If you’ve seen Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings in concert sometime during the past few years, you’ve most likely seen the Dappettes snatching a little limelight off on the side. Saun and Starr have been contributing their golden pipes to the band since 2008, but it’s only now that they’ve finally made that twenty-foot walk to center stage — a journey 29 years in the making.
“We had to prove ourselves without compromising ourselves,” says Saun, whose full name is Saundra Williams. “And the only way we did it was having this talent in singing and being respectful to people. It’s beautiful to know that we came here without compromise and by following our destiny.”
That “here” she’s referring to is Look Closer, Saun and Starr’s debut album, released May 19. This warm, inviting 38-minute set not only gives the people what they want in terms of soulful jams — it’s a testament to their sparkling friendship.
“Starr and I are really, really good friends. I love her and there’s nobody in this world like her — she’s such a special person,” says Saun. Starr Duncan Lowe is quick to return the compliment. “And it’s an honor and pleasure to share this with my beloved sister Saundra.”
It’s a camaraderie evident both during a quick phone conversation as the duo drive down to Philadelphia on the morning of Look Closer‘s release, as well as throughout the album. Saun’s warm alto blends swimmingly with Starr’s soaring soprano. If singing separately, the one complements and supports the other’s lead. But when in unison, the pair combine to create a soul hybrid akin to milk and honey, or chocolate and peanut butter, or, well, pick your favorite blend of silky, velvety textures. It likely applies.
Both singers are South Bronx natives (growing up not too far from the 138th Street Grand Concourse subway stop); the two met at a Harlem open mic on a Thursday night in the fall of 1986. They pursued solo endeavors until the early Nineties, when they unintentionally auditioned for the same spot in Miss Sharon Jones’s wedding band. The trio quickly discovered their natural musical connection and performed throughout the Nineties until splitting again to pursue solo projects. Jones went on to sing and dance as the focal point of Daptone staple act Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, and in 2008 she invited Saun and Starr to join them. The pair brought reliable backup vocals to the Daptone family, and then, in 2014, released debut spinoff single “Hot Shot,” which quickly became the Brooklyn label’s biggest-selling 45 of all time.
On the next page: “The song has to mean something for us”
Working alongside the Dap-Kings, Saun and Starr had no problem assuming authority now that they’ve taken the lead. When Gabe Roth — Daptone label founder and Dap-King bandleader and head writer — suggested they sing one particular track he wrote for them, the duo declined, leading to the creation of Look Closer‘s closing track, “Blah Blah Blah Blah Blah Blah Blah.”
When asked how they’re able to convey such strong emotion during a song, be it about love or heartbreak, Saun explains that it comes through by transcribing the past. “The song has to mean something for us,” she says. “We feel it with our past experiences. That’s what you hear when we’re singing.”
The album’s penultimate track is a callback to the Phil Spector era of tight, short pop songs that delve deeper than what the typical two-and-a-half-minute length may suggest. The echoic sprint of “In the Night” is an appropriate nod to the past and records like the Flamingos’ “I Only Have Eyes for You” (or the updated version heard in the Fugees’ “Zealots”).
“It has that reverb and echo effect because it’s kind of setting the tone,” explains Starr of the song’s intriguing trisyllabic nugget. “This is the nighttime — this is how we’re going to tell our story. This is what I’m doing when I hold you in my arms until morning comes.”
Saun and Starr are set to head out on an international tour this summer, with dates in Europe and California. And with the success of their premier solo outing, they’re showing that they’ve been suited for the spotlight all along.
Saun and Starr’s debut, Look Closer, is out now on Daptone Records.