Sharon Jones Interview

Vega, Spring 2014.

Daptone records a retro sort of label who think that it’s rad to keep things old school and simple when it comes to the soul music that defines their way of thinking. At the centre of this mindset is Sharon Jones and her backing band, The Dap Kings, who have made it their mission over the years to keep the soul flag flying high, safe from the encroachment of music categories that threaten to redefine it as something that it is not. Sharon was the soul standard beared long before Amy Winehouse came along, conquered and tragically departed and, having fought her way out of a titanic battle with pancreatic cancer, Jones is stronger and more vocal than ever before. Initially delayed, her latest album ‘Give The People What They Want’ is a work borne of her struggles in this battle and is currently one of the driving forces behind her ongoing tour.

I caught up with the endearing songbird ahead of her show at Vega in Ma, for a chit-chat about her music, views on r & b, working with Lou Reed and the U.S healthcare system, which in case you forgot, is quite shit. She was chirpy, and talkative, ahead of her show, which went on to rake in widespread praise from various media and burst into song whenever afforded the slightest opportunity – her flowing locks replaced by an air of statuesque bald sophistication not unlike that of fellow diva-in-crime, Grace Jones.

The Battle Against Cancer 

A: “Welcome back to Copenhagen Sharon. How are you feeling ahead of the show ?”

Sharon: “Im ready.” “ I mean, we’ve been going, we’ve been going, we’ve been going.” “Tonight is the third show in a row.” “We fly to Helsinki or somewhere like that tomorrow.” “It’s a lot, but i’m ready to go !”

A “ This year has been a big one for you – you’ve come out fighting from your battle with cancer.” “Congratulations on that.”

Sharon: “Thanks – it’s still a battle.” “ You know for the rest of my life I have to go every six months to check that none of it comes back, as a matter of fact i’m going for a check-up on the 9th of June.”

A “How has this battle shaped your views on music and what it is that you do as a performer ?”

Sharon: “I just want to do more and get my stuff out there.” “I want people to recognise soul music and recognise that what me and The Dap Kings are doing is true soul music.” I’m alive and my goal is to push for the music world to recognise the category of soul music.” “I think that’s why my life was saved – for me to continue to do what i’m doing.”

A “To keep battling, admirable.” “ It goes without saying that it’s nice for you to be back on stage again”

Sharon “ Oh yeah !” “For me, that’s my joy, that’s my energy, that’s my happiness – the stage and music.” “ When I couldn’t do it, when I couldn’t sing, I couldn’t even listen to anything anymore” “ It was frustrating.” “ From June to September I couldn’t bend over, that’s how bad it was”

A “ Ouch ! “ Here in Denmark, there’s a lot of talk about the medical system” “ In the U.S, they are trying to reform things right now.” “What is your experience with the system?”

Sharon: “Well thank God i’m in the band.” “ We have an insurance” “We pay so much for it though- almost 10’000 dollars a month !” “One of the doctors that did the operation in New York was from outside of my network so I had to pay.” “ He tried to work it into my plan but it wasn’t possible so after 2 or 3 months I had to pay him some 20’000 dollars or whatever it was.” “ I’ve been paying and paying and I wasn’t working so the little money i’d saved up was chewed up.” “I have to take enzymes for the rest of my life though – I just changed insurances so that’s gone up too and the medicine itself it probably also going to go up.”

A: “That’s crazy”

Sharon: “It is – I went to a med store sometime back and I hadn’t shown my insurance card so the guy behind the counter comes back with the medicine – he wouldn’t even tell me out loud how much it was – he wrote it on a piece of paper and pointed to it.” “ I was like have you lost your mind ?” “Five hundred and eighty something dollars !” “Of course when I showed the insurance card the price came down drastically but it got me thinking, if I didn’t have insurance, what would that mean ?” “ Would I just die if I couldn’t afford the medicine ?”

A : “Sadly that is a reality for many people in America”

Sharon: “Yeah, people are sick and can’t get medication – they are not insured” It’s scary, they are fighting Obamacare, trying to say it’s not working.” “ It is working, they just don’t want to give it a chance.” “ They are full of crap !” “It’s all about the pharmaceuticals and the money – you’ve got to keep the doctors and the doctors have to keep you on all your pills instead of telling you to go home and find more natural solutions that could also help you” “I don’t want to talk about natural drugs because the last time I talked to one of the news people in New York they misinterpreted it completely.” “That was not my intention at all – I wasn’t bragging about my experiences with weed , but they need to get it right, there are a lot of people that use it- cancer patients and so on”

A: “Well they have legitimized Marijuana in some parts of the states, Colorado for instance.”

Sharon: “Colorado is a different part of the country.” “Even if people don’t want to smoke it, they can take a pill prescribed by the doctors.”

A : “It’s quite stressful to contemplate a med system based on such rampant inequalities”

Sharon : “ I’m telling you- you see what it’s like ?” “ I figure that everyone has to do what they got to do- i’ve been eating kale, Spinach and carrots, ginger and so on, mixed as a drink sometimes”

A: “Sounds like a nutrient bomb”

Sharon “ Yeah, when I started taking it the doctors were amazed by how fast I was recovering.” “ That’s the power of the greens, the power of vegetables.” “That’s what you’ve got to do, stick to natural stuff.”

Give The People What They Want 

A: “ Indeed.” “Going back to a more positive topic, your music –your latest album Give the people what they want’ was also delayed by your illness.” “It’s out now and it’s got quite a lot of people baking it up.” “What was the inspiration behind it ?”

Sharon : “It took us a couple of years just to make the album because my mother was sick, Neil Sugarman’s brother was sick too.” “They both died afterwards- my mother died during the making of this album, Neil Sugarman’s brother died of cancer then the next year there I was diagnosed.”

A: “Was the album ready at that point ?”

Sharon “No actually the album was due to drop in August and in April-May I was diagnosed with cancer so everything got postponed to the year after, January.” “We put out ‘Retreat’ already because we thought the album was coming out so while I was in the hospital an animated video was made for it – which changed it to a tale about fighting cancer.” “We also did the video for ‘Stranger’ – I was very sick during that, on chemo.” “ I went in and we did the video over one day and I was in bed for the next four days after that because my white blood cell count had dropped and my immune system was down.” “It was happy though, but I was a stranger to it all.” ‘Get up and get out’ changed as well – first I had to learn it- the drummer wrote it and he didn’t tell me what the song was all about to start off with.” “ Later he told me it was about bed bugs – ‘I’ve been laying with you night after night, you leave before I see the morning light, I always say you’re not welcome no more but when you knock I open up the door and say Get up and get out !” (sings jubilantly ! )

A: “ Haha ! And there I was thinking that this song was about some lousy lover ! “

Sharon “Yeah, right ? (Laughs) “ And then the second verse ‘All my friends they ask me about you and I swear up and down that we are through.” “If only what I say is true, why can’t you find someone new ?” “Get up and get out !” “When I started singing it on stage, we changed the whole groove and I start the song off in a Tina Turner way.” “I don’t tell em about the bed bugs though” “At the end I scream ‘ Get up cancer, get out!’ “I shout the cancer out”

Proper R & B is not pop 

A : “ Your record label, Daptone, has a back to the old r & b school feel to it…”

Sharon “Yeah it’s r & b but we want to want to be recognised as soul – there is no label for soul music in the music categories.”

A “So what is the difference, for you, between the ‘r & b’ that we hear on the radio today and what you’ve been making throughout the years ?”

Sharon: “It’s just changed.” “The r & b of today isn’t the r & b of the old days because the r & b of the past was called soul.” “James Brown came up with funk and then you had different categories of funk” “ R & B took on a whole other value; I don’t even know what the hell they’re talking about when it comes to r & b today – it’s pop music.” “Anytime you take, and I keep using their names, Taylor Swift and Justin Timberlake, and people keep on saying they’re r & b singers I think ‘Wait, that’s pop ! They are great pop singers, their music is great but it’s not r & b.” “I don’t consider it r & b.”

A “For me Amy Winehouse was a very good musician, all credit and respect to her, would you say that you have a similar sound ? “You’d been on the scene for some time before her singing that sort of sound.”

Sharon : “Yeah, we inspired her, I inspired her.” “That’s why Amy and Ronson came to our label, came to the Dap Kings and 6 of her songs on her album were produced.”

A : “ What is your philosophy behind music ?” “Why do you do what you do ?”

Sharon : “I’ve never really thought about it like that.” “I think of music as a bit of my life, it’s been part of my life since I was a child.” “When I did my first solo and realised I can sing in church, at that point, I was aware that it was a gift, a blessing.” “It’s something I have to do – it’s my happiness, my joy.” “I don’t have kids, i’m not married and i’ve been on the road for the last 20 years or so touring” “ To me, when I lose that joy, that happiness, or when I don’t feel that connection, when I lose the connection with my fan or with my band, it’s time to quit, to retire”

A: “Hopefully not anytime soon”

Sharon : “I don’t see it coming any time soon right now”

A: “It was difficult for you to make your big break, having been around on the scene for a while.” “When did you know for certain that making music was something you wanted to devote your life to ?”

Sharon: “It was in church one day.” “Back in the 80’s and 90’s I was trying to do that club stuff with all them beats – you’d go in the studio and they’d tell you ‘Sorry, but you just don’t have the look for this kind of stuff.’ “I knew I had a voice, a gift so to be told that in my youth was hurtful.” “I took many jobs and many of them weren’t for me.” “Everything comes back to my music, back to singing.” “I knew that it was part of my life and something that I had to do.” “ You’ve got to know where you’re going and what you’re doing.” “Some people want to be singers and musicians and it’s not for them. “In your heart you know you’re good and if you’re somewhere and fifty people tell you that you’re not or 100’000 people tell you that and you’re the only one who believes in you, maybe there’s something wrong.” “ However, when one person out of all those tells you something positive, you’ve got to search yourself and keep going- have faith in yourself and keep that one person in mind.” “That’s what carried me, I didn’t have to look though- my ex was out playing and the guys he was with were looking for a soul singer with a James Brown groove thing going.” “ I could do that easily, that was my break and I knew that it was the style of music that I was meant to do.” “I don’t want to go out and try to sound like Beyonce or some of the young girls out there today, that’s not what I do.”

A : “That’s the problem with the music industry, their reproduction of everything that’s already there …”

Sharon: “And people let them do it, they give you a bit of money and if you’re record doesn’t sell a few hundred thousand copies they drop you.” “With my music, whether I sell 500 or 5000, the record label is still going to go on supporting me”

R.I.P Lou Reed 

A : “You’ve worked with quite a few musicians over the years – Lou Reed being one of them.” “What was it like working with Lou?”

Sharon: “Honestly, I didn’t even know who Lou Reed was.” (chuckles) “Of course I remember ‘tu tu tu’ (hums ‘talk a walk on the wild side’ ) but it wasn’t my style – I wasn’t into the rock of the 80’s and 90’s.” “When they told me what he was doing and I listened to his ‘Berlin’ album I thought ‘Wow ! This is dark.” “At that first rehearsal in Brooklyn Anthony from Anthony and the Johnson’s was there too.” “ I didn’t know who this guy was but his style reminded me a lot of Tiny Tim who used to sing ‘tip toe to the garden’ (sings Tiny Tim’s iconic Tip Toe Through the Garden’ ) “ He had a very high pitched voice.” “ I went to Australia and he let me do a verse of ‘Sweet Jane’ with him on the first night.” “ He wasn’t going to ask me to sing”

A: Why not ?

Sharon : “That’s Lou for you – I stepped on his solos.” “It didn’t bother me at all – In Australia someone asked him what it was like to have such great backup singers and he said ‘Sharon, come here, I want you to take a verse of ‘Sweet Jane’ and we tried it out without success to start off with.” “ I told him ‘Lou if I have to sing this song the way you sing it then I don’t want to do it because that’s not who I am’

A: “Two very different styles”

Sharon “Exactly.” “So Lou goes ‘I tell you what, i’ve been singing this song for many years my way – let me see how you are going to do it.’ “I did my Tina Turner thing and at the end of the night Lou says ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, the magnificent, wonderful Sharon Jones !’ “We hugged in the dressing room afterwards and everything was cool.” “ He was happy to start off with but got mad afterwards because he wanted me to go on tour with him in Europe and I said yes, before cancelling 3 days before the tour because I had to do the movie with Denzel Washington , ‘The Great Debaters’- I chose to do the movie.”

A “How come ?”

Sharon: “Because it was Denzel and it was the great debaters (chuckles heartily)” “ It was an opportunity to be in a movie, who would turn that down ?” “I would have made more money with Lou but I turned down the tour.” “I had two short scenes but would you believe it they cut em out !” “ I sung a whole song as well which they also cut out” “So get the original and watch the director’s cut and you’ll see me in there and the parts that they took out.”

A : “ Any idea why they cut that out ?”

Sharon: “Length I guess.” “Movies are always too long and they have to nip it down from like 3 hours to an hour and a half so there are so many scenes they have to cut out.” “Of course my scenes were some of them” (laughs)

A : “I’ve got to see the movie then I guess”

Sharon: “From the beginning Al, It’s all at the beginning.”

A: “Any plans of acting again any time soon ?”

Sharon: “Oh I would love to !” “We are in ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ too – the whole band.” “I would love it if Tyler Perry did something and got me in there.” “Singing is acting you know, you’ve got to act those stories out when you’re on the stage.”

A: “This is my last question, what’s next for you ?” “ You’re touring now but are the plans beyond ‘Give The People What They Want ?’

Sharon: “ No plan really, I just want to continue to get this album known and continue to have my health.” “I hope and pray that every show we do goes well, that nothing has to be cancelled.” “That’s important you know- cancellation hurts.”

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