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Published: 2015/05/27
by Matthew Inman

Harmony and Happenstance with Daptone’s Saun & Starr

Since 2002, Brooklyn’s Daptone Records has been riding the wave of funk and soul revival that has been rising around the country—nowhere more so than in New York City. And to its credit, Daptone, which was started by musicians Gabriel Roth and Neal Sugarman, has itself been one of the strongest impetuses of the movement. With their heart-and-soul headlining act Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, along with an impressive list of artists that includes Charles Bradley, Naomi Shelton, Antibalas and The Budos Band, the independent record label has consistently produced music that ranges from strikingly authentic to refreshingly modern and back again.

The latest addition to the Daptone discography arrived on May 19th in the form of Look Closer, the debut record from Saun & Starr, two ladies who are no strangers to the Daptone family. Saundra Williams and Starr Duncan Lowe have been serving up background vocals for Sharon Jones since 2010, but the story of these three soulful singers goes back almost 20 years before that, to an audition for a wedding band that Jones was fronting at the time—and even further for the duo themselves.

After growing up within a mile of each other in the Bronx, Saundra and Starr happened to meet up one night at a local open mic spot—just the first of a string of fortunate coincidences that has now culminated in the production of their first album as a pair. But I’ll let the ladies themselves tell the story, as they were (characteristically) kind enough to lend some time to Relix and Jambands to discuss the various happenstances of their careers, their relationship with Daptone Records and how they still can’t really believe that it’s all happening to them.

Let’s start at the beginning. How did you two first meet each other?

Saun: Well, you know, in Harlem, in New York, back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, there was a music scene going on, and it was like degrees of separation: somebody you knew knew somebody. So we just happened to wind up at the same open mic—it was a popular open mic in Harlem at a venue called Carl’s Off the Corner—we just wound up there, the crowd full of people, people singing. It was actually my first time there, but Starr had been there maybe twice prior. I heard her sing, and she impressed me because—at the time, gospel music had began to leak from the church into a more secular setting, so you had people like Patti LaBelle or other artists. And a lot of us kids from church, we would come out and we would sing gospel songs together, because that’s what we knew, and at the open mic we sang gospel songs and popular songs, all that riffing—you know gospel riffing, what Beyoncé does. But what impressed me about Starr was she sang “My Funny Valentine,” and she sang the song with so much emotion—it was almost like the whole roomed darkened. And I just appreciated what she was doing, and I had to go say hi to her afterwards. And that’s how we met.

So Starr, what was your first impression of Saun when she came up to you?

Starr: Well, she approached me right after I got off the stage, and she and I briefly talked, and then they called her shortly after, to go on the stage. So I was excited for her and was anticipating what was about to happen—but I didn’t expect what I heard. The rich tones, the total embracing, the whole aspect of the song.

Saun: You know I can’t take all of that…

Starr: No, but wait a minute—the song that she sang was called “As We Lay,” which is a song Shirley Murdock had covered, and a few other people have covered since she did. But, in all honestly, if anyone were to cover that song one more time, I would love for Saundra to do it. It was such an impressive moment when I saw it. And I said, “I’m sorry, you stopped me? Let me stop you!”

Did you two start singing together soon after that?

Starr: Well it started—if we were to sing together—we would sing at the open mic club, and then during that process, people that were involved in the open mic would have other engagements, and they would call upon a couple people they knew would be available. And that’s how Saundra and I developed coming together in that light.

Saun: Yeah, we started doing backing vocals for some other friends. And we just started seeing each other frequently on the gig scene, you know? We weren’t hanging out, like going out, talking, but we would just see each other on the scene. But then Starr moved away—you moved to the west coast, Starr?

Starr: Yes, I had moved out west for a couple of years, and from there came back east when I was completely done with the west coast and nurtured myself on the east coast end.

Saun: So she moved away, and I was doing my thing here in New York, and what happened was there was a fateful day. The last time I saw Starr, before we got to that wedding audition with Sharon Jones, was in ’87, and then in ’91, we just happened to wind up, by fate, at the same wedding band audition. [Sharon’s] wedding band was looking for another girl, because they had two girls originally up front, but one of the chicks had left the gig. Starr and I were the only two girls auditioning, but neither of us knew that the other was gonna be there, because we came from different references. It was crazy. Starr, you tell the story really good…

Starr: The gentleman, the leader of the band named John Castellano, he was the one that told me that he’s got another girl that he’s auditioning at the same time as I was. And we were gonna actually be in front of people, at a reception, cold—don’t know what we’re gonna sing, don’t know anything. He just called it, we sang it. We got together, and when he told me it was Saundra Williams, I was like, “Oh my God.” And when I saw Saundra, it was just like—

Saun: We squealed for a few minutes.

Starr: Yeah, it was amazing. And at that point, it just felt like being on a cloud, being onstage felt like good old times, and the rest was history. And what sealed the deal was when he called out for us to sing “It’s Raining Men.” We were talking back and forth while they were playing the song, then all of a sudden we just said, “Temperature rising…” and they just went in. And the next thing you know, they were like, “Oh my God.”

Saun: So they wound up hiring both of us.

Starr: On the spot, that night.

So what did you think of Sharon Jones when you first met her?

Saun: Well, when we first met Sharon, it was interesting because she was by herself—the thing about Sharon is she always finds herself up with a whole band of dudes, by herself. [Starr Laughs] She was with the band, and the other girl had left her. I remember her being nice and funny and welcoming. She was kind and encouraging to us. She was like, “Don’t worry, this is gonna be a piece of cake, we’re gonna have some fun.” And she really seemed happy to know that Starr and I already knew each other and had a relationship. Because sometimes singers can be little a funny acting in this business. You don’t know what you’re gonna get. I’m telling you, it seemed like it was meant to be from the first time we all hit the stage together. Sharon was just a dynamo. And the way you see her now onstage—she was turning up at people’s wedding receptions the same way. She was doing the same thing—taking the mic out in the audience and singing around people and their pastas.

Starr: The next thing you know, people were dancing on tables, with the pasta on them.

Saun: And we saw her freedom, and we were all free and would go out in the audience and really make it a nice experience. And we went from booking a gig or two on the weekend to sometimes three or four gigs. They called us the Triple S Threat, and the band was called the Good N Plenty Girls. And we sand together for seven years.

And after that, you three didn’t reunite until 2010, right?

Saun: In 1997, I split, Starr split, and Sharon was still in the wedding band. Then I was still in communication with Sharon somewhat. While we were in the wedding band, that’s when she met Gabriel [Roth] and the Soul Providers and did that session for Mr. [Lee] Fields, that fateful session with him. We remember her coming to the band and saying, “Oh my God, I met this band, these guys, they do soul music. I think I found a place, I love it!” Shortly after we left, she was still doing that. So I was in contact with Sharon, I would call her up sometimes, see how she’s doing, vice versa. And then around 2009, Sharon started to call me in to do some session work at Daptone. Then when 2010 came, they were working on the _I Learned the Hard Way_record, and they had finished it and everything, and she asked me would I be interested in doing some backing vocals for a promotional tour for the record. And I said, you need another chick, let me see what Starr’s doing. I called Starr, and she said, “Girl, you called me at the right time, I’m available.” And that’s when we all came back together.

Starr: That’s exactly what happened. It was supposed to have been a three-week tour. Three weeks now has been five years.

Saun: Isn’t that a crazy story? We have like 30 years of stories, and sometimes we get a little long-winded, because we’re just bubbling over with joy and excitement and disbelief. Like sometimes, when we’re on the road and we go in our little hotel rooms—Starr and I share a hotel room, we’ve actually been roommates for five years—and we each sit on our bed and put out luggage down and we just go, “Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God!” And we just act like little girls, like a dream came true.

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