Talking to the media about her recent battle with pancreatic cancer, Sharon Jones never spares the gory details. Asked how she first knew something was wrong, the 57-year-old soul singer told Spin she began feeling itchy and jaundiced, and that her urine turned the color of brandy. She appeared on the cover of The Village Voice in November while still undergoing chemotherapy, with her long braids completely gone, and described the surgery to remove a tumor from her bile duct, which cost her a gallbladder and over a foot of small intestine.
And so, when discussing the challenges of going back on the road, Jones, who's now in remission, isn't embarrassed to admit her struggles—even when they involve her digestive system.
"Anything I ate was going straight through me," she says from a hotel in Tucson a few hours before a performance with her band, the Dap Kings. A couple days earlier, in Denver, Jones caught a stomach bug—a problem compounded by the fact that, having lost a chunk of her pancreas, she must take enzyme pills with each meal. "Four hours before the show, I was really working on not running to the bathroom every 20 minutes,â she says.
Considering the alternative, though, she'll take it. Diagnosed last spring just after finishing Give the People What They Want, the Dap Kings' fifth album of expertly-crafted, Motown-style soul, Jones—a fiery performer with the verve of Tina Turner—thought she'd never get the chance to sing those songs live. Given a second lease on life, she's confronting recovery the same way she approached her illness: head-on, and with no shame.
WW: It's been a few months since you ended chemo. Have you slowed down at all?
Sharon Jones: My first night when I came onstage, the guys were like, "We've got a chair there for you. If you need to go off, just let us know. We've got songs prepared for a break if you can't go." I went onstage and I was like, "Pop, pop, pop!" It's like I was never gone. I held back maybe 20 percent. But everyone who saw me thought I didn't hold back anything.
You filmed the video for "Stranger to My Happiness" in October, when you were still going through treatment. Was that difficult?
It was at first. But with all the positive notes my fans wrote, with so many spiritual vibes and karma coming at me, I said, "Let me go on and do this." This way, they can look and see, this is Sharon. You're going to see her like this for a few months, maybe a year. You're going to watch me change. You're going to watch my hair grow. You're going to watch my nails—the ones that aren't going to fall off—come back to their natural color. All that is healing. It's still showing, but it's healing. I'm not trying to put on fingernail polish to hide these black nails I got. It is what it is. It's me.
How did music help you through this?
I didn't listen to music at all. Music is my joy, and I was in such pain. I listened to some gospel, maybe three times out of seven months, but I couldn't deal with it. I went to church for my pastor's anniversary in October, and that was the first time I did any kind of singing since May. But I took that time out and read a lot of books about food and how to eat right and take care of myself. I did a little painting just to keep my mind going. But most of the time I was in pain. I was out of it the first four months.
How has facing your mortality changed the way you look at your own music?
I have a goal to pursue. Since they left me here, and I'm able to do my music, my goal is to make the music industry realize there is soul music around today. If you look at the award shows, there's no award for soul music. They say soul music left in the '60s and '70s. Soul music needs to be recognized by the music industry—even if they don't want to give me an award.
What can you do to make that happen?
Keep doing what I'm doing. The more people demand of me, the more people are going to be wondering, "Why don't they have Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings nominated for something?" It's a natural thing coming.
SEE IT: Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings play Crystal Ballroom, 1332 W Burnside St., with James Hunter, on Tuesday, April 1. 8 pm. $25 advance, $30 day of show. All ages.