Published Feb 07, 2014Sharon Jones is soul; soul is Sharon Jones. It's a tautologically valid statement revolving around a 58-year-old woman who was told she was "too black, too short and too fat" to have anything resembling success in the music industry. The Augusta, GA woman (born Sharon Lafaye Jones) is a self-described late bloomer in terms of industry success but — six albums later as front woman for Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings — is top of mind when it comes to that "old school/revivalist" soul sound. By now it's common knowledge that a bout of pancreatic cancer threatened to stop the Daptone diva in her tracks but, post-chemotherapy, Jones is back as animated and vivacious as ever. In Toronto recently on a promo stop, Exclaim! sat down with Jones to discuss her new album Give the People Want They Want, her life post-cancer and the power of soul.
Does it get exhausting telling the same story over and over, with respect to the cancer scare?
Yeah. Sometimes it would be the same story but sometimes folks will ask me questions and I can turn it a little bit. So it can be the same story but you can answer it a little differently. Add something else on to it.
That said, how is your health? Are you in a good place right now?
Actually, to be truthful to you, these last few shows that I did exhausted me. I was really tired and this morning I'm a little stiff. Some days they are so sore. That's from all that standing and being in these heels and boots. And singing, doing that little bit of stuff [starts dancing]. I haven't done this in a while, a few months. So my last singing gig was [in spring of last year]. And then the first time I got to sing with the band was in rehearsal last August and singing in my church a couple times.
How have your health troubles affected how you approach music and life in general?
I think it changed my life. I don't think I made a New Year's resolution — I was just thankful to be alive, and thankful that we caught this cancer thing. If I didn't have my check-up — and my colonoscopy — I wouldn't be sitting here talking to you here today. When they gave me the colonoscopy and they removed polyps — one of the polyps blocked up my bowels, so they had to look and see what was going on. When they went in they saw cancer.
So this was a routine check-up?
Yeah. I do that every year.
Yeah. The doctor I had had moved south and he was like, "Eh you don't really need to have a colonoscopy every year." But I told him the doctors in New York said I should take one. He was like "Yeah you can skip it for a couple years." And because I skipped it a couple of years the doctors — instead of removing four or three polyps, you know how many that they removed from me? It was 13 that had grown insides two-and-a-half years' time. I was like "I'll never let you or anyone else tell me it skip it. And if you don't want to give it to me, I'll go somewhere else." Because that's important to do that and I have a history of that. And my mother died of cancers and some of my older relatives I know died of cancer. So it's been in my family a while.
So what keeps you motivated then? What keeps you going, and ready to make and perform music right now?
My faith, my belief that God has blessed me with a gift. I always say I don't believe He brought me this far to leave me. So that's what I have faith in. And my path: everything that I'm doing is meant to be, you know. I heard some older people say that when you're born, there's a number that you're given — you're imprinted — and there is only certain things in your life that you can do. Then I also learned that some say that God can give that can some people change that destiny and you can change your destination — by being stubborn, by not believing in yourself, or by not being a leader and being a follower. You can miss your blessing [that way], and that's what I look at. So when I think that the opportunity came and when people turned me down, I just was glad that I had that faith. They told me that I was too black, too fat, too short, too old. But I had enough faith in me that you know, one day people will accept me for my voice and not the way I look. And that's what happened.
And I'm sure there's been that element of fear, particularly within this past year?
Of course that's that fear. I thought that I'd be dead. I thought that people were going to buy my album and I wasn't going to be able to perform it. That was the fear. But then again, what will be, will be. If you can't change it, you can't change it. You just gotta go along with it. If that doctor told me I had a few months to live, it probably would have freaked me out but eventually I would have had to deal with it. [Laughs]
So that album was postponed until you were healthy. Was there a feeling to tinker, or change the album a bit now that you're well?
No. Because the album had already been out. The single "Retreat!" had been out. And then Gabe called me and said he was going to make an animated music video for the single because I was sick. And I was like, okay cool. And so when he sent the video over to see a couple of weeks later, I was amazed. And someone at Daptone called me to say that she didn't look at the video as me telling some man to step back, but rather it was about me and my cancer. "Don't mess with crazy, I'll chew you up and spit you out!" I'm telling the cancer that.
So that song had that. And when I look at "Stranger to My Happiness," I didn't want to be bald in that video. Because every time I'd look at the video, everyone was going to see my bald head and think about my cancer. But then I was like, you know what, I'll do the video and this way my fans can see that what I'm going through and understand it. I feel like with life, there are ups and there are downs — and that's why when you go up, you don't burn bridges. You don't show anyone your behind like I don't need anyone. Never say never.
So what did you want to do different or accomplish with this album in particular?
It's not even that I wanted to accomplish anything different. When this album was put together, I was still dealing with my family [suffering from various illnesses], and my sickness when we recorded. I was supposed to have been in New York where we had three weeks in the studio to record. I didn't get to the studio until the second week. So I only had a week there. Believe it or not, the band had already recorded 22 songs and half the rhythms and vocals. So Gabe picked ten songs for this album and we have another 12 songs lying around that we could put on another album.
What was it like getting all the love and support from your fans?
That support was what helped me to out and talk more about it — and not wear the wig. Because that way some other cancer patients could see that bald is beautiful. I got a couple of t-shirts from some people that read "Bald Power." [laughs]
How are you defining success at this point?
I think that success is when something in your life that you set out to do and accomplished. My success is once I see my name associated with soul music. I want to be recognized as soul. That's my goal. And soul music is here to stay; it didn't die in the '60s or '70s. Soul music is here.