Veteran session singer Sharon Jones was already 40 years old when she walked into a studio to sing on a Lee Fields record produced by young R&B fanatics Philip Lehman and Gabriel Roth. In the years that followed, Lehman and Roth kept calling on Jones, using her on limited-edition 45s that looked and sounded just like vintage soul. After Lehman and Roth dissolved their partnership, Roth—now going by the stage name “Bosco Mann”—co-founded Daptone Records with Neal Sugarman, and formed the band The Dap-Kings with Jones as frontwoman. After slowly building a grassroots fan base throughout the ’00s, The Dap-Kings have lately seen their star rise more rapidly, thanks to guest appearances by Jones and the band on other artists’ records, and thanks to the popularity of The Dap-Kings among movie and television music supervisors. Jones recently spoke with The A.V. Club about the band’s newly released fourth album, I Learned The Hard Way, which retains The Dap-Kings’ crackly analog sound while leaning in a poppier direction.
The A.V. Club: You’ll be playing at The Apollo in April for the second time. What’s it like to stand on the stage where James Brown once stood?
Sharon Jones: It’s surreal. The first time we were there, when I rubbed that stump, I could just feel the spirits everywhere. Then I’m on that stage and I open my mouth, and I could just feel James Brown. Especially when Lee Fields and I did a duet, did a James Brown medley. It was just great, as an experience.
AVC: The Dap-Kings’ music used to be more straightforward homage, but it seems to be evolving into its own distinct style.
SJ: Yeah, we’ve grown. The first album, Dap-Dippin’, we were getting our push from like The JBs, James Brown… that was our thing. But as the years go on, our thing is just doing soul and R&B. The songs used to all be written by Bosco, but the fourth one is so different because everyone is writing and everyone is hearing different sounds. They want more horns, or they want more background vocals. That’s what I think is going on. Like, one of the songs on I Learned The Hard Way, none of The Dap-Kings wrote it. “Window Shopping,” that was written by Wayne Gordon, who mixes sound and runs tape in the studio. He wrote that song, The Dap-Kings did the music, and I liked it, so I sang it. We had twentysomething songs, and that song made the album.
This album has a variety of everything. People said the last one, 100 Days, 100 Nights, had a Stax sound. But it’s all going to be Stax/Motown, everything we do. [Laughs.] I don’t want people to get confused, because everything we do is going to be from that era. We can’t help it, because that’s the way we record, with the analog. We want people to say, “This reminds me of this” or “This reminds me of that.” That’s important. That’s the goal.
AVC: Do you think your music would sound as good if it were recorded digitally?
SJ: I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. If some record label called us in and had us record on digital equipment, it’d probably have a different sound, but I don’t know. Y’know what I’m saying? It doesn’t matter to me. I always hear Gabe say in interviews, when they ask him, “Well, what do you think about the sound?” He’ll say, “It’s not even the equipment. It’s the musicians.” You could put different musicians in our studio, and if they ain’t got it, they don’t have it. No matter what.
AVC: What kind of music do you listen to?
SJ: Mostly old stuff. I just got an iPod, believe it or not. A Nano, nannoo, whatever. [Laughs.] We got those when we did a show for Apple. A showcase for the VIPs. So once I was able to download things, I got the guys to show me how to download some of the songs that were on my laptop. But y’know, I got some Beyoncé songs, and maybe some Jill Scott in there, maybe Erykah Badu. I pick songs that I like. Not whole albums, but there are single songs that strike me, that I like to hear. But I would say that most of it is oldies. The classics.
AVC: Did the band’s profile rise dramatically after your music was featured in Up In The Air’s opening credits?
SJ: No. I mean, I think we got a little bit more well-known when we did that thing with Amy [Winehouse] and Mark Ronson. And then Jay-Z. We’ve just been doing our thing. Every time we’re with someone new, we reach more and more people. We pick up different fans when people get a chance to hear us. I think the reason we ended up having to rush the new album out was because of the big to-do when I was on Saturday Night Live with Michael Bublé. We had to get the album out sooner. Everything we’re doing is just gradually building an audience. Every time someone wants to do something with us, it’s a big jump.
AVC: After working so hard for so long in the music business, what’s it been like over the last year or two to see your career take off so much?
SJ: For me, it hasn’t, really. I still feel like I have a long way to go. Financially, I’m just beginning to get comfortable. When I can get out of these projects and get my moms out of here, and get her comfortable somewhere, then I can go on to produce my music and not worry. Then I can say I succeeded. When I got that condo or that home I’m living in, then I can say I succeeded. But right now I’m still struggling. I can tell you this: I’m not where I used to be, five or six years ago. It’s a very big improvement. And you can hear it when I’m playing. As a band, we’ve gotten closer together. The longer we play, the more we get comfortable. More guys are writing, so I guess that’s what making our sound different. We’re happy. That makes a big difference, when you’re happy.
AVC: Is it different performing at the larger venues compared to the smaller clubs you were performing at five or six years ago?
SJ: I love the smaller clubs. I love the theaters. I love the festivals. There are things I don’t like. At certain theaters, people can’t get up and dance. At certain festivals, you’ve got the porta-toilets. [Laughs.] There’s no place to properly change when you’re outside. That’s a complaint. But as far as doing them? Great. Every time I do a gig, my goal is getting new fans. That’s the whole purpose when we’re out there. I don’t want anybody to walk away with their hands in the air and say, “Ewww!” Or frown. I want you to enjoy it and say, “Hey, you look great and sound good.” That’s what we’re all about.
AVC: You’ve been doing a lot of guest appearances on other people’s albums as well. Do you have to turn things down at some point? Are you getting more than you can do?
SJ: I’m quite sure my manager’s turning things down. [Laughs.] Recently, I have had to turn down some things, because my plate is full right now. I can’t do it. But most of the stuff that comes through, I accept if I have the time to do it. The only thing I turned down that hurt was Lou Reed. I did some shows with Lou Reed, but then I had to make a choice between doing a monthlong tour or spending three days doing the movie [The Great Debaters] with Denzel Washington. I had to turn Lou Reed down. That was hard, but I had to make a choice. I even told Lou, “Don’t be mad at me! I’m sorry!” But I had to do that. You’re talking Denzel. What are you, crazy? [Laughs.]
AVC: When did you move to New York?
SJ: When I was 3 years old. Around ’59. I went back south over the summers, y’know, and I even went to third grade down there. But my father passed away when I was 13, so after 13, things slowed down and I would only go down every other year. Now my sister lives down there, and I really want to get my mother near my sister.
AVC: Do you think you’ll spend the rest of your life in New York?
SJ: I don’t think so. Once I retire and slow down, I don’t want to be in New York. I want to be somewhere near a lake or a pond, so that on my days when I have nothing to do, I can go fishing. I’m not going to be able to do that around here. I know there’s a lot of saltwater here and I could go fishing every day, but that’s not my style. Too busy. Too many people. Too much noise. And I don’t like those saltwater fish. I like to be out in nature, with my little worms, y’know. Hear the crickets. Swat the mosquitoes. [Laughs.]
AVC: Do you have a retirement plan?
SJ: I ain’t trying to think about that right now. I mean, I’m 55, I got, what, another 11 years or so before I think about retiring. [Laughs.] So I’m not thinking about that right now. I’m just praying my health stays strong and my vocals last and I keep my strength and The Dap-Kings guys continue to want to play and Daptone keeps putting out what we’re putting out. I know the record label’s gonna grow, and you know what? Instead of me retiring, I want to be able to go out and find some talent and find some young soul singers and keep the Daptone label going. Keep that soul going, y’know?
AVC: Does performing take its toll on your body?
SJ: It does get a little hard. That’s why you got to keep yourself in shape. I’m staying here with my mother and taking care of her, and that’s the reason I want to get her situated, so when I’m off the road and home I can keep my certain lifestyle. I can’t do that and take care of her. It’s a strain. I have to watch what she eats because she’s diabetic, and I need to watch myself over these next few years, so I don’t develop all these problems. Got to keep my pressure down. And that’s by eating right and taking care of myself, and that’s what I need to do more of, to prepare myself for the future. I can’t get by half-steppin’ on that stage. It takes a lot of work. I gotta keep my back taken care of. I like to wear my heels, so one day this week I need to go to the dancers’ shoe store and get the right shoes. Always the same colors: silver, black, and gold. [Laughs.] Maybe two pairs each. I’ve got to do that so I can wear my dresses and be comfortable onstage, and keep the pain away. I gotta do what I gotta do. I gotta take care of myself.