Sharon Jones is a true soul-survivor. At 59, the lead singer of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings recently bested a bout with pancreatic cancer and is returning to the stage more energized than ever, hitting the road this June with the Tedeschi Trucks Band on their Wheels of Summer Tour, which stops in Santa Barbara on June 7. With 20 years of recording to her name, the Georgia-born soul revivalist has been turning heads and wowing crowds with an unstoppable vitality. Her band’s most recent album, Give the People What They Want, earned a Grammy nomination. I spoke with Sharon about staying positive, beating cancer, and going fishing.
How are you today?
I’m alright, actually. I just got a big catfish—I’m fishing. I’d say he’s about eight pounds or so. I’m at a lake in Clarks Hill, South Carolina, right across the bridge from Augusta. This lake goes into the Savannah River, and that’s what separates Georgia from South Carolina.
Do you like to fish often?
Oh yeah, that’s what I do when I home. That’s my leisure, that’s how I relax. The biggest fish I ever caught was a striper, 28 inches. As a little girl, whenever I came home during the summer to be with my dad, he taught me how to fish. And every chance I get to go, I go. When I was in New York, I would go to New Jersey to go fishing. I wish I could rent a boat down here. Maybe if I do enough work this year…
Do you cook the fish? Or catch and release?
I’ll catch it, I’ll cook it, and clean it and eat it. When you go so much every day, I just go catch fish for different people. Stock up what I’m gonna get for myself to eat for the next few months, and the next I give away. I just say hey, take this fish, you want ’em? Maybe I’ll make a catfish stew out of this one.
Do you like to cook?
I used to when I had the time. Now I don’t have the time to do that, because I’m on the road a lot. My older sister stays with me and she cooks a lot. Basically, when you got two sisters and they both cook, I don’t go near the kitchen.
Are you three pretty close?
Yeah, yeah we’re pretty close. I grew up with three boys and three girls. My older brother, next to my older sister, passed away in 2006, had a stroke. My other sister has been here from New York maybe 17-18 years, and my older sister stays with me. The three of us, we’ve always been close, me and my sisters. I’m so glad I moved down here and brought my mother down here, to get her down from New York out of the projects, and my sister. After 53 years in N.Y., I came back home.
How does it feel to be back down south?
It really feels good, coming home to this peace and quiet. New York, with the hustle and bustle, you know… It’s a whole different scene. Everything is a bit more relaxed here, more laid back. In New York, my rent was $1,200 a month. Down here my mortgage is $700. It makes a lot more sense, much more sense.
It was your birthday recently. Happy belated. How did you celebrate?
Oh yes Monday, thank you. Friday night, I was in Augusta at the James Brown Block Party Tribute for James Brown’s birthday. I played with J.A.M.P. Masters, a group formed by James Brown’s daughter, Deanna Brown Thomas, and I sang a duet. We sang “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” and “This Land Is Your Land.” Monday was my birthday. I got up early, I went fishing, went home, got dressed, and my family took me out to dinner. Yesterday, I did a video Flo Carter—she’s like 86, it’s amazing —she’s doing a video called “Train to Glory.” They have this big train on the tour at the Augusta Museum, people were getting on the train, and I was the conductor. I said, “All aboard! All aboard! This train is bound for glory.” I put it up on my Facebook, it was fun. Tomorrow it’s supposed to rain, we’ll see. I’ll just take care of some stuff around the house.
Are you working on anything at the moment in between tours?
It’s a bio, it’s going to be just me talking about me meeting with the band and my sickness. I don’t want to go into facts of everything, I don’t gotta put it all out there. You put out what you want to put out. Maybe after I’m dead someone can write about all the facts of my life, but not right now.
You’re going to play some shows in Brazil soon. Are you excited?
We were in Brazil a couple years ago, 2013, 2012. It was crazy, it was our first time to Brazil, and the response was great, so we are looking forward to going back. This time we only have literally six shows, so that’s pretty good. And we come straight home from Brazil, then we’re out with Tedeschi Trucks Band.
How are you feeling about the Tedeschi Trucks tour?
We had to sit down, and we all decided that’s what we wanted to do. With my sickness and not being out on stage for a year, I got behind in bills. People don’t realize it, but royalties are not enough to keep me going. Touring is mainly how we get paid, and when you’re not able to work for over a year… I have to deal with medical insurance and stuff now and it’s stupid, you pay thousands. It’s really sad. It makes you like, I’m being punished for being sick, while the rich people have a home here and a home there, they are charging people out of their ass, and the people die because they can’t pay—What? Hello? It’s crazy. I can’t neglect myself, I gotta go to the doctor. Now I have to take Creon, which helps me break down my food. It’s gonna be a every day thing for me. I have to take a CAT scan every six months, it’s crazy.
What keeps you going?
My job. My singing. What I’m doing. I enjoy what I’m doing. I think about how if I were working a 9-5 job, it’d be different, I’d be depressed. Music soothes you. Having the Daptone label, that’s what keeps me going. I’ll be ready to retire once it’s not fun anymore.
Were you ever worried you weren’t going to make it through your illness?
That was the first couple of days. I was in the hospital, they did the operation, and on the eighth day the doctor came in by himself, and I was like, uh oh. The results came back and told me I had pancreatic cancer and that I would have to take chemo, that’s when I said, I’m done. I got through that night, talked to God to know that everything is okay, that’s when I said I’ll be okay and I’ll take this chemo and everything will be okay. June is my next check-up, so I gotta go in between my tour dates to have another CAT scan to make sure everything is okay. I’m on pins and needles every six months. But I’m just going to stay positive.
Did the illness change your relationship to your music at all?
It just made me concerned about not having my energy, that stamina, but otherwise it all seems to be the same. I’m just getting older; whatever’s changing, I’m just getting older. As a matter of fact, I feel more healthy and have more energy in the last year or so.
Where does that energy come from?
It has a lot to do with the way I’m eating now. I’m doing my green drinks, spinach, kale, spirulina. I might put an apple or pear in there, avocado, banana, or a liver cleanse powder. I put that all in my drink, and I’ve been doing that since June of 2013. I’m getting extra greens. I try to eat healthy but it’s hard to at home. You gotta be happy in life, you can’t be miserable. You gotta be happy. And you gotta be healthy.
And having a positive attitude really helps keep you healthy…
Oh yeah, it really does. Now I’ve joined Gold’s Gym, every over once or twice a week I have a trainer, a personal trainer a couple times a month who keep me motivated.
You’ve been recording music since the mid ’90s but are only now really starting to get recognition, like with your recent Grammy nomination. How does it feel?
You know what, they’re doing it a little bit at a time. When you’re independent like us, it’s hard. The industry uses the same people over and over. If you watch TV, you’d think there’s only a few stars, every single honor going to the same few people. You’d think, Is there any one else out there? Just like with me. If they had a soul category, my chances might have been better. R&B is pop music nowadays, with people like Taylor Swift and Justin Timberlake winning R&B categories, and they’re still nominating Toni Braxton and Babyface … When was the last time they released a record? They just literally robbed certain people. It’s unbelievable. I didn’t even want to go to the Grammys, but I went. I left an hour before it ended, it was one of the most boring things I’ve been to. I enjoyed Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett. Especially when she did Julie Andrews, and the Sound of Music, she killed that. I got a little bit more respect for her as a singer. I told my manager, the only time I’ll go back to another Grammy is if we perform. If I’m nominated again, that would be great, if we perform I’ll go.
You performed at a David Byrne tribute this year and sang “Psycho Killer.” Tell me about that.
It was good to be honoring him. I had wanted to sing “Take Me To the River,” but Cee-Lo did that and he did it a great job on it. “Psycho Killer” was alright, I kind of messed up on the French, though.
What are you looking forward to in 2015?
I’m looking forward to my health. To no more cancer. Whatever happens, that’s how I stay positive and strong, just to be healthy in these next few years. I look at myself, I’m 59, I’m not married, I don’t have kids, all I have is my music and my health. I’ll keep going to see my nieces and great nieces, I’ve got all the kids I want around me. Maybe later on I’ll find someone, but when you’re on the road and traveling it’s tough to be in a serious relationship, and I don’t want to put that on anyone or make myself miserable trying to deal with it. For now, my health and my music is enough.