In light of Lebanon’s recent spate of bombings, raids and clashes, you might assume British soul singer Joss Stone was a bit nervous when she flew into Beirut Tuesday night.
“I wasn’t,” she insists, “because I didn’t know until last week. And then [my team] were like, ‘Oh my god, they’re going to cancel the gig. Everyone’s f**king in trouble. You can’t go because you’re this blonde white girl and they’re gonna totally kill you.’
“And I’m like, ‘I don’t think so.’
“It all got a bit crazy,” Stone muses. “I always revert to my friend [war photographer Paul Conroy] ... I hadn’t seen him for a couple of months because I’ve been doing this tour and making an album and stuff. Then he just turned up ... I was like, ‘Paul, I can’t believe you’re here – I’m going to Lebanon in two days.’
“He was like, ‘Oh Joss, Lebanon! You’re going to f**king love Lebanon.’ He told me that it was like really high fashion and everyone’s really lovin’ it and partying it up.”
Stone’s energy and good humor are infectious. It’s hard to believe that her slender frame produces the powerful voice that shot her to international fame at the age of 16.
Clad in a flowing tie-dyed skirt, simple white top and chunky costume jewelry, her blonde hair loose around her shoulders, the vocalist greets friend and stranger alike with a warm smile and a hug.
With her loud laugh and lively hand gestures, Stone is refreshingly down-to-earth. It is hard to beleive that in the past decade the 27-year-old performer has released half a dozen best-selling albums, conducted numerous international tours, won a Grammy and collaborated with such artists as James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Al Green, Dave Stewart, Damian Marley and Mick Jagger.
In advance of her Beiteddine Art Festival gig, Stone sat down to for a wide-ranging discussion that touched on the changing music industry, her new hip hop and reggae album – a collaboration with Damian Marley and U.K. musician Jonathan Short – and her ambitious project to perform in every country on the planet.
“I’m trying desperately not to do more than one gig in each country,” she says, “which is hard sometimes. We went to Australia and New Zealand and we did five or six gigs ... but if I do that everywhere I’ll be doing this tour for ten years or something.”
Stone has three goals for each stop on the tour, she explains: to perform, to visit a local charity to discuss their work, making a video to post up on her website, and to collaborate with another musician in each country.
“I make music. I like to share it ... I want to give goodness – that’s kind of the main mission in that area,” she says. “So I’m doing that, but I realized that ... You go to these places and you give your soul completely and then somebody asks you, ‘What was it like?’ and you go, ‘I don’t know. I don’t remember.’
“How can you go to a place like Lebanon and not remember? That’s wrong. That’s silly ... I’m wasting my life. So we want to go and give goodness, see goodness, receive it.”
For her Lebanon stop, Stone has a meeting set up with the head of Beirut Jam Sessions. “He’s gonna show me some stuff and have a jam and that’s just fun,” she says. “It’s interesting for me to hear different scales and different languages. I’m trying to learn each song in a different language, so I’ve got this song upstairs – it’s bloody difficult but I’m trying to get the phonetics right so I can sing it with him.
“When I went to South Africa I managed to get this song, like, down, and it was in this weird African language,” she laughs. “There’s so many languages in Africa, man. Like, I don’t even know which language it was!”
She chuckles at herself before turning serious.
“I really want to be part of this thing,” she says. “I don’t just want to do what I do all the time. I bore myself. So if we do these three things in each place I just feel like we’ll be doing something good.”
Stone seems more interested in discussing the charities she’s going to be working with than her own music, and is disarmingly honest about her innocence of the region. She has a meeting set up with the local branch of Dutch NGO War Child, she explains, after plans to meet with Syrian refugee women fell through.
“We were going to see these women that Save the Children work with,” she explains, “but they said that we cannot do that because everyone’s trying to kill everyone over here and where it’s happening is very dangerous ... Apparently there’s these women that are pregnant, that are fleeing Syria because they want to have their baby here as opposed to having it there ... So that was a crazy story. I mean, I know I’m not going to meet them, but I’ve learnt something there ... I knew nothing about Lebanon until now.”
The laid-back Stone isn’t enamored of the celebrity lifestyle.
“I’ve always felt the same about fame and all that bothersome s**t,” she shrugs. “That’s never changed. It’s always a bit awkward and a bit f**king weird, and it doesn’t add anything to the music, so it’s a bit pointless really. But what it does do is it brings people to my stage, so I have an audience, which is cool ... It doesn’t have to be 20,000 people, but I do need an audience. That is very important for me and for my confidence.”
Having performed with some of the best-known singers of the past half-century, Stone says she’s learnt a lot from their attitudes toward music.
“To be on stage with someone like James [Brown] or like Stevie [Wonder], that is an honor,” she says. “Someone like James Brown ... He would totally fire someone on stage if they were bad. I would never do that, but I can see where he’s coming from. The music that you make is so important and you have to realize what it does to people.
“Music can make people cry. It can make people puke, if you really play some white noise. Music stirs up some crazy emotional things, so I guess you have to take it really seriously, in that respect.
“I’m not really a serious person, but when it comes to that, I am. I think I got that from working with the old school lot, because they’re like that. They get really mad if something goes wrong ... I take that on ... That is something that makes you good and it makes what you do good for the people.”
She may take her music seriously, but Stone remains relaxed when it comes to Wednesday’s gig.
“I didn’t even know I had any Lebanese fans,” she admits. “I walked off the plane thinking, ‘Okay, I don’t know if there’s going to be anyone there. They might not know any of the songs.’ So if I was to walk onstage and that was the case I’d feel that ... within maybe a song or two, and then I’d change my set.
“I have a list of songs ... The first one, of course, is the first one – you can’t really change that. But after that I can kinda catch a vibe, so I’ll know if you wanna hear a ballad, if you wanna hear an upbeat song, if you wanna sing along ...
“[The audience] is a very important part of the show ... I’ve got to give them a good feeling. A feeling. Any feeling. That’s what soul music’s for. So if I achieve that then I’m alright, I feel like I’ve done my job.”
Joss Stone performs at Beiteddine Palace Wednesday. For more information please visit www.beiteddine.org
By Joss Stone