When Robin Stone found herself a little hoarse in January of 2008, she didn't think too much about it. The hard-working singer thought it was just a cold. But when, months later, she still didn't sound normal, she found herself embarking on a medical odyssey that's taken her through numerous tests at the Cleveland Clinic, various tentative diagnoses including a throat cyst and rheumatism, periods of debilitating fatigue, inability to eat and weight loss, vision and hearing problems, and finally holistic treatments that seem to be getting her back on track.
"They found a dozen different pathogens," she says. "I had all these nasty things. They were literally destroying me from the inside out. Now I have mono and Epstein-Barr, and that will take a few more months to defeat. But a majority of the symptoms have subsided. I think I'm turning a corner."
Somehow, in the middle of all that, she managed to complete her third CD, Bad Girl, her first since 2003's Rushmore. She'll officially unveil it this weekend at a CD release show at the Brother's Lounge.
Stone — known for being a highly motivated, high-energy self-starter with an upbeat attitude — finds a lot positive in what's happened to her.
"I've learned a lot," she says. "I've learned the value of observing. It refocused me and made me more purposeful."
And she learned the benefits of a whole new work process. She'd actually begun the new album back in 2006, but when her former engineer had to move his studio, they put it on hold. She went through some musician changes and in 2007 ended up with "a great band." They began recording at drummer Darrel Williams' home, but as Stone's own medical problems burgeoned, Williams got a divorce, put his stuff in storage and moved.
"In January, he got a new place and said, 'You want to do this?'" recalls Stone. "I could hardly stand up at the time. I had no idea if I would have a voice when we got to recording vocals. I didn't really improve until March. But I thought a part of me getting well was to focus on music."
What she found was that, by not having the energy or strength to focus on anything but her performance, she was able to let go and relax.
"I really wanted to get out of the way of it and let the other player' inspirations work on it," she says. "Being unable to handle the workload helped with that. I couldn't micromanage it. It's opened a lot of doors. I told [Williams] — anything you want to change, don't be afraid to ask me. Other people are just as talented as me. Their suggestion doesn't mean I'm doing something outside my nature. That was very freeing. It saved a lot of time, and in retrospect, we probably got better results than if I had mulled over it.
The environment of recording at home rather than in a studio was helpful too, she says. "Doing it at my drummer's was so peaceful. It was the most relaxed atmosphere I've ever been in. I'd go in, and I'd hear someone's lawn mower or fan. I didn't feel like I had a deadline, didn't feel like I was under any constraint. My drummer was so laid-back. He was like, 'Of course, we'll get it done.' Plus, the players are so talented, they could come in and get it done in one take."
The result is Stone's strongest work yet. She's always been known for her smooth, rhythmic phrasing and rich tone. With experienced but not showboat-y players backing her, tighter arrangements and a new freedom in her singing, she's produced memorable tracks like "When You Go Home Today" — a jazzy, languorous cabaret-style song with her glowing vocal poured over light-handed percussion and feathery piano — and the lush and dreamy "Verbal Traffic Jam." "Summer Wine" cranks up the funk a few notches while exuding a loosey-goosey warm-weather vibe, and "Ridiculous Kind" is a sunny ray of classic soul. Stone calls the record "simple, not overdone," and that's accurate.
"I've always enjoyed being eclectic," she says. "But I've always loved groove and neo-soul. So without abandoning my true songwriting nature, I wanted to explore that market a little more. I think with the next record, we'll be heading a little more that way. We've got enough material to start working on another record, and we've talked about doing a live record."
With a national release and PR campaign planned for September through Cleveland-based Little Fish Records, Stone plans to spend the summer getting ready for that fall activity.
"Right now, I'm not going to push [playing out]," she says. "I told my agent to look at leads but don't kill yourself trying to hook up shows. I don't have the energy, and I need to focus on getting well. I'm going to enjoy the gap."