“I Feel Like I’m Going to Be Able to Do Everything”: An Interview with Sharon Jones

Following some high-profile collaborations and soundtrack features, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings suffered through two deaths and a devastating cancer diagnosis. Jones talks about surviving such hardships and now, her most anticipated album to date.
Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings
Give the People What They Want

She’s been called the Queen of Funk but, truth be told, she is pure soul.

Sharon Jones, and her band the Dap-Kings (or their previous incarnation, the Soul Providers), have been making music together for the better part of two decades. Shunning major labels who failed to understand and always operating on their own terms, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings have steadily continued to improve their sound, rising to become the flagship act of not only their label, Daptone Records, but for an entire genre’s revival. Often labeled ‘retro-‘ or ‘throwback-soul’, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings have been instrumental in reviving a sound long thought lost to time and relegated to dusty, old record bins. From the hard driving Chitlin’ Circuit funk of their 2002 debut Dap Dippin’ With … to the lush orchestral arrangements opening 2010’s I Learned the Hard Way, Sharon Jones and the Dap-King have specialized in creating an authentically vintage sound.

After tragedy struck the Daptone Family in the guise of Ms. Jones losing her mother in 2011, and both fellow Dap-King Neil Sugarman losing his brother and Jones’ own cancer diagnosis in 2012, the group had to delay production and release on their hotly anticipated follow-up. Though her fight is still ongoing, the public’s wait is now over. Continuing their upward trend with their latest, and truly long-awaited, release, Give the People What They Want, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings are poised to set 2014 ablaze.

Calling Ms. Jones up on a late Monday afternoon this past December finds the singer, presumably at home, watching Queen Latifah, the latest Queen on daytime television. But it’s the thought of performing for the current queen of daytime TV that has her excited. “I love Ellen,” she says. “We just got the announcement … that we’d be doing her show in January.” And that is just the beginning of what is sure to be a blitzkrieg of television performances before she sets out on the road with her troop all in support of their latest release. “I’ll be on Fallon in January, the first week. I’ll be on his show for three nights and we’re working on some of the other stuff while we’re out in California. I’m working on Queen too. We’re working it all,” she laughingly adds.

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Well, congratulations on the new album. I thought I Learned the Hard Way was going to be a topper but this album, I think, is even taking it higher. I don’t know how you guys are doing it …

Thank you. You know why? ‘Cause we ain’t trying to top the other one; you can’t top yourself. All you can just do is keep writing … I think this album, maybe more people in the band wrote stuff. Different people, so you’re hearing different ideas. Not just Bosco writing all the stuff. Everybody’s writing.

Gabe Roth (Bosco Mann) kind of mentioned that these sessions were probably the most exciting and productive that you all have ever had. What do you think it was going into this record that was different than earlier efforts?

I think a lot of things. This record has been in progress over the last, for almost three years. Two and a half years we’ve been trying to get this album out. We finally got together and put stuff down. I had just moved. My mother was sick and then my mother passed away in 2011, in March. Then we still trying to get together and putting the vocals down. I think they got the rhythm section down going towards the fall and winter of 2011. Then we said we were gonna bring it out in 2012. Everything got mixed up.

My mother passed away, Neil [Sugarman]’s brother got brain cancer and he passed away (my mother died of cancer) and as soon as we get ready to release the album in August [2013] I get this here cancer scare in May. I’m going through this cancer thing … it’s been an uproar. The album is dedicated in memory of my mother and Neil’s brother. The album just means a lot. We didn’t go in and say we’re going to do these ten songs. We had 20-something songs and then Gabe had to pick ten songs and decide what we’re going to put on this album. And then when we released the single “Retreat”, then I get sick, and now here it is a year later and the song “Retreat” has a whole different meaning now.

I think the album title now probably has a whole different meaning now too for you.

And the thing you don’t understand, I haven’t sang this stuff yet. I’ve got to listen to it, I’ve got to rehearse it, I’ve got to get out there on the stage. A lot of our songs come to life as we do them on stage. I bring that story life each night, each feeling. So we try to get pumped, but you’re right, that whole album has a different meaning. The video I just finished up doing, “Stranger To My Happiness”, about this guy getting married. We doing the video and the video is trying to portray us as a wedding band. I’m there with the wedding band and you can see me with no hair. I’m happy but it’s like a stranger to get that happiness where it’s at.

Being in a wedding band is probably taking you back a little bit, since you did that back in the day.

Yeah. It’s all good. Everything is just in that circle. If anything, it’s finally getting the American people to hear soul music in real life and that it’s out here to stay. You know, there are people who say there is no more and why bands aren’t making records like the old school, like they did back in the day and then realize that it’s being done. There’s hundreds of young artists out here making it and trying to do it and record labels, young independent labels, trying to keep soul music and R&B alive but the major labels are not accepting it. We’re not being played on television. They don’t have Grammy Award for soul. In their minds soul music ended in the late 60s, early 70s; there is no more soul singers. That’s crap.

That’s my goal this year; that’s my goal. And I hope this record maybe put us more mainstream. And when I say mainstream I’m not saying mainstream for a record label to pick us up because I don’t want that. I don’t want anything to do with anything major. I just want us, our label, what we’ve done, what we’ve worked so hard for these 19, almost 20 years, doing, to get out here and people just hearing about us now. I just want to be at the Grammys. When you see an award, I want to see soul music. Some true soul record label, Daptone Records or some label over in London or Europe somewhere. There are labels that soul music is today and they need to be recognized.

I think a lot of people today don’t understand that there is a difference between R&B and soul.

When I look at the Grammy Award and they put Taylor Swift in R&B I get really freaked out [laughs]. It has nothing to do with her color; it has nothing to do with that. It’s just that she’s not R&B or soul. If you want to say pop or country or whatever she’s doing, then stick there. But they don’t know what’s going on nowadays, that’s why they need to rectify that.

I’m inclined to agree with you. I saw in an interview once that you said how the record companies “don’t know a damn thing about soul music.” And when you look at all the labels that are doing it today, Daptone, Luv N’ Haight, and Stones Throw out in California, and some of the ones you mentioned over in England, they’re all run by people who weren’t alive during the heyday. Does that blow your mind that the people making this music are so young?

Yeah. Look at me …

I mean no disrespect to you …

[laughs] I’m trying to tell ya, how do you think I felt when this young boy came up to me and said I want you to come in and sing some soul. My first words that came out of my mouth were what the hell do these little, young white boys know about soul music? [laughs] My mouth dropped open once they started playing. That’s all those guys, they collect classics. When I’m on the bus with them and the music they listen to, that’s why they’re writing the way they’re writing. [People] say “Oh my gosh, Sharon, you wrote a great song. I could just feel you on it,” and I’m, “I didn’t write that song. My drummer wrote that song; or my guitar player wrote that song.” You know what I mean? After singing that song, I’m bringing that song to life; I’m putting that soul in it. Even when those guys are writing it, they had the nerve to tell me to get some … don’t you bring me no daggone demo! You don’t get nobody to sing nothing in here to try and show me how to sing that song because you cannot show me how to sing soul. You just give me the music and you basically tell me how you think it should go and let me go from there.

But working with this album, with my mother being sick and I moved to South Carolina, I couldn’t get to New York. So, when the band was in there doing the rhythm section and doing all the music and stuff, I was a week late. So by the time I got there, they already had twenty-some songs and rhythms down. Then I just had to go over them. They had Saundra [Williams, one of the Dapettes] to sing some of the songs, but just straight, you know. They told her how they wanted to go and she sang it her way, which they usually do that to me. I was able to get from there and go with it. It was a little hard trying to sing a song when you hear somebody already sing it. It took me a little longer to get the album done because I had to block out what she was singing. You know what I’m saying?

Yeah, you don’t want her influencing you in that respect.

And it wasn’t … she was doing it straight, but the guys, everybody realized, I had to tell them I don’t want anybody getting any hurt feelings, thinking I’m saying something bad or I don’t want them to do it. I always tell them when you want me to do something, let me be the one that sings the stuff out first. But it all worked. Thank God she did that because by me not able to be there and doing that stuff … Then I told Gabe just take her vocals out and send me the music now so I can hear it and I basically went from there. You’ll hear a big difference because she just tried to sing it like they tried to tell her the melody went and those guys, Gabe and them, they cannot sing [laughs].

When they came up to me [makes weird sounds] and I said, oh you mean [hums a melody]. “Yeah, that’s it”. So I told her, “Was it hard for you to try and do that?” And she was, “Girl … ” Now you see why. Everything worked. I couldn’t get there and when I got there, that was done, so I just had to go into it. And it took a while. We’d been working on that album for almost two years just to get it out and now it’s finally getting out.

In the past, whenever you were asked about lyrics you always deferred to some of the other band members, because they were the ones principally writing the songs. Do you ever contribute to the actual lyrics or is your strength in the interpretation?

Oh I contribute to the lyrics, because I’ll read the lyrics and sometimes I’ll change something around. With the publishing, that’s how we work things out, where they give me a certain percentage of publishing for singing the song too, because I do come up with hooks. I do come up with stuff that they never even put on the album and I do stuff. I’ll go to them and go, “What the hell are you talking about man? What does this verse mean?” And I’ll look at them, “Uh-uh, you know better than that.”

One time he wrote this song and I said I sound like some kind of maniac pervert running some man down. You know that’s not my character; I don’t run nobody down, so change that around. So I make them change the lyrics. Change it to where I can sing it. I’m telling the story and if I can’t tell the story, I’m not going to sing it. And if I don’t agree with the story and if I got to sing something that portrays me as something I’m not, then I’m not going to sing it either. I didn’t even want to sing Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools”.

Do you not like singing covers, because you’ve done a few in the past?

You know what? We love doing covers. But the main thing is having to get your own stuff. I could take somebody’s cover and sing and old cover, yeah, and we sound good doing it. But that’s imitating somebody else. But yeah, we love doing covers. I’ll probably do more covers. Who knows? All I got to do is say, “Guys let’s do a cover!” or someone give us a cover and we’ll do it our way.

I was reading that when you and Lou Reed were down in Australia your rendition of “Sweet Jane” was apparently the show stealer.

[laughs] I just heard that last month after Lou died. He died on a Sunday and I finally heard that thing on Monday and the last time we did that was in 2007. So from 2007 to 2013, it was the first time I heard it.

You had to give up a tour with him to film The Great Debaters didn’t you?

Yeah. And it was so sad. The only thing … if I could have just went on the road with Lou, but then I would have had to leave him and not be around him for like four days. I would have to miss maybe three shows then I could have come back. But I wasn’t really going to go for that so I had to turn him down.

How did the film role come about?

Someone heard me at South By Southwest years ago. When Denzel was doing it he said [he] could get someone to play the part, someone with a big name. But he said he was looking for someone not with a big name, someone that’s not as famous. And they went, “Well check out this young lady right here, Sharon Jones.” I sent him what someone taped of me singing this song at this piano, something about … what’s her name? … something about big something. Anyway, I sent that to Denzel and the next day he called in and said they wanted me to play that part. Even though they took out, I had one or two lines and I got to sing another whole song which they ended up cutting out. Those couple of minutes at the beginning when the movie’s on, that little part was great. And when the credits go up you see my name “Lila — Sharon Jones.” So I’m in the credits! [laughs]

Do you think you’ll act again?

I would love to act again. I’m hoping that somebody will pick up on that and try me. You never know until you get up. I might be bad at it in their eyes. I would love for somebody to give me another chance to try.

That role in Debaters did lead to some soundtrack work for you and the band though, right? With Up In the Air and a few other tracks.

And you know, we’re in the new movie The Wolf of Wall Street.

Musically or actually in person?

Both. We were playing a wedding band. Me and the Dap-Kings, the whole band is playing a wedding band in The Wolf of Wall Street. And someone said they saw me and they do have us in the movie; they keep a scene in it with the wedding band.

When you are writing music for a film, is your approach altered since there are specific themes as well as other people’s expectations?

No. Whenever we do something for a movie, like one scene in “Something Big Fat Wedding” or some kind of wedding, they use every song from Daptone. All the music was Daptone. We didn’t write anything for the movie, they just used our songs we already had. So that’s all good. And in the picture The Wolf of Wall Street, nothing we did was original. We did like we were a band from 1990 so we did like “Push Push (In the Bush)” [laughs] and I sang “Goldfinger”. Everything we did in the movie was a cover. Wait ’til you hear it. I know they’re going to have to have a soundtrack and in that soundtrack they’re going to have a song; they gotta have songs from the movie. I can’t think of the other song. We did about six songs on the soundtrack.

I read that you met Phil Lehman and Gabe Roth through a sax player you were dating back in the ’90s. Is that guy kicking himself for not staying with you?

I don’t know what he’s doing. He’s married and going about doing his life.

Man, I’d be kicking myself.

I actually just friended him; after all these years, I just friended him on Facebook. He wrote me and he was like, “I just heard about you. How you doing?” and he sent a friend request, so I was like, “OK”. I didn’t run him down and try to look for him. When our career started getting together and Gabe was getting the band together to go on tour he was like, “Sharon, what if I use … ” And I was, “Nope.” And as long as we’ve been writing I told him I don’t want you to write his name because I don’t even want his name out there. Because then that means he can go, “I told y’all.” In one interview Gabe had gave his name and I said, “What the hell did you give his name for?” I’m glad nobody caught on to it.

It’s often mentioned that you worked as a corrections officer but I’m curious more so as to what led you there? Why corrections and not something a little more low-key that would still allow you to sing? You’ve even said working corrections, the hours were so hectic that you never had a chance to sing.

Yeah, I didn’t. Well, I worked in corrections because they had told me I wasn’t going to make it in the music business. You know, when somebody tells you you ain’t going to make it ’cause you don’t have a look — you’re too black, you’re too fat, you’re too short, and at the time I was past 25, so you’re too old, what the hell am I going to do? Singing is my life. But all I could do was look at that person and all I could say is I have my faith. God blessed me with a gift and one day people are going to accept me for my voice and not the way I look.

When that person said that and when I was saying that, the words were coming out of my mouth, they were just flowing out of there. Then I started going for these jobs; I needed a job to make money. I took Corrections, I took police, I took postal and I took the court office; be in government to make some money. The police test came and when I took that I went in and they told me everyone in the class who was born in the ’50s raise their hand. It was just me and another man. They didn’t want anybody past 25 and I was 35 at the time, so they kicked my butt out. So that was when I went to Corrections.

Corrections called me and I passed that test and I went in. The court officer test I didn’t go through or the postal. But as soon as those tests came, I just went for it and I got into Corrections. But it wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted to sing. I gave up my wedding band to go for Corrections. And it was an omen. When I got in there the first, I’m telling you, the first week, I fell and I was out a week because I hurt myself. And then I go back in there again, now I’m in a car accident and I’m out for almost a year, like 9 months. Then they forced me to come back. I’m working on the job, by them forcing me to come back. I’m working maybe three days and I injure myself again [laughs]. It was an omen. I wasn’t meant to be there. That last time I came in, they had me in this booth and they had bars on that booth and I just quit. I called them and said can you send somebody in please? They got me to quit for personal medical reasons. Instead of them firing me, I just quit right there.

You were working at Wells Fargo when you met Gabe? You were still doing security?

I was still working with Wells Fargo. One of the days I came into the studio when I recorded “Damn It’s Hot” [begins humming a few bars and singing “I’m burning up / Damn it’s hot!”].I came in with my uniform on, I had my gun on my side, a .38. And you know those uniforms that have a red stripe down your pants and a jacket, that’s what I had on. And I came into that studio and said, “Damn, it’s hot in here.” We had to turn the air conditioner off to record because it made a little rackety.

So we were in this small room, the air conditioner had to be off while recording so you don’t pick it up. So when I came in, they turned the air conditioner off and I said, “Damn it’s hot in here. So what’s the name of this song?” They were just playing and said, “We don’t have a name yet.” I was like, “Damn, it’s hot in here! Wait a minute! I got it, I got it! [begins humming)] Damn it’s hot in here. You all go ‘Damn hot!'” Yeah! So that was one of the songs I wrote too. I didn’t even write ’em, it was just something I made up right there on the spot. So when you make them up, you wrote them.

Do you ever play [live] the old 7″ you made before the Dap-Kings became an official band?

The only thing, I think, when we first started going over to Europe when we were the Soul Providers, I think … did I ever do “Landlord”? No, I never did “Landlord” because I needed that background. I never got a chance to sing, but I probably did one or two of them but never got a chance to do too much.

A few years back you inferred that you didn’t feel that you had truly succeeded yet. You said you’d find success when you can buy your own place and get your mom her own place. Now obviously, your track record with the Dap-Kings and all your collaborations would betray that sentiment; you obviously are very successful. And I thought I read that you did finally get your mother back down South, prior to her passing. So, from your perspective, has success found you?

I got her that home. I’m still paying down on it. And then now that I’m sick … I mean, we have insurance and coverage, but what we pay a month for Daptone to keep the insurance, and my insurance don’t pay for everything, so I’m still each month, paying a thousand here, 500 there. Whatever I saved up over the last few years, getting ready for when the album came out, has been used up. I haven’t worked since last May. My last job was May 2. I’m still struggling. It’s not like I have a couple million dollars in the bank that I can sit back right now. Me and the Dap-Kings, we’re hurting. Our label, we gotta get back out; we gotta make money to pay for this insurance over these next few months. It’s running out, as far as what we had on reserve.

So yeah, I haven’t succeeded yet. I’m still getting there; half-way there. Thank God for the recognition and that’s all I want. Nobody needs to give us anything; I’m not begging for nothing. But if people just buy our stuff, that’s how we get it. We go on the road, we do these concerts, we sell our merch, we do this and that’s how our income is coming in. I want to do that for the next good ten years. By the time I turn 65 I don’t want to be working as hard as I’m working now. Nowhere near that. As a matter of fact, next year I don’t want to work as hard as I am this year.

Are the doctors on your back to take it easy?

I just know I need to. I’m still coming back out there; I’m still taking chemo right now. If I had to perform tomorrow, I couldn’t.

So you’re going to scale back the tour but you’re still going to get out there.

I gotta get out there. It doesn’t make sense for me to lay at home until some time next summer when I feel that my hair is back and I’m fully strong. I don’t need that. I just need to come on back and work my way back up. I am that type of person that makes these decisions myself — do it.

Getting back out on the road could maybe distract you from some of the other things.

Thank you. And the doctor just told me, “Take your time. Don’t overdo it. You’ll be able to do it, just go on slow.”

No cancer is good, but was getting word that it was in stage one a little more comforting?

No, no, no, baby. Let me tell you something about what you’re saying. When they told me it was stage one, I was excited. But what you don’t even know is that I had had this procedure called a Whipple. They removed my gall bladder, the head of my pancreas and a foot-and-a-half of my small intestine and built me a new bile duct connected to my stomach. Now, I’m in the hospital after I have this Whipple, I wake up and I get an infection. The doctor comes in and talks to me. Then one day after eight days in the hospital, the doctor comes to me alone. The doctor said he wanted to catch me by myself. Right there I said, “OK, I’m going to die.” I just knew that this record, that y’all would be buying this record, celebrating my funeral, saying this is her last album and I wasn’t going to be here to perform it. I thought he was going to tell me the cancer spread and that’s what he did tell me. The cancer had spread into my lymph nodes. I did not have stage one bile duct cancer; I have pancreatic cancer stage two.

Oh man …

And pancreatic is one of the most aggressive cancers and it can come back. That’s why I’m taking the six months chemo — for that. But he told me when they went in they got it all, but the chemo is for us to make sure that it didn’t sneak away. So I have pancreatic cancer, stage two.

When you got the diagnosis, because of your mother and because of Neil’s brother, since that was so close in time, did it haunt you? Between their illnesses and now you’re getting told of your illness, did your world just stop?

Yeah, I just knew it. It was a shock to me. I really just knew I was out of here; I wasn’t going to make it. Honestly, I thought I was gone. It’s a blessing.

But you’re not out of the fire yet …

Not out of the fire yet. December 31, New Year’s Eve, is my last treatment. I got three more to go. Next Tuesday I just go in and they take my blood and I don’t take any chemo for that week. Then I come in the following week back to chemo and the pills. On the 21st I take the chemo but I don’t think I have to take the pills that following week. Everything stops on the 31st which should be the last thing I do. Then you realize, you got January and then February 6 I’m on the stage. That month of January I’m still going to be trying to do some, the Jimmy Fallon show, that Ellen. So I’m going to be flying and trying to do things. I would prefer not to have anything but that’s the release of the album, so we have to do these things. God put these things there; they’re a blessing, they’re here for a reason. I feel I’m going to be able to do everything and everything is going to be all right.