Feel free to call Sharon Jones the hardest-working woman in show business. Call her a powerhouse performer. But in spite of Jones and her band, the Dap-Kings, making fine soul music that blends the vintage sounds of Motown, Stax and Philly into an irresistibly timeless mix, you might not want to describe her as "retro."
"People keep saying that," says Jones. "I'm telling you what I keep telling everyone: There's nothing retro about Sharon Jones. I was born in 1956. If I was 20 years old, I might be retro. I'm a soul singer. That's it. You don't see me trying to be Beyoncé or someone like that. But I can go out and hang with them. I can throw some soul at them."
And Jones does plenty of throwing down on her latest album, I Learned the Hard Way, a solid follow-up to 2007's superb and soul-filled 100 Days, 100 Nights.
The Georgia-born Jones learned about soul music while growing up in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, listening to the radio through the '60s and early '70s.
"We only had a couple radio stations, they were AM," she said. "They played everything: Stax, Motown, the Beatles, Johnny Cash. They didn't have all these soft rock, modern rock, house, all of that. For me, it all boils down to R&B, soul, gospel, jazz and blues. That's all the categories you need, those and pop."
After graduating from high school, Jones formed a funky party band called Inner Spectrum, but couldn't get anything going in the disco and rap eras. To make ends meet, she even worked for more than a year at New York's notorious Rikers Island jail complex.
By the early '90s, Jones was doing house music, but her heart was still in the soul she'd embraced 20 years earlier.
A musician boyfriend took her along to a session he was doing with the Soul Providers, a funk-soul band. She was supposed to be a background singer, but made enough of an impression that she connected with Gabriel Roth, the band's young bassist.
The Soul Providers became Jones' backing group, the Dap-Kings. In 2000, Roth founded Daptone Records and began releasing classic soul albums, including four with Jones leading the band.
"I'm just so glad I made that decision to stay with Gabe," says Jones, whose albums combine old-school analog recording with the right frame of mind. "We write music, stuff we like. We know our fans like what we do. That's the attitude you should have — go out and make good music."
To promote the new album, Jones made a trip to Austin, Texas for the South by Southwest music festival. At a St. Patrick's Day show before some 2,000 people, she shimmied, shook and kicked so hard that one of her new high heels went flying toward the rhythm section.
That kind of onstage exertion means she can't head out for the after-parties with the rest of the band.
"I'm preserving myself," she says. "I'm telling you something, living in that bus is hard. Climbing in and out of those heels and dancing, that's work. They hurt. I get out there giving it everything I've got, and then I tighten up. I've got to get my rest."