It may not be the most original statement to call soul singer Sharon Jones an absolute force of nature, but it may be the most accurate. The 57-year-old has lived many lives already—perhaps most notoriously as a corrections officer at Rikers Island in New York—but it’s her life as a performer that’s most notable. Her singing career didn’t really begin until she was 40, when she recorded backup vocals for the legendary Lee Fields. She later partnered with The Dap-Kings, who previously worked with Amy Winehouse, and together the band found themselves at the forefront of the soul revival movement.
Sadly, Jones’ fabled mid-life rise to the top took an unexpected turn over the summer when doctors discovered a tumor on her bile duct.
“When I went to the hospital and they told me I had cancer, they said it was going to be simple [to treat]. But if it’s so simple why did they have to take my gallbladder, the head of my pancreas, a foot and a half of my small intestines and build me another bile duct that connects to my stomach? Under my breast, all the way down to my navel, I got an infection and they rearranged all my insides. It was four months of pain,” Jones told Boxx in an interview shortly following one of her now all-too-familiar cancer treatments.
The cancer discovery forced the band to cancel appearances and push back the release of their fifth album, Give The People What They Want (finally out this month). It also pushed Jones to do something she hasn’t done in nearly two decades: Take a break.
“I’ve been doing this 19 years, and for the first time ever, I was sick and out of work and not doing anything… There’s really this healing process that takes place. I thought I was gonna die. I thought Give The People What They Want was going to come out and sell millions, and I wouldn’t be here to enjoy it. I really thought I wasn’t going to be here,” Jones says.
Alas, amidst treatments and crippling pain, the Queen of Modern Soul still found herself working through her hospital stays and all the days in between. Stacked up next to her bed were books about cancer and recovery, as well as the finalized versions of songs for Give The People What They Want awaiting her approval. Hardly able to slow down, Jones joined The Dap-Kings to perform “Ain’t No Chimneys in the Projects” at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade as well as recording a music video for new song, “Stranger to My Happiness.”
“The last time I sang [before they found the tumor] was May, and I didn’t have another chance until October… It was then I got to rehearse ten songs with the Dap-Kings. Some of us hadn’t seen each other since May,” Jones recalls. “I did the video and the Thanksgiving Day Parade and after that, I was in bed for three or four days. Anytime I got up and went out, I was back in the bed… But when I was out there, performing, I felt good.”
With her cancer treatments now complete and with the blessing of her doctors, Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings are wasting no time getting moving again. Give The People What They Want was just released January 14, and the band is booked for shows all over the globe starting in early February through the end of May.
“I’ll still be recovering, but I can do it. To me, it’s better to get out on that stage than be lying around here for the next few months,” Jones admits. “The doctors say I should be okay and that my strength should come back. I just want to get back out to the fans.”
Well aware that her much anticipated return to the stage will require many lifestyle adjustments, Jones will be hitting the road with an assistant to monitor her health and new dietary requirements. “I’m just gonna take it one day at a time. I don’t want to get out there and do one or two shows and have to cancel because I wasn’t ready. That’s not gonna happen. I believe in my heart and have faith in my fans that everything is going to be okay. I’m gonna get back,” Jones says of the extensive touring schedule.
The singer’s day-to-day attitude isn’t the only adjustment on this tour. Naturally, her outlook has forever been altered following the life or death battle.
“We cut that album almost two years ago. When we recorded the song “Retreat!” I was thinking about this guy, and now it doesn’t have the same meaning,” she reflects. “It’s like I’m telling the cancer and my illness to retreat. I pick up the mic and tell the world ‘I’m coming back. I’m giving you what you want.’ I know the show is going to be different when I’m singing those songs.”
Although, despite her admirable confidence, Jones found herself struggling with her new appearance at first. Her hair gone, eyelashes falling out and nails brittle, the usually glitzy star called her changing appearance “one of the hardest things” about her recovery. Boldly, she declined wearing a wig for the band’s “Stranger To My Happiness” video, laying her cancer and emotional struggles out on the proverbial table for the world to see.
That’s always been what makes her such a strong figure, though. With defiant musical statements like “Nobody’s Baby” from 2007’s 100 Days, 100 Nights or the numbers on 2010’s I Learned the Hard Way, Sharon Jones could easily be categorized a feminist music icon. However, it seems that Jones has never really taken the time to consider her lasting effect of women in pop cultural history and beyond.
“No, it’s strange and sad, but I haven’t [got a stance on feminism],” says Jones, maybe too quickly. “I’ve always been the type of woman who just goes out and works. I saw my mother and father separate when I was a year old and my mother came to New York to do domestic work… I saw the scars on her shoulders. My father knocked her out of the park. She rolled down a hill pregnant. He could’ve killed her and the baby, too. I watched this stuff, and I came up and thought, ‘I’m gonna be the kind of woman that can’t have no man beating on me and I can’t be taking care of no man.’… I just love it when a woman can go out and work for her own instead of waiting on her man to come and bring her something. Some women think you’re not a real woman unless you’ve got a man hanging on your arm. Over the years, I’ve done that. I’ve been in these relationships where I was unhappy and I can’t make my career because my man is jealous. I’m at a point now where I love seeing a woman being strong and following her dreams and giving her life. And I give the women props that have children and are still going out. It takes a lot—you can still go out and work and then come home and cook and clean and take care of your kids, too… So, I guess, yes. I am a feminist!”
And it’s not just the ladies who are taking note of Jones’ infectious swagger. Sharon and company are in constant demand for collaborations. They’ve performed with everyone from Prince to Phish, recorded with David Byrne and Michael Bublé, and garnered approval from one mega legend—the late Mr. Lou Reed.
“One thing I like about what I’m doing is they come to me. That’s the good part! They want what we have, and that’s what I worked so hard for. I love it when they come to [the band] and want our sound,” she says. “Like Michael Bublé—I didn’t even know who he was. I didn’t know who Lou Reed was! That song ‘Berlin’ freaked me out! I thought, ‘What a dark song!’ His manager sent me a picture of him watching [our] show and said ‘Lou is cheering you on. He really loves you.’”
Reed repeatedly asked Jones to perform with him, but she only made it to one show. The recording of her belting an unparalleled version of the Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane” along with Reed in fact began making the rounds on the Internet the day he died.
“Lou passed away on Sunday and I heard that recording of “Sweet Jane” that Monday. It’s so amazing how life works,” recounts Jones.
With 2013’s many challenges behind her, Sharon Jones seems ready to take on the new year like never before. If you hadn’t heard much of Jones before, surely 2014 will be changing that with a new album, a major tour, a musical appearance in Oscar contender “The Wolf of Wall Street” and yet another new title to add to her repertoire of lives: Cancer survivor.