Sharon Jones has been one busy woman lately. After decades of working in virtual anonymity — and as a wedding singer, security guard and correctional officer, among other jobs — the Brooklyn-based soul diva is finally getting her due. Her new album, the aptly titled I Learned the Hard Way, is her fourth with longtime backing band the Dap-Kings. It’s drawn rave reviews around the globe, thrusting the fiery 54-year-old singer into the media spotlight as the modern face of classic soul revivalism.
Seven Days recently chatted with Jones by phone in advance of her upcoming performance at the Burlington Discover Jazz Festival.
SEVEN DAYS: You’ve been at this since the 1970s but have really only recently begun to crack the mainstream consciousness. So … what the hell took so long?
SHARON JONES: The main thing was people telling me that I didn’t have the look, you know? I wasn’t what major labels were looking for.
SD: You’ve worked some pretty odd jobs along the way, including as a correctional officer at Rikers Island. I’ve heard you used to sing to the inmates.
SJ: One time. That happened one time. They refused to lock up until I sang “Greatest Love [of All].”
SD: Of all the songs…
SJ: They were joking, but they were really serious. They would stand in front of their cells, and I would sing. They would step in and I would close the cells up.
SD: There is renewed interest in “classic” soul lately, including a lot of younger bands mining the genre for original material of their own. Why now?
SJ: It never ended, to me. It’s always been like this, but it’s just that certain people are talking about it. Once people like … Mark [Ronson] did the thing with Amy [Winehouse], it’s, like, “Oh, she won a Grammy for doing old school. I wanna do old school, too.” They all think they can do old school, but they can’t, because they don’t know what’s going on. You’re doing old school with digital stuff. How are these young kids gonna do old school and sing soul music when they trying to sing pop, doing these things to their voices like … you know, I can’t even do it. But that’s not soul. That’s not old school. You can get these young kids and give ’em this old-school music. But it ain’t gonna sound right.
SD: But there are some acts who seem to be doing it right — JC Brooks, Ryan Shaw, Black Joe Lewis.
SJ: Sure. They wanna do it and that’s good. But we kept it alive. That’s what makes us different. We never gave up. We never did stop. These young people, they’ll experiment. But look at Amy. What’s she doing now? How many years has it been? Some folks are still into it, but nobody is serious. Me? I’m old school. Fifty-four years old. So I’m not gonna be changing. You won’t hear me doing no rap or hip-hop stuff. If anything, people will be coming to me to collaborate on some old school, some soul music.
SD: Well, you have been doing a lot of collaborating lately. You stopped by the Phish Halloween show in California last year to do Exile on Main St. Do you think they might return the favor when you play here?
SJ: Oh, I don’t know. Maybe. I hope so. They’re pretty busy, too.
SD: There was also the collaboration with Michael Bublé on “Saturday Night Live.” That helped raise your profile.
SJ: Those things have helped us a lot. I pick up these papers and they’ve got me in the celebrity section. And I’m, like, “What in the world? I’m a celebrity now?” It’s amazing.
SD: Well, you are regarded as one of the major torchbearers keeping soul music alive.
SJ: I’m realizing that! And it’s a great title to have. I’m creating a piece of history here, and I realize that now.
SD: Isn’t that kind of a lot of pressure?
SJ: Well, there is more media pressure as far as interviews and stuff. And that’s good. The more you stay on people, the more they read about you and see you, the more they gonna talk about you. And I’d rather it be positive stuff they talk about us than negative.
SD: The first time I saw you was several years ago in front of maybe 100 people at a small room here in Burlington. But now you’re selling out the Apollo, playing Bonnaroo, touring Europe. Do you ever miss those intimate club shows?
SJ: No. We don’t miss them. [Laughs] No, really, those shows are a part of your experience and we like that closeness. But we’ve worked hard, that’s the time we put in. But now that we’re [playing bigger shows], I’m grateful. You miss it and you don’t miss it. When you’re playing those little clubs, you have to do so many, you have to go out every day. I can’t be singing like that anymore. I can do three or four days, but give me some rest. I need a day off.
SD: Having seen some of the larger shows, it seems like you really try to retain that closeness with the audience.
SJ: I love that. I mean, that’s my high. To stand there and just look at their faces … that’s my enjoyment. And if I ever start singing and I can’t see that, once that goes away, it’s time for me to stop singing.