really raunchy lifestyle, where I play the strip-club owner. So it definitely gives a little insight into just how we go from A to Z. Then in ‘Schoolgirls’ I play the Head Matron of an all-girls school.”
What we can expect from her upcoming March UK concerts
“Well, visually people will see the new Angie Stone! You know, I’ve lost a lotta weight. So there’ll be a little less of the lady you guys have been used to seeing coming over there! And one thing I’ll definitely be doing, that I’ve never done before, is give you a full flow of new songs back-to-back! I mean, while I will be throwing in some of the old material prior to going into the new songs, I’ll definitely be performing 75% of the new album. Because I want people to walk away hearing where I am TODAY! You know, I think they’ve had quite a few years to live with where I’ve BEEN, and so now I want to leave them with where I’m AT!”
Angie’s March UK tour takes in Picture House, Edinburgh (2); Academy, Manchester (3); The Drum, Birmingham (4); and Hammersmith Apollo, London (5)
Angie’s album ‘Unexpected’ is released February 8 through Stax
Words PETE LEWIS