SXSW: Sharon Jones: Too short, too dark, too fat?
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In the world of soul and blues music, age isn’t—or at least doesn’t have to be—a liability. It’s the grizzled old blues men who earn the most respect, while young up-and-comers have to earn their respect. In other words, it’s the opposite of pop music, and the phenomenon may help explain the late bloom of soul singer Sharon Jones. Although she’s performed gospel and soul since the ’60s, the 53-year-old singer has only risen to prominence the past decade. She owes that to a succession of well-received albums with her band, The Dap-Kings, for Brooklyn indie label Daptone Records. 2007’s 100 Days, 100 Nights, was her highest-profile album yet, and the attention opened up some doors—from collaborations with the likes of David Byrne and Phish to a cameo in the Denzel Washington film The Great Debaters. It bodes well for Jones’ upcoming I Learned The Hard Way, whose sweaty workouts she and the band will peddle all over Austin during SXSW, from NPR's showcase at Stubb's to an all-night soul shakedown at the Austin Music Hall with Smokey Robinson and Raphael Saadiq. Prior to her return to Austin, Jones spoke with The A.V. Club about Denzel, jamming with Phish, and why it took so long for her to become known.
The A.V. Club: You’ve been singing since an early age. Why do you think your success came to you later in life?
Sharon Jones: Because at the time I guess my voice and my singing and my lifestyle wasn’t what some label wanted. I was held back because of the way I looked. I was too short, too dark skinned, too fat. I’m a late bloomer. I was singing in late ‘70s and early ‘80s when Whitney [Houston] was coming out. I just did gospel and did a little work with neighborhood bands in little studios and hoped that one day people would accept me for my voice.
We stick to what we are doing. We are doing our music. We do funk and soul, stuff like James Brown and Otis [Redding], Stax and Motown, that’s our sound. They call us retro—I just sing soul and funk. I’m 53 years old, what else can you get from me? [Laughs.]
AVC: You’ve done a lot of collaborations over the years in disparate styles of music, which seems like it could be hard, especially with a band like Phish.
SJ: It really wasn’t. Phish is such a good band; they just make stuff up as a jam band. The songs they did I had never heard of—I never followed the music. When I got in there with Sandra Williams—we’ve known each other since the early ‘90s, when we did our wedding band, and she also sings on my studio work—she came to me and said “Phish wants you.” The thing about them is they just want me to be myself. I had never heard these songs; we just did two rehearsals. She was my crutch. I just looked at her when to come in. I ad-libbed; I’m great at that. It was so much fun.
AVC: It can’t always be that easy, right?
SJ: Sometimes they don’t work. [Laughs.] Al Green wanted to use something, but it didn’t work. I would love if more and more people asked me. I love to get my voice out. I did something with David Byrne two years ago. When we first went in, it didn’t work. Months later he called me back to let me be myself.
AVC: You were on IFC's food-and-music show Dinner With The Band recently. Have you done much television?
SJ: Yeah. Conan twice, Letterman, Jimmy Fallon, some stuff in the UK. We’ve done some stuff. The only one we haven’t done is Kimmel and Leno. I can’t wait to get on Oprah—they played the song from Debaters when it was coming out. I wanna get on The View, Ellen, and so many good shows, even Wendy. George Lopez, I love him. It’s not about labels; it’s these shows that get you seen. People on the Internet, that’s how we network. Us being independent, that’s how we are heard.
AVC: Speaking of The Great Debaters, how did you end up in that?
SJ: That came about from doing gigs. We did SXSW—they don’t pay you, you gotta go pay yourself. By us going to do that one year, someone saw us and went to Denzel, saying, “She’s not known, but she’s what you are looking for.” He took a chance and had me send something in. It got mailed off on a Thursday, and he called back on Friday and said he wanted me in the movie.