Sharon Jones paws through her handbag and emerges with a pocket-sized, navy-blue vaporizer that vaguely resembles an up-market ballpoint pen — the kind a mid-level executive might get as a retirement gift. “Amanda, look, no smell,” she says, taking a tiny puff. I mumble that I’m vaguely familiar with the technology. What I fail to tell her is that I do not possess the balls to smoke weed in the middle of a half-empty pub on West 45th Street at 11:45 on a Wednesday morning. Of course, I don’t have the balls to do a lot of things Sharon Jones has done.
This month, Jones and her band, the Dap-Kings, released their fifth LP, Give the People What They Want, a tough, careening collection of soul songs huffed into existence by the barely-5-foot-tall Jones and her caucus of expert backers. Since her 2002 debut, Jones has stacked up accolades and validations: collaborations with Lou Reed (their duet of “Sweet Jane” — in which that desolate jam becomes hopeful, nearly exuberant — still makes me giddy), a stint opening for Prince, performances at endless festivals and on late-night chat shows, an appearance atop a float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Every time I’ve seen her perform, whether at a festival or in a concert hall, she’s been decked out in a short, sparkly dress and tiny heels, her shoulder-length box braids whipping every which way, her hips swinging. Jones has one of the most dutiful, nearly subservient relationships to an audience I’ve ever witnessed: She approaches each show as a kind of grand public service. Like: “Here, let me help you with your evening.”
The primary reason Sharon Jones is smoking weed in a bar on a Wednesday morning is to soften the debilitating side-effects of chemotherapy. In June, Jones was diagnosed with bile duct cancer, a rare carcinoma that blocks the tubes that push bile from the liver and gallbladder through the pancreas and into the small intestine. (“In the beginning, I just thought I was gonna die,” is what she says about it now.) She underwent a seven-hour operation — the infamous Whipple procedure, in which various organs are partially removed or shifted to allow for a re-routing of bile — at the New York hospital where the procedure was introduced and subsequently perfected. She told me that her surgeon had Googled her — that he knew all about her records — and I could tell she liked that, appreciated it. “They kept an eye on me,” she said. “I was not just another cancer patient. They knew I had to hurry up and get well and get back out there.” Following the surgery, she laid in a hospital bed for 13 days.
Jones eventually learned the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes and pancreas, as it often does. Pancreatic cancer is a particularly grim diagnosis: For all stages combined (Jones is stage two, but the statistics don’t break down by stage), the five-year survival rate is somewhere around 6 percent. It’s the kind of math that makes your breath catch. A course of chemotherapy was recommended, and Jones decided to move in with her friend Megan Holken in Sharon Springs, New York, a fading resort town about three-and-a-half hours north of the city, in a valley just on the periphery of the Catskill Mountains. She lost all her hair, and because her eyelashes are gone, her face is often streaked with tears. The skin on her hands and feet is dark, brittle. At one point, she lifted up her shirt and showed me the thick scar stretching all the way up her belly.
Now, over lunch near the midtown hotel where she was staying — Jones was back in town to rehearse with the Dap-Kings for their upcoming tour, and to appear on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon — she told me about her childhood in South Carolina, about the life she lived before she started singing full-time. In the late 1980s, she worked as a corrections officer at Riker’s Island, an experience she narrates calmly, as if recounting some long, sticky summer she spent as a camp counselor. She’d encountered some health problems that year (her first week on the job, she fell and pulled a groin muscle; two weeks later, she was hit by a news truck), and when the scene got too dicey, she split. “I said, ‘I just don’t want to do this anymore.’ I said, ‘This is crazy, they’ve got bars on that gate.’ I said, ‘Why’d they put those bars up?’ And they said, ‘Well, inmates have been threatening to take female officers hostage.’” She went on to work security for Wells Fargo and, whenever she could, sang funk and soul covers with a wedding band. In 1996, she was recommended by her then-boyfriend — a saxophone player — to sing backup for the soul stalwart Lee Fields, and she became part of the famed New York soul label Desco Records’ house band until the label folded and she started her own group, with the crew of beloved New York players who would eventually become the Dap-Kings.
It seems supremely foolish to call Jones “real,” as if there is a way for anyone to exist more authentically than anyone else, but she is, at least, unburdened by other people’s expectations for her. Her presence is unmediated, expansive. Early on, music executives told her she wasn’t a viable prospect for a major label. “Imagine people saying you’re too black, bleach your skin. You’re too fat, you’re too short, you’re too old,” she shrugged.
Though Jones isn’t necessarily thought of as a beacon of independent music (in the same way people reverently talk about Thurston Moore or Ian MacKaye), she, Gabriel Roth and Neal Sugarman of the Dap-Kings built their own label, Daptone — which is still headquartered in a scrappy two-family house in Bushwick, Brooklyn — without external influence, or any real consideration of generational whims. They’ve never denied their commercial aspirations (“Why are we not recognized? Why we have to be on NPR and not playing on major stations?” Jones asked at one point, forking a shrimp), but they also don’t make compromises. Consequently, Jones gets asked the same questions a lot: What’s it like to make soul music in an era in which soul has been designated as an outmoded or self-consciously “retro” genre, in which making soul music is understood as a move?
“When someone asks me what is your genre of music, I say soul, R&B and funk,” Jones answered. “And people will be like, ‘Huh, soul? Soul music died in the late ’60s, early ’70s. There is no soul music today. It’s retro.’” The look on her face indicates her feelings on that subject. “Nothing retro about me,” she said. “I’m not a young singer, trying to imitate Aretha Franklin or anybody else.”
The fact is, Sharon Jones is an extraordinary singer, maybe the best in a very long time. There is no point in talking to her about this, because her performance, on stage or in the studio, is so instinctual that it can’t be reduced to a series of choices: Her vocals emerge, whole cloth, from some mysterious place I cannot fathom, because I’m too neurotic to ever behave that honestly. All I know is how great it sounds, the way she pulls her notes up at the end, like a person endorsing a check for $1 million and then throwing the pen on the floor. There is abandon in her vocals, a sense of sufficiency and self-containment, and even when she’s singing about deep heartache, there’s no trace of what Leonard Cohen has called the panic of loss: Sharon Jones is gonna be just fine (a “motherfuckers” is sometimes implied there).
“Retreat!,” the song that opens Give the People What They Want, was written and recorded before Jones was diagnosed, but it’s hard not to hear it as a very specific retort to whatever’s since seized control of her body. The first few times I listen to it, I mishear a lyric: I think Jones is saying “Raise your white flag high, ’cause I’m comin’ in crazy,” when in fact the last word she says “blazin’”; the latter is, of course, intimidating — particularly because Jones told me she won a medal for her marksmanship while training to work in security — but there’s something maniacal about the way she sings that supports the former, some brazen disregard for common rules and regulations. “I’ll make you wish that you was never, ever born,” she seethes. “What a fool you’d be to take me on.” It’s the kind of vaunting, blustery thing people tend to holler at their most vulnerable — it’s an aspirational whoop, a way of over-announcing strength when what you really want to do is make yourself tiny and sob — but I believe every single second of her performance.
I wondered if music had proffered any kind of solace for Jones during her treatment — her last chemotherapy session was on New Years’ Day — but she shook her head. “I haven’t been into music, I can’t listen to music, I can’t get into it,” she said. “Because music is my happiness and I’m sick and I can’t be happy. I can barely walk up stairs. I can barely shower.”
Now, she’s worried about how the cancer will affect her stamina onstage. She’d rather have more time to get into shape, to commit to a trainer, to run and lift and test her body, but promotional concerns have gotten her back to work much earlier than she’d like: The album, after all, was originally supposed to come out in August. While we share a bowl of fruit and ice cream, she talks about what’s gotten her through it. “My faith, and my church people, and just my fans. They have more faith than I have. That’s kept me going and gotten me to where I’m at now.”
Later that week, when I watch Jones sing “Stranger to My Happiness” on Late Night, wearing a tailored white blazer and gold jewelry, she looks terrifically strong. When the song ends — with a well placed “Woo!,” with both her hands in the air — she pauses for a beat before a wild grin spreads over her face. Then she doubles over with what appears to be uncontainable joy.