Nearly 15 years after she first hooked up with the analog soul providers who would eventually be known as the Dap Kings, the Sharon Jones experience has reached anyone with any interest in shaking a tail feather. With her new album, I Learned The Hard Way, Jones is likely to capitalize on the momentum of her non-stop touring, left-field collaborations, and cinematic exposure over the last few years. But she's not jumping into some major label dream factory to make it happen. She's dancing with the ones who brung her.
"The mega stardom comes with the major labels," she says plainly. "There's no major label asking for me. They don't know how to handle me. They never wanted me before. I don't have what they want. But I'm happy with what we're doing. We've been out here for 15 years now, but in the last six years we've really started to see that gain."
It's impossible to read about Jones without seeing the word "retro" applied to her records; even her label, Daptone, refers to her music that way. But "retro soul" has been around for almost a decade, hitting a commercial peak with Amy Winehouse's Back To Black (also recorded with the Dap Kings), and has prompted many R&B artists to re-examine how they record and arrange their music. Retro soul can be applied to artists as diverse as Joss Stone, Quadron, Raphael Saadiq and Bettye Lavette ― in fact, the retro soul movement has lasted almost as long as the original era that inspired it. "Call it soul music now! Maybe they call it [retro] because in that vintage recording style," she laughs, "but I am old school! When I open my mouth, that's what comes out. I was already in my 30s when the '80s came around."
The combination of her sassy, dynamic onstage presence and the Dap Kings' attention to the period-specific details of guitar licks and snare timbres consistently creates a sound that could hit anytime, anywhere. Her success with a young, contemporary audience has influenced her contemporaries who may have been trading in a more mature, less urgent style. " I think some of [the soul legends] are coming back just to check me out. Betty Lavette was like 'Who is this?' but after she saw me she was 'Oh yeah...' If I'm going to make you get out here and put fire in your butt, then get out here!"
The new album stretches the Daptone sound a little further. Originally known for its hard-as-nails funk, its ballads now impress most, along with accents that recall regional sounds from locales such as Miami, Philadelphia and Chicago. With strings on several tracks and a bigger sound than usual, some of the album even passes for what would have been called pop or soft soul in the vein of Barbara Acklin or the Delfonics. "Everyone who interviews me, they all got something different to say about my album," Jones says. "We got Jewish boys, half-Italian, half-black, everyone's got different types of music they listen to. These guys, they collect classic, classic stuff. So when they sit down and start playing something, you might hear this or that. But I don't hear that stuff! I just hear music!"
With so much experience together, there's a strong sense of loyalty, even family. Despite the success of Antibalas, the Budos Band and other offshoots of the Daptone sound and scene, the label would not be where it is today without Jones as its charismatic lead presence. In turn, she is generously spreads the credit around to the band. She even defers to them completely in "The Reason," an instrumental track in the middle of the disc. "It sounds better as an instrumental," she says. "There's a version with vocals" ― which she proceeds to sing quite convincingly ― "but we're going to save that for another album or a B-side or something."
Jones knows she's in a good situation and wants it to continue, even with other high-profile opportunities coming her way. She made an appearance in The Great Debaters, starring Denzel Washington, which landed her on the film's soundtrack. Her version of "This Land Is Your Land" was a key element of Up In The Air, and was featured during the Academy Awards telecast. Jones has also worked with Phish, recorded with Lou Reed and collaborated with David Byrne and Fatboy Slim. Mindful of Winehouse's drama over the years, Jones will gladly take on new challenges so long as the exposure they generate doesn't get out of hand and cause her to lose focus. "The music world should have been focused on [Winehouse] trying to get that next album out. If something were to happen like that [sudden superstardom], I think I could handle it, and I know the Dap Kings could handle it. I'm just glad she's got her health, and that she's doing well."
Jones knows that it all comes down to doing what she does best on stage and her synchronicity with the band, "without all the gimmicks!" she stresses, "without smoke or lights or 30, 40 dancers running across the stage half-naked grabbing their crotches. We just connect. People ask me 'what are you going to do next?' and I say, 'whatever comes, happens.' I got new songs, I don't know what kind of energy I'm going to get from these new songs. Me getting up there and singing and moving back and forth is enough, don't you think so? We just keep it going and keep enjoying it. If it's going to be like B.B. King ― 'The Thrill Is Gone' ― I'll just retire."