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Sharon Jones on Overcoming Cancer and Her Return to the Stage

The Hard Road Home

Apr 01, 2014 Issue #49 - February/March 2014 - Portlandia
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Sharon Jones admits that she didn’t want to do the video for “Stranger to My Happiness,” the second single from her new album, Give the People What They Want. “The effect of the chemo is that my nails turned black,” she says. “Of course, I have no hair. I’m totally bald. But I went and did the video. I didn’t want to do it, but I said, ‘You know what? I want my fans to know that I’m still out here.’ I’m not trying to hide my sickness. There’s nothing you can hide.”

That, in a nutshell, has been Jones’ approach to life. She didn’t hide from the fact that she was still struggling to start a music career at an age when most artists have long given up the dream. She didn’t hide from the fact that she was attempting to make a living playing the kind of soul music that hasn’t been wildly profitable since the days when Motown and Stax were topping the charts. And she hasn’t hidden from showing her fans that her fight with pancreatic cancer has left her bruised but not beaten, a theme that turns up on her album, even if it was entirely written and recorded before her diagnosis. Here, Jones talks about fighting her illness, finding strength in her fans, and how her live show might look a little different until she’s back to full strength. [Note: These are extra portions of our interview with Sharon Jones, quotes that didn’t make it into our main print article on her.]

Matt Fink (Under the Radar): How are you feeling today?

Sharon Jones: I’m a little off. I’m not feeling too good. Tuesday, when I went in for my chemo, they always take my blood. My white cells were very low, so I had to go in Wednesday and they gave me a shot to build up my white blood cells. But when they give me that shot, it makes me feel funny. Right now, I’m just so exhausted. I’m so tired. Other than that, I’m doing all right. It’s just that chemo. Once the chemo stops, I’ll have a chance to get my energy back.

I know your music has been a comfort to people in hard times. Has music served that same purpose for you as you recover?

You know what? No. The only thing that is a comfort to me is that where I’m at is up here in upstate New York, and I’m staying with my friend, who is a nutritionist. She’s really feeling me. A friend will reach out and say, “Hey, come stay at my house. I’ll take care of you, show you how to eat right.” So that’s where I’m at. The last few months, I had no music, nothing on my mind. I couldn’t even sing. I wasn’t able to sing until the beginning of October, which was the last time I sang since May, which was my last show. So these months, I’ve been healing. People are like, “This is your time. You should sit down and write music.” And I’m like, “No. This is my time to heal.” It’s crazy. If you haven’t had cancer and had to go through it, it’s not a sickness. It’s not a cold. This is not just something you can fix with a couple of shots and a few pills. This takes some time. Music was one of the last things on my mind until I was able to start the healing process and see that I am healing now. Being in this music business, management has to put dates out so that people know I’m coming back. I want to put these dates out for February and March, and people are like, “Are you sure you’re going to be able to come back?” No, I’m not sure of anything. You just have to go and be positive. I have to go for the gates. I have a faith and belief that by the time February and March get around and I’m no longer putting this poison in my system, my body should be able to heal. I’m not going to be 110% like I’ve been. Even for the first six, seven, eight months, I’m going to be a different Sharon, but I’m still going to be going. I still want to go out and sing. I have to. I’ve got to. You’ve got to reach for something. I’d never be able to perform again, if I went on how I feel today. I know a few months from now, it will be different.

Do you think this experience has changed your outlook on life?

It has to change the way you look at your life, because you realize you can be gone any minute. Life is precious. In a blink of an eye, I could have been gone. Instead of celebrating me coming out with my new album, you could have been saying, “Well, she was great,” and putting up pictures of me and what could have been. It’s an outlook on my life that life is short. You don’t ever know when you’re going to leave here. So while you are here, you have to follow your heart and your dream and what you want to do, and that’s what I’m doing, putting out this music. We’re trying to keep that Motown, Stax soul music alive, and I think that’s what we’re accomplishing with what we’re doing.

I read that you’ve already started singing again.

It was just a matter of me coming to the city. I started at my church. My pastor at church, it was her anniversary of 10 years that she’s been preaching. So I got to do a couple gospel songs on a Saturday, and that Sunday I got to church and I got to sing a couple songs, and Monday I got to rehearse with The Dap-Kings, and we hadn’t been together since May. It was really challenging. The first notes that I sang in church, I didn’t know how much power I was going to have behind it, if I was able to take the air in. Because they cut me from under my breast to right at the top of my navelthat’s where they had to cut me. So when you go to inhale and breathe, that’s right across from where the diaphragm is, so it was a little scary the first time trying to get that air in. Even now, I know the power isn’t what it once was, so I have to build it back up. It’s like an athlete. I have to get that energy back up, I have to get my legs built back up, I have to get my cardiovascular heart rate, everythingit takes time. You get down, and you have to build yourself back up and not hurt yourself.

Have you been surprised by the outpouring of support from your fans?

Not surprised. My fans have always been there for me. They’ve always encouraged me with their positive energy, positive words, positive things they’ve had to say about our shows. So when I was down and out and we weren’t writing things, months went by before anyone knew what was going on with me. I was telling my management, “Look. I want to talk to my fans. I want my fans to know what’s going on.” That was my concern, to hurry up and talk to my fans to let them know what was going on. And once I did that, I got all of those responses that encouraged me and gave me more energy. It was so important, all the impact and the feedback I get from my fans. It has been really good. I don’t know how many people are out there that are really serious about what they’re doing with music, but you need that energy from your fans. I always use that energy when I’m on stage. To use that energy on paper, just from words coming in on paper, saying, “We’re praying for you…” Someone said, “Yeah, Sharon I took chemo, and I’ve been going through what you’re doing. You’re past the hard part now. Once you stop getting that chemo, you’re going to get your energy back. You’re going to be alright.” That’s important to me.

Did you have an idea of what kind of album you were going to make when you started working on Give the People What They Want? Some of the songs, like “Stranger to My Happiness” seem to predict what you’d go through.

No. We just did 20-some songs. We go in and we do all these songs, and then Gabe [Roth] had to pick the 10 songs that are on the album. And “Stranger to My Happiness,” like all of the happiness I’ve had, I feel like a stranger to it now. That’s why I went and did the video. Every time I see that videothat was one of my steps to recovery, my healing. I did it, and I’m glad I did the video when I look back. People can look at it, and it’s not going to be the same Sharon that comes out, but if my true fans stay with me, I’ll be back.

How about “People Don’t Get What They Deserve”? That seems like it could have a different meaning for someone who is sick.

That’s one of the songs that I’m trying to learn. It’s a story. It’s all about the process of somebody living off of somebody else’s hard work. The Dap-Kingsthat was one of their theme songs that they play when they come out on stage. That was their opening song, and we had been playing that a lot. Meanwhile, while we were playing it I was like, “I can’t learn all those lyrics. I’ll work on it later.” I’ve got to get the story down. It’s a long story, and I’ve got to get all the lyrics down to tell that story about how people don’t get what they deserve. Once I get the lyrics down, it will have a different meaning to me, too. At first, I tried to question myself, like “Why is this happening to me?” But I learned not to. It could have been worse. The doctors could have told me to go home and get my business and finances straight because I only have a few months to live. So I’m living. I’m still here. I’ve got something to live for. The song, it’s going to mean something. I’m glad they didn’t use that as the theme song for the album or name the album after it, because that would have been one of the first songs I would have had to learn. [Laughs] So they asked me what I wanted to name it, and they said “Give the People What They Want”? I said “Yes!”

Will the mood be different when you get back on stage?

Each year, I don’t plan like, “I’m going to do this on stage, I’m going to do that on stage.” I don’t have the dancers coming up and doing all that stuff, because I don’t think we need that right now. We’ve already got to the point where it’s like, “All right, I can’t do it on the stage for an hour and a half anymore. Give me 45 minutes and let me do my thing and I’ll be happy.” Or a half an hour. But you have to dance to put on that show so the people don’t feel like they’re getting robbed. And I think by the time I get to that point where I have all the dancers to come in and fill in for me it will be time to retire. You know what I mean? As long as I can, I’m going to try to keep that energy going, and if I have to bring those dancers on stage, I’m not going to be trying to do what they do. They can do their thing, and I’ll do my thing, and this will all become a show. Right now, I know we’re not going to have the dancers and the smoke and all that kind of stuff. We might add a little more stage stuff to make it look like something, but right now I got to get on there and perform.

Well, we’re all looking forward to seeing you back on stage. We’re all pulling for you.

Well, you let everyone know I’m doing all right. You heard it yourself. This didn’t come from her management. [Laughs] They want to keep the story the way they want it, but you can say you heard it from me!

[Note: This article first appeared exclusively in digital/iPad version of the February/March print issue (Issue 49).]


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