To say it’s been a long road that Sharon Jones has had to travel to the release of Give The People What They Want, her sixth full-length with backing band The Dap-Kings, would be an incredible understatement.
It would be one thing to note that the esteemed soul singer did not release her first record until the age of 46. That fact would serve as testament enough to the drive Jones has displayed throughout her career to prevent her dreams from perishing. Yet when the now-57-year-old singer was diagnosed with bile duct cancer midway through 2013, many believed Jones had sung her last note onstage. Even Jones herself believed she could not be saved after receiving the original diagnosis.
“There was no music on my mind,” she says of the tough times. “I didn’t sing throughout the summer while I was going through treatment.” While Give The People What They Want was nearly complete at the time of the diagnosis, the release was delayed to accommodate Jones and her health. With the record now ready to go, Jones says she feels “great”, and that it was “upsetting” when the album didn’t come out on schedule last August.
Still, the US singer has a long recovery ahead of her before she begins touring confidently full-time again to deliver the legendary, energetic live show upon which she’s built a name for herself. “It’s going to be a happy new year,” says Jones as she continues making her way back from chemotherapy treatment. “Every time I look at myself I feel a little better”.
Throughout our conversation, Jones sounds tired and speaks often of the continuing treatment she’ll have to endure to beat the cancer and return to the stage. She speaks softly and answers questions in short bursts, parcelling the little energy she has. For a woman whose power onstage emerges from a seemingly endless supply of raw soul, it is at times terrifying to hear Jones sound so close to defeat. I ask if the new record and possible touring has afforded her a new lease on life, but she isn’t quite ready to agree with any grand, affirming statements like that.
“When I’m able to start working out again and get back on the treadmill and start working my arms then I’ll know if I’m ready or not. But right now, honestly, it’s pretty scary. It is what it is. I have to be truthful to myself.”
She repeats this phrase often throughout our conversation: “It is what it is,” as if she came to terms with the cancer long ago. She carries the sense of realism regarding the process of returning to the stage that only someone who has weathered many other personal storms could. While the diagnosis may have been one of the worst blows her career has ever been delivered, Jones is still nothing if not incredibly honest. “I didn’t want to go back onstage but I need to let my fans see who I am [through the record],” she says. “This is me now. I want to think of my fans; that’s been a positive and that has kept me going.”
Coming to terms with the cancer and actually beating it before continuing to sing are two different scenarios altogether. So much so that it became difficult for Jones herself to imagine getting back to live performance. However, considering how long it took for the world to be turned onto the ferocious power of Sharon Jones, it should come as no surprise that the tenacity she used to succeed has also helped her through her health struggles. No part of her wanted Give The People What They Want to be the last Sharon Jones offered the world.
“I actually thought this was going to be my last record,” she says frankly. “I thought I was going to die and I thought people would be sad about this record because it would be my last one. People might say, ‘This is her last album, blah blah blah,’ and I didn’t want that.”
And so, with a will as strong as the performances she’s become renowned for, Jones is emerging out the other side, and Give The People What They Want was waiting in the wings all along. It will serve as a powerful reminder of just how strong the singer’s will is.
“For me, it’s a reminder that I’m not gone, I’m not dead.”
Give The People What They Want is out now through Daptone/Shock.
Image: Kyle Dean Reinford