Sharon Jones: She's a soul survivor

By Lydia Jenkin

On the road again after battling cancer, Sharon Jones talks to Lydia Jenkin about how music-- and her fans -- have helped her fight back

Fire and drive have helped make Sharon Jones pictured on stage last month, an audience favourite.
Fire and drive have helped make Sharon Jones pictured on stage last month, an audience favourite.

Sharon Jones had her last chemotherapy treatment on New Year's Eve, and four days later, she was performing live on The Jimmy Fallon Show.

No, she's not superwoman, but the 58-year-old American soul singer wasn't about to let a battle with pancreatic cancer push her off the stage and into retirement. And it's that fire and drive that has made her such a favourite with audiences worldwide since she helped to start a soul revolution with her band the Dap Kings nearly 20 years ago.

Last in New Zealand to celebrate their release of I Learned The Hard Way in 2010, the Dap Kings were all set to release their sixth LP Give The People What They Want, and kick off another world tour in June last year, when Jones was diagnosed, and everything had to be cancelled. The intervening months understandably put a new spin on some of their songs for her.

"While I was laying in the hospital, we had the first single out, Retreat, and I remember when we were recording it, we were talking about the song, and what it was about, telling a guy to retreat, you know, 'Don't mess with me, I'm crazy'.

And then, when I saw the video come out, it changed the meaning of the song for me -- now I was telling my cancer, my sickness, to retreat. So now when I grab the mic and sing it on stage, that song is helping me to tell everyone I'm back, I'm still going."

Jones is at home in South Carolina -- just across the bridge from where she grew up in Augusta, Georgia -- when TimeOut calls, getting in a little fishing, and on a break for the first time in eight months, since releasing the album.

"When the album came out at the start of the year and we went back on the road, it was tough. In fact I just watched a video of us performing on The Ellen DeGeneres Show in January, and it's quite obvious I was sick -- I was bald, my eyes were still red, and just seeing myself, wow, from there to now, it's a big difference. I've got my strength back, hair on my head, my eyebrows and eyelashes."

Those few months have made a huge difference to Jones' health, and even though some might wonder if going out on a world tour was the best idea, Jones thinks it was an integral part of her recovery.

"Going back to my fans while I was still bald, and still recovering, that was me coping with my illness. I wasn't letting the illness keep me down, and my fans were so supportive and positive, and I just wanted to get better. So instead of staying home and, say, having a personal trainer or whatever, I just got back on the road, and each night I got stronger on stage.

"And that helped to make sure I wasn't ashamed of what I was -- I didn't want to wear a wig, or cover my head. Getting back out there was very good treatment for me."

It was a different story last year though. When Jones first returned home after her surgery in June, she had to leave music alone for a while.

"Everyone asked, 'Did I listen to my music?' but I only really listened to gospel music on a Sunday, and not a lot else, because music is my joy and my happiness, and I knew if I listened to music I would want to sing, and I couldn't sing.

"I was cut right across my stomach, they removed my gall bladder, the head of my pancreas, a foot and a half of my small intestine, and the built another bile duct, so that was pretty major stuff, they cut me up good, right across my diaphragm, so I couldn't even attempt to sing really. I couldn't even walk for a while."

She remembers the day she first sang again though.

"Once I was able to get that air in there though, I sang In The Garden for my pastor in October, and slowly my voice came back after that. At first, every time I would go out and exert myself, it would take me days to recover -- I couldn't even walk up 16 steps without feeling laboured, and that was really scary to me. But I knew I was gonna come back. I knew I had to come back."

She's only had two decades in the game after all (Jones only really got into music after she quit her job as a prison guard in New York in 1990), and she's got plenty more planned yet, including taking the Daptone Super Soul Revue, which is a miniature festival involving Charles Bradley, The Sugarman 3, and Antibalas, across the United States and maybe even to Australia and New Zealand -- it sold out across Europe earlier this year, so she's clearly on to a good thing.

Jones has another goal before she considers retiring -- for soul music to be recognised with its own category at various awards ceremonies.

"It's crazy to me that there's no category for soul music at all the music awards. There's RnB, reggae, country, EDM, hip hop, rock, whatever, but there's no soul. And then they give RnB awards to pop singers!

"I'm not down on those singers, I think they're great, I love Justin Timberlake, but they're pop, and if they're giving them RnB awards, and there's no other category for soul, that doesn't make a lot of sense to me.

"They'll change it around soon though, once they get a grip on things," she laughs.

She admits it's not as easy to sell soul records as it used to be, but reflecting on her career, she's very happy with the success of her band and record label.

"I said back then, when Desco first folded and we created Daptone Records, "One day I want to be as big as Motown and Stax," and I think we're getting there, now when you mention Daptone, people know what you're talking about. It's harder than it was to sell records, but I have faith, things will change again. We just want people to hear our music.

"What we're trying to do is keep it real. We're good musicians, we remember how it went back then, and we play our best, and it sounds good!

"I got one of the best bands around, 'cos soul is who they are. And I think what makes us different is the energy that we bring to the show -- you won't see a smoke machine on my stage, or 66 dancers running around half naked, we bring all the energy ourselves. We keep it old school."

Who: Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings
What: Latest album Give The People What They Want
Where and when: Performing on Thursday September 4 at the Bruce Mason Centre in Takapuna

- TimeOut

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