Joss stone opening for Simply Red at Massey Hall (178 Victoria), Saturday (October 18). 8 pm. $39.50-$59.50. 416-872-4255. Rating: NNNNN
Joss Stone's fresh-scrubbed cover-model good looks might make Anna Kournikova seem like a plain older sister, but when the teenage Britsoul sensation starts singing, she could easily be mistaken for a 50-year-old black woman from the southern states. Stone's jarring debut disc, The Soul Sessions, finds the 16-year-old upstart applying her strikingly soulful purr to a well-chosen set of vintage R&B gems like Laura Lee's Dirty Man, Bettye Swann's Victim Of A Foolish Heart and Sugar Billy's Super Duper Love - clearly not your typical obvious cover choices.
But just as impressive as the hip track selection and Stone's mature-beyond-her-years readings are the understated arrangements and tasteful musicianship that show off Stone's smouldering skill to exquisite effect in note-perfect deep-southern soul style.
It's all a little too on-the-money to be solely the work of the Devon cutie, who admits that until last year she had no plans to be a professional singer.
"I didn't do shows or anything when I was younger," says Stone with a giggle. "Like everybody, I just sang around the house. My friends and I would sometimes sing along to Whitney Houston and Anita Baker songs, but I never really took it seriously.
"I did one talent show called Star For A Night when I was 13 - that's it. I wasn't even very good - and oh my god, I had this big curly hair, how embarrassing - but I won doing the Donna Summer tune On The Radio. That's how I got my management deal, which eventually led to my signing with Steve Greenberg's S-Curve label."
It's when she says Greenberg's name that the mystery of how Stone's stunning debut came about begins to come clear. Before Greenberg launched his S-Curve operation in 2000 with Baha Men's 5-million-selling Who Let The Dogs Out disc, he was the Atlantic A&R rep behind the Grammy-winning Otis! The Essential Otis Redding and The Complete Stax/Volt Singles 1959-68 boxed sets.
Clearly the man knows something about soul music. He's also good with kids. During Greenberg's tenure as Mercury's VP of A&R, he's credited with discovering Hanson and producing their 10-million-selling Middle Of Nowhere disc.
Greenberg's scheme was to set up Stone with soul diva Betty Wright and song doctor deluxe Desmond Child in Miami to write an album's worth of material, but plans changed when Stone arrived and hooked up with Wright's soul posse.
"Steve had this idea of recording a live EP of soul covers, and Betty was the perfect person for that. Besides being a brilliant singer, she knew all these amazing musicians like Willie 'Little Beaver' Hale and Timmy Thomas, who is the funniest person I've ever met. Initially it was just supposed to be a four-song EP that we'd put out and then follow up with the full studio album, but I guess we got carried away."
The highlight of Stone's cover session is her gender-flipping funk overhaul of the White Stripes' Fell In Love With A Girl. It actually manages to top the original - it really is that nasty good. Oddly enough, she was initially dead set against doing the song. In fact, she wasn't really big on the whole idea of recording covers, but she deferred to Greenberg's business savvy.
"I didn't want to record covers because I wasn't sure if I could do the songs justice. I'm sometimes disappointed when I hear someone covering a tune I know.
"At first, I really didn't think there was anything I could do with the White Stripes song. They had the beat slowed so much that I had no idea how I should be singing it. Steve really wanted me to try it, so he asked Betty to put down a guide vocal. That helped me get the right vibe."
While Stone counts Miami soul legend Latimore, the Roots, Angie Stone and Paul Weller - with whom she recently collaborated on a song - as fans, she's not without her detractors. Some people, music critics included, feel that a teenage white girl from England has no business singing soul music.
"It's sad that people have these labels that say only certain people can do certain kinds of music. Recently I saw on the Internet how some woman couldn't understand why I don't sing pop music like Britney Spears and Madonna.
"It's because I don't like pop music and I don't think my voice is suited to singing pop. It's all a matter of personal taste. You've got to sing what you feel."