Dakota Jones on Trailblazing the Way for Marginalised Communities
© Dakota Jones, shot by Alexandra Johnson
Amongst sequins, glitter, and the most jaw-dropping voice, Dakota Jones’ frontwoman lets her candid songwriting do the talking.
There is something intriguing about Tristan Carter-Jones. From initial glimpses on social media to music videos, snippets of live performances, and listening to her soulful, velvet-like voice - it’s an aura you want to immerse yourself in, from head to toe. The front woman of New York’s finest independent soul band Dakota Jones has a presence that leaves a lasting impression, just like her music.
Dakota Jones have been around for nearly a decade and have established themselves in New York’s music scene as one of the best funk and soul acts, winning critical accolades not just on their home turf but also throughout the USA and across the Pond. The quartet, consisting of Carter-Jones on vocals, Scott Jet Kramp on bass, Steve Ross on drums, and Eddy Marshall on guitar, were denied touring with their debut album Black Light as a result of Covid but have been busy playing in some of the best venues in the states.
In the wake of their new album, intriguingly named Heartbreaker’s Space Club, Tristan spoke to INJECTION Mag about her songwriting and what inspires her, her life in the music industry as a woman, and her eclectic and joyful style and love for fashion.
Congratulations on your latest singles, Scared and Misbehave Me, beautiful and uplifting songs that make you want to get up and dance to the music. What inspired them? The songwriting process for Misbehave Me was a bit different than usual. Our bass player and executive producer of this project had been messing around with this song for a little bit, and when he finally showed it to me, I was immediately struck by the natural kind of sexiness of the music. It’s just joyful and immediately inspired those lyrics for me, they just came rolling out; it was from a place of having fun and pure joy. I didn't realise it at the moment, but when I look back at it, I really think this is a song about self-expression, sexual exploration, and the joy of discovering who you are in those ways.
You’ve been making music as a band for over eight years now. Can you tell us a little about the story of you, of the band, and how you arrived in 2023 with hundreds of thousands of streams on all major streaming platforms?
I've known our drummer Steve since I was eight years old, we met in third grade. When we both lived in New York, he started jamming with a mutual friend’s boyfriend on weekends to blow off steam. They would always ask me to sing with them as they were doing covers. My gut reaction was: ‘Absolutely no, I'm not going to do that. I have no interest in singing covers on the weekends with you.’ But eventually, one day, I just showed up, and we started playing music together. It was a natural progression from playing covers to writing a song. At that moment, it clicked, and we realised: ‘Yes, this is what we're supposed to be doing. This is why we're in this room together to make music together.’ We just needed to fill out the sound with the bass player, which is where Scott came in. We just kept on writing and never really looked back from there. I've always wanted to be in a band, but I was terrified of singing in public. It took me a really long time to start, until being in this band!
© Dakota Jones
Your first album Black Light is critically acclaimed and got some rave reviews, showing your versatility as a singer, songwriter, and the band as a whole. How did it feel to release your very first full album?
It was wild, but I think the context is important with this one because we recorded it in the thick of the pandemic. We flew out to Seattle to record it in November 2020, when things were still changing so quickly. We were all scared and didn't really know what was going on, but we had this music that we'd been working on for a while, some of those songs we'd been working on for years! We weren’t sure what to do. Should we put the release off? How long is this going to take, when is this going to end? So we were trying to figure out the right time to put out a new project, especially because of the state of the world and the political climate of the world. Some part of me thought that things are so much bigger than we are; the world is changing so quickly, and does what I'm doing matter in the context of everything else?
You know, I settled on art is always going to matter. It's always the thing that helps us to contextualise what we're going through and help process what we're going through. Music is always going to be so healing and such a spiritually necessary thing. It was our first full-length album. We've been putting out music for some time, but this was the first body of work that we've put forward. Through times of feeling utterly hopeless and times of feeling totally lost, we eventually put out something that we're really proud of.
Your songwriting has been praised for its honesty and vulnerability, not sugarcoating some tough and tricky issues. If you don’t mind me asking, what's the inspiration behind the themes in your songs - do they come from personal experiences?
I sometimes wish that I was one of those writers that could just paint a picture of a whole other world and create talk about something that's just completely fabricated from my imagination. I respect writers that are able to do that. But for me, it's always just from my gut, from where I've been, and from what I've been through: The pain, the love, the joy, the hurt, whatever it is. My writing and the writing process are extremely personal to me. I've found that the more personal I get, the more universally things resonate.
I don't spend more than five, ten minutes writing a song. If I have to do that, I know that it's not coming from an honest place. That's always how it has to be for me, I just have to be honest, I just kind of have to rip my guts open, I don't even have a choice. I don't even know how to write any other way.
© Dakota Jones
One of the reviews said that those who have an appreciation for strong female-based direction and vocals will love the album. To what extent do you feel this accurately encompasses you? How would you describe yourself?
I think that the music we make is not just for people that are into female-driven stories, or female-driven bands. But, of course, my identity is something that I hold very dearly, and it dictates the way that I move throughout the world. I identify as a black queer woman, and that bleeds into everything that I do and bleeds into everything I write, and the stories that I'm telling are that of a black queer woman.
I think that it's important for all of us, but especially people in marginalised communities, to express ourselves honestly and paint the picture of where we're coming from, what our lived experiences are, and for that representation to exist. Especially for people that aren't familiar with these communities. Just so that we can relate to each other.
I'm proud of who I am and where I've come from, and it has not always been easy to carry those labels. But I've very much grown into loving the person that I am and loving the communities that I'm a part of.
But also, in my experience, I've found that people just want to pigeonhole female-fronted bands and pigeon-holed black-fronted bands. We're bigger than that, and our reach is going to be greater than that. It's not just for specific groups of people. We're making music for everyone. There are a lot of great artists who are trailblazing paths for me at the moment. I hope to continue to trailblaze paths for people that are going to come after me.
© Dakota Jones
How would you describe your experience as a woman in the music industry? How do you look after yourself in an industry that makes it tough for artists, especially women, and those who don’t make mainstream music that fits the cookie-cutter mould of society?
The music industry is really funny to me. The deeper that we get into it, the more I question what I am. We're here to make music and connect with people and see the world through our music. But there are so many gatekeepers. I don't know why people want it to be so exclusive. As a woman of colour in the industry, it's just a throwback to how it used to be and how the music industry was developed by just a bunch of white men.
You’re going to have one experience if you're trying to go down a more traditional path of getting signed by a record label. But for independent artists, there are so many more avenues to go down, but those are still male-dominated. As a consequence, you’re not taken seriously as a black woman, or people want to commodify you.
But I think that, especially for independent artists, that it's changing, and we're trying our best to do things our own way and to make our own rules, especially as in my communities of queer people, people of colour, women or female-identifying people, I think that we're just trying to do it our own way.
That is how I recharge myself after getting beaten down in other parts of the industry. The only way that I know how to recharge really is by going back to these communities. Feeling understood by these communities that I'm a part of. We just recharge each other, I think.
Who has inspired you and your music most? I'm a music junkie, and the list is endless. But the people that come up right away are Stevie Wonder, Led Zeppelin, and Chaka Khan. Frank Ocean is also a big one for me. Solange Knowles, … I'm obsessed with basically anyone who is a part of the Odd Future collective.
Part of the reason that our sound can't be necessarily placed all the time is that our influences come from everywhere. They come from all different times and all different genres. The four of us have very different musical interests.
Can we talk about fashion? Your outfits are as vibrant and eclectic as your voice and music. You wore a black and white suit with Converse trainers in the video for Sugar Pie and a glitter and rainbow tassels dress in your video for Misbehave Me. Can you talk us through your style?
I've always just enjoyed expressing myself through my clothing. My street style is so different from the person that I am on stage. But they're both very expressive. When I get on stage, I feel like I need to cover myself in glitter and have the biggest, fluffiest, and weirdest stuff possible. It just feels right for me.
In life off-stage, I'm a quiet, shy person. But I'm wild on stage. I think that I need the support of my big fluffy dresses in order to get there. Whoever it is that I become on stage, she just loves glitter! She's loud! She's loud in so many ways. Putting on those clothes helps me to transform into whoever that person is. I guess that's part of it.
© Dakota Jones
What can we expect from Dakota Jones in 2023 and beyond?
Working on the release of the new album has inspired a lot of visuals, so we’ll be shooting a lot more videos and we’ll do a lot of touring. We’ll be spreading the word of Dakota Jones, getting out there, connecting with people as much as possible, and building up this community. That's a big theme for me this year, to create a sense of community wherever we are. The best way that I know how to do that is through music.
I also want to see the world. I want to go on a world tour and carry this music as far as it'll take us and make our way over to the UK, hopefully sometime soon. We're gonna make it happen eventually.
© Dakota Jones
There is no doubt that Dakota Jones will be climbing the ladder to stardom on their own terms and without being pigeonholed by the traditional music industry. The band’s frontwoman Tristan, a trailblazer unafraid to stand out and be different, paves the way for those in marginalised communities and those whose voices have been silenced.