INTERVIEW: SHARON JONES
BY MATT REEKIE
Miss Sharon Jones passed away today, aged 60, after a heroic battle with pancreatic cancer, and suddenly the world is a lot less soulful.
The honey-throated singer, who came to prominence at aged 40 as the frontwoman for Brooklyn soul revivalists The Dap Kings, was an absolute badass with a heart of gold.
I had the privilege of interviewing her in 2010 when the album I Learned The Hard Way was released. When we were discussing guns she said, “If I aim at something, I hit it.” That was her life.
Is it true you used to be a prison officer at Rikers Island?
I worked at Rikers Island for a couple of years from about ’88. I took the police test and I took the court order test and sanitation department, but correction was the one that came through. But it was just for a little while and then it was back to my music, you know. When I left correction I worked at Wells Fargo Armed Security. At the time ATM machines were all coming out and they had guys going out in trucks putting money in the ATMs and I had to stand there and watch them as they go in and make sure no one tries to come up and you know… It was just for the insurance. You have to have an armed guard there when you’re handling that amount of money. The money was still insured, so I wasn’t about to get myself killed for someone else’s money. But I never got robbed, never had to pull my gun, only just to take it out and hold it down when they go into the bank.
That sounds cool.
Yeah, it was cool. I enjoyed that gig. Had to get the mean look on my face. Between the mean look and the gun, that’s what would probably back somebody off because if they just looked at my size they’d probably go, “What?” Y’know, “I hope she know how to use that gun!” And I guarantee you; I did know how to use it. I got a marksmanship. I don’t play around. If I aim at something, I hit it.
Did you grow up using guns.
Yes I did. One of my stories I always tell people is when my mother and father separated I moved with my mother to New York but I would go down and visit my father. My father passed away when I was 13, so I was very young. And I was a little tomboy. I had a slingshot in my pocket, in the top pocket I had marbles, I had a bow and arrow that my father had made me, I always had a little knife. I would play around with BB guns and pellet guns. I don’t know what it’s like for kids nowadays but our fathers and parents bought us store guns and stuff and we didn’t go shooting the other kid’s eye out, we didn’t go around shooting the neighbour’s cat or dog. We did what we were supposed to, we’d set up and shoot cans down and do target practice. My father taught me. I had to have been about seven or eight maybe and I remember watching people shooting up nickels and quarters and my daddy saying, “My baby can shoot that up. Come here, baby.” He showed me how you line it up and he went, “Now you squeeze that trigger and don’t move that hand,” and I went “Boom!” and that quarter flew out of the ground and I went, “Whoa!” and that was it for me with guns. I was always trying to find like every little game, whenever I went to Coney Island or to the fairs, if there was something with shooting, I’d be in the shooting range, “Bing! Boong!”
Were you fully prepared to have to go back to prison work if the music thing didn’t work out?
Well, you know what, I didn’t think if the music thing wasn’t going to work out. Because the music thing didn’t work out for me as far as major record labels and things, but I knew I was going to sing. I never said, “I’m going to go back to correction.” I told myself that music was my career and that I had to make this happen and I just knew that one day it was going to happen. You have to keep that faith. You’ve gotta believe in yourself, man, trust in your heart.
Why do you think the Daptone sound is connecting so strongly with listeners now – was it a matter of timing, that enough time had past since the golden era of soul and funk that folks are craving it again in big numbers?
It wasn’t the fact that people wanted it, it was the fact of what we wanted, what Gabe [Roth, bass] wanted. I didn’t know this but a lot of college students were on the internet sending all this music around, MySpace was all coming out, I was new to that. What are we now, going onto almost 15 years that we’ve been out here doing this now, and we’ve been known. But then when people just started hearing us four years ago, five years ago, they just came in the butt end of it. We’ve been out here, we been doing it. And the only reason they are hearing it about us now is because some of these younger ones coming out who got money and amazing labels backed them up and they came and grabbed us. I know all the older people inspired us, because a lot of soul singers inspired me, but a lot of these young ones they look at our stuff and go, “Whoa, that sounds just like it did back then, I wanna do that.” That’s cool to these guys, but they can’t do it themselves so they turn to Gabe and say, “How do you do that?” And he’s like, “Well you have the band play into the 8-track and blah blah blah blah blah. You know, like they used to do.” Hello? Everybody got all modernised and digital and they forgot about that old stuff. We didn’t forget it. Then again, you can bring in some of these younger musicians to play with us and they still won’t be able to get that sound because you gotta know what you’re playing. Firstly, to play soul you have be able to play from your heart, it’s gotta come from the soul. These young singers here, they can imitate a sound but can you hold it up to every song, or you only going to do six or seven songs on one album and then next year you want to go back to pop and hip-hop or whatever? We’ve stayed what we are and we’re not going anywhere. This is what we want to do. We’ve made up our mind. I don’t wanna be no pop singer. I’m not saying it’s bad, but I don’t wanna do that. I’m comfortable where I am. I am a soul singer. There’s nothing retro here. The young people are retro. I ain’t retro. I am soul.
Who will carry on the tradition after you?
I pray that there is someone gonna come after me. And maybe when I retire and stop singing maybe I’ll go on to produce and help find that talent. I hope someone do come out and some young people want to do what we’ve been doing and let it continue on.
Thanks for the interview, Sharon, what are you up to after this?
I’m getting ready to put my shoes on and go out and get my mother something to eat.