A Soul Survivor: Sharon Jones on her new album, touring philosophy and why she’s not retro at all
By Alec Wooden
A word to the wise: don’t say the “r” word to Sharon Jones. That word, of course, is “retro.” Oh, and I wouldn’t recommend “revivalist,” either. Those are the two most common words used to describe Jones and her Dap Kings who, with their soulful fury of a live show, are tearing up the festival circuit and leaving fans in small clubs searching for their jaws on the floor. In her mind, they’re just plain wrong. Both suggest a tribute to something in the past, something not experienced first hand. Ask Jones, however, and she’s no tribute to the days of yore in soul and funk – she is those things. Jones wears her 53 years with remarkably experienced pride — self-aware of her past and youthfully optimistic about her future. In the immediate sense, that future is the release of I Learned The Hard Way, the latest studio project soaked in what Jones knows best: hard knocks and a long road delivered with soulful exuberance from a woman who’s finally on her way to the top.
It’s an interesting title for the new record – I Learned The Hard Way. What are some things you’ve learned the “hard way?”
Oh, man. Just life alone. Me growing up was the hard way. I mean, I was born in ’56. So from me being a little girl coming up in the ’60s, not being able to go to schools and not being able to drink out of a water fountain or go in a restaurant or a building or a hotel, and getting on a bus and you’ve gotta go to the back. I had it — a very hard way. I tell some of these kids that are in their 30s, ‘I may be just 20 years older than you but trust me, it’s amazing what I’ve been through in that 20 years. So yeah. I’ve had it hard.
And while it hasn’t been necessarily “hard” in your music career, you’ve certainly been persevering for a while out there. What’s been your philosophy for pushing through the business?
When we joined [Daptone], they were just putting out vinyls and trying to fool people that they were done back in the ’60s (laughs). We were just happy putting out our stuff and doing what we were doing. Then other people started to come along and were interested in what we were doing, ya know, but other than that, that’s what we’re all about at Daptone: just putting out good sounding stuff that we like. That’s what it was about to us, just having that sound and being a label — and that’s what we were doing.
Tell me a little more about the new record — what can we expect to hear?
I think this one, what everyone is gonna hear, is more vocals, more background vocals, more orchestra. Different sorts of songs — we’ve got different guys in the band writing. To us, [all of our albums] are just a combination of music that we like. But this one definitely has more variety.
Why are you personally drawn to soul/funk music?
It’s not really me being drawn to that style. I’m 50-something years old. I’m not retro. I am soul. I am R&B. Now these young girls like Beyonce and Alicia Keys, if they come out and sing a soul song it’s “Oh, they’re so retro!” because they’re trying to sound like someone from Motown. Me, when I open my mouth, I sound like I’m from the old school — but I sound like Sharon. That’s who I am. I grew up with that.
But does it serve a constructive purpose to have a renewed interest in what many people call a “revivalist” sound? What is today’s music gaining from looking backwards?
We were one of the only labels out here doing this, ya know, 14 years ago. These kids now coming up are now listening to that stuff. Like Amy [Winehouse], ya know. Amy’s been out here three or four years and she won a Grammy. I know she was definitely inspired by back in the day stuff, but what inspired her recently was listening to people like us who are recording that stuff.
What’s your favorite cover you’ve done?
Every cover we’ve had to do, it’s usually someone asking me for a commercial or something. But the cover I really enjoyed doing was the Gladys Knight “Giving Up.” I really enjoyed that one. We also did Prince’s “Take Me With You” and that was fun, to take it from the way Prince did it and we almost made it like James Brown or something [laughs].
You guys are really renowned for your live show. What do you love most about the live show environment?
All that energy. Everyone is hyped up. I’m feeding off the band, the band is feeding off me, and the audience – we’re feeding off the audience and they’re feeding off us. For me, I know that’s my calling. When I’m on the stage, it just happens. I don’t try to plan it. It’s nothing like that. I just go out on stage and what happens happens. Sometimes I work it more [laughs]. Sometimes I’ll open my mouth and things will come out and I’ll be like “wow.” And then someone will ask me “Do you know what you did tonight?” And I’ll just say “no.” It just happens [laughs].
Do you enjoy the logistics of touring? What’s your philosophy on the road?
Ya know, I really do. Usually, things have been done to the point where you go out, you do your thing, and you come in. So far, and I’m knockin’ on wood, thank God we haven’t gone had to go out and have something canceled or something. Ya know, I’ve had a bad night, where I just didn’t do as well. But right now, I’m just hoping that everything is spread out well, and I’m just gonna go in with my faith in it. I gotta take care of myself, get my rest – as I always say, “Get my rest and do my best.”
Are you the undisputed queen on the road? Keeping all those Dap Kings in line?
I ain’t got no time for that. I’m not your mother [laughs]. I’m not your wife, and I’m definitely not your girlfriend, so I ain’t about to tell you what to do and how to do it. The only time I crack down is when they’re late. They know I don’t like that. I tell em this: “You know what you’re supposed to do, you’ve got your work. Be on time.”
What are you looking forward to over the next six months/year?
Truthfully, just getting this album out, and we really want it to do well. Hopefully this one will put us more on the mainstream so people can hear us and hear what we’re all about. It’s not about trying to be famous. That doesn’t matter to me right now. But what we’re doing, I’ve worked so hard to get it this point, I want to be heard, and have Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings name be heard in people’s households. Just like they can say Al Green and James Brown and Aretha, let them say “Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings? Oh yeah!”
Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings play Center Stage May 13. Tickets are on sale here.