Interview: Sharon Jones (2011)

The first show to sell out at the 2011 Savannah Music Festival was the March 24 performance by the R&B powerhouse Sharon Jones & the Dap–Kings. Which just goes to show you, some things never go out of style.

Inspired by the classic soul and funk recordings of the 1960s and early ‘70s, the eight–member band plays it sharp and tight, with thick grooves, chunky electric guitar and a punctuating horn section that’s got a ferocious bite.

Jones is a seriously soulful vocalist with tremendous emotional range. Born in Augusta (that’s James Brown’s hometown, y’all), she was 3 when he mother moved the family to New York. But Jones (“I am a Southerner,” she says proudly) spent almost all of her childhood summers in Georgia. Not long ago, she moved her mother into a house in South Carolina, just across the Savannah River from Augusta.

It wasn’t an easy road. Although Jones has been singing since she can remember, success eluded her until the late 1990s. In New York she drove a Wells Fargo armored car, and for many years was a prison guard at C–74, the adolescent offenders’ block at Rikers Island penitentiary.

Through her years as a part–time studio backup vocalist, she made the acquaintance of Gabriel Roth & Neal Sugarman, founders of the Brooklyn–based indie label Daptone Records.

The studio house band became the Dap–Kings. All of the Jones/Dap–Kings albums – from Dap Dippin’ in 2001 to the recent I Learned the Hard Way – have been recorded in the old–school fashion on analog (not digital) studio equipment, utilizing vintage instruments and amplifiers.

Don’t call it “retro,” however, unless you’re ready for a good dressing–down from Sharon.

This is music you grew up singing all your life. Does it bother you when people refer to it as “retro”?

Sharon Jones: I tell people, there ain’t nothing retro about me. To me, retro is some young person out here trying to imitate and sound like some soul singer. I ain’t no young child trying to sound like somebody way back when! If you admire my singing because it reminds you of James Brown, Otis Redding, Ike and Tina Turner or something like that, then yes, ain’t nothing wrong with me reminding you. But I ain’t trying to sound like nobody. I’m Sharon Jones, and I’m 55 years old. And what’s retro about a 55 year–old?

Now, if I was 23 …

That’s why you don’t see us up for no Grammys or awards. They need to have an award for soul music. And they also need to have an award for independent labels, or some category. They can make something up.

Sharon Jones & the Dap–Kings are not getting recognized. They say “Soul music is from the ‘60s, and it’s gone. Those people died out, so there is no more soul music.” And then I read where one guy said “Soul music is people singing about struggling.” That’s bullcrap! That’s craziness.

It took a few years for you to become successful. How frustrated were you over those years?

Sharon Jones: When they wouldn’t accept me at this label or that, I just kept myself busy. Never stopped singing, whether it was with the church choir, or doing studio work, stuff like that. And that’s how I got with the Dap–Kings — my ex was working with these guys, and they were putting these records together, trying to sound like they were made back in the ‘60s. I was “Say what? Get out of here!” They were these young white boys adding some Afro–beat stuff, and every time I heard it I thought that’s cool, you know, the Daktari beat.

They wanted three background girl singers. I was like “Why use three? I can do all three parts.” And I went in and did it, and it was right down my alley. And nobody looked at me and said “You are too old,” or “You don’t have what we’re looking for.” They were grateful.

They said “Say something to this music!” and I made something up, and that’s what it’s all about. That’s soul music. You hear good music, you hear a groove and you sing soul.

If it was retro, these guys would get some young singers in and try to teach them how to sing these songs to sound soulful. The Dap–Kings write the music and lyrics — give me the music, the lyrics, and I sing it the way I think it should sound to this music.

Is it gratifying to find your music accepted and loved all over the world?

Sharon Jones: Yes, especially in Australia, and in a lot of European places, where you know there’s not that soul music over there whatsoever. I get that a lot. And I love the reaction.

I think that’s why I like to react with the audience. The new artists go out and they have all these 50,000 lights and smoke, and dirty dancers running across the stage half–naked … me, the less stuff you have running across the stage, the less lights and smoke, the people get to see …  They get to feel it, you know? Keeping it that old–school way.

I like to show them how to do the Boogaloo, the Funky Chicken, you know?

I know those dances run out, but what else can I do? That’s my show, that’s what I do.

Can you see this growing and growing?

Sharon Jones: That’s what I want. It’s a record label, we’re musicians. It’s like Berry Gordy from Motown, and the head of Stax, and whoever was in charge of Atlantic, all these labels … we started this label, this is our job, this is our life. And in years to come, when I decide to stop singing, I want to be able to go out and produce, and find some young soul singers. Continue to keep the soul music alive — not just stop, and then everybody starts doing pop, and rap, and all this other. Just try to keep it where it is, and find talent to come to your label.

You other labels, y’all keep doing what you’re doing, ain’t nobody stopping you. Nobody’s saying what y’all are doing is wrong; ain’t nobody trying to stop y’all. Make your millions and go on and do what you been doing.

But we just want to do the same thing. I think we can make millions too.

With me, I don’t know if I’ll be able to see millions, but I just got this house for my moms and family, and I’d like to get ME a home. I want to get a personal life right now.


@2011 Connect Savannah

Interview: Ben Bridwell of Band of Horses (2011)

A self–deprecating sense of humor is just one of the refreshing things about Band of Horses founder and frontman Ben Bridwell, who brings his group to the Johnny Mercer Theatre this week for a Savannah Music Festival show.

There’s also this: He writes catchy, memorable songs that still manage to evoke deep–dream vistas, color misty inner monologues and make you think;

His music is “retro” with any sense of obvious rehash, and “contemporary” without sounding like it’s trying too damn hard to impress anyone;

He’s a self–taught musician (guitar, pedal steel, mandolin and anything else that might be laying around) and a self–made business success (he started a record label in Seattle in 1997, and it’s still going today);

He’s addicted to UGA football.

Band of Horses, which began about seven years ago following the breakup of Cassandra’s Wierd (for which Bridwell played drums), released two acclaimed albums (Everything All the Time and Cease to Exist) through Seattle’s legendary Sub Pop label.

So Bridwell and company were already indie darlings when Infinite Arms appeared in 2010 as a split–label deal with Sony and Bridwell’s homegrown Brown Records (with an assist from Fat Possum). In no time, it entered the Billboard chart at No. 7 and was nominated for a Grammy.

The group’s music is an energized blend of rootsy Americana, 1960s harmonies and lush soundscapes drenched in reverb, with fairly straightforward pop or rock ‘n’ roll arrangements hitting your nerve center when you least expect it.

A native of  Irmo, S.C., Bridwell was kicking a soccer ball around with his 3–year–old daughter when he called, from the back yard of his recently–purchased home in Mt. Pleasant, just outside of Charleston.

He was in particularly fine spirits.

I read a short interview with you in – and I’m not making this up – Time Out Abu Dhabi, where you were complaining about how your “whiny girl voice” makes you cringe. I know you came relatively late to music, but do you still have insecurities about what you do?

Ben Bridwell: Yeah, I do. It hits you at the weirdest times. Sometimes it’s nothing but absolute joy and pleasure, and other times it’s still quite a pleasure but yeah, it can be a little bit unnerving that it’s your stupid head singing stuff. For the most part, I’m a lot more comfortable with it now than, say, a couple of years ago when I was just getting started.

You were bartending in Seattle, and you just “started” playing drums. Was music always sort of bubbling up inside you, or did you just one day say “I’m gonna try this”?

Ben Bridwell: I didn’t really think of it like that. I’d never even considered myself qualified to play drums or anything. I was releasing records on my little label, and I felt more in my comfort zone in that kind of position. But then, once I did start playing in a band, and playing the worst drums imaginable – the drums themselves were fine, it was the operator that was the problem – then I got used to touring around the country, and the kind of camaraderie and inspiration that comes from that kind of scenario. And I just didn’t want to give it up once that band broke up.

And coming from a family where music was so important, since I was born, that’s all I really lived and breathed. So it’s really the only thing I was qualified to do besides flip eggs or pour beer. I decided to just work really hard at trying to make songs.

What was in your parents’ record collection? What moved you?

Ben Bridwell: They grew up in Atlanta, so there was a lot of soul stuff. There was a lot of Rolling Stones for one – not so much the Beatles – but a lot of Rolling Stones, and the people that influenced the Rolling Stones. A lot of Otis Redding, James Brown, Motown stuff, all the Atlantic stuff. And a lot of Southern rock, Allman Brothers.

Then they got into some Luther Vandross and some Peabo Bryson, some of the more like modern, ‘80s R&B. So a nice spectrum of sounds, I think.

Interesting. If you say “Otis Redding to Luther Vandross to Band of Horses,” I’m not going to make the leap. There’s a great pop sensibility to your music, and the harmonies at times remind me of the Byrds and bands like that.

Ben Bridwell: Right, and a lot of Neil Young and CSNY stuff. I guess I get a lot of the sense of harmony from listening to a lot of those records.

I’ve always referred to our tag of music as “Mirage Rock,” not garage rock. Where it’s like, from a distance it sounds really good, but when you get really close to it you can tell that there’s nothing really there of substance.

Aren’t you selling yourself short there?

Ben Bridwell: That’s my funny little thing that I thought of one day: ‘I’m going to create a whole new genre of music called Mirage Rock.” I don’t know, man, I do whatever kind of is in the moment for me in a song, and hope that it’s the right approach to it.

Sometimes I’m probably way off, but other times I think it works out quite well. And it’s a new adventure every song. I don’t really know where it comes from, but I just know I have some core sense of what I want to do with it, usually.

It must be pretty great to realize that there are thousands of good bands out there who haven’t reached this level of success. Is there a “pinching myself” element sometimes?

Ben Bridwell: Dude, all the time! When I go to do a lot of writing things, I have to step away from the house – especially with babies everywhere, screaming all the time – and I go to like beach houses, or cabins. And that’s where I’m like “I must have the best job in the world.” If you can call it a job. I go on site to a beach house, and go into seclusion for a week, and scream my balls off and go crazy.

Not to mention, after a lot of different lineup changes I finally have this great family that’s in the band now. So even in those annoying moments of traveling and all the headache that goes with everything but the show, I’m surrounded by really great people. So it lessens the sting of any of the bad stuff.

I always feel like it could all come crashing down tomorrow, and I’ll be back to flipping eggs or something. It’s not lost on me how lucky we are.

At the same time, I don’t want to pander so hard to the people that are fans of the band that I’m not stretching myself artistically. I guess that’s a pretty cliche answer, but it’s true.

Going back to the beach house concept, you locked yourself away to write the songs for Infinite Arms. Tell me why you do that.

Ben Bridwell: I need to be able to whine out loud, really, that’s what it is. I need to be able to sing and not feel like someone can hear me. ‘Cause if I feel like someone can hear me, I’ll immediately – maybe even subconsciously – get self–conscious and pull back a bit.

Maybe that’s going back to the “not feeling that comfortable” thing, but I don’t want somebody to hear me doing that. I don’t want to hear somebody else moving around, because I’ll get scared off. I just try to isolate myself as far away from people as possibly, so I can really squeeze out whatever emotion I’m trying to put into the singing.

I’m just trying to stretch myself, and sometimes that means being loud as hell. I’ll sing like crap if I feel like someone can hear me.

For you personally: Live shows, or studio work? What would you rather be doing all the time?

Ben Bridwell: Man, it’s tough. That one goes back and forth. Sometimes I’m incredibly comfortable onstage, and the performance is so exhilarating that it can’t be matched by anything in the studio.

But more often times than not, I’m more on edge onstage than I would be in the studio environment, where it’s all just creation and pushing yourself to different limits. That maybe in a live performance you don’t get the chance to do, because you can fall on your face in front of the adoring public, or you’re just nervous.

So I think I more prefer the studio environment, at least today. But if you ask me after a show or something that was really good, I’d say there was no better feeling in the world than that.

So I can’t really give a clear answer on that. They’re both terrible and awesome.

I saw the YouTube video of you onstage with Pearl Jam, singing the Temple of the Dog song “Hunger Strike.” I thought, that’s got to feel pretty good for a guy who was still hustling around Seattle when Pearl Jam was on top of the world. That’s kind of a full circle, isn’t it?

Ben Bridwell: Holy cow, yeah. And just remembering when I heard that song for the first time – I was actually a major MTV Johnny, so when I first saw that video and fell in love with that song … it’s kind of mind–blowing to think I was probably 12 or 13 or something.

So it was definitely full–circle in so many ways. But also, completely terrifying. If you see the video, you can tell I don’t even know where to put my hands, I’m trying to hide my smile, I’m trying not to bust out in tears. It was just a fucking mental Vietnam, man. I was having a tough day.

I thought it looked great!

Ben Bridwell: I don’t mean to sell it short, because it went awesome. It was one of those memories that I’ll take with me to my death. It just had me so in a ball of nerves that I can’t believe I actually didn’t, like, pass out on the stage.

I understand you’re quite the Georgia Bulldogs fan …

Ben Bridwell:  I can live and die by some of the games, especially football. I shouldn’t get so wrapped up in it. And fortunately, we’ve been kind of bad the past couple years, so I’ve lessened my depressions when we lose a game.

I love it so much, man. And it’s funny, a lot of people in this music game aren’t that into sports. But I wait for football season impatiently every year.

Do you ever have to miss an important game because of your job?

Ben Bridwell: Every game, I swear to God. Any time something important is going on, Band of Horses is getting in the way of my football habit – and I’m a little bit fed up with it, actually!

Sometimes the game will end right before we’re supposed to go onstage. Sometimes I’m sitting there holding the stage time because we’re in overtime or something. And we end up losing.

And you can’t drag your sad ass on the stage and ruin the show! But it definitely crosses my mind.

@2011 Connect Savannah

Interview: Seth Avett (2011)

For Seth Avett, this past February 13 was the high–water mark in a year filled with them. “We got a chance to talk over song parts with sort of ‘the one’ in the realm of Americana songwriting,” Avett enthuses. “There’s none higher.”

The occasion was the 2011 Grammy Awards telecast, and “the one” was none other than Bob Dylan. Avett, his brother Scott and the other members of the Avett Brothers’ band backed the Bard on a raucous version of “Maggie’s Farm,” joined by the indie group Mumford and Sons.

“It was, obviously and predictably, a dream come true,” says Avett. “It happened very quickly. We did two rehearsals – we did the song maybe 15 or 20 times before we did it onstage.”

The young musicians didn’t know what to expect. “Everybody that works for him will preface your meeting with him with ‘When Bob gets here, he may want to want to do the song in a different key,’” the 30-year-old Avett recalls. “They say ‘He may want to do it in a different tempo. He might want to do it slower or faster, or he might want to do a different song. And if he does, just roll with it.’

“But he seemed to be pretty intent on doing the song we planned on, and real focused, and really invested in the song and wanting to make it great. He was real personable to us, and after the song on the actual awards ceremony, he turned around to me and Scott and was like ‘That was great!’ It was a hell of a moment.”

The Avett Brothers are currently the darlings of the indie Americana world. Brothers Scott and Seth are not only exemplary songwriters, each has a distinctive, plaintive voice that brings to mind Levon Helm and Richard Manuel, respectively, from The Band’s glory days. They make every lyric sound hard–won and real.

When they sing harmony, however, that’s when the goosebumps start.

“When we sing together, there’s something about being kin, about being siblings, it does some of the work for you,” Avett says. “The personality of the voices, the character of the voices is there without ever having to worry about it. As long as you can sing with your natural voice, and try to get rid of any kind of pretense of what a singer sounds like, that’s gonna happen.

“I believe that is the goal for any singer. Like, as soon as the singer starts trying to sound like a singer, it’s horrendous. And we all know some very popular singers that are very in love with their own voices, and come across a little bit saccharine for that reason.” Avett also fesses up to having a soft spot for early Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers recordings.

Born and raised in Concord, N.C., the brothers were onstage early, in high energy rock ‘n’ roll bands. Inspired by their heroes Jerry Cantrell and Layne Stanley of Alice in Chains, they realized their capacity for close harmony.

The emotional texture of acoustic music was a late discovery.

“Some of that was just a basic surrendering to what felt natural. Where it got cranking, inspiration–wise, was when I was about 14 and I got to go, through mutual friends, and meet Doc Watson. And go to his house and hang out a little bit. He’s a king in the world of American roots music.

“So I starting to listen to a lot of roots music, and going into blues – Blind Boy Fuller, Blind Willie McTell, plus Woody Guthrie, Jimmie Rodgers, all these guys … Scott and I both. We both started becoming open to that.”

On a basic level, he says, “it just felt natural. And there’s only so long that you can deny what you are sort of meant to be doing.”

Avett calls what the band does now “a mixture of a lot of things that we love. There is a rock element, and there will always be a rock element. We’re not gonna be just a little folk duo. We like doing that, and then we also like getting loud, getting heavy, whatever.

“But we had to admit to ourselves that we liked the simplification, instrument–wise and personality–wise. We liked breaking it down to just me and him, we just had to count on each other. And the music just got very simple and uncluttered. And that was a natural fit.”

The Avett Brothers band includes the siblings’ longtime compadre, bassist Bob Crawford, and cellist Joe Kwon.

They’re well into the recording of their second album with producer Rick Rubin, the follow–up to 2009’s major–label debut I And Love and You.

Released on Rubin’s label American Recordings, a Sony subsidiary, the album got glowing – even reverent – reviews. It reached No. 16 on the Billboard chart.

Success, Avett says, hasn’t changed them – what it’s done is necessitated a logistical shift. There are more people around now, helping get music heard, helping to get the band from one place to another, helping to arrange things like the Grammy telecast with Dylan.

The only thing Avett regrets is that the brothers now have less interaction with their fans. That’s generally one of the first casualties of a successful flush.

But never suggest that Scott and Seth have become mere pawns in a music–business corporate game.

“We incorporated right at the beginning, so we got our minds set in the business side of things early on,” Avett explains. “Which was a very healthy step for us.

“See, our father ran a welding crew for 35 years, and he owned his own business. So we grew up watching the blue–collar work ethic, and the blue–collar understanding of a small business. Doing the payroll, doing things legitimate–wise.

“We had seen a quality example of that, so it just made sense to us to run our band and our travels like a construction company. That’s how we patterned our business for the first seven years.

“So when we signed a major label deal, it wasn’t at all like the fairy tale: ‘Please sign us, make us famous’ or whatever. It was ‘we’ve got our company, and we’re doing something good. We feel like y’all are doing something good. Can we make it work together?’”

@2011 Connect Savannah