Sharon Jones is one tough woman. A former corrections officer and Wells Fargo security guard who was once told she was "too black, too fat, too short" to make it as the classic soul singer she's become, Jones recently overcame the toughest battle of her life: beating back pancreatic cancer. The cancer threatened not only a music career on the rise, but also her life.
The cancer scare took Jones off the road and temporarily shelved her most recent album, Give the People What They Want. Yet, after successful surgery and treatment Jones is gradually regaining her strength and is back on the road giving the people what they want: a dose of classic soul straight from the genres defining era of the late-1960s and early-1970s.
Up on the Sun caught up with Jones as she was resting between gigs in a Dallas hotel room. She discussed her cancer battle, disappointment in the album's delay, how some songs take on a new post-cancer meaning, and the fact she doesn't need to be half-naked with "lights and lasers and explosions" to make her musical point.
Hi, Sharon. How are you feeling? Is the tour going well?
I'm feeling good, feeling good. I had a hard time getting the sound right a couple shows ago, which, after being away for awhile made me a little sad and disappointed. But, we got it together. We just stopped everything and figured it out. Once we got going again, the feeling was great.
Right now I'm resting, just resting my voice for tonight. Every night is a big challenge. I'm feeling stronger; doing better. Every night I'm getting better. But I'm still taking my time and gaining the energy to do what I do.
Is it hard to put it all out, give your all, or does the music grab a hold and you just can't help yourself?
The music grabs a hold and I see the fans -- their faces -- and the music's going and the band's going and I just forget (my illness). I just go and go and knock that next note out.
Is there a greater meaning now when you get up on stage and can still do this?
I think if you're out of work and you know you need to get back to work to make ends meet, then you get back to what you enjoy doing. My job, I enjoy doing it. I just wanted to get back out there. Once I got my strength and my voice ready to sing, I just wanted to get back out there. Now, that's where I'm at. It's joy on the stage. I just feel good!
Someone asked me, "Did I listen to music when I was home sick?" No. I didn't listen to any music. Music was joy, and when I couldn't get around and move like I wanted to I couldn't feel the joy of the music. Now that I can get around, I'm ready to get back out there because that's my energy, that's my joy. That's why I'm here. That's why I'm here.
The answer seems obvious, but how disappointing was it to have to put Give the People What They Want on hold because of the cancer and subsequent treatment?
It was really sad and disappointing when I couldn't release the album, but it wasn't something I could control. The guys (at the label, Daptone) decided to do that, and it was the right move. We had already released "Retreat." We did an animated video for that. It was pretty good. And the song had a different meaning. Some people thought we went back in the studio to redo that (for the eventual release) but no, the song was already out.
"Retreat" took on another meaning from the video now. I'm telling the cancer to retreat. Songs like "We Don't Get Along" and "People Get What they Deserve" and "Give the People What They Want." They were all done way before I was diagnosed. So it's weird how these songs now take on another meaning. Before my sickness, I lost my mother during the making of the album, (Daptone and producer) Neil Sugarman lost his brother --- we both lost family members to cancer.
That's why when the doctor told me I had cancer I knew I was going to die too. Then he told me it wasn't the bile duct, but pancreatic cancer, stage two. For at least about eight hours I thought I was going to die. I really didn't think I was going to be here to perform this album.
Thank God I went in at the beginning of the year to have my test. I go in every year to have a colonoscopy. I had polyps removed, and one of those polyps had cancer. Thank God they found it, because if it was stage three or four, I probably wouldn't have survived. For a couple years before that I had this pain in my back too. And my eyes were turning from white to yellow. Everyone said I was dehydrated and needed to drink more water. So I was drinking water, drinking water. The doctor said the pain was actually the beginning of the cancer. So they removed my gallbladder and pancreas.
So, let's talk about this album. You're previous albums had a number of tracks that were something like a sonic soul slap in the face with huge punch and power. This album seems more laid back and conjures up more vintage, late-night grooves ala Marvin Gaye, Al Green and the Chi-Lites. Where you purposefully going for a different sound, or were you just feeling more relaxed after years of heavy touring?
The whole idea was just to go out there and do songs. Different band members write songs. We listen to the music and then, "whomph," we pick the ones that hit. When we did this album we actually had 22 songs. We had to pick the 10 songs for this album, so we have enough for another album leftover.
Over the years after writing and the guys collecting classic (soul) 45s, the music kind of changed. Each time your influences are going to be a little different. This band has been together 19 years now, so we've changed over the years. We have a variety of sounds coming from the late '60s to the early '70s. You get to a point all the music starts changing after awhile.
[Someone knocks at Sharon's door.]
Oh wait, someone's at the door. Hello, come in. Who's there? I took my sound guy's phone by accident. He must be here to get it. They look the same. Oh, it's the cleaning lady. Look at that, she brought me an iron. I didn't need an iron. Oh well, I'm glad she brought it.
You never know when an iron will come in handy. Anyway, when you talk about late '60s early '70s music, that's the era you're locked into, not a lot of modern soul that's slick or auto-turned. What is it about this classic sound that draws you in and keeps you there?
It's the old school. It's soul music. You listen to this new stuff and I don't want to sound like that. I don't want to sing a song and have people ask who is that? I don't want to sound like this song or that song. Everything (now) sounds the same. We have different people writing the songs so not everything is gonna sound the same. Songs have different grooves. Someone might write something from the late '60s; someone else might do something more early-1970s stuff.
This is what we've always been doing and we ain't trying to change. We're not trying to go pop; we're not trying to bring in newer stuff. We keep recording analog with the tapes and keep that authentic sound. We don't go in there try and make it sound like this or sound like that. The guys have an idea when they write a song. Maybe they've got this groove they heard on an Otis Redding song, or from Ike and Tina Turner or maybe James Brown, but they're not stealing the melody. It just reminds them of something when they write their own song.
When they write it and I hear it, then I put my stamp on it. They come up with a melody but they can't tell me how to sing the song. No one can tell me how to sing. They can show me the melody but I tell them I'm the soul singer. You write the song, but I'm going to sing it, and you can't tell me how to sing soul. I'll take it the way I want it to go. The Dap-Kings allow me to be me, and that's what makes it work.
So what made you become you? What was it that made you believe you could be a soul singer?
I never thought I could be a soul singer, I was just a singer. I was born in 56, so I've watched the industry change. I've watched soul and R&B and pop and hip-hop change. Look at me. When I was in my 20s they told me I was too black, too fat, too short. And it's like wow! It's just what music is.
Women now gotta have a certain look, gotta half dress, come out exposing your behind and to sell millions you gotta be half naked. The less clothes you wear the more music you sell. I'm not trying to say that's what I'd want to do, even if I was young and had a body like that to expose. I don't see how that has anything to do with music. You get you on stage and sing and dance and connect with the people. You enjoy what you're doing. That's what we do.
It doesn't matter what the songs are as long as they're good songs. I'm gonna sing them and they're gonna be good. We don't need any attitude, if we write the songs and we put them out then our fans are going to like them too.
People ask, "How can you beat yourself on the next album?" You don't compete with yourself, you just do what you do and put out your best.
That's all you can do, and what you and the Daptones do is keep the soul alive. It's more than enough for true soul fans.
Now days you got lights and lasers and explosions, and it's just too much. If I've got to have all that stuff then I just need to stand still and it's not about me or the music any more. If we get to that point that we need to use all that stuff then I think it might be time to retire.
Right, but now you don't need anything more. You are the lights and lasers and explosions.
That's right! (laughs). That's right.
Okay, one last question and I'll let you get back to resting. I read you helped in the building of Daptone's analog studio. You did some wiring, Are you a secret soul electrician?
I went in there and I was told to take a couple wires, twist them together and put that cap on them. It worked, so I did a couple of others. If I was asked to go do that now I'd be like, "huh?" (Laughs). If I needed to do it again, I'd do it again. I did the corking of the studio to make it soundproof. Everyone (on the Daptone label) helped build that studio. It's our studio. It was great.
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Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings are scheduled to perform on Friday, March 21, at Heritage Square.