Published Nov 17, 2017Gabriel Roth first encountered Sharon Jones about 20 years ago, when he organized a Lee Fields recording session and was expecting a trio of backup singers to help him augment a track. Only one of them showed up.
"She said, 'Why pay three, when you can pay me?'" he recalls, laughing over the phone from his home in California about their first encounter.
Roth is a talented musician, producer and songwriter who plays a primary role in the Dap-Kings, one of the baddest bands of all time. Also known as Bosco Mann, Roth spent the past two decades playing with the late great Jones, who succumbed to pancreatic cancer on November 18, 2016.
Her final sessions with the Dap-Kings have been captured on a gorgeous new album called Soul of a Woman, which is now out via Roth's Daptone Records label.
"I'm doing well," Roth says, when asked about how he's coping without Jones, as her last studio record reaches fans posthumously. "I miss her a lot. I miss her a lot. I'll walk by and see my closest full of suits and wonder, 'Why do I have all these suits?' I used to grab them every weekend and jump on the road, knowing I was gonna see her. So, it's sad but I'm hanging in."
Jones was initially diagnosed with cancer in 2013 and endured treatments that sidelined her from performance from time to time. Roth says the band convened on stage and in the studio whenever Jones was able. She was always willing.
Each of the Dap-Kings contributed to songwriting, writing lyrics and arrangements for Jones to get into. There's a sense on Soul of a Woman that her health struggles informed certain tunes about temporality — the way time moves, the way time can stop.
"I think a little bit, on some level, just because it was something that everyone was going through," Roth says when asked about the record's lyrical content in relation to Jones' health. "It wasn't something that we necessarily chose to address directly, but it wasn't something that we were ignoring either.
"There was actually one tune that didn't end up on the record, it ended up on the [documentary] Miss Sharon Jones soundtrack. It's called 'I'm Still Here,' and that one was very much Sharon talking about what she's been through and surviving and it was very heavy. We considered putting it on this record, but it was almost too much for us; it's very emotional for us. But in that one she's being very literal, talking about the big 'C.'"
It's understandably difficult to listen to Jones sing some of these songs because of their emotional weight, Roth says to imagine what he went through trying to mix it — listening to his departed friend's voice, and trying to do her legacy justice, one last time.
"The thing is, we didn't want to go into the studio coming from a place of fear," Roth says of the sessions. "Obviously, there's pain in everything. But we were trying to give Sharon fuel for what she needed to do on stage each night. Some red meat for her to sink her teeth into; songs she could relate to in terms of their message and their melodies and harmonies. And more personally, we wanted to make music we all were excited about, things we'd never done before."
Fans will be pleased with Soul of a Woman, as it's one of the most dynamic records in the Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings catalogue. Roth and his colleagues made a special effort to bring fans every facet of Jones, and this band, to life one last time.
"The way we sequenced the record was to try and show two sides of Sharon and the band," Roth explains. "We wanted to do songs like 'Sail On' and 'Matter of Time,' because they really reflected what Sharon was like live and how we wanted to remember her. You'll see, as you go deeper into the record, that it gets a little more sophisticated and orchestral and less like a live show."
Speaking of his grief for Jones, Roth says, "It comes in waves. Sometimes I get very sad and miss Sharon a lot, but for the most part, I try to really stay focussed on how fortunate I was to play with her so long. It was the ride of my life. Very few people were lucky enough to stand behind her on stage and have that perspective on what she could do."
Soul of a Woman is out now on Daptone Records.
Listen to this interview with Gabriel Roth on Kreative Kontrol via iTunes or below.