Allen Stone is Listening to Al Green, Patty Griffin, and Alanis Morissette (Karaoke Edition)

Published November 6, 2019

Photo by Jack McKain.

This is “Add to Queue,” our attempt to sort through the cacophony of music floating in the algorithmic atmosphere by consulting the experts themselves. Our favorite musicians tell us about their favorite music—the sad, the happy, the dinner party-y, the songs they want played at their funeral. 

Before Allen Stone and I start our interview, I have a promise to keep. My little sister, a huge fan, was lucky enough to sing with the gold-haired, even-golder-voiced soul-singer when he made a pitstop in D.C. the week before. She wants me to pass along how much fun she had. The moment should feel almost embarrassingly unrelated to the rest of our conversation, but for some reason, it doesn’t. Stone’s Karaoke Extravaganza tour—a deliriously giddy pre-game to his upcoming album, Building Balance, that allows fans to join Stone on stage and belt out anything from Madonna to Dolly Parton—is nothing if not a family reunion. That is, the latter half of one. It’s all the effusive tipsy Aunt antics, with none of the snide remarks judging your life choices. By the time Stone and I finish our interview, discussing everything from the song he’d share with the entire world (“That’s What Friends are For”) to the album he wants to pass on to his son (Common’s Be), my fleeting familal connection feels decidedly more significant.

“If you’re in a room full of people, and ‘Sweet Caroline’ comes on karaoke,” Stone says, “you’re instantly connected to everybody in that room because you’re all singing the chorus.” On his tour, Stone—whose gorgeous R&B tracks stem from a childhood attending tent revivals in his church community—is always the one who brings the room together in song. When I mention my sister, he laughs, says, “Tell her hi for me!” and immediately remembers her name. It’s somehow both the proof and the antithesis of Stone’s “Sweet Caroline” point. A well-known chorus may serve as a common tongue (“so good! so good!”), but it’s up to the ringleader to ensure the connection lingers long after the song fades out.

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JADIE STILLWELL: What made you want to do the Karaoke tour?

ALLEN STONE: Well, I love my fans, and I love getting the opportunity to interact with them and connect with them on a personal level. Most of the touring I do nowadays doesn’t allow me the opportunity to have enough time with the audience because, logistically, it’s not possible anymore. So to promote and to celebrate this new record, Building Balance, I wanted to connect it with a fan appreciation party of sorts. We were thinking about how we could do that, how we might be able to pitch a show to a venue, to get them to have us, we were having some trouble trying to figure out exactly what that would look like because, “Hey, I’m Allen Stone. I’m going to have a pizza party for my fans.”

And I thought back to how I started doing this music thing and my best friend Julian and I came up with this concept about doing karaoke because when we were young and I was coming up, before I was even 20-years-old, we would go out and sing karaoke five nights a week. Just to have fun, but also to get on a real microphone, and sing through real speakers, and sing for an attentive audience. And so we thought, “Man, what better way to connect with my fan base, and to give them a fun opportunity, and a night to remember, than just throwing a karaoke party?”

STILLWELL: Obviously, you’ve done a lot of karaoke, but do you have one favorite karaoke memory? 

STONE: Man, my specific memory of karaoke is a bunch of memories. The greatest part about karaoke is that you’re never expecting anybody to be good. I’m sure you’ve been to a million karaoke bars. Rarely does somebody get up and have any talent. And so my favorite memories are when somebody gets up that you’re not expecting to kill it, and they blow you away.

This sort of speaks to my knuckleball of sorts, which is that nobody expects me to sing well, judging by the way that I look. If you’ve never heard of me, and you just happen upon a show of mine or an intimate concert of mine, you don’t know. I’ve lived off this dichotomy as a musician since I started singing. People don’t expect me to sing well. And with karaoke, that’s the best part about it. Last night, we had this couple come onstage and destroy the audience with “This Is How We Do It. They blew the roof off the place. When that happens, when people aren’t expecting something great and they’re delivered something great, the emotion is just so much higher. If you go to a Beyoncé concert—God bless her for continuing to just outdo herself because every show she does is better than the last one—you’re like, “I know this is going to be probably the greatest thing I’ve ever seen in my life.” But when you’re not expecting something to be good and it’s incredible, there’s a swing in your emotion.

STILLWELL: The surprise is amazing.

STONE: Did you see the young girl on Tuesday do Alanis Morissette

STILLWELL: That’s exactly who I was thinking of.

STONE: Oh my god. She murdered it.

STILLWELL: It was amazing!

STONE: It was amazing! That’s what I’m saying, you don’t expect it. When it happens, you’re like, “This is the best day of my life!”

STILLWELL: If you could play one song for the entire world, which song would you choose? 

STONE: Oh my god.

STILWELL: No pressure.

STONE: We’re doing a song during this karaoke trip, and it’s a collaboration between Dionne Warwick, Stevie Wonder … is Elton John on that song too? It’s called “That’s What Friends Are For.”

STILLWELL: And Gladys Knight. 

STONE: Gladys Knight is in there too. Yes. That would probably be it, man. The sentiment of that song every night that I sing it, it’s at the end of the evening, and it’s just so universal about friendship and positivity. I think the message behind that tune is just really great.

STILLWELL: What was the last song that you listened to?

STONE: The last song that I listened to was “Who’s Gonna Save My Soul” by Gnarls Barkley.

STILLWELL: Do you have a favorite movie soundtrack?

STONE: Forrest Gump.

STILLWELL: What about a song that always puts you in a good mood?

STONE: There’s a song by an artist friend of mine, his name is Tingsek. He’s the sweetest, most incredible musician and artist. He sings a song called “Six Years” that I’ve had a deep connection with for many years now. Through that song and that love of his music, I’ve become really close friends with him. Whenever I hear that song come on, it always brings a smile to my face.

STILLWELL: In that same vein, who is your dream collaborator of all time, or currently?

STONE: I would really love to collaborate with Pharrell. I’ve always loved what he’s done. He just always puts out good stuff. And I really enjoy that he’s in his older—I mean, he’s not old by any means, but he’s made a wonderful pivot towards family-friendly music that I think is really cool and mature. And he’s done it in a way that’s still really fresh and cool. I would love to get in a studio with him someday.

STILWELL: What songs or artists would you put on a road trip playlist?

STONE: I would throw on some Gnarls Barkley. I would throw on some Madison Cunningham. And Foy Vance. A little bit of Robyn. Definitely some Anderson .Paak. Andy Shauf. This artist by the name of Fink. Emily King. And got to have some of my boy Gary Clark Jr. in there too.

STILLWELL: What about a playlist for if you were throwing a dinner party?

STONE: It depends on what I would be serving. But a dinner party would probably be more along the lines of James Taylor, Jarryd James, my buddy Joey Dosik. Patty Griffin would be beautiful. Thad Cockrell that would be really great for a dinner party.

STILLWELL: How would it change, depending on what you’re serving? Would you pair artists with food, like wine?

STONE: Well, if I was serving Italian, I would probably do some Dean Martin. Or maybe some French musicians.

STILLWELL: What about if it were less of a dinner party and more of a party party?

STONE: Yeah, if we were raging, man, I’d throw on a little D’Angelo, Daft Punk. Some Q-Tip and De La Soul.

STILLWELL: That’s a good party.

STONE: You should come.

STILLWELL: I will, thanks! What about some songs for crying in your bedroom?

STONE Oh, man. I would probably throw on, again, some Andy Shauf. Very emotional music. Some Brandi Carlile would probably make that playlist. Donny Hathaway and Etta James. James Blake, too. James Blake would make very good moody music.

STILLWELL: I don’t know if you partake, but what about a stoned playlist?

STONE: If I was going to partake in extracurricular activities, including marijuana, I would definitely throw on some James Blake. I feel like that’s a good vibe. Some Kaytranada. And just to throw a curveball, I would put on some Kenny G. To get everybody else at that weed party freaking out.

STILLWELL: Everybody but you, because you’re prepared for the Kenny G.

STONE: I would be prepared for it, but everybody else would not be. I would throw on some Michael McDonald, dude. Michael McDonald when you’re stoned is so rad. And a little bit of my friend Nick Hakim.

STILLWELL: What about a playlist of songs that you would want playing at your funeral?

STONE: Man, when I die and I have to come up with a playlist prior to my passing for my funeral, I want some bonkers epic orchestral music, like some Yo-Yo Ma or something. Unfortunately, I’m not super clued into classical music, but some LA Philharmonic. Some orchestra tunes. Arrangements. I don’t know the proper musical term for that. 

STILLWELL: Do you sing in the shower? 

STONE: Yeah, I sing in the shower all the time. I like to throw it back and rip some Weezer in the shower. A little bit of some Gabriel Garzón-Montano, some Foy Vance, Fat Freddy’s Drop, Earth, Wind & Fire. And you know, I like to button it up with some Counting Crows.

STILLWELL: Of course, to keep you on your toes in the shower.

STONE: That’s right. But not too much on your toes. You don’t want to slip and fall.

STILLWELL: What’s an instrument that you would like to learn how to play?

STONE: If there were any instrument I could be proficient at, it would be the piano. It’s easily the most versatile instrument around, specifically for the studio. If you are good on a keyboard, you can write and produce a record top to bottom in the studio. That would be the one. It would be either keyboards or drums. Drums would be rad. If I could rock a drum set, that would be fun, but unfortunately, I spent too much time on Instagram to get really good at anything.

STILLWELL: If your life was a TV show, what would be the theme song?

STONE: If it can be one of my own songs, let’s do, “Where You’re At” off my last record Radius. That would be my theme song for my life.

STILLWELL: What is an album or a song that you want to make sure you pass down to your kids?

STONE: Common’s Be. It was an extremely pivotal record for me growing up. In my early twenties, I found that record and I just wore it out. That record came out right in the sweet spot of hip-hop, in my opinion, when Kanye’s label was putting out really fresh stuff that I really connected with. It was such a pivotal point in my love for music. I would hope that my son would be able to listen to that front to back, and maybe have a better understanding of what life was like when his dad was in his 20s, eating dirty pizza and sleeping on couches.

STILLWELL: If you could give only one last karaoke performance yourself, what song would you pick?

STONE: I always do “Let’s Stay Together” by Al Green. That’s my go-to song. Everybody knows it and it’s just in the perfect range for me to sing super loud. And it’s kind of sexy and romantic, and I don’t look like a sexy or romantic human at all, so it’s out of left field. That’s my go-to. Either that or “Gangster’s Paradise” by Coolio. I really like doing that song, too.

STILLWELL: Do you remember what your first concert was?

STONE: I was 16 or 17, and I went to see Johnny Lang in Spokane, Washington. He was out of this world, man. Yeah, my folks weren’t really into secular music much. Technically, going to service and going to tent revivals was kind of a concert. But Johnny Lang! I think it was Reeve Carney that opened up. There’s this whole Carney family that’s just epically talented. One of the brothers now plays for John Mayer quite often and Reeve was Spiderman on Broadway for many years. The concert was in Spokane, Washington, so there were maybe 150 people in the audience. It was the first time I ever saw real musicians play live, and I was just floored, man. I was blown away.

STILLWELL: I know you grew up in a pretty religious family. Did you sing in church or in the choir?

STONE: Yeah, I always sang with my folks. My folks and my family sang. My church wasn’t the most musically forward church in the world, but it gave me a wonderful introduction to music and how music could make you feel. And I still, to this day, go back to the emotion that I would feel singing old hymns in church, singing with a congregation of people and a group of folks that I loved and felt comfortable with. There’s so much joy. That’s why this karaoke trip is such a wonderful thing—because music is a language, right? We all know “Sweet Caroline” by Neil Diamond. If you’re in a room full of people, and that song comes on karaoke, you’re instantly connected to everybody in that room because you’re all singing the chorus.

STILLWELL: You’re all speaking the same language.

STONE: Immediately, you’re speaking the same language. And even though you might be a Democrat and someone else might be a Republican, it doesn’t matter at that point because you’re all elated to sing that tune. It’s the best part about music. In my opinion.