1980 (age 37)
At the start of 2008, Sharon Little was working as a waitress. Less than five months later, she was appearing in concert halls throughout the country as the opening act on the Robert Plant/Alison Krauss and T Bone Burnett “Raising Sand” tour. According to the Paper Doll Songfacts, her first album with CBS, Perfect Time for a Breakdown, was released on May 27 of that year.
While this might seem that she’s an “overnight sensation,” Sharon is anything but a flash in the pan. She’s a singer of intense emotional honesty and the songs she’s written reveal an old soul that just happens to be within a person possessed of undeniable physical and spiritual beauty. The journey that has taken her so far in seemingly so short a time has actually been a life-long quest to find her voice, both in the literal and figurative sense.
“I’ve known since I was four that I wanted to perform,” says Sharon, noting that her mother says she would hum songs even before she knew how to talk. “If I couldn’t hear music and wasn’t able to perform, I just don’t know what would have happened. I have a lot to say and I’ve always wanted people to listen.” She would never hesitate to sing in whatever talent show school might offer; tellingly one of the songs she most liked to perform at those events was Sly & The Family Stone’s “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again).” She seemed uncannily at ease in front of an audience. Her real self was to be found in performance – it was just a question of how to let it out to blossom.
Her early repertoire was appropriated from Billie Holiday, Etta James and Nina Simone and she sang wherever she could, including coffee houses, open mic nights, weddings and small club gigs. The opening track of Perfect Time For A Breakdown is “Follow That Sound” and it gives some indication of Sharon’s quest for a musical and emotional connection. The assertive tone of “Try” echoes her affinity for gospel and soul.
Though she was approached to record by a producer aware of her vocal prowess, she rejected his offer. “He wanted to dress me up in some cleavage-revealing top and make a pop singer out of me.” Instinctually, she spurned the chance to be molded into the next Britneyjessicaetcetera. Rather than pursuing tarty pop stardom, she continued to study and absorb jazz and blues and would continue to do so until something happened.
That “something” was a chance encounter with Scot Sax at the Milk Boy Coffee Shop in Ardmore, PA. Scot had recently returned home to Philadelphia from L.A. where, years earlier, he landed with his band Wanderlust. They had some significant success in the mid to late 1990s after which Scot turned his attention to writing songs for other artists. His efforts paid off with a number of major artist covers and a Grammy, to boot. Sax had been working at Milk Boy Studios, the facility appended to the diner, and the owner of the studio introduced Scot to Sharon who had sung on demos there.
To say the two clicked musically almost the instant they met would be an understatement. “It was magic,” she remembers. The collaboration was a paradigm changer for Sharon as she grew exponentially both as a writer and performer with Scot on and at her side. For her, working with Scot enabled her “to find a way to get everything out that I hadn’t known how to before.” She explains, “He challenged me in a way that no one had before. It was as if both of us needed to let something out, but didn't know what, until we met.” The two are prolific in their song output and the process seems like alchemy, almost impossible to rationally explain. “We don’t even know what the songs are about when we first write them,” she reveals. “It’s all about feelings – I just free think it and it happens. When we write, it’s like a tennis match; he throws an idea to me and I throw one back at him. Before I met Scot, I was insecure about my life but he has so much confidence that it kind of transferred over to me.” She assures, “I’m really still the same person I was before we met but maybe even more so.”
Sharon and Scot usually travel by train, cut off from the rest of the world; they write and perfect their material in club cars, parlor cars, and sleeping cars, often to the delight of fellow rail travelers whom they encourage to join in their Amtrak-borne jam sessions. They journeyed to Austin that way and ended up on a tour with local favorite Bob Schneider. In 2006, another excursion by rail brought them to Los Angeles. In Hollywood, Sharon showcased for the majors but, initially, she wasn’t able to make any inroads, “I was told I was too green by one A&R guy.”
A bit later, a date at Hollywood’s Hotel Café brought out a more open-minded record guy in the person of Larry Jenkins, who heads the recently relaunched CBS Records label. Within minutes of the start of her set, Jenkins knew he had to sign her. He vowed not to attempt to turn her into someone she wasn’t. “They let me be myself,” she reports of her relationship with the label. Her experience as a jazz and blues singer has stood her in good stead as far as staying true to the emotional honesty that is the core of her art. “Eva Cassidy sang from her heart and you can hear that. If I don’t feel it, I can’t make believe it’s something that it’s not” she offers by way of an explanation. The tender, atmospheric ballad “Peppermint & Glue” on the album is a case in point: the atmosphere it creates speaks volumes about the way she feels and connects most directly with the listener.
With the release of Perfect Time For A Breakdown, Sharon found herself on tour with Robert Plant, Alison Krauss and T Bone Burnett. Plant and Krauss had been looking for an opener and, of course, hundreds applied for the job. Sharon, heretofore a complete unknown, got the slot immediately when the superstars heard her music. The headliners were not alone in their admiration for the newcomer. While it’s true that their audiences had no idea who they were seeing perform at the start of the concerts, Sharon’s talent and the songs from the new album usually win them over in short order, earning her standing ovations night after night. “It’s really an amazing experience to play on a bill with legends like this and to get such a wonderful reception from the audiences that have come to see them. It’s almost unbelievable,” says Sharon, almost giddy with delight, “I really couldn’t have expected things to work out like this but now that they have, I just believe it was all meant to be.”
Little's sophomore CBS release, which was produced by Grammy-winner Don Was, was titled Paper Doll.
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