While the buzz was building in early 2014 about the Internet of Things, Allen Stone was recording in his rustic Washington State cabin and extolling the virtues of an old-fangled kind of connection – the one that exists between people playing music together. The 26- year-old soul singer, praised as a “pitch-perfect powerhouse” by USA Today, was working on the follow-up to his self-titled breakthrough album, which he released digitally on his own stickystones label in late 2011. Sure, he acknowledges, he could have written and recorded his new set of songs alone on a laptop – but that wouldn’t have been nearly as much fun.
“I’m a social person and, to me, the greatest energy that you can cultivate is a collaborative energy. It feels better when you’ve got somebody to bounce ideas off of,” explains Stone.
While he’s not keen on creating music with computers, Stone nevertheless considers technology to be an enormous blessing. In fact, he might have never met his coproducer, Swedish musician Magnus Tingsek, if he hadn’t been digging around online for new music.
“I was like his number one fan for three years,” recalls Allen. At that point, things started exploding for Stone. His self-titled album shot into the Top 10 of Billboard’s Heatseekers chart and entered the Top 5 of iTunes’ R&B/Soul charts shortly after its release. Soon the unsigned artist was appearing on shows like “Conan,” “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” “Last Call with Carson Daly” and “Live from Daryl’s House.” NPR’s Ann Powers hailed the album as “meant for those of us who like our R&B slightly unkempt and exceedingly feelingful” and Forbes ran a feature focusing on his remarkable success as an independent artist. The New York Times’ Jon Pareles praised Stone’s live show, noting, “his music reached back four decades to the late 1960s and early ’70s, when songwriters like Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Donny Hathaway and Bill Withers brought introspection and social commentary to soul music.”
A partnership with indie label ATO Records, which later released the album physically, opened new doors. Stone was voted one of mtvU’s “Freshman 5” and named a VH1’ “You Oughta Know” artist. He opened for Al Green and Dave Matthews and performed on “Late Show with David Letterman,” “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” and “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.”
With an 85-date headline tour planned and two out of three openers selected, Stone asked his manager, “Why don’t we see if Tingsek will come?” Tingsek, who had never toured outside of Scandinavia, agreed and the two became good friends as they traveled across North America and throughout Europe. “My number one joy is playing live, so when I write records I really just think of what song I could write that would be really fun to play live,” says Stone.
“Basically my job is to throw a party for people every night when we’re on tour.” The non-stop pace of touring and promotional appearances makes it tempting to “set the cruise control a little too high,” Allen notes, which can take its toll over time. After doing nearly 600 shows in two years, Stone was ready to turn from touring to recording. He moved from Seattle back to his hometown of Chewelah, WA – population 2,606. “To find the balance I was looking for, I needed to move out to the middle of nowhere – where I have no distractions whatsoever,” he says.
As he considered who he might like to collaborate with, Tingsek came to mind. Stone flew to Malmö, Sweden in November of 2013 and, after just a day in the studio with Tingsek, he knew it was the right pairing.
“Magnus is like Prince – he plays everything! He’s like one of those Swiss Army knife musicians,” says Stone. “He hears music completely different than I do. I’m more like a classic soul/classic blues kind of singer and he is able to hear music in this new, weird, disco jazz nuance that totally challenges me to broaden my ear and my vocality.” They wrote and recorded some tracks in Malmö and, in early 2014, reconvened in Chewelah so they could work with members of Allen’s band. Stone is a big fan of recording with real – rather than virtual – instruments.
“The computer’s such a nice tool that it’s starting to take the human element out of art. So where’s the line? If the computer is doing 85% of the work, then whose record is it?” he asks. “Every instrument on the new record is all real.”
Seeing the preponderance of DJ acts at the festivals he has played has been a little unsettling. “I kind of feel like the clerk who’s been working at the grocery story for 20 years and all of a sudden they start bringing in these self check-out stands. And you’re like, what the hell are they gonna need me for?” says Allen, laughing.
As his music makes abundantly clear, Stone isn’t likely to be replaced by a laptop anytime soon. After all, he’s got something that still can’t be simulated: soul.