After successfully navigating his decade-long journey from small-town Washington to the offices of Capitol Records, soul singer Allen Stone recently released his first major label LP, Radius, which debuted at No. 80 on the Billboard 200 chart. The record is stocked with admissions of love, mistake and regret, and is undoubtedly his most intimate project yet. Flavored with the occasional crystal-clear falsetto, Stone’s disarmingly soulful vocals complement the very authenticity that he hopes to make synonymous with his music. The singer chatted with Billboard about romance, technophobia and the desperate need to preserve the human element of art.
What made a minister’s son from small-town Washington want to become a soul singer?
Soul music is more of a feeling than it is a sound. Soul exists in a tone and an authenticity. Springsteen sings soul music. Kurt Cobain sings soul music. Jim Croce sings soul music. I wanted to get into soul music because of the way it felt, which was very authentic. It started for me when somebody gave me Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions record when I was 15. I fell in love with the rhythm section, and I fell in love with his voice and his spirit. It possessed me to buy every single soul record that I could get my hands on.
Why do you think soul is really starting to penetrate the mainstream again?
Art and culture move in weird waves. I grew up in an era where Dave Matthews and Cake and Red Hot Chili Peppers ruled the world, and they were extremely rhythm-oriented. The natural progression from that kind of music is back to its roots, which is all the blues and soul and R&B of the ’60s and ’70s. Maybe people are craving more authenticity. I don’t ever use pre-recorded tracks on stage, and I’m broke because of it. Music played by real musicians is what I attempt to promote.
Have you always been a little bit of a technophobe?
I battle with where my stance on technology is, because it is an amazing asset and tool. My grandfather got an extra two years on his life because of advances in medicine and technology. My disdain for technology is when it encroaches on the human element of art. I see it becoming a crutch in live music, where I hear a massive wall of sound come through the speakers but I only see three people standing on stage. It breaks my heart because I know a million musicians who can hardly pay their rent because there’s no need for actual humans anymore and so they can’t get jobs. The need for humans is decreasing and that just scares the shit out of me. Art should be cultivated by humans.
What was the writing process like for Radius? You’ve turned more inward since your 2012 album.
The last album had elements of love and relationship in it, but I definitely touched on them more in this album. Love can be the most devastating experience and it can be the greatest high of your life. It’s very important to me to show people that I deal with everything, depression and all of the normal emotions. In order to fully impact people with your words and thoughts, you have to give them something they’ve already chewed on, and depression and cyclical dark emotions are things that we all go through. It was all very real to me throughout the time I was writing Radius.
What things are you confessing in songs like “I Know I Wasn’t Right”?
That was my attempt to be as authentic as possible. There’s an element of arrogance with music nowadays. I always process information and ideals better when someone else confesses them. It’s easier for me to deal with being foolish and failing when other people tell me about their failures. Songs like “American Privilege” and “I Know I Wasn’t Right,” I’m admitting my own guilt in an attempt to bring a point across.
Radius focuses on the struggle to find freedom and faith. What are the things that free you?
I’ve found freedom in letting go. For so long I was so resistant to everything — to culture, to popular thought. If people thought it was cool, I hated it. It’s a very exhausting way to live, and I finally had to find a place in my life of non-resistance. I’ve taken over this process of attempting to not fight the energy that surrounds me, but instead massage it and shape it and utilize it. I get so caught up in my own ego and insecurity that I end up denying all the positive energy that comes in my direction.
As for the album title, what does it refer to?
It’s the radius of me. Radius is the distance from the center of a circle to its exterior, and this record is just that for me. It’s the definition of who I am at this stage of my life, from my center to my flesh. There’s a heart on the cover of the record, and at the center of me is my heart. This record has songs that are deeply rooted to my soul and my heart, and other songs on it that are more closely related to my flesh.
You signed with Capitol Records last year. As someone who has recorded videos in his mom’s living room, were you nervous about the transition to a big label?
Oh yeah, huge concerns. Capitol, Atlantic, and Sony were all courting me for three years but it wasn’t the right time. My fear was, am I gonna be another microwaveable meal where they just sign a bunch of artists and throw them all in the microwave and hope that one of them tastes good? I wanted leverage and luckily I was able to procure a deal that wasn’t 360, which is really unheard of as far as I know. They’ve given me a lot of leeway and much more trust than they should have based upon how few Twitter followers I have, which is the only f—king thing people pay attention to these days. It’s the dumbest thing and I don’t get it at all. They’re looking at the numbers instead of the content, and to me, content is the powerful tool. If you’re able to make good content, it doesn’t matter how many followers you have. Likes and comments and clicks are free.
Where do you want to take soul/R&B music?
I want an element of R&B to be revitalized that’s based more on political and social movement rather than sex music. R&B for a while has been all about sex and romance. I love sex and I love romance, very much so, but there also needs to be an element of social and political commentary that’s just not there at all. Especially with artists that have actual clout and weight in the industry, I want somebody to say something that has to do with a topic we need to talk about and mean it.
An edited version of this story originally appeared in the June 13 issue of Billboard.