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Sharon Jones is an American treasure. One of the purest, most authentic soul singers around, she’s overcome massive amounts of adversity to become the respected pillar of music she is today. Last summer Jones was diagnosed with cancer, but after successful surgery and ongoing treatment, she and her band the Dap-Kings are back with a vengeance, unleashing their latest album, Give The People What They Want, on a very eager public. Mixing sass with class, we recently had a chance to speak with the soul siren about the making of the new record and her creative process with the band.
The first time I saw you was in 2009 at the Knitting Factory. It was during CMJ. The show was a Daptone Records Super Soul Revue. I went to see the Budos Band, but I got blown away by you and the Dap-Kings. I think Lee Fields came out on stage,too. The sheer energy and the soul. How do you do it?
When I go out on stage I don’t think, I don’t plan it. It just happens naturally. A lot of my energy I get from feeding off the audience and the band. We all just feed off of each other. When the whole band is there and we’re locked, it’s almost like a spiritual thing…like an out of body, out of mind experience.
And I don’t conjure up anything, I just always look at it as a blessing. That I have the energy, at my age of 57, to get on the stage for an hour, two hours, and jump around like a maniac.
The last few months I’ve had the opportunity to sit back and go online and look at all these shows on YouTube, and stuff that people put out. And it’s just amazing, you know? I amaze myself when I’m watching myself put the energy on, and just how we do on stage. For the last 18-19 years I’ve been working, you know? This is the longest break I ever had. And it wasn’t something I wanted to do, you know? This is because of the sickness, the cancer. Other than that, I would be gone.
How are you handling taking a break from music?
It’s not like I’m taking a break. I’m sick. They’re putting poison in my system; I’m taking chemo. And this stuff is tearing me down. Like right now I walk up 16 steps and by the time I get to step number 9, I’m about to die.
But now, this is my time for recovery. For healing. It’s not to say I have no time for music. I can’t even concentrate on music. I couldn’t even sing up until about a month ago. I couldn’t even get air in my diaphragm like that. They removed my gallbladder, the head of my pancreas, about a foot and a half of my small intestines were taken out, and then they had to build me another bile duct and connect it to my stomach. This is what I went through since June… June 11th was the operation.
I always say I don’t believe God brought me this far to leave me. Everything that’s put in my way, is put in my way for a reason, and I’m gonna take it one day at a time.
And yet, through all of that, you’re doing interviews and getting ready for the release of an album. You still have to work.
A few weeks ago we had rehearsals. First time I’d been with the guys since May 2nd. I went over all of the songs from the album and it felt good. That was my first time singing since May. So everything takes its time, you know? I think I was in town for three days, and when I got back to recovery it took me six days to be out of bed.
[Rehearsals] just tired me out… That’s why I don’t want to do too much, because once I get back out there on the stage, I wanna be out there. I don’t wanna get on the stage and have them say, ‘Oh Sharon’s gotta cancel shows again, ’cause she wasn’t ready.’ So, right now, it’s a hard thing. In my heart, I believe that I’m gonna be ready when the time comes. But right now, talking to you today, honey, nuh-uh.
You’ve been so honest with your fans throughout this whole process.
I’m glad I am because I’m that type of person. Some people wanted me to wait to tell people that I’m getting chemo. I’m like, ‘No. I want to tell my fans. I want to tell my friends. I want them to know what I’m going through, so they can understand. I don’t want them thinking that [I’m] gonna be out there in a couple months. That [I’m] OK.’
I’m not OK.
But…. I am OK, you know? And I want them to see. I want to put up a picture with my bald head. I’m not ashamed of it. I mean, I’m not proud of it either. I’m not happy about it. You know I would prefer it with a hat or a wig if I could, but I put on a wig and I didn’t like the way it looked. So I don’t wanna a wig. I’ll do the natural bald [thing] for a while.
I think it’ll make a very powerful statement.
I think so. That’s why I’m doing what I’m doing. I’m not trying to sugarcoat anything. There’s no time for no fake and phony. Just be yourself. ‘Cause if I can’t be me, it’s time for me to stop.
The video for “Retreat!” just came out. Can you tell me a little bit about that production?
“Retreat!” was done in the summer. I was sick and I didn’t even realize it. And the meaning of that song had a different meaning during the summer. Now, from the video, and even in the cancer, it has a whole ‘nother meaning. I look at the song and see… I’m beating the cancer. I’m overcoming it. I’m getting back out here to the world and to my fans and lettin’ them know – I’ve battled this cancer and I overcame it. I beat it. And that’s what the video says to me now. Can’t hold me down!
Let’s get into your creative process. The band writes the music and the lyrics to your songs?
The band writes ’em all. Isn’t it amazing?
I mean, yes. That song “100 Days, 100 Nights” popped into my head today. That song feels so personal when you sing it.
[sings] ‘To know a man’s heart...’ That song almost didn’t make the album! And we ended up naming the album 100 Days, 100 Nights. We couldn’t decide if we needed to do it fast or slow. So we tried it fast and said ‘NEEHHH…’ Then we tried it slow and said ‘AHHH…’
What about this new album? One of your bandmates was quoted as saying this is one of the best albums Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings have put out to date.
I can’t say its gonna be one of the greatest, because we’re gonna be doin’ more stuff. And how can you outdo yourself? [laughs] You know what I mean? Put it like this – we put music out, and we like it. And whatever we do in the studio and put out there, we hope our fans like it. If we don’t like it, it don’t make sense to put it out.
Can you tell me a little bit about how you and the Dap-Kings create a record together?
It’s weird. In the studio, you have to realize that the drummer might pick on the guitar, and the guitar player might be on the drums, and the bass player might pick up a guitar or get on the drums. They switch around and come up with some grooves, and then they come back with some lyrics. They’ll have an idea of how they want it to go. But…not on one of these songs that they gave me, I did it exactly the way they told me to do. ‘Cause I can’t. Because that’s not soulful. And I try to tell them.
You bring the song to me, I’m gonna sing the song the way I wanna sing it. You wrote it for me, I’m gonna sing the song. I’m a soul singer. You can’t teach me how to sing soul! It’s like I’m not trying to tell you how to play your instrument, you know? So don’t try to tell me how to sing the song. Why don’t you play the music? That’s how I know where you’re going, you know? Follow the music. Follow the chords. But I’m thinking soul. When I hear a song I think, ‘What would Tina Turner do with this?’
When I was with Lou Reed and he gave me that verse in “Sweet Jane”…I’d never heard of “Sweet Jane.” And when I heard the way he was singing it, you know, [laughs] I was like ‘Hmmm…’ And then I thought of Tina Turner…[begins singing], ‘Jack, he is a banker…’ And I went up there!
And so, if I’m gonna do something, I’m like this – if people ask me to do a song, than you want me to do the song soulful. If you want a pop singer, or somebody to sing it poppy or whatever, then get some young girl out here to do that. But not me.
To my band members, they don’t have no problem! They know I’m gonna take it and I’m gonna do what I gotta do with it, ’cause I’m not gonna do anything wrong. I’m gonna do it right! I’m gonna do what I do! And it sounds good.
photography by Kyle Dean Reinford