Sharon Jones, the vivacious and dynamic frontwoman of the Brooklyn-based Dap-Kings, has been the Queen of Neo-Soul ever since she stepped on stage in 1996. But after nearly decades of near-constant performing (and push for recognition), she went suddenly quiet in 2013. The reason for this hiatus turned out to be treatment for the stage two pancreatic cancer she was diagnosed with that year. It is this period of time that is chronicled in an incredibly intimate new documentary simply dubbed Miss Sharon Jones!. Directed by Oscar-winner Barbara Kopple, the film follows Jones's progress as she fights against cancer to continue a successful career, one she struggled to achieve in the first place thanks to an industry that had branded her "too short, too black, too fat."
Unfortunately, the July 29th premiere of the film, which is centered on Jones's triumphant remission, has been marred by the return of her cancer. However, it's obvious she isn't letting that dominate the current conversation, even if she begins our chat by apologizing for "feeling loopy." She's talking to PAPER right on the heels of a blood transfusion and a big performance the night before -- just another example of her unshakeable dedication to the Dap-Kings and the musical legacy of soul. Because, as Jones herself said, "the show must go on."
Why did you chose to let someone document your cancer treatment--which is arguably one of the most difficult experiences someone can go through?
Document? Well, yeah. That was just what I was going through at that point in time, and I want my fans to be familiar with what I'm dealing with.
What would you say was the hardest part of filming?
I think the hardest part is when they catch me in the chemo and stuff -- going through that and when I went through that CT scan and had to go back the second time -- those were the hardest parts.
What was it like when you watched the film for the first time?
Oh! You get to see everything all over again. You get to see what I went through it. And also get to see how I powered through. You get to see what's done, what went on, what didn't and how I came back out of it -- so it's pretty good. You know, it wakes you up. [I got to see what I went through] and how I bounced back with strength.
Is it different watching it now since your illness has returned?
Now I use it [to reinspire myself]. It definitely [helps me maintain my] inner strength to keep going, keep fighting.
Watching the film, it was striking that you deliberately chose not to wear a wig during chemo. Why did you decide to let Barbara capture this moment where you obviously step way out of your comfort zone?
Yeah, because that's what I'm going through. You can't hide it. I'm not a wig-wearing person so that didn't...It was just not me. I just wanted her to capture who I am. I've never been a fake or phony person, so I'm not about to put on something I'm not. [Plus], I didn't look good in wigs, so why should I wear one? Actually, my hair is off again -- this past Father's Day I started the other chemo. My hair fell out, big patches, so I had to have my head shaved again.
That opening scene where you shaved it off the first time was so powerful.
That cutting...that cutting the first time, it is a little deep.
As far as traditional standards of beauty go, you are also pretty candid in the film about having always felt "too short and too black and too fat." Do you think the illness changed the way you see yourself and your body image at all?
Yeah, it changed a lot. Doing the chemo, now it turns my skin dark -- my face is turning dark, my hands, my nails, my feet -- all that stuff has turned black and dark on me. It's happening again, and you look at it, [but] I can't change it. I can change my face a little when I put the foundation and makeup on...so that you don't get to see the darkness, but when it comes off and I'm walking around everyday, it's back there. It's back. I can't hide the hands and the feet so it's constantly with me. It's something that's out there so it may as well show. No sense in me trying to hide it by wearing gloves and closed-toed shoes and stuff. You're trying to hide it, but it's there.
Your first show back with the Dap-Kings -- which is where the film ends -- seemed like it was simultaneously very difficult but very cathartic.
I only remembered [that show] when I got to see the movie. I just remember what it took, and the love that I had when I walked on the stage...and the roar from the audience. That lifted me up, that gave me [energy]. I had to get back out there. Having [the Dap-Kings] behind me -- those guys are constantly there for me. When you got that kind of support and that kind of love behind you, you do what you got to do. That's my inspiration, they inspire me to keep on going, too.
What about [your female back-up singers] the Dapettes and your relationship with them? It seemed like their support was also crucial to you during filming?
They were really a big support when I got back out. Saundra [Williams] and Starr [Duncan], we've known each other for a long time and we were away from each other for a while. We were in a wedding band together in the '90s, but [weren't] around each other for a good ten years and then we came back together. We got along well in the wedding band. I've sung with a lot of singers, but Saundra and Starr have always been more like sisters. They know what they're there for. Other singers come in and [try to upstage], like when I did background, I alway had the stand-out-front thing. Saundra and Starr they're like, "We love doing what we doing," the support. [We have a lot of respect for each other and] that makes a big difference when you're out there. They really are like my sisters in a way, with the friendship we have. Friendship is important along with business.
Another thing that is really moving about the film was how you managed to harness humor to offset a lot of dark conversations you were having. How did you manage to stay so positive in the face of your own mortality and how it would affect others? I know there was a bit when you also spoke about the guilt you felt when you were initially diagnosed and had to put the Dap-Kings on hold.
I mean, yeah, that's our livelihood. People don't realize it's been twenty years since we got together. I met Gabe [Roth] and we started everything around '96. We worked hard [to build what we have now]. And [what we built] is the only way we make our money -- with an independent label, it's not like we making millions. No big money here. It's a struggle going out. You got an eleven-piece band and you go out and do these gigs and you have to spread money out and even to this day we're not getting paid a whole lot. We're getting paid, but everybody doesn't have a home. Everybody can't say, "If I don't work and something happens, I won't have to go out and sing again I'm covered," and I know that. What I do and how I perform is what I do and how we get paid, even for myself. So it was important to get back out there.
But I also learned a lot in the film, too. While I was sick, they didn't come to me with their burdens. Like, I didn't know that Binky [Griptite] and his wife had broken up and she had left -- I didn't know that until months later. That's how they kept bad things away from me. No one let me know how bad they were doing. All I got from the guys was "Don't worry Sharon, you will get well. We are there behind you." I always knew that we had to get out there and work to make money, but you didn't know [drastic] the effect of being out a year can be. There's a lot that movie did show me so now I want to work. But this cancer, if it's here I have to lie with it as long as I can. This is how I have to deal with it -- I have to keep going. I have to go through the medication, I have to go through the chemo. To lay at home these last few months and do nothing, I probably wouldn't know what to do, if [I didn't know I'd eventually be able to] get up and perform.
Rewinding a little, I'm curious to know how you gravitated towards soul music as the style you wanted to perform and connect with?
I didn't gravitate. That's just what comes out of me. I never said, "Oh I'm gonna do soul music." I am a soul singer. The pop stuff, me in my 40s and 50s trying to hang with these 20 year olds--I can't try to be that. I'm not a Beyoncé or a Taylor Swift. I don't have that body. I can go out there and put on some stuff and go "doot doot doot" and they go "Ahhhhhh!"
I've heard some people say, "Oh she can't sing" and some guys say "Who gives a shit, she looks good." You know? She don't need to sing, all she needs to do is get up there and shake. That's how some people feel. That's what's selling. So I have to sell my voice. I'm not selling my body, I'm not selling my looks, I'm selling my voice and my talent.
So you feel like you've had to work twenty times harder than the Taylor Swifts of the world?
Oh god! I've been working. From the fact that I'm dark-skinned and short to the fact that I am now 60 years old...but even back [in the day, I wasn't going to have it easy]. When I was in my 30s, people thought I was in my 20s. I've always looked younger than my age. Right now, I know I'm 60, but sometimes I feel even older. You start feeling your age.
Right now, going through this again, I wouldn't give this up. I will do this until [I cannot]. I'm gonna keep fighting and performing and keep my head up as long as I can. As long as my health allows it. As long as I can get through this medication and get through this chemo. When I can't [perform], people will know it, but [until then], as long as I got the strength and the energy and my fans are supporting me and my band behind me, I'm gonna do it! I am taking it one day at a time and I keep saying that saying, "I have cancer right now, I feel cancer don't have me." I'm just gonna keep fighting as long as the fight is in me.
Miss Sharon Jones! will screen at NYC's IFC Center starting July 29th.
photo courtesy of Sharon Jones