JBL Emerging Interview: NYC’s Dakota Jones on Sugar Pie & songwriting

Sugar Pie is the first new music from up and coming funk four-piece, Dakota Jones, since their much-loved debut album Black Light caused a stir in the summer of 2021. Fans will recognise lead singer Tristan Carter-Jones’ warm, soulful tones and r&b-infused funk sound, but something has changed…The funk is dirtier, the vocals are sultrier. It’s got grit, but there’s also a sweetness at play.

Comprised of Carter-Jones on vocals, Scott Jet Kramp on bass, Steve Ross on drums, and Eddy Marshall on the guitar, the Brooklyn four-piece have moulded their sound into something at once commanding and vulnerable, spontaneous and deliberate, familiar and refreshing.

In this Emerging Headliner interview powered by JBL, The band’s Tristan Carter-Jones and Scott Jet Kramp talk songwriting, muses, not being boxed into a specific genre, and new single, Sugar Pie:

How does it feel to have new single, Sugar Pie finally released?

Tristan: It feels really good. It's been a long time coming – over a year or more since we released our last record! It feels good to put new music out in the world. It's been a labour of love for quite some time.

You’ve been together as a band for around eight years. How did you meet; are you all from New York?

Scott: We're all born in New Jersey, but we migrated to New York in our late teens.

Tristan: I have known the drummer, Steve since I was about eight years old – we went to elementary school together. When he moved to New York City, I was already in New York – I'd studied at New York University and I'd been living there for a few years. He wanted to start jamming and playing drums for fun and he asked me to come and sing with him and another guitarist. 

I immediately said, ‘Absolutely no, I'm not going to do that’. I was really terrified of singing in front of people and I didn't even want to sing covers with them. But they kept badgering me and eventually I sang at a couple of practices. 

Scott is best friends with our former guitarist, and he was pulled in to play bass. One day, we ended up writing a song together instead of playing covers like we usually do. From that moment, everything clicked and we realised this is what we were supposed to be doing. We kept on going and didn't stop!

we were a little bit intimidated and scared to just be like: We're gonna start playing this funky music.

Seeing your live performances and music videos, it’s hard to believe you were once petrified of singing in front of people! How did you conquer your stage fright?

Tristan: I've been writing and singing for as long as I can remember – it's been my form of expression from the time I was very little. But sharing that with people, because it was the thing I cared about the most, was terrifying to me. 

It really took until we started playing together as a band that I realised that it almost felt like I didn't have a choice but to share what we were doing. 

One of the biggest parts of that is getting out and performing around the city wherever we could. The first couple of shows I was shaking through the first few songs, and then eventually it just passed. I still get very nervous before shows, but once I get on stage and those first few notes come out, something melts away.

I wanted to eat up as much as I could of what was considered to be the greatest music that had ever been created.

How did the band’s sound take shape; was this a natural evolution based on each of your musical influences?

Scott: Everything on our last album is much funkier than when we originally started writing music, and I think that was because we were both personally a little bit intimidated and scared to just be like, ‘We're gonna start playing this funky music’. 

Being a little bit out of our comfort zone is stuff that we loved, or I loved, playing. It was just like, ‘Do you think that the rest of the band would like this? Do you think everybody else is still into this kind of stuff?’

Tristan: When we first started playing together, it took maybe six months until we nailed down what our initial sound was, or what we thought it was. It was blues-leaning and a lot of rock, but the tone of my voice lends itself to soul and r&b. 

We were all over the place for a little while until we grew up a little bit and started leaning more towards not trying to be boxed into any specific genre – just doing whatever felt right in the moment, and not caring about how it was going to be received, just focusing more on how it felt to us. 

What has been coming out naturally has been funk and soul, and there's rock mixed in – there's a lot of different genres mixed in but it's just us being true to our hearts at this point.

Scott: Another huge part of that is prior to this, we were truly just a four piece band: guitar, bass, drums, vocals, and when we could play live, it would be like that. Then on this new album, we're leaning much more into keys and getting bigger, fuller sounds, so we’ve been leaning into expanding our sound to get bigger in live settings.

big emotions – love, loss and pain – are always my greatest inspirations.

Which artists did you grow up listening to and inspired you to want to follow in their footsteps?

Tristan: I grew up listening to a lot of old school soul, and then contemporary r&b in the ‘90s and early 2000s. I remember as a kid looking at Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, and I wanted to absorb all of that. 

I wanted to eat up as much as I could of what was considered to be the greatest music that had ever been created, so my tastes became a lot more eclectic and I branched out a lot more. 

Because of the access that we've had to every single type of music, that definitely bleeds into our eclectic sound and the way that we bounce around from genre to genre from time to time.

Scott: As a white boy growing up in New Jersey, I had to choose between Bruce Springsteen or Bon Jovi. I chose Bruce Springsteen. So I grew up with that, and the young teen years is when I discovered Stevie Wonder and started getting into some weirder stuff like Zappa.

Your debut album, Black Light established you as an exciting new funk/soul band and saw you play gigs across the UK as well as the US. What has changed for you since the release of your debut record?

Scott: Since then we've started working with a lot of different new musicians, which has not necessarily changed the way that we sound, but it's changed just by having new voices and new ideas in the room, which adds to the breadth of thought behind the music. 

We definitely have focused more on creating a live show that is fully fleshed out and sounds very full and includes a lot more musicians than we're used to. Live shows have always been a great passion of ours, but the more we grow through this process, the more we want to pump that up and really boost the sound. 

Musically, things have been coming out of us more organically and it's more us following our hearts rather than trying to fit into any specific box.

One thing about my songwriting process is that my muse, or whatever you want to call it, is very fickle!

Your new single, Sugar Pie is a bit of a statement for Dakota Jones. How does this signal a new era for the band?

Tristan: One of the most important things about Sugar Pie is that when we started making new music, we brought in a man named Meryl Burkett, who's an incredible keys player. 

The way that we created Sugar Pie is really representative of how all of the new music was created: Meryl was vibing on that opening organ that you hear in Sugar Pie. It immediately grabbed me and I told him to please keep looping that and I sat down to write immediately.

The song was done in under five minutes, writing-wise. Working with Meryl really brought a lot out of us. Musically, we didn't necessarily change direction, but having that soulfulness of the organ and that he comes from a church background really bolstered the sound that we were going for. 

All of the music that we made in that session is kind of the same: it just flowed out of us. There was no sitting, toiling over melodies or over what I wanted to write, things were just flowing. 

We were following those things wherever they went, and not being concerned about any previous work that we'd made. We just wanted to do what felt good and to make music for the audience in our head. That's definitely where Sugar Pie comes from.

With lyrics including ‘It's the effortless cool of a gang of two, walking in step through streets paved with sugar under a plush pink sky’, could you tell us about the inspiration behind the song?

Tristan: To me, it represents the breeziness and ease of being in true love – being in real love. It’s the feeling of walking down the street, hand in hand, and nobody can touch you because you're locked in that feeling of passionately being in love. I think that's what it sounds like, and that's why it came out so easily. It's just simple.

Do you find it hard being vulnerable through song?

Tristan: I write all of our lyrics, and writing has always come more naturally to me rather than saying how I feel out loud. Writing has always been where I go to express myself, no matter what those feelings are. 

One thing about my songwriting process that I find very frustrating is that my muse, or whatever you want to call it, is very fickle – it appears when it wants to, and when it's not there, I just can't write. 

Sometimes I'll have months that I'm non-stop writing, and sometimes I'll have months that I'm just absorbing – and you have to have a balance of both of those things.

Sugar Pie represents the breeziness and ease of being in true love.

Whatever comes out is coming from somewhere else – I don't like to overthink what I'm writing. Usually, if it's flowing naturally – that's when I know I'm making a good song. 

I don't edit the things that come out that might feel too personal or too raw, I just let it flow. I think that's become a bit of a trademark of ours – our lyrics are often very raw and can speak to light topics, but sometimes, quite dark topics. 

Wherever I'm at in the moment, I try to be as honest as possible in sharing how I'm feeling in the hopes that it will connect with people who've been through similar things.

Do you think it’s easier to write from a place of pain, rather than happiness?

Tristan: I definitely find it easier to write from a place of pain! Whether I like it or not, when I'm in a contemplative, sad state, things flow out of me more easily. It's hard for me to sit down and write a happy little pop song because that's not always who I am as a writer. 

So those big emotions – the love and loss and pain – are always my greatest inspirations. Things come out more easily from those places.

Check out this Emerging Headliner powered by JBL podcast in full below: