Sharon Jones on cancer, and returning to music

Vocal powerhouse Sharon Jones isn’t going to let cancer stop her from giving the people what they want, she tells Fiona Shepherd

Vocal powerhouse Sharon Jones isn’t going to let cancer stop her from giving the people what they want, she tells Fiona Shepherd

Sharon Jones lost her mother to cancer two years ago. The Brooklyn soul queen was touring Europe with her band The Dap-Kings when she was told that Ella Mae Price Jones had died, but chose to go ahead with her next scheduled date – in Glasgow. Jones, a powerhouse performer at the best of times, poured out her pain on stage at this worst of times in an unforgettable act of vocal catharsis.

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For Jones is a soul singer of the old school, digging deep to deliver the kind of performances which have left audiences reeling at home and abroad. “I have to know the story,” she says of her approach to lyrics. “I have to live it, get to the stage that I can tell that story.”

Just over a year after that riveting night in Glasgow, Jones had her own cancer story to relate when doctors diagnosed stage one bile duct cancer. Fortunately, the early detection of the tumour gave her a good chance of full recovery. The release of her fifth album Give The People What They Want was put on ice last summer while Jones had surgery, followed by six months of chemotherapy.

Recuperating at home in New York, Jones is happy to discuss her health. “I’m nauseous,” she replies candidly to a simple “how are you?” ice-breaker, before regaling me with stories of blood transfusions, low white blood cell counts and the titanic effort it takes to get to the bathroom in her weakened state. But now her comeback is on the cards and there is work to be done. When we speak, she has just filmed the video for current single Stranger To My Happiness.

“I would rather have waited until I had a little more hair,” she says. “My nails are turning black and about to fall off and my hands, under my feet, inside my mouth are black from the chemo so I was sceptical about how it was going to look on the camera. Also I had a dress on and at the top you can see the port where they put the chemo in. They’ve said they’ll look at my nails and see what they can do. I trust them. We’ll see what happens.” What happens is that a hairless Jones looks glamorous and commanding in the finished video. “I’m trying to think positive, to stay positive,” she says. “I’m watching my body start strengthening and repairing itself. That’s why I need to get my energy and my stamina back. I don’t wanna relapse.”

Serendipitously, her last chemo treatment fell on Hogmanay, allowing Jones to step into 2014 packing the first great album of the new year. Give The People What They Want, recorded before her diagnosis, kicks like a mule anyway, but Jones can now look on some of the songs with renewed defiance.

The mighty Retreat! was originally conceived as the roar of a woman scorned. “Now it’s a whole different story because I look at the wolves in the animated video as the cancer,” she says. “I beat them and I’m back to the world – here I come, I overcame. But it’s still the same song, still the same album.”

She sounds upset as she discusses Stranger To My Happiness. “I couldn’t get that song at first. I didn’t have a story to tell until I was sick. The way I look at it now my happiness has been gone with this cancer but the happiness is there that I’m coming back.”

And how. Especially when she had to fight to get there in the first place. Sharon Lafaye Jones is a natural born talent but a late-blooming success. Though born and brought up in Augusta, Georgia, she has lived in New York for most of her life, where she made her living fronting a wedding band, taking session work where she could get it and working as a prison officer at Rikers Island.

“When I was in the wedding band I would get asked to learn these songs,” she says, “and I thought, ‘I don’t want to do this any more’. I don’t want to sing a Jennifer Lopez song or a Christina Aguilera or that other one – what’s her name? – Britney Spears. I didn’t want to sing any of that stuff because that wasn’t me. I need to sing the way I feel and that’s why I got to be a soul singer.”

Her break finally came in the mid-1990s when, like her fellow New Yorker Charles Bradley, she came to the attention of local soul aficionado Gabriel Roth. After she impressed by deputising for two absent backing singers at a recording session, Roth eventually signed her to his Daptone label and partnered her with house band The Dap-Kings (also renowned as the backing musicians on Amy Winehouse’s Back To Black album).

Five albums down the line, she has performed with the likes of Prince and Stevie Wonder, sung with Lou Reed on his Berlin revival tour in 2007 and found famous fans in Beck, John Legend and Michael Bublé. She can currently be heard on the soundtrack of the new Martin Scorsese film, The Wolf Of Wall Street, putting her own gritty stamp on Goldfinger. But she is happiest contributing feisty new material to the soul canon.

“I don’t run nobody down, that’s not my style,” she says. “And don’t write me no song where I’m pleading or begging cos that’s not me either. I don’t like to act; I like to feel it. I want it to be real, but it can’t be real all the time. I would lie to you if I said every time I came on stage with a smile on my face I’m happy. I’m not. But ever since my mum passed away, I know the show has to go on.”

Give The People What They Want is released by Daptone Records tomorrow.