When Joss Stone hit the stage at a concert hall recently, it was clear long before she opened her mouth that something had changed.
Gone were the long gypsy skirts and T-shirts she favored only a couple of years ago. Gone even was the English-born singer's trademark long, wavy blonde hair and bare feet.
Instead, Stone wore eye glitter, a white miniskirt, thigh-high boots and a shimmering, clingy tank top. Her hair was dark with pink streaks and it was big — kinked out to an inch of her life.
"I need a little lovin' at least two times a day," she purred, kicking off "Tell Me 'Bout It," the first single from her new album. "So when I call you, boy, you better run here right away."
The vampy outfit, the too-much-information lyrics, even naked photos for the CD — all triggered a question: What happened to our lovable, soul singing hippie chick?
"People grow. It's OK to grow," she says later in an interview in a Times Square hotel. "Some people find that difficult to grasp. It's like, 'You're not allowed to change. That's not fair. We like you like this.' But I don't. So let me expand and express myself."
"I can be whatever," she adds. "I can wear shoes or don't wear shoes. I can tie my hair up or wear it down. It doesn't matter. That's all a visual anyway."
That new visual coincides with the release of the just-turned 20-year-old's third CD, a declaration of independence underlined by its title "Introducing Joss Stone."
"It is me introducing myself as a singer, songwriter, producer — as a full artist, not just a singer anymore," she says. "Musically, it's more me."
That means a dose of sex, '70s-style R&B and infectious beats — all guided by veteran producer Raphael Saadiq. It's the album she says she always wanted to make but didn't have the power.
"I spoke to my dad the other day and he said, 'Joss, I'm just listening to your album and it's funny because the first two were like glass-of-wine-at-night kind of albums. This one, I get up in the morning and I put it on and I wake up to this. It's fresher,'" she says. "I'm like 'Yeah dad, that's because the first two were made by 70-year-olds and this one's made by a 19-year-old.'"
So far, Americans seem like the new stuff. "Introducing Joss Stone" debuted at No. 2 with sales of 118,000, the highest-charting new entry ever by a British female artist in the Nielsen SoundScan era.
"She single-handedly wrote and co-arranged every song on this album," says Chris Anokute, senior director of A&R Capitol Music Group, which owns her label, Virgin. "She is the executive producer on the record. At 19 years old to executive produce a record? That's rare."
Getting nothing but grief at homeIn her homeland, though, Stone is getting nothing but grief. Newspapers there have been unrelenting about her nervous appearance at the recent Brit Awards, her weird hair, her odd-sounding accent and her alleged relationships with male collaborators.
"When they see that you're kind of getting somewhere, they say, 'Oh, hell no. We have control over you,'" says Stone of the once-fawning press that helped make her into a star.
Blessed with the voice of Aretha Franklin marinated in Johnny Walker, Stone grew up in southern England and wanted her debut CD to sound a little like "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill."
Her label, however, had other plans. Over the then-teen's objections, it first released 2003's "The Soul Sessions" — a 10 song collection of mostly little-known R&B songs from the '60s and '70s.
Her second offering, 2005's platinum-selling "Mind, Body & Soul," which she had started writing when she was just 14, turned out a little too pop for her taste — again despite her protests.
"I was saying all these things, I wanted it to be like this, I wanted it to be like that, but they didn't listen. And that's OK. I didn't mind. I was learning," she says.
"I was watching and listening really, really carefully because I knew that one day I'd be able to do it: 'One day I'm going to be able to make this exactly how I want to. The musicians one day are going to listen to me.'"
Soon, it was her turn. For her third album, Stone went to Barbados and, in isolation, wrote more than 60 songs. She also picked her producer for the first time.
'No limits'Stone recruited Common for the second single, "Tell Me What We Gonna Do" and managed to persuade Lauryn Hill to contribute to another song after ceaselessly bugging the reclusive singer's mom.
"There were no limits on this one. Musically, nobody was allowed in the studio. I've never done that before. I've never said, 'You keep the record company and my parents out,'" she says.
Some of the reviews have mocked her re-coming out party and predicted that her drastic makeover may alienate older fans. Though the CD is being sold at Starbucks, the artwork features one photo of her straddling Saadiq, both naked and slathered in body paint (however, she insists they are not a couple and says the shot was artistic).
"I don't necessarily think it's going to alienate the old consumers," says Anokute. "She's loyal to her old fans, she wants to maintain her old fans. But like any artist, you want to grow and you want to attract more people."
Meeting Stone is like meeting a precocious teen — part giggly girl and part media-savvy starlet. There's an element of hippie earnestness, yet she also employs about 25 people, renegotiates record deals and keeps a punishing touring schedule. The split personality is something she acknowledges.
"It's like I'm two different people. There's this little girl that is like, 'Don't you want to go to sleep?' or 'Let me just call my mum' or 'Let me go smoke a cigarette behind a bike shed _ let me just go do something normal.' And then there's this other girl that's like, 'Actually, you can't do that — you've got to work today.'"
Look no further than the top of her head for an example of that tension. Stone's unnaturally dyed hair was a decision she made after being told to keep her hair blonde for the new CD.
"I don't really like to be controlled," she says sweetly.