Even before its official release the Daptone album ‘Look Closer’ by SAUN & STARR is being lined up by soul tastemakers and fans alike as THE album of 2015. Those lucky enough to have had a preview will have heard an authentic brand of organic soul music rarely heard in these days of stereotyping and sonic airbrushing. Hardly surprising though… the Saun & Starr duo (Saundra Williams and Starr Duncan Lowe) were raised in the gospel tradition and are currently (as the Dapettes) working as backing singers – live and in the studio – for the dynamic Sharon Jones, who herself knows a thing or two about proper soul music. Time then surely to find out more about soul’s newest dynamic duo. Refreshingly enthusiastic and honest, both girls wanted to talk with SOULANDJAZZAND FUNK…. so let’s go….. What about some personal background…..
SAUN: I was born in Harlem and raised in The Bronx, New York. Growing up in The South Bronx was beautiful to me because my neighbourhood was comprised of people from all over the world so I would hear music in different styles and languages coming from the windows on the weekend or from behind my neighbour’s doors. Mostly though, the music that I heard in my own home was the music that opened my ears, head and heart to the worlds of soul, jazz, gospel, the blues, pop, folk and rock. This device called, ‘the radio’, changed my life at a very, very early age.
STARR: I was born in the South Bronx in the fabulous 60’s when the pioneers of music were paving the way to soulful sounds. Music was the thriving force in the home where I lived. My family had a huge album collection at that time. 78’s, 45’s, LP’s, you name the group we had it! Even classical music! My family always had music throughout the home and through that I was always singing.
What about musical influences… and musical heroes … I assume gospel’s in there
SAUN: My musical influences definitely started with my parents. My dad loved to sing. He played keyboard and wrote songs too. He loved all styles of music. He’d sing a few songs in Spanish and even in French and Italian. He was a natural and when I saw how the musical gifts just flowed from him, I figured somewhere in my mind that it might just flow like that with me if I tried. Soon, I was singing around the house too. That was my ‘practice’. Listening to my Dad were my lessons. My mom can sing too but in her own little way. Kind of like, she could set the church on fire during devotional but she wouldn’t be leading any songs with the choir. She’s really cute with it and she writes her own gospel songs that she sings sometimes. My parents are my musical heroes. As far as the world outside my home, so many artists have influenced me. I just keep an open heart and receive what I receive from whomever I listen to. ..Motown, Gospel music and AM radio, without a doubt, changed my life. Mom took us to church at young ages and gospel music was all around us. Gospel music smoulders, to this day, right in the middle of my chest. Always. If I really had to narrow it down, I’d say that Stephanie Mills enthralled me for so many reasons when I was young and on the gospel front… Aretha Franklin and Walter Hawkins and The Love Alive Choir had me not being able to concentrate in school some days as I sat daydreaming about ‘Oh Mary Don’t You Weep’ and ‘Be Grateful,’ respectively in gym class.
STARR: My musical influences are HUGE! Too many to choose from! What I will say is each musician that has contributed to the arts and talents along with timeless music near and far (before there were categories placed in the industry as it’s known today) is considered priceless to me. Artists such as Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and The Jackson 5 for soul. Mahalia Jackson and Aretha Franklin for gospel. Now FUNK!!!! That’s where I’m at. As far as country music- Patsy Cline, Charlie Pride, and a few songs that were priceless to me. I have various favourites from classical music- the Romantic era, Renaissance era, and the Baroque period. Heck, even some Gregorian Chants can be squeezed in there too. My point is this: In every period in music, there’s a story of the times we lived in and the expressions in them said plenty. Therefore, I listen to it all and realize that at times this is what we’re experiencing throughout life. Music IS my life and when I decided to make it a career, it was when I was 5 years old. My grandmother realized that it was very natural for me to do this. Singing in front of many people amazed her. My very first business meeting was in her living room and she made it a point to show what it meant to invest interest in your career. She was the very first one to get it started for me and continued to encourage me to the highest level that was open and available. I thank you, Grandma.
How and when did you two first get together?
SAUN & STARR: We both met at an open mic night held at a Harlem nightclub called, ‘Carl’s Off The Corner’ back in 1986. We both heard each other sing and came to find out that we were both heading over to say something to the other after the show was over… After that, we sang together in some of the same circles. We were both mesmerized with one another’s talents and through this connection, it became solid. Back then, the young people who sang in choirs in Harlem and the NY area would gravitate to the nightclubs of Harlem to explore and sing at the showcases/open mics and what have you. So we would often wind up singing background vocals together in the same settings. Our friendship blossomed through those experiences.
Tell us how you first teamed up with Sharon Jones…… it was a wedding band wasn’t it?
SAUN: Yes, it was through a wedding band. Starr was living on the west coast for several years and I was living in Jersey by then (1991-ish). The universe saw to it that both of us would wind up at the same wedding band audition but neither of us knew that the other was going to be there, until a few days before. ‘Good and Plenty’ was the band and they were looking for a second lady to work with the one they already had. That ‘one’ they already had was Sharon Jones. Ha! I smile every time I think about that day. Well, Starr and I both auditioned at an actual wedding reception live with Sharon and the band and we worked together as if we had been working together for years. The bandleader wound up hiring both Starr and I. We sang together with that band for seven years.
What happened then… you want your separate ways?
STARR: Saun went to perform with other great artists, given the opportunity at the time. Saun says, quite rightly, that working in a wedding band is great but restricting – like wearing a turtle neck sweater! We were doing covers all the time and I guess we wanted to explore newer material Sharon , of course, went to become the star that you see today. I went on to tour with gospel groups travelling throughout Europe and Japan.
How did you get back together?
STARR: I got a call from Saundra asking what I was doing for the next three weeks in May of 2010. I told her that I was free during that time. She then asked me with excitement, “How would you like to sing with Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings?” I said yes. Hell, it was only for three weeks and it sounded like something cool. Just testing out what it would be like to have background vocals on the “I Learned The Hard Way” tour had become a 5-year experience and continuing. Many fans of Daptone were saying to us, “You guys were the missing link that tuned into the complete sound of the group.” We were honoured to have heard this from many of the fans of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. In turn, we developed a connection with the fans of Daptone and of Sharon Jones. Since then, Saun and I have gone on to record on a couple compilations which then became a part of Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings’ “Soul Time” and “Give The People What They Want”.
What’s it like working with Sharon… what do you think the Dapettes bring to her sound?
SAUN; Oooh, this is a great question. For me, working with Sharon Jones is an incredible experience. I mean… I don’t know a soul like her. She is truly one of a kind and authentic, through and through. On and off stage, she has an intensity to her. When you’re around her all the time, you can see how she needs that to survive on and off stage. Having a bird’s eye view onstage and getting to watch her do her thing day in and day out is something I can’t describe in a few words. Many nights, my mind is blown. I think the Dapettes brings a sense of ‘home’ to her sound. We come from choirs and soul/r&b bands. Working with other singers is what we know. So when Starr and I got there, it seems as though she had some comfort around her and she was able to stretch out, even more vocally and on stage. Supporting vocals are truly ‘supporting vocals’ just like a house needs a stable support system, so does a vocalist.
Who decided that you should have your own album?
STARR: To answer this question, it was the fans of Daptone that had requested this moment to happen and Daptone heard them loud and clear. So with that, Saun and I thank everyone for this moment in history to take place. We’re very honoured and appreciate everything that has taken place.
Recording the album, what kind of sound were you looking for? Its more melodic than most Daptone stuff
SAUN: Well, when we were recording the record, we were not really looking for any sound per se, just songs that would showcase this synergy that Starr and I share. On the road, singing background for SJDK and other artists at Daptone, people say they can tell we have a connection that is deeper that just co-workers and this is true. So we wanted to sing songs that expressed that. Starr and I both have very different and distinctive voices, which I think was a key factor in considering which tunes would suit us both best. I love, love, love singing with Starr because we have the same ‘ears.’ We can hear music and notes and we can move (vocally) wherever we need to be in an instant. We listen to each other and this flow just happens. Starr and I are both melodic singers. We love and respect the melodies of songs. We love singers who do the same. With all that considered, it is no wonder that that is what people are saying they hear exhibited in this record and we are very proud of that. Saun and I are very diverse vocalists in our sounds and can be very spontaneous. We wanted to have fun while creating this album so we did!
What’s it like working at Daptone?
SAUN & STARR: Man, working at Daptone is one of the best jobs we’ve ever had. There is so much going on around our heads all the time, even when we aren’t working. Daptone doesn’t sleep and that’s a good thing. We agree that being there keeps you humble… Daptone Records has an incredible legacy and we are honoured to be part of the continuum of that legacy.
Are all the songs your own… how do you collaborate as writers… and what about the vocals … who decides who sings what?
SAUN: For this first record, we left the writing and such to Gabriel (Gabriel Roth – head man at Daptone…pictured) and a few more writers at Daptone. We trusted this first record to Gabriel because, well, he’s Gabriel Roth. He has vision and skills and on top of that, he’s been working with Starr and I now for five years and he pretty much knows our voices. I usually sing alto but I can get on that top note if I need to and the same for Starr, she can rock the lower notes with flair but she is a bird on those high notes. Gabe hears all that and chose and wrote the songs accordingly. We knew which one of us would be perfect for singing a specific song and then on other tunes, we both tried them and it’d turn out switched around.
We’re loving ‘Dear Mr Teddy’ –a very 60s girl group sound – was that intentional?
SAUN: Oh yeah, that’s Starr’s jam! Starr and I both love the wit, style, and premise of that song. As far as it having that 60’s girl group sound, I can say no, that wasn’t intentional. I just think that the way the song was written and how Gabe, Starr and I heard the backing vocals, that’s just how it came out and we love it.
STARR: ‘Dear Mr. Teddy’ s one of my personal favourites, the words are hot! But intentional? Not really. Surely someone has had an experience like this story and they now have a song expressing their side of the experience in plain view. It’s mostly a catchy tune.
What are your hopes for the album?
SAUN: Wow… our hope for this album is humble on a grand scale. That makes sense, right? We hope that this record touches as many people all over the world and beyond that it can. That it touches their hearts in a way that can make them feel joy and happiness for even more than a fleeting moment. We really just want to share our positive vibes so that we can be an encouragement to people. The world is super messed up right now. Lots of bad stuff happening and people are sad and angry. We hope that our story, voices, songs, and energies may help alleviate some of that stress and darkness wherever and whenever it can. I don’t think that that is too much to hope for at all.
What about the future for Saun and Starr?
SAUN & STARR: We see a very bright, beautiful future for Saun and Starr. We’re very excited about going to Brazil with Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings in May and also a huge tour with SJDK and Tedeschi Trucks Band in the States. We’re sure Saun and Starr will be singing songs from our new record while we are out and about! Also, there’s a lot of things in the works. Hopefully local gigs for our fans here in the NYC area where we reside, more music, and videos. We have some cool ideas about merch too so things are looking great and feeling good! And we hope to be in the UK very soon!!!