Sharon Jones is always “ready for soul”
It’s almost impossible to imagine 54-year-old Sharon Jones, lead singer of the Dap-Kings, at the mercy of anything, let alone a flat tire. She’s a tornado of a presence on stage, infusing every lyric of the soul-funk revivalist group’s songs with a lifetime’s worth of soul. WE’s first scheduled interview with Jones is bumped due to freeway blow-out that leaves the group stranded between gigs. But Jones and the band are used to encountering a few bumps on the road — their fourth album, a brilliant collection that recalls Motown at its best, is titled I Learned the Hard Way, after all.
Young people who love your music are discovering your mentors, like Mavis Staples. How does that feel?
Jones: It’s so great. And to see the young kids — people keep sayin’, “Why are there so many young people?” And I’m like, “Do you understand that it’s college students who got us where we are?” They were into this internet and the web and MySpace and all that stuff. I never would have thought that young people like what’s-his-name, Mark Ronson, and Amy Winehouse — I didn’t know about them, but they knew about us. They tried to imitate us, but they couldn’t do it, so they had to come to us. [The Dap-Kings served as back-up band on much of Winehouse’s Ronson-produced Back to Black album.] And that won them a Grammy. That says to me, yes, my day will come. That’s what I come back to again with I Learned the Hard Way: Nothing comes easy to me. (Laughs)
What role did music play in your life growing up? Did you always want to be a singer?
I was seven or eight years old, down south, and it was Christmas, and they dressed me up like an angel even though I was a little devil — my sister was like, “We should put some horns on her head!” I did “Silent Night,” and people went, “Ooh, that little girl can sing!” From that point on, I was always imitatin’ everyone. Then Aretha hit the scene — and I mean, James Brown had a big influence on my life, but Aretha! I wanted to play the organ and do the gospel songs, and that’s how I learned to play the piano, too: just imitatin’ everyone. And then meeting [the Dap-Kings] in the ’90s... I was ready. I was ready for soul. When I went in with them, they would just write the music and the lyrics and give it to me to sing — “Here, Sharon” — and I’m gone. It’s not like they gonna give me a melody and tell me how to sing the song soulful; you can’t tell me how to sing soulful. You write the music and put the lyrics down and let me bring it to life.
What about getting into the character of a song?
I’m gonna tell just you about one time. Most people don’t know this. When [debut Dap-Kings album] Dap Dippin’ came out, and I had to sing that song “Make it Good to Me” — I can’t even think about it, ’cause I wasn’t in the mood and I hate singin’ that song. I was breakin’ up with a guy, and I just couldn’t sing a love song. (Laughs) That’s when the acting part comes in.
You’ve had the opportunity to do a bit of acting in the past [a bit-part in The Great Debaters featuring Denzel Washington]. Do you want to keep pursuing that?
Yeah, definitely, with the right part. The way you get into the songs, comin’ up with character — I could do that. Gotta be a good character. Nothin’ crazy.
Like, maybe you don’t want to kill a man.
Nah, I probably would. Imagine he’s my ex, and be like, “Yeah, I’d kill that fucker!” (Laughs)