When Mayer Hawthorne arrived on the scene a few years ago, people wondered how a geeky white boy could open his mouth and sound like the blue-eyed stepchild of Smokey Robinson. Now comes Allen Stone, an even more unlikely soul phenom who appears even whiter and geekier.
While Hawthorne grew up a half-hour drive from Motown's "Studio A," Stone was born and bred in Chewelah, Wash. — a small town with a .05 percent African-American population whose main attractions include the North Meadows 4-H Club and the Beehive Kiln out on Highway 395.
So how did a 24-year-old preacher's kid come to be hailed by the Washington Post as a hybrid of Justin Timberlake, Anthony Hamilton and Sam Cooke?
"Those are the things I've tried to emulate my whole life," says Stone. "You know, I've never had a vocal lesson, I never took music growing up, I've had a little bit of music theory. But I've really been a student of soul records."
Stone finds the comparisons hugely flattering but also realizes that, in order to truly earn them, he's still got a lot of work to do. "When somebody says, 'Man, you sound like Stevie Wonder,' I'm like, 'C'mon dude, gimme a break. You need to go listen to Stevie Wonder records some more!'"
Stone would know. At age 16, he became obsessed with Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, a welcome respite from the all-Christian music he grew up hearing. "My dad was a minister and so I had to go to church, I had to be part of the worship team. That was just what you did, being a pastor's kid in a small 1,200-population town," says the musician, who describes himself as spiritual but not Christian.
Stone's parents put up with their son's move toward more secular music. In fact, his band's "Unaware" video, which has racked up more than a half-million views in less than a year, is a live performance from his mom's living room.
The closing track on his eponymous 2011 sophomore album, "Unaware" finds Stone at his best, lulling listeners into complacency at a soulful mid-tempo, before transitioning into a remarkable falsetto chorus that, by song's end, reaches stratospheric heights.
The rest of the album is less immediately arresting, but there's no faulting Stone's vocals throughout. There's no pitch-correction, something he views as an unnecessary crutch.
"When you listen to Adele sing, it's like, oh my god, that's a voice! She crafted that voice, she worked on that voice. You listen to Kanye sing and it's like, I know he's a horrible singer. But because of Auto-Tuning, not everyone else would."
Stone's attitude fits with his current DIY approach. Not long ago, he was touring in his Buick with an acoustic guitar. Now he's selling out two-night runs at Seattle's Neptune Theatre and the Troubadour in L.A., while touring with a full band he's paying with no label support.
But labels have come courting, and Stone figures that's what it may take to bring him to the next level.
"If I'm gonna sign to a label, it's gonna be a major," says Stone. "I'm not gonna mess around trying to sign to a small independent who can get me to where I am right now."