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Is Joss Stone Learning Chinese Opera From Local Actor Nick Shen?

UK singer Joss Stone reveals that she’s been in talks with Singaporean actor and Chinese opera performer Nick Shen

By Pamela Chow; Photos by Nicole-Marie Ng

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Breezing into the interview room in ArtScience Museum, English singer Joss Stone settled into a plush couch, draped her knitted sling bag from the armrest and crossed her legs on the seat.

“This room is, like, art,” she remarked with an airy laugh. The free soul, who will be headlining Sing Jazz 2016 tomorrow (Mar 5) evening at 9.45pm, channelled carefree vibes that fans would recognise from her music.

Also read: Top acts at Sing Jazz 2016 and the full schedule here

She answered our questions with a cool English drawl and tongue-in-cheek jokes, in one of the most calming interviews to be held here. It concluded with a fan from School of the Arts spontaneously serenading Joss.

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Joss (left) greeting the fan who serenaded her.

“This has never happened in a press conference!” Joss said as she hugged the fan. Here are more surprises from our interview with Joss earlier today.

What was it like for you growing up in the spotlight?

I think being in the spotlight is kind of annoying! It’s not the fun part. The fun part is the hour, or the 90 minutes, when you get to play [music].

I guess staying out of the limelight as much as possible is the most positive thing for you, as a person… You have to find a happy balance.

What’s the craziest thing you’ve done in your career?

Well, probably giving back $9 million to EMI! [laughs] It was pretty crazy! That was the best thing I ever did. But everyone told me I was completely crazy… Everyone was a bit shocked, especially my dad.

What spurred you to do that?

If you want out of a deal, you’ve got to pay for it.

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In 2009, Joss paid her former agency Virgin EMI Records $9 million to leave and be an independent artist. 

How do you feel now as a solo artist? What’s different?

Oh, it’s the best thing. It’s the best decision I’ve ever made; I love it. I’m completely free now.

This album I just made is called “Water for Your Soul”, and it has a lot of world influences in it – so it includes R&B and hip-hop, which has been a part of my music full-time; soul; reggae; Indian influences; Spanish flamenco guitar; Brazilian beats; gospel choirs; Irish fiddle, all of that.

If I had made that album under the deal I was in and given that to the company, there’s no way it would have ever been heard and ever seen the light of day. Yes, much less people hear me [now], but I’m okay with that, because I’m so much happier and I’m so proud of the music I make.

Do you also feel free on stage when you perform barefoot?

I like to be comfortable. I don’t want to fall over. Also, not taking shoes [when travelling] has a lot of benefits! If you take, like, three pairs of flip-flops, you’ll be fine. You don’t need anything else.

I remember there was a time years back I was doing a lot of colours with my hair and clothes… And I had to have a whole other suitcase for my shoes to go with whatever dress I got and all that bollocks!

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Joss is known for performing barefoot during her live concerts.
(Photo: Featureflash / Shutterstock.com)

You’ve been to Singapore before. Is there anything you’re looking forward to this time?

There was this one thing I saw when I came last time – you have soup in the middle of the table [while sitting] outside, and then you put the food in the soup. I’ve not seen that anywhere else since.

But at that time, they didn’t have a vegetarian one for me, so I didn’t try it. Maybe they will have one this time!

And also the trees, the trees that are not trees. They are weird! But I think they’re kind of cool, they’re the type of thing that sticks out in your head… They’re, like, a little alien. It’s very sci-fi, but with green too.

Is that what you call it, a jungle city? We’ll go with that!

[Joss is referring to steamboat or hotpot meals, and the Supertrees at Gardens by the Bay.]

Would you collaborate with any Singaporean singers?

I try to do that everywhere [I go]… And try to learn the sounds of that place. So far, it’s been really hard to find something that was “Singapore”… I learned that Singapore’s made up of a few different influences, especially Chinese. So what we decided upon was Chinese opera.

I’m actually going to do one with the guy who does Chinese opera here. It’s really interesting, I’ve never come across it until now, so that’s kind of cool. His name’s Nick Shen, and he’s going to do the make-up and teach me about it.

As a singer, [I think] opera is amazing, it’s like, “How do they do that?” But then when you listen to the Chinese opera, oh my Lord! That’s a whole other kettle of fish. I had no idea… I was confused, but now I see that they link.

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What’s your favourite place at home in Devon, UK?

I walk my dogs in Blackwood Forest, and it’s like two minutes by car from my house, and I absolutely love it. There’s one whole stretch where we can see out, and it’s beautiful.

A friend of mine has a little kind of broken down area really deep in there… And it’s just magical and gorgeous, it’s completely in nature. There’s a certain time of day when the light’s just going, and all of the birds start talking to each other, and they’re really loud.

If you’re up there on your own and you’re really quiet, you can hear the conversations between the birds.

How about your favourite place overseas?

I really like New York, because I’ve got a lot of friends there and spend a lot of time there… It’s nice to go in little clubs, I love this place called Village Underground, there’s always great singers in there.

How do you feel travelling has changed you?

Oh, it’s made me really tired! It messes with your skin, and it makes you sick. That “travel” is no good for anyone, and it’s scary because you’re going to die half the time!

But when you get there for the exploration and the adventure, it opens up your mind to everything… When you see the world, you realise there’s so many other beautiful colours and cultures and styles and ways of living and different ideas happening.

There’s so much going on, and you should really never get bored and never, ever judge.

Do you have any advice for young singers?

Go home. [laughs] No, that wouldn’t be my advice. My advice: Make it really clear, in your mind, why you’re doing it Why did you begin? Why do you want to make music?

No matter what your reason is, know that it is valid. It could be because you want to make lots of money – it doesn’t matter. Don’t let anybody tell you it’s not valid… Don’t forget it.

What was your reason for starting out?

Should I tell you the truth? It was to buy a horse… The horse was my mom’s horse… We had to put him at a livery, which was an expensive thing to do, and we’d go and see him every Saturday and go riding.

When they sold him, I was about 12, and I was like, “Why’d you do that? That’s horrible!” My dad was like, “Josie, we can’t afford it.”

So in my head, I thought I had to get a job, right? I wasn’t good at Mathematics, and they threw me out of Science class… I was watching “Star for a Night” – oh my God, I love that show – and I thought, “Ah! I can do that!”

Before you heard of Sing Jazz, have you ever thought your music would fit in with the festival?

No! I’ve played so many jazz festivals in my life… And jazz – the actual style of jazz – I haven’t even entered into it! I’ve played, like, one jazz song!

I guess it’s soul, R&B, blues and jazz are all a kind of family. But I’ve never done [actual] jazz – I don’t know why they keep inviting me to these festivals! [laughs]

Joss Stone will perform tomorrow, Mar 5, at 9.45pm at Sing Jazz 2016. More information about the festival here.

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