Dedicating your time to music is a choice, and not one Allen Stone has ever taken for granted, but it's not necessarily one he's been doing on his own terms quite like he is now. His upcoming album ‘Building Balance’ is a textured amalgam of R&B and soul, putting front & center a fully evolved artist who has grown into his own and learned to balance and appreciate all parts of his life: the vices of the past and the gifts of the present, career and family, the brilliant highs and discouraging lows.
‘Building Balance’ spans a time period in which Allen, now 32, had to try and figure out how the old and new parts of his universe were going to co-exist. How do you build a balance when life feels so extreme? Is it selfish to chase the road while also desiring romance and domesticity? That's what Allen Stone asks immediately on the opener “Brown Eyed Lover”, incidentally the first song he wrote for the LP. The track is a big stropping groove where he sings about having met this match, but he's at a crisis of conscience because “I don't wanna keep her waiting.” He explains it: “I was at that point in my relationship where I was either all the way in or I gotta get out. I knew that I'm not gonna find anything better. But I don't wanna act like a martyr.”
Calling from Chewelah, Washington, where he grew up and has since returned, Allen tells a story of rock bottoms, disappointments and eventual salvation. After his last album release, things were not panning out as expected for him. In 2015, Allen Stone released 'Radius', his second LP. It was his first on a major label; a dream since he began to gain notoriety and recognition following his self-released, self-titled debut in 2012. “It was the first time anyone had talked about my music, I'd ever been written up in a publication, I'd ever gotten paid more than $300 for a gig. That was an exciting time and it led me to a deal with Capitol,” he recalls. 'Radius' came with touring heavily, which Allen was no stranger to. He lives for that. But this wasn't the dream it was cut out to be, despite Allen's relentless positivity and excitement to make his big break in the world.
“I think in the back of my mind it felt like this was gonna be the catapult which led me into being a household name, all the things you dream of, playing arenas, singing with your idols,” he says. “I figured 'Radius' would cement me in the minds' eye of the American culture. It just didn't work out.” Because of his anticipation for its receipt, Allen wrote 'Radius' while trying to reinvent Marvin Gaye's 'What's Going On?' or something similar. He wanted to make a big statement record about the status quo, about technology, about his own depression.
They were true songs but they weren't necessarily personal mirrors. Expectations dashed, he realized how little control he had over his own destiny, how little he actually had to lose. It's not that he felt defeated, more that he felt there was no use holding back.
Allen Stone began writing the album once the road had finally ended in 2017, relocating back to his hometown after being on the road for a decade. Simultaneously he was falling in love with his wife, getting to a place where he needed to re-find a connection with himself. “These songs feel like me gathering up all that rubble and saying – 'How do I continue from here? How do I build that structure and a balance that's gonna keep me moving forward?' A younger version of me would have just thrown in the towel and said – fuck it.”
He emerged from the process with his best collection of songs ever. “I am so much more closer to a feeling of stability than I've ever been in my life,” he says. “I want to keep making music and art for people who need it, people who have felt the pain of regret, the darkness of substance abuse, the fear of the future. All of the things that were plaguing me in that aftermath.” His palette in itself is a remedy for life's ills; it's uplifting, it feels good. He continues to draw inspiration from '70s funk and soul with current flexes, sitting amid D'Angelo in its sultrier moments, Stevie Wonder at its most melodic and the production of Mark Ronson at its most modern. “Most people would call me an old soul,” he says. “There's always a little wink of my eye to anything that feels old.” Maybe it's a comfort in nostalgia, but certainly that era is the music Allen discovered in his early teens when he was thinking more seriously about a life in music. He holds it on a pedestal given its style, cool factor, and emotional capacity. It's what comes out of him.
The recording itself was the most challenging experience Allen Stone has ever had making music. He did most of it in a cabin in the woods in Washington, way off the beaten path. The personnel included producer Nasri, whom Allen had respected for a while. Their creative chemistry was instant: “Nasri and I share the same viewpoint on songwriting and collaboration and that is we both like to attack it,” said Allen. “When I finally got the chance to work with him, we hit the ground running. I believe we did 4 songs in 4 days, start to finish.” Allen also reached out to artist Jamie Lidell, who he'd been a fan of for almost 15 years. Together they wrote songs about change, and feeling increasingly disconnected from pop culture. That takes a backseat when there are headlines in your own life needing addressed. Songs such as “Hold It Down” and “I'm Alright” summarize a battle between head and heart, choosing between the external noise and the internal peace of your own reality. “Consider Me” is a perfect meld of classic melody with modern production, pleading for a look-in. “Sunny Days” has near-rap choruses before jamming down to a swaggering chorus. “It was like Jamie was a sensei teaching me how to approach your 40s in the industry and still want to make music.” For Allen, the fact Lidell still loves to make music is the ultimate goal. “If that's the thing I have to sacrifice then I lose,” he says now.
The tough studio days were never not fun. “The balance through the turmoil of strife and struggle is the best balance you can build because you're growing, you're strengthening, you're utilizing muscles,” he says. “If it was a cake walk then you're not gonna fortify those tendons or that will power. You'll need it when you're 50-years-old if you still wanna pick up that guitar.” When Liddel and Allen wrote the song 'Warriors', he was invited to play it at the opening of the Special Olympics in Seattle. He'd performed on Late Night TV before, and sung alongside his idols Stevie Wonder and Al Green. But this was the most important night of his life, because it wasn't about him. It was about people who fight through real adversity every day, and don't complain. He felt empowered onstage for the first
“When your name's on the marquee it's all about me. 'Oh how do I do this interview? How do I cut my hair? How do I wear my clothes?',” he says. “For once the music, this art, was about the betterment of somebody else and it was so pure and powerful.” Within a year he was a father to a son.
“When he was born it was that same feeling I felt in that moment onstage. The music was serving this greater purpose and I was able to re-focus. Finally all this work and effort was no longer about me, it was about my family.”
Allen Stone still has his sights on big things but you get the impression that with the balance redressed he's not feeling so extreme in his expectations. “It might be that I'm getting older,” he says. “I don't have time to write about anything that isn't deeply personal.” Being able just to get it down and express his authentic self is the biggest reward of all. He had to re-learn how to get there, but he's ready now.