Soul Sacrifice Sharon Jones and her group, The Dap-Kings, single-handedly revived the purity of soul music with their debut record in 2002. The owner of a remarkable voice, Sharon Jones tells Nick Milligan why nobody should ever tell her how to sing.
Synonomous with soul, Sharon Jones is one of the sassiest ladies in modern music. Emerging in the mid-90s as a session singer, the New York native has pioneered a soul and RnB revival with her band The DapKings. Jones caught the ear of musicians Gabriel Roth and Philip Lehman, when she laid down some backing vocals for an album they were piecing together. The duo were so impressed with her voice that they asked her to sing lead vocals on a number of tracks, many of which were intended for a man. In 2000, Roth split from his writing and producing partnership with Lehman and started Daptone Records. He would form his own group called The Dap-Kings, playing bass guitar, and asked Jones to be his leading lady. Ten years later, Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings are a big deal. Jones has toured with Lou Reed, as well as recording with Michael Bublé, David Byrne and Norman “Fatboy Slim” Cook. British producer Mark
magazine issue #053 — December 2010
Ronson asked The Dap-Kings to be Amy Winehouse’s studio band on her hit record Back In Black, recording on songs like Rehab. But Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings have crept into the mainstream due to the purity and sincerity of their music. Next month they will make their fourth trip to Australia. “This will be the fourth time for me and the Dap-Kings, but it’ll maybe be my fifth time because I came out with Lou Reed,” says Jones, who is enjoying some down time at home before her group returns to Australian shores. The singer loves to see audiences dancing to soul music on the other side of the world. “I think that’s what makes it so exciting,” enthuses Jones. “Of course, we [tour] in the States and people know us. But when we come to Australia, all I keep hearing is, ‘We don’t get this music here all the time.’ “I can see that on your faces. The people that love the soul music and the RnB that we’re putting out, when we see their reactions, that’s what really gets me. Over here, you can
turn on your radio and hear it. But you guys only get to see it every once in a while.” Jones explains that the reason for soul music’s continued popularity is simple. “It’s just good music and good lyrics,” says the singer. “This hip-hop over here — everything sounds the same. Everyone’s vocals come out the same — if you close your eyes you don’t know who’s singing what. Everything has the same beat — in soul music there’s variety. You can take a song that’s bad and make it sound good. You can change the attitude of a song. Our music reaches the heart. You can feel what we’re talking about. We’ve got instruments. If you come to a [Dap-Kings] show you don’t see a bunch of smoke and lights and dancers running across the stage. That’s great if that’s what you want to do, but our show is just music. You play on that stage and you look in people’s eyes and you give them a show.” What’s clear from listening to the music of The Dap-Kings, from their 2002 debut
Dap Dippin’ with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings to their recent fourth record, I Learned The Hard Way, is that the group makes no attempt to update or dilute the soul sounds of old. “We don’t want to modernise it — we want to do it straight up, just like it was back then,” confirms Jones. “That’s why we don’t have anything digital in our studio. Everything is done on analogue, reel-to-reel.” Without any major label backing, Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings have taken the world by storm. They also opened the door for a new wave of soul, funk and RnB groups. “Any other soul band on any other independent label that’s doing soul — that’s been out since 1996 — came after us. You understand what I’m sayin’? They got the idea from us — they listened to us and we inspired them, whether they say it or not. There’s that recognition from Mark [Ronson] and Amy [Winehouse] — even Eli ‘Paperboy’ Reed or Grace Potter and the Nocturnals.” An interesting aspect of The Dap-Kings is that Jones doesn’t write the lyrics. “On this last album [I Learned The Hard Way] we all participated, but basically the guys write,” explains Jones. “On the first couple of albums Gabe Roth wrote most of those songs, but now everyone’s kicking in, writing songs. Me, I get my bit by singing them. I look at them, I take the lyrics. I usually come up with certain melodies and change words around.” Jones isn’t surprised that the men in The Dap-Kings can write such effective lyrics for a woman, because they’ve grown up listening to female singers and the recurring lyrical themes of strength and sacrifice. “We all sit down and listen to old soul music — the guys in the band go around collecting old 45s and albums,” says Jones. “When we’re writing, that’s what we listen to. By listening to it, they know how to write it.” While Jones enjoys interpreting the lyrics of others, she draws the line at being told how to sing. The singer tells an anecdote where Gabriel Roth approached her in the studio with a fully recorded demo of a new song, including backing harmonies and vocal harmonies. Jones promptly put him in his place, explaining that nobody can tell her how to sing. “I said, ‘What the hell is this? Excuse me. You going to come in here and teach me a melody?’” recalls Jones. Roth returned to the rest of the band with his tail between his legs. “None of them could come up to me and tell me to sing [a song] a certain way — they don’t know how to sing soul,” says Jones. “I tell them, ‘You just throw an idea at me and I’ve got it from there — you’ve gotta let me go with it.’ If you try to teach me how to sing a song, and tell me how to sing it, I can’t do it.” When David Byrne and Fatboy Slim were working on their concept record Here Lies Love, they asked Jones to sing on a track called ‘Dancing Together’. Jones agreed, but only if she could do the vocals her way. “When David Byrne and those cats asked me to do something on their album, they had a sort of idea of what they wanted,” says Jones. “But I’m not a pop singer — if you want me to sing on your song then let me sing it and be me. If you want a pop singer, get a pop singer. I’ve worked hard all these years and I’ve built myself to a point. If someone calls me to do something, call me to do something for who I am. Don’t try to make me something else.” Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings play the Great Northern Hotel, Byron Bay, Wednesday December 1; Enmore Theatre, Sydney, Friday December 3; Festival Of The Sun, Port Macquarie, Friday December 10.
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