The soul singer opens up about her struggle with cancer, and thinking she was going to die.
Photos by Jesse Dittmar
In June of 2013, shortly after announcing the newest album in her near two-decade career, Sharon Jones was diagnosed with Stage II pancreatic cancer, just three short years after the 57-year-old lost her mother—also to cancer.
The dynamic soul singer has spent the past six months going through treatment for the vicious disease, spending day after day in chemotherapy, an experience that we all know is far from pleasant. She and her band, Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, planned to drop their new record Give the People What They Want—adding another swirling edition of bombastic soul music to their discography—this past summer, but were forced to delay the release date to next week. Now, Jones has finished her treatment and in preparation for the LP, will perform on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon this week, before heading out on tour next month.
In short, it’s been a whirlwind of a year—with another whirlwind just around the corner.
Through it all, Jones has remained strong and steadfast. A cover story in The Village Voice from November outlined what her treatment was like, and what’s more is that singer still made time to deal with the album promotion cycle. Back in December, about a week before Christmas, I spent the afternoon on the phone with her. Over the course of an hour, she chatted candidly with me about everything you could imagine—from her thoughts on Kanye West and the current state of music to what it’s like to look death in the eye, and think it might win.
Noisey: I watched my grandma fight cancer. I’m sorry you’ve gone through this.
Sharon Jones: It is terrible. It's really horrible. Sitting in those chairs [for chemo treatment] and watching most anyone come in. It’s very hard. When the doctor diagnosed that it was pancreatic cancer stage two, I didn't know if I was going to die. [But] I thought I was going to die. I thought I wasn't ever going to do a show to perform this album. Because it's like, that was it for me. And I really thought that.
Was that the first thing that came to your mind?
Yeah. “This is the last album.” And then after—each day—people’s right. You have to take things one day at a time. I lost my mother to cancer in March 2011. And then this happened. This is what the last three years of my life have been like.
How do you deal with these challenges?
With my music. It's the music. It's the stage. Even when my mother was sick, I was able to come on stage and play the night she died. And I knew my mother had passed away that morning. But I just had to do it. The music is—it takes you away. When I'm out there and I see the smiles on people's faces. I mean, I was on the phone with a guy yesterday from Italy. And he was just telling me how they loved me. And how much I mean to them. And they know of my sickness, how they cried. And I'm crying listening to this man who's interviewing me, telling me how important I am to them over there in Italy. And I know half of them don't even understand what I'm saying. But they understand the music and the form. And I feel like that's what I've beenworking so hard for. That's my goal. And my next goal is for people to recognize that soul music is now. Soul music did not die in '69 and '70. When I get up at the American Awards and I see Taylor Swift and Justin Timberlake winning R&B and Soul, that makes you like, “What?” I'm not saying R&B and Soul is black. It ain't got nothing to do with that. It's the pop singers. They're great singers. Taylor Swift is a pop singer. She does a good job with what she's doing, but it’s pop. And then you've got people like me and Charles Bradley. Just because we're independent we're not even recognized up there. The goalis to be recognized as a soul singer. And we work so hard. Don't call me retro. Ain't nothing retro about me. I'm a soul singer.
One of the interviewers told me that, “You know, Sharon, if you had been a white girl or something like that, you'd probably have more status as a soul singer.”
What do you think about that?
Well, he’s right. I didn't want to have that coming out of my mouth: “Because I'm black.” [Laughs] People would say, “Oh she's racial.” But it's the truth. If I would've been a white girl, and I had this story, there would’ve been a different approach. But you know what I'm going to tell you? I’m not worried about that, because this is what Sharon thinks. God gave me a gift. And that's why I'm doing what I'm doing right now. As far as how my fans see me, that’s another trial in my life. I'm sick. This is what it is. I can't hide it. Why should I hide it? And I think the more I share with my fans, the more I be true, and they see what I'm going through, then they understand me. And they see I'm not no fake phony out here. I’m not. If I was doing this for the money, I would've been try to cross over to the mainstream and trying to change our music so we could sell millions.
I know that's what I'm meant to do. And I know more people need to hear our music. And that's what I'm saying. These awards, not cutting anybody down, but they need to recognize independent labels. You go on the radio, you hear one song about 25 times a day. Instead of playing that one song 25 times, play some other songs. Play 25 other different people, you know?
You got me all revved up just now. [Laughs]
You’re still going through chemo, correct?
Oh yes I am. I'm taking chemo now. That’s why the last two days I've been in the bed. Because my white blood count, it was low. I had to take a needle. So I'm still going through that. And then I open my calendar and see all this stuff planned for me. I'm scared. I’ll tell you that even today, tonight—if I had to perform anywhere tonight, I couldn't do it. But I know in weeks' time from now, or in February, I will be able to. The chemo stops New Year's Eve. December 31st. Then my body just starts repairing itself. And I've still got to go to the doctors and have them to cut this port out of my chest before I get on the road.
And I'm already scheduled to do the Jimmy Fallon showin January. I was supposed to do it back in August, but we rescheduled.If I get there, and I'm not ready, then I'm not ready. And I'll just have to say, “Hey. I'm not ready.” But in my heart, and my faith, and my belief, and just the energy what the fans have sent me is enough that I know I'm going to be ready. And I know my fans going to be ready for me. Whatever I bring out to the stage to them, they're going to be ready for it.
I can imagine there’s a lot of excitement—along with fear.
It is. And you know one thing about me? When I'm sick and I'm down, I'm not happy. I can't listen to music. I can't concentrate. So once this dials in, I get these songs up. I'm going to start with one song a day. I already know about five the songs out of ten. But I still have to go over them. And the other ones I have to learn them. I'm not going to be able to feel those songs until I get on that stage and start changing. And I know it's a lot ahead of me. And that’s the scary part because out of all these last 18, 19 years, I've been doing—people look at me like, “Wow. Look at your schedule.” And I'm like, “You know I've been doing that the last 18 years or so? And no one has ever said anything about my schedule until now?” You know what I mean? So it's like I'm going to be all right. I may not be 110 percent those first few shows. But I know in my heart I'm going to be fine.
During these past three years, what have you learned about yourself and how is that reflected in your art?
I know I'm not going to be like I was when I left. When I come back my main thing is I know I'm not going to be there because of the way I look. I'm going to be bald. I'm not going to put a wig on. I'm not going to come out with some braided wig on my head to look like I looked before. I'm going to be bald. I'm not going to have my little shimmery dresses when I start back out because that's the old Sharon. I'll have to grow back into that and put my dresses on. That was part of my stage. The way you dress. The way you carry yourself. All that stuff. That's part of you. I would tell people, “Yeah. I'm Sharon Jones.” But when I was on that stage, I was Ms. Sharon Jones. You know?
The clothes. The hair. Everything I put on. How my makeup looked. That was part of my act. That was part of me. So now I look in the mirror. I know what people say, “You're still beautiful. You're this,” but I look in the mirror and sometimes I'm sad at what I see. I want that hair back. I want that. I want my happiness. I want what I had before I left the stage. But I know I still got that. And it's just going to be a little different at the beginning. So right now I know I can't go back to what I was. But I'm going to work my way back up. And no matter where I get to and stop at, I'm still going to be Sharon. And that's why I share with my fans. And I want them to see what I'm going through. And that’swhy I appreciate talking to you so you can write down what I'm feeling right now. Because you ask me this question another month from now, the answer would be a little different. And right now my goal is to get that happiness. That joy. And that's that joy of being on the stage. And that has to come back to me. That's what I lost through my sickness. But I know I'm on my way to get that back. Happiness is the most important. I’ve been out here. I’ve gone through things. You have to be happy. You have to feel that you've done something in life. And I think over the years, that’s what we've accomplished.
Are you afraid of death?
You know what? I think everyone can say you're not. Of course, I'm afraid of death—especially at an early age. But I do enough and for my mother, and I know I'm going to lose other people. We're not here to live forever. If doctor would've told me, “You only got so many more months to go...” I mean, I don't know what I would've done. But I would've dealt with it. I would've had to deal with it. I wouldn't have gone and took my life or tried to kill myself. Because that's my upbringing in the church. And I know that in my heart. And I've done things. And all I would just be concerned about is getting my connection with God. Making sure that when I leave here, my soul is not in limbo. We've got Heaven and Hell. Nobody wants to go to Hell. I know I don't. And I've lived my life enough to know that I'm not going to Hell. And I have enough faith to believe that. So yes I'm afraid of death. But then again if it comes my way and I know it's going to happen, I've got to deal with it.
Did that view do you think change between not having cancer and then being diagnosed?
Well yeah. Because like you say, you always think the worst. And then first they told me it wasn't bad. And then when they go inside, then that's when you're like, “Uh oh.” That's when I said, “Okay. Now here we go. I'm getting ready to die. You're going to tell me, 'You've only got this long.'” And then when he tell you something else, “It's okay. But you've got to go through this.” And so I did go through the trial and tribulation then. This is just—that's a stumbling block in front of me. And I've got to go over this. I'm not going to go around it. And it's another chapter in my life. You know?
And once I knew I wasn't going to die, then I've got to live. See what I mean? Now I've got to live. Once you know already—and my sickness ain't forever. I'm getting healthy. I'm ready to get the heck out of here. And what I do is get on that stage and do my music. That's my happiness. That's where I bring my happiness to. People enjoy it. And that's what I'm going to do. And that's what God blessed me to do.
Did your relationship with religion evolve during your treatment? How?
It did. My pastor at the church made me realize something. She said, “See, Sharon. All of that work you've done over the years, all what you've done for God, and your belief, and your faith. That was on layaway. And now all that is added up. So you're paying off in your heart—all the good.” And I was like, “Wow. Thanks, Pastor.” So yes. It changed me. And that just made my faith even stronger. Because some people think that if you ain't going to church every day and you ain't walking down the street with a Bible in your hand, you ain't right. And because I'm out here doing the music—there are church folks think that, “You're straddling the fence.” And Ihave to tell them, “No. I'm not. I'm doing what God gave me the gift to do. And that's to sing.” Just like you go to your nine to five job. And you go to church on Sunday. Well this is my job. This is the job that God gave me. I put my tithe on the table when I have it when it's there. I still do what I have to do. And that main thing is my faith in the church, my faith in God and Jesus. And I just feel you treat people the way you wish to be treated. You ain't got to be sitting up in the church 24/7, reading the bible, and studying it. But as long as you know it. And it's been instilled in you. And you know what relationship you have with God. I know there are atheists out here. But hey, I'm going to say what I've got to say when they talk. But I'm not going to knock what they believe in. But it's got me where I'm at and can’t nobody take that away from me right now. Nobody can take that away from God.
Switching gears, as a black woman who’s seen culture and race relations shift over the past two decades, what are your thoughts on the current state of music—like, for example, Kanye West releasing songs called “New Slaves.”
Well you know what? Sometimes, you have to really watch how you say things about people. I mean, Kanye West. I think the young man has been messed up ever since his mother left him. People don't know what kind of relationship he had with his mom, andsomewhere there's a chemical imbalance in [people who lose their mother’s] heads, you know?
I'm being truthful. You can see that in certain people. Just because he's out there saying he's making all this money—there is still something that happened when he lost his mother. And then now you have all this money and this power. And he's really actually thinking like he's the best thing in the world. Nobody can beat him. He's God, almost to the point. That's his opinion. I don't know his personal life. I don't know what he went through. And his perception on slavery, I don't listen to it. To be truthful with you, I don’t listen to his music. But the fact is, if I would've been a white girl, I would've been heard—longer than taking me 18, 19 years to be heard.
When I came up, I was living in the segregation. I was there when I couldn't go to a fountain and drink, and it said, “White,” and, “Colored.” I watched that. I came through right when living on DeKalb Avenuein the '60s. Watched Martin Luther King come down the boulevard. They wouldn't even put black people pictures on album covers. And then when they did start putting the pictures on the albums, men was dominant. And then the women came in, and now they're selling sex. I watched men go from nice suits to tight pants. Their hair went from afro to curlier.I watched Michael Jackson. I watched those young men go from soul singers to pop. I watched this whole music thing change. Beyonce comes up. Aaliyah comes up. And everybody wants to be like everyone. Everybody wants to sound like this other person sounds. We've got a new Mariah Carrey. We've got a new Beyonce. We've got a new somebody. Why can't it just be some singer coming out here and singing?
So I'm watching all this. Now, Beyonce is out. She got talent. She using her publicity. She's a business woman. She's making more money. But how much more money—how many millions? People just changing. I pray that I can get that kind of money. Because I don't know how there's people making so much money. There's poor people—people that don’t even have a home to live in. How can one person… You're not going to ever spend all this money. Why don’t you really do something? I think that's what God give us these things for. When you get something, you should reach out and help someone that doesn’thave. And that's just life. I'm still doing that. I've been doing that all my life. And I can't wait to be in a better position where I can even do more.
Look, anyone out here can have their own opinions. Like, everyone is talking about that girl, Miley Cyrus. I think she's a great young lady coming up through Disney, doing what she do—but now to get out here and be that rebellious. To me, that's not smart. But she's selling. She’s one of the most popular people of the year. But what message does she send to other young girls? Just get out there, get naked, and stick your tongue out and talk about drugs. Take drugs and you'll make money. Come on.
How does all of this—the business, the money, everything you’ve been addressing—affect the actual art?
It affects the music a lot because look what these guys are singing about. I mean really sit down and listen to some of the lyrics of Beyonce's song. Listen to some of the lyrics in Kanye. Listen to what they're singing about. They're not singing about how much money they got. They're singing about how fine they are. How much they can do somebody. Or how many cars they got. Or how much of this. And going to the rappers, every woman a ho, bitch, and a this, and a that. And you don't want no one to call you that n-word, but you can use it 25 times in your song. That's why I don’t listen to rap. I hate that word. They didn't live it. They didn't know what it meant to have someone to call you that. I mean really. And you just let it flow out of your mouth like it's a part of your language. You have no idea. Look at people like Nelson Mandela. That man spent 27 years in prisonand all he wanted was peace and black people to be able to vote. Ablack person is a human being, not an animal.
You've got these kids with their clothes hanging off their behind. No respect. And they're living in a neighborhood poorer than Dickens, but you trying to buy shoes like Kanye or some famous person up there. Stuff they’re selling for $150 or $200. Instead of some of these stars giving back, they make these products. They should come in the black neighborhood so these kids can afford them, and buy them, and they don't have to go knocking nobody in the head stealing from people so they can wear a $250 pair of sneakers because their mother can't afford to buy it.
Have you seen Kanye’s tour merchandise?
No. I haven't.
It's pretty radical. He basically re-appropriated the Confederate flag.
Oh come on. He has no idea of what that Confederate is. I mean, I'm a Southerner. So I know what the Confederate flag meant. But he don't understand that when you was coming up and you seen that Confederate flag. And you go up in the restaurant, they tell you, “Nigger, get out of here. We're not going to serve you,” or, “We don't want you in here.” And if you don't go, they're fixing to string you, hang you up somewhere on a tree somewhere. He has no idea what that means. That meant that you ain't nothing to them. Especially black man.Anyway, Kanye's crazy.
I think his argument was that he wants to re-appropriate that or make it mean something else.
And people follow that and buy that. They're stupid too. You know what? There is going to be somebody out there stupid enough to follow that. There's going to be a few hundred. Probably a couple thousand that's going to follow that. So he just—I don't know what to say. He's just going to crash one day and do something to himself or somebody's going to do something to him. It's just crazy. But see, that's what I mean about money and fame, how it changes people. All this music now. Musicians, they fighting. They're carrying on. It's so stupid. There's enough music, enough people out there, and there's everything for everyone. Why do you have to down somebody else to be successful? I’m even doing it now. I'm not trying to down Kanye. If I don't like it, I don’t buy it. I don't listen to it. Same with me. If nobody don't like my stuff, don't buy it. Don't listen to it. But don't you get up here and start talking nonsense stuff. And ragging it and tearing it down. He's a nutcase. And he'll see for himself what's going to work and what's not. I would never buy his shirt. And then there’s someone else that will.
Eric Sundermann is the Managing Editor of Noisey. He's on Twitter — @ericsundy