Yesterday evening I had the good fortune to sit down with Allen Stone, a young guy who’s been gaining huge momentum and attention recently. I’ve found, by reading multiple interviews he’s done, writers always like to write some kind of disclaimer about Allen’s unusual and unconventional appearance. I would like to take this opportunity to do the opposite. Allen is hardly half as “unusual” looking as journalists make him out to be. In fact, he’s quite the contrary. He’s an attractive guy from small town Washington, with some blonde facial scruff and long blonde locks.
When I walk up the stairs of Bowery Ballroom to see Allen, he has just been greeted by a group of his friends and is giving each one a bear hug. When he gets through the line of friends he spots me waiting near the stairs. Allen greets me with the same bear hug he’s just handed out to each one of his friends, and says, “hey sweetie, its Nicole right?” An instant embodiment of the loving and open nature of Allen Stone. As we look for a quiet place he offers the creaky stairs, or the bathroom floor if we need a quiet space without the group that has just walked in. Everyone clears out, though, and we grab a seat on the couch and begin the questions. Allen gives me his full attention, and hardly strays from my eyes as he answers each question with completely devoted contemplation.
You are from Washington state, how did that environment leading up to your decision to pursue music, shape the music that you make? So, was your hometown environment an influence in that or were you forced to reach beyond your immediate surroundings?
I mean I grew up in the country, you know, in a town of like 1,000 people where there’s no such thing as like culture let alone music culture. And so, what shaped me and who I am as a musician and a writer was just the music that I was drawn to which was soul music, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, you know like old soul music. 60s and 70s funk and whatnot. So, who I am as a human being is one thing, and that’s like my environment and the country and my friends and my surroundings. But, there’s this weird part of me that’s like the musical side of me that’s kind of almost completely opposite of who I am as a person. Not completely opposite, but like, as far as the style of music… growing up where I did, you know, very rare for people to be into that kind of music. It was a lot of people into country music and chewing tobacco, a little bit of hip hop every once in a while.
I read that you decided to really commit to music at age 19, is that right?
Well, when I was about 16 I decided I wanted to be a musician but when I was 19 it was like I made the decision. Commitment is a verb. You know? And you can’t just say, “I’m committed to something” and still go do something else in a completely different direction. So when I was 19 I dropped out of college and moved to Seattle, and that was like at the point when I was like OK, I’m really doing this, I’m dropping everything, and I’m going all out. So yeah, about 19, is the time that I truly and fully committed to music.
What contributed to that decision, to pursue music on that professional level?
You know I think a lot of it was foolish pride. Like, coming from a really small town you don’t have a true perspective on how big the world is and how small of a chance I have to really do music and I think a lot of it was foolish pride and me just being like, “oh I’m good enough, I can just pack up and move to Seattle and everything will be fine.” I’m the kind of person that’s like, I don’t believe in… I was raised Christian, and so, you know, Christianity is all based upon fear of the afterlife. And how you interact with scenarios and situations and people is strictly, not strictly, but relatively based on how that is going to be perceived in the afterlife and eternity. And, when I was about 19 I went to bible college and really studied and learned about the Christian faith and the bible and all that stuff and was completely turned off from it all.
Yeah, I mean like, my father was a minister but I was never taught, you know the history of the church or the history of the scripture. Any of these huge topics that we don’t want to talk about as Christians because it leads people to believe that it’s a bunch of bullshit. [Sorry if you’re a Christian!] And so after that, after I was like, my whole life I’ve done everything based on my eternity, the way I react to people, what I do as a human being, what I say, is all loosely based on, OK if I do this then I’ll store up treasures in heaven and I’ll be stoked when I die. So, my perspective was kind of completely changed in a facet that was, I’m gonna live for the now. I’m gonna, obviously still treat people with respect because that’s the greatest way to live your life, and to continue to harness blessing in one’s life. But, I wasn’t, so, it kind of took me away from this mindset of the future the future the future and was just like, what makes me happy now? And I was like, man, I don’t want to just do something regular. I don’t want to just be this kid who grew up in a small town, and became a minister- I was on my way to becoming a minister. I don’t want to just be this person who just like graduates, goes to college, and is a minster or goes and does accounting. I don’t want to do a regular job, I want to do something great.
Did your location have anything to do with that? Did you ever have that kind of yearning to expand out of small town Washington?
Yeah, totally, I think that had to do with it hugely. I saw all of my friends, like, all doing the same thing. It’s like when you look back on your life what are you going to have? You’re going to be like, oh I did something safe, and I made enough money to survive and live until I was 75 but I have very few stories because 5 days out of the week I did the same thing fucking thing every single day. Which I do too, I do the same fucking thing everyday to a degree, in certain situations but like for me at the point when I was like I want to be a musician I’m gonna try it was like I just want to do something different, I want to be special, I want people to remember me for doing something… incredible. And I’m only going to live once- now I truly believe that. I’m only going to live once. The future doesn’t exist. So, go out and create your own. That was kind of what prompted me to pack my bags and sleep on my friend’s couches for 2/3 years and try to do this music thing.
What do you see as the biggest challenge facing the music industry at the moment, and if you were able to, how would you fix it?
I mean the standard answer is illegal downloading and pirating. I think that’s probably as far as, I think that that’s a huge problem, but I don’t think that it’s a problem that is gonna kill the industry. Everything adapts and evolves over time and this industry is gonna figure out a way to make money. Me personally, I feel like the greatest wrong and problem with the music industry is people getting away with not creating real music, with doing everything inside of a fucking computer and a fucking box and not having real players and not having real musicians. That to me is the biggest problem, it’s only my personal opinion and I can’t knock anybody for their craft.
So like the “button pusher” thing.
The “button pusher “thing. That really drives me crazy. And a party is a party. You know?
That’s kind of the struggle with it, you know, if it should have its place.
I think it does have its place. At the end of the day the word goes to the people, and the people have spoken, and they love it. But I feel like for me the biggest problem is the culture of it, which is non-musicians being called musicians.
What word would you suggest they be called?
I don’t know. I don’t know but I think it’s a major cop-out for somebody to be able to create a song without having to play a keyboard, or without having to play a guitar, without having to sing…
…and then equating it to somebody like you? Not necessarily you, but someone who gets up on a stage with a 10-piece band.
Right, right. But like I said, I don’t lose sleep over it because I understand that at the end of the day it’s the people. The people speak. Like 70 years ago people were pissed off that there was some white guy up on stage singing like he was black, you know? Elvis. And then Elvis changed the face of rock n’ roll and music altogether. Maybe I’m just one of those people at this point, maybe im just not ready to evolve but, I really truly feel like a lot is lost when people are OK with live music being pre-recorded and played. The hip-hop/DJ bullshit, the dance-DJ, whatever it is, you know, in my opinion, takes the focus away from true musicianship, into just like party central. I mean partying is cool, its great, but I think for music, if we’re talking about the backbone of what music is, I think it really sells music short to a degree. Now I’ll listen to Skrillex all day, I love his music. I love what they do, their canvas is incredible and what they do with sound, is amazing, and I will never deny it. But, I think, I would challenge those kind of people to try to figure out a way to recreate those kind of things with audible, real instruments and audible real people playing those instruments, not just recordings.
Do you listen to Beats Antique?
I haven’t yet, I know the name. I’ve heard of ‘em, yeah I haven’t checked out their stuff yet.
What is your stance or position on file sharing and do you think it has its place in the music industry?
We don’t live in an ideal world. So, like, do I think its ideal? No. I think people should pay, if they want to listen to a song I think they should pay for it in some form or fashion. Whether it’s a subscription, whether its buying the record. You know I love art, and I want art to exist and continue and so I pay for my music and I pay for my art. But, I think that the industry will adapt, I don’t think that we’ll ever be able to punish people for downloading free so let’s figure out a way to adapt to it. And move on. There’s money to be made in the industry, people are surviving and making money and having great careers right now. It doesn’t do anybody any good to just hang your head and be upset about people downloading music for free. Its like its not an ideal world and people are going to be stupid, we think sometimes, but just adapt, evolve, and move around it in my opinion.
Yeah I was really surprised to learn that something around 70% of music now is still physical- so there is still a decent amount of the market that is supported by physical music.
Yeah I mean vinyl’s never sold better than it has in the last ten years.
Do you buy vinyl? If so, is it important to you to have a medium like vinyl that you can hold in your hand in an age where almost everything is digital?
I used to buy a lot of vinyl, I haven’t bought it for a while because I don’t have any place to put it.
Did you ever go to Hot Poop (a local record store in Walla Walla, Washington)?
No, but Trevor has like 18 Hot Poop shirts, wore ‘em on Conan. He loves Hot Poop.
[Back to Vinyl]
I used to, I used to and I used to love pure artwork. There’s no better sound than vinyl in my opinion. So yeah, it is super important to have it. Its like this is mine, this is real. And I’m not gonna lose it if the power goes out or the hard drive crashes. Yeah, I think to me personally it’s the way I listen. If I could choose to hear music in any form it would be on vinyl.
When you were beginning to seriously consider music as a profession, what kind of jobs did you do as a means of supporting your record collection or your music career or both.
I waited tables for a while, or, excuse me, bussed tables. I worked at a studio for a little bit. I’ve helped out on my dad’s farm, I’ve worked construction. But primarily I’ve been able to, just because I’m frugal as hell, support myself completely off of music for the last roughly 3-4 years.
Wow. Really? That’s impressive.
I don’t know if its impressive. Maybe its just lucky.
Well, we create our own luck, somewhat.
If you could create a musical genius Frankenstein, what parts would you pick from who?
Wow that’s a great fuckin’ question. I’d take Donny Hathaway’s voice, James Brown’s legs, and feet, James Brown’s lower body, and Al Green’s torso, cus he used to be yolked!
Oh god, you gotta see pictures and videos of him. Midnight special when he was like, in his 30s, that dude was the man.
[Back to Frankenstein]
Derek Truck’s fingers, and Quincy Jones’ ears.
So I was looking through your tour dates for the next couple months and you’re going all over the place. What are you most excited about for this tour, and is there anything specific you hope to have achieved by the end of it?
I hope every single show sells out, that’s a tall wish. For me it’s just, I just want to be the greatest performer I can be, the greatest singer and performer and musician that I can be. So what I’m looking forward to is looking to build on the show that I’ve already built, continuing to craft it and make it better. That’s what I’m truly excited about. My passion is playing live. I love being in the studio but I’ll pick playing a show 50 times to one over being in the studio, or being anywhere else. So, for me its just continuing to built upon that energy that happens in a live show and when you get to play every single night you’re able to take that and build upon it and adapt and fine tune it. I’m excited about that.
What place are you most excited to get to?
I love Amsterdam. My first time, this past April, and it was amazing. It was such a cool city. Everybody is so happy and you know, very beautiful people. And obviously the laws over there are a little bit more in favor of the musician’s life than in the states. Yeah I love Amsterdam. I also love Seattle, though, and Austin, and I love San Francisco. I’m really excited to go everywhere. I’m a nomad so I love going and seeing new places.
What is the most valuable life lesson you’ve learned so far, to do with music or not, that you think about on a daily basis?
I would say that the greatest life lesson I’ve learned so far would be, every relationship is salvageable and that no bridge ever needs to be burnt. There are ways around anger and remorse and hatred. And if you are humble and selfless enough, you can continue to utilize every single relationship you come in contact with. Obviously there are some that you can’t fix or change, but if you put forth that effort, and you know in my opinion 9/10 times you’ll be able to salvage a relationship with whoever. Whether it’s a musical business relationship, or a friendship, or a family member, I think the lesson that I’ve learned is that change starts from inside and that humility is an extremely powerful tool that we truly aren’t taught in our country anymore, in our culture. Its like, I’m the shit and I can beat the fuck outta you, and my rims are dope, and all this bullshit its like shut up dude. Like, if you’re so dope you shouldn’t have to say it, you don’t need to say anything about it. Shut the fuck up, you’re not the best rapper in the world. But that’s what’s kind of been thrown and promoted by our culture on our kids, is puff your chest and be proud and confidant and all this shit, and its like you know we need a little slap in the face and some humility because everybody’s human, everybody has faults and flaws and when we learn to embrace those and challenge ourselves to change them, we can move mountains, but when we turn our head and side on the fact of confidence and pride, I think those are very lethal weapons sometimes. I mean pride and confidence are good things in certain scenarios but I also think that,…
We use it in the wrong way.
We use it in the wrong way.
I got a twitter for this new job, but twitter I feel like is the embodiment of that, you know?
Yeah. Yep. Totally is.
What is the best concert you’ve ever been to and what made it so memorable?
The best concert I’ve ever been to was a Tedeschi Trucks Band show. Susan Tedeschi is one of my favorite singers of all time. She’s just a beast of a woman. And Derek Trucks in my opinion is the greatest slide guitar player live. Getting the opportunity to see them in my hometown was like, incredible and I cried. It was so cool.
People never seem to get it when you cry at shows. Whenever I’m with people, although it doesn’t happen often, people get really freaked out if you cry and get super emotional.
Well music is a, there’s a specific wavelength of music that if you tap into, its incredibly healing and powerful. Very few people know how to channel that. Its typically the people onstage that do, or the people involved in the industry that really understand music to that degree. A large amount of people just utilize music as background noise for their desires, to get stoned, or party, or grind. But there is a select few people who do truly understand how to tap into that wavelength and allow and utilize music in that regard.
How would you describe your sound?
I would like to describe it as just traditional R&B, Soul music. 60s 70s funk soul would be how I would like to describe it, but you know I think describing music is pointless. It’s all, I can, describe a track completely different from the way you hear it. Because music is souly based upon your experiences before that point. So if you’ve experienced, you know so and so artists, and you would classify them based on the other music you’ve heard. So for me I’m like, you know, this is how I would describe it but I’ve heard some people say, oh you sound like Jason Mraz, or oh you sound like Maxwell.
People go all over the board and it’s only based on what that person has listened to in their life.
How do you feel about that, when someone tells you you sound like somebody else?
Oh it’s flattering. Its like oh that dude sold a lot of records, sounds good to me! It’s always in a good light. It’s just an expression. People are just trying to classify and communicate what’s inside and what they’re feeling. It’s never in a bad light. Somebody could be like you sound like Michael Buble and I’d be like that’s cool, man!
He has a good voice.
Do you have any pre-show rituals?
I suck lemons. A little bit. Drink some tea. We always do as a band a team huddle and say “deeze nuts.” Which is like, potentially one of the most immature and corny things in the world but we’ve been doing it for 6/7 months now since January and every time we haven’t done it we haven’t played very well. So yeah, we do that before every show now.
How did you find the members of your band?
This guy right here, actually. My organ player, I met randomly, but then met this guy, Bren, my bass player, and he introduced me to the keyboard player and the guitar player and then my keyboard player introduced me to my drummer. And it all came about in like a week time. I was going out with Nikka Costa and I needed a band I could finally, I couldn’t afford one at the time, I told them I could, and payed them accordingly. And yeah we’ve been on the road together every since.
What artists can’t you stop listening to right now?
I’ve been listening to, actually Robert Glasper a lot recently, Jay introduced me to them and this guy named Thad Cockrell I listen to a lot. Yeah I’ll give you those ones.
Top 3 albums of all time?
What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye, Donny Hathaway Live from I forget where though, and then Innervisions by Stevie Wonder.
Allen Stone performed on Letterman, Tuesday night, and you can watch the show below as well as his most watched video for his song “Unaware.” Keep an eye and an ear out for this one- he’s going places, fast. And check out his tour dates on his website below, he has a bunch of stops all over the place from now until December- and you’ll want to see him live.