By Mike Mettler
To a number of musicians, the art of achieving a successful collaboration is ultimately the result of a somewhat contentious push-pull dynamic between a producer and a band — and, perhaps more often than not, conflict and compromise amongst the very bandmembers themselves.
Multimillion-selling British chanteuse Joss Stone knows all about navigating the ins and outs of the good ol’ production give-and-take, but she and four other collaborators took an entirely different approach when they worked together to create the worldly wise rhythms for the Project Mama Earth EP, out now in various formats via her own label, Stone’d Records, and Provogue.
“Mama Earth is a really interesting piece of music — especially for me, I think, because it’s a different kind of approach with different rhythms and different instruments,” Stone told Digital Trends. Drummer Jonathan Joseph, a frequent Stone collaborator, was the one who initially brought up the idea to improvise some new music around a pair of Cameroonian rhythms, Mangambe and Bikutsi, both of which he had studied, played, and written about firsthand in his 2015 book, Exercises in African American Funk.
“It was just complete and total freedom,” Stone continued. “Everybody was individually involved, and I think that’s why Mama Earth is such a special thing. It was a nice experience to get all of these people together and allow us to do our own thing without one particular person, like a producer, pushing or pulling. There was none of that here. This is a project that five people came together to create. It’s not my record.”
Digital Trends recently got on the line with Stone from across the Pond to discuss how five people maintained a free-thinking approach to creating new music without restriction, how to stop obsessing over studio perfection, and how Mother Nature helped pave the way for Mama Earth’s lyrics and rhythms.
Digital Trends: So the bulk of the music on Project Mama Earth is pretty much improvised, right?
Joss Stone: It was mainly improv, yeah. We didn’t discuss the style, but Jonathan and I did discuss the rhythm, as he had said he wanted to do a project using those two Cameroonian rhythms.
But that’s as far as the discussion went, really. It was just, Jonathan came to me and said, “Hey, do you want to have a little play with this?” And I said, “Yeah! OK, let’s do that!” And then I said, “Well, should I now get Johnny [Jonathan Shorten, keyboardist] in, and Nitin [Sawhney, acoustic/electric guitarist]?” And he was like, “Yup! And I have a friend, Étienne [M’Bappé, bassist and acoustic/electric guitarist], who wants to be a part of it too.” I’m like, “OK! I’ll meet you on Friday!” — or whatever day it was — and then we went and did it.
Had you been listening to music with those types of rhythms on your own?
No, I had no idea about it. I tend to come around to collaborations with people in every country I visit, and that’s opened up my mind to the idea of different rhythms. I feel I’m a bit freer with how I think because of that.
When you make an album, you don’t always sit there and go, “What is the sound we’re going for? What is the style? What do we want to say? What is this piece?” There was none of that, because I really find that stifling. If something comes to you and it’s different from what you’ve discussed, you immediately throw it away. But you shouldn’t do that. if it comes to you, it comes to you for a reason.
You can sometimes get bogged down by overthinking it, is what you’re saying. You live an organic life, so you also want to sing organically.
Exactly, yeah, yeah! Let’s just totally live free, you know? Be free. I mean, we can all do it if we want to.
There’s a lot to be said for that. The being free concept comes across in a song like Spring, where you totally get lost in the music in the back half of it. You’re fully in the moment where you and the music are just one thing together, and you really can’t separate where voice and instrument end and begin.
Aww, that’s nice! Cool, man! I know the part you’re talking about. That was an interesting moment.
Were all the lyrics written down at that point?
I go in and write all the lyrics and the melody. I make a little story in my head, and the boys, they make the music. I don’t have much input on the music until after I write the songs.
It’s a different approach. I’ll say to the guys, “I’m going to go make dinner while you have a jam. You can have your own musical conversations and go back and forth, and la la la.” I didn’t want to affect what they were doing, so it was a bit of an experiment, from my perspective. I didn’t want to affect the sound of the music until it was in a place that was almost done.
And because of that difference, I thought, in my mind, if I was to be in there [i.e., the studio], I would turn it into something else — because I have a habit of doing that, turning it into something I’m hearing in my mind.
It’s interesting that you’re open enough creatively to say, “This is what they’re going to do, and I’m going to bring my experience into that, rather than change any of it.”
You keep it protected. You just go in and do it. And do you know what? I find that, because we like to discuss art as humans, we start to analyze it and change things. And when you analyze it too much, the freedom starts to dwindle. Sometimes, you just have to let it be.
Isn’t that the writer’s philosophy? You can edit something you’ve written from now until the end of time, and just keep on honing it and shaping it — “maybe this is the better word” — but sometimes you just have to let it go, and let your instincts run the table.
Your first thought — that’s your best thought. It’s actually your most natural, and you have to have the confidence in that first thought. It [i.e., editing and revision] comes from having insecurity in your work. If you are really good at what you do, there will have been many times that you’ve been insecure and you were like, “Oh, it’s terrible!” — because you’re your own worst critic, like I am.
Right — you may think the phrase you sung there was just awful, but somebody else will tell you it’s the best thing they’ve ever heard.
Yeah, exactly! It’s all relative to the person who’s receiving it, you know? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Since you’re the executive producer of this album , how did you know when you could sign off on it? How did you get to the point where you said, “OK, I’m very happy with how my voice sounds on Mama Earth. Let’s just let it go.” Could you do that easily, or did you still want to play with it?
No, I’m quite the opposite. When I was younger, when I was “honing it in,” I would have been procrastinating over it, obsessing over it, taking my time, going back and forth with it, listening in different environments in the house or in the car, and God knows what else. I would cut it three or four times, and it was exhausting. And it basically took the fun and the love out of it, and I realized that is not the purpose of music.
Now, I would sign off and be done with something very quickly — really, really quickly, because that’s what it’s supposed to be. If it’s my voice and I just can’t get it right, I just won’t put it out. I’m certainly not going to re-sing it a thousand times. I’m just going to go, “Well, that’s not for me, and it doesn’t sound very good.” And that means people shouldn’t really have to hear that, so I won’t put it out.
Like you said in the song Mama Earth, “There’s only one way to fly,” and that seems to be the template for the record. It does sound organic, in the way that you and the band have a certain mind-meld going where things are married very well together in terms of the sound and the vocals.
Mm-hmm. I think we all had a mutual respect for each other. If Étienne is doing his thing, there’s no one in that room who’s going to turn around to him and say [in breathy voice], “Hey, could you maybe think about doing it like this, or like that?” It’s not like that. No one was turning to Jonathan and saying, “Could you play the drums a little bit more like this?” There wasn’t any of that.
I found that in every session I’ve ever had, usually if you’re the producer, you’re like, “Right. I have a vision, and I need everyone to do what I need them to do to get to that vision.” But that is not what this was. This was just, “You do you, and I’ll do me. We’ll stick it all together, and that will be that.” And it was a wonderful experience!
Not only that, but you’re very magnanimous in calling it strictly Project Mama Earth. Your own name isn’t prominent on the cover, and there are no visuals of you in the package. This very much comes across as a group effort.
Yeah, and I think that’s really important. Of course, yes, I’m the singer, but Étienne is also singing on it as well. When you have one person in a group of five who happens to be the lead singer, technically, that person tends to stick out as it being their project. But that’s not what this is. This is our project. We made a piece of music together.
I also love those five short Interludes that you put on there between the main songs. Where did you record those nature sounds, on your own property in England?
That’s my garden you hear, and my dogs. I’ve got a lot of sheep and birds around, and my little dogs are in the background. It’s just life, all around me.
We could also call them Life Lessons. Interlude 4 has a lot of water running while you’re singing behind the track.
Oh, that’s the river! My garden has a little river running through it. What I would do is take the music the boys gave me, put it on my computer, say, “Bye! Carry on! Do your thing!” — and I would go down to the river, and sit in the sun. Oh God, I have such great weather there! I wrote Spring down there — half of it in the kitchen, and half of it down by the river.
And it’s nice to write that way. Usually, I would write about relationships, a piece of my diary, and something always happening in the present day. But for this project, I thought, “No no no.” This is about Mother Nature and the planet, so a song like Spring is actually about how everything wakes up in spring.
That was the second song on the album that spoke to me. As soon as I heard and saw the first track, Mama Earth, on YouTube, I went and bought the music immediately, because I felt I had to pay for it.
Oh, thank you. Thank you very much. That’s nice. Not a lot of people do that these days, so that’s really, really nice. I’m exactly the same — I want to have it, as a thing I can hold. I like to have it, just like you do.
This article was originally posted on Digital Trends
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