Sharon Jones: ‘Before I get on stage something comes over me and the pain goes away’

The soul star has survived cancer and now a new documentary charts her progress. Oliver Wang caught up with her to talk about chemo, performing and what its like letting a film crew capture your most vulnerable moments

Since 2002, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings have become one of the most important contemporary bands still flying the flag for the soul sounds of the 70s. But three years ago their momentum was abruptly upturned when Jones was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. This is right when the Oscar-winning film-maker Barbara Kopple (Harlan County, USA) began shadowing Jones, following the singer over the next year during her treatment, recovery and attempt to return to the studio and stage. That documentary, Miss Sharon Jones, debuts in theaters this month, and the Guardian recently spoke with Jones while shes been on tour, opening for Hall & Oates, even as she continues to battle cancer.

How are you feeling?

I take it one day at a time. The chemo is more or less taking a toll on me. Weve got to find something else other than that because its so painful, my legs crumble. I cant take that.

How are you able to continue performing through all of this?

Right before I get on that stage, its like something comes over me and the pain goes away. I guess the adrenaline just gets going and, you know, your bodys just like, Well, you know: here we go!

One of the earliest scenes shows you getting your braids cut off, before you begin chemo. What was it like letting a film crew record your most vulnerable moments?

Sharon

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figcaption class=”caption” caption–img caption caption–img” itemprop=”description”> Sharon Jones at the Beacon Theater in New York. Photograph: Jacob/Jacob Blickenstaff

That was a low blow, and they captured that. Every time I see it, I cry. Its pretty deep. You just accept it. You have to accept it. You have to know theyre there. With the guys in the band, I had to tell them, in the long run, theyre doing this for us. Were not doing them a favor, were doing ourselves a favor. Theyre capturing a story here, so lets just do this here with some love, and thats what happened.

Even though this is your story, you entrusted Kopple to tell it. What did you think when you say the final cut?

They got it right. They got exactly what they went for. I always felt like I have a story, and it really told the story, about what I went through, what the band went through. Youve got to realize, it was the first time I was going to be away from my fans for such a long time and then to come back to them bald and looking like a whole other person would have been a shock. So I was like, just let my fans see the battle Im taking. I want them to be part of it, like when Im on that stage, I make them part of the band. They become part of the show.

Youve worked with some of the band members for 20 years. How have those relationships changed over that time?

You watch them grow. Like, I met my drummer, Homer [Steinweiss], when he was 16 years old. Now, theyre all in their 30s and 40s. Weve become like hands fitting in a glove. Ill be onstage and I will call something weve never done before, and theyre right there with me, and people dont realize that. Every night its different; Ill sing a song hundreds of times, but each night its just a different flavor with a different flow. Its just the way it is when youre that long with people.

During the film, we find out some of the band members struggle to get by financially because they can no longer tour. Was it difficult for you to worry about your own recovery but also how your bandmates were getting by?

I didnt know the full effect of those months [I was in treatment/recovery] until I saw the film and what everyone went through. No one was calling me up and saying, I lost my apartment because I couldnt afford the rent. I didnt know those things. It was a struggle, but we stuck together as a family. Not only did I want to get back together and work because our money is in our performing but I had to do that for my own wellbeing, just to get back out there. Thats therapy.

Theres the therapy of performing and theres the cancer therapy youre still going through. You stopped touring during your original treatment period but youre performing this time. Why?

My bodys going through changes, but I dont want to sit home and wait for this to take over me. As long as I can get on the stage and show some energy, Im going to get on the stage until I cant do it any more.

For the films soundtrack, you and the band recorded a new song entitled Im Still Here. Its not only your most autobiographical song but the title also seems to be a forceful statement of purpose.

When I was 57 and I was diagnosed with cancer, I didnt think I would see my 58th birthday. So thats why I say, Im still here. Im 60 now, so 60 years came along and Im still here!

  • Miss Sharon Jones is out on limited release in New York from 29 July and Los Angeles on 5 August

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/jul/27/sharon-jones-interview-dap-kings-documentary

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