Since releasing her debut album, Dap Dippin’ with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, in 2002, soul singer Sharon Jones has become a driving force in her genre. Although Jones, now 60, gained prominence later in life than many musicians, she has spent the last decade and a half bringing her charismatic, horn-laden, funk-infused brand of soul to audiences throughout the world via a tireless touring schedule and seven studio albums.
But after years spent toiling to break into the music industry, Jones faced a different challenge in 2013. That year, the singer was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and underwent extensive treatment. Jones overcame the illness and returned to the stage in 2015 — a comeback chronicled in the new Barbara Kopple documentary, Miss Sharon Jones!, which hit theaters late last month.
Jones, however, received tough news in May when doctors found cancer cells in her stomach, lymph nodes, and lungs. When EW connected with her by phone to discuss the documentary and its companion soundtrack — out Friday and featuring the new song “I’m Still Here” — Jones had just resumed radiation therapy. “I’m sitting here on the bed now,” she said. “I went to walk up the steps, and my legs felt like lead.”
Despite her diagnosis, Jones was optimistic — she sees herself as a fighter and emphasized that she has more music in the works than ever. Below, EW speaks with Jones about drawing inspiration from James Brown, finding strength in humor, and potentially releasing a gospel album.
How are you feeling these days?
I’m feeling alright. One of the reasons why I had to cancel the European [tour], [was] because of the radiation. I would’ve been leaving the next day, and I couldn’t deal with that. I don’t know what effects it’s going to have on me. I know the chemo makes me tired, and radiation is going to make me even tired-er. It hurt me to [cancel the shows], but I had to. But I’ll be alright. They’ll see me again soon. It’s all about the willpower.
How have people been reacting to the documentary?
Nothing but great reviews. It’s just been announced it’s going to be [screening] in Augusta, in my hometown, in September. To get to see it in Augusta — that’s like coming home.
The film has some moving details about your experience growing up there in segregation. What’s it like to know it’ll be showing there?
It’s hard to get people in your own hometown to accept you, believe it or not. James Brown, even with all the things he’d done, some people were a little slow about coming out [when he would perform in the South]. I was [in Augusta] and I couldn’t even sell out the Imperial Theatre. It’s a little heartbreaking, but he still loved his home and he still did what did. And the same with me: Whether they come out or not I still love my home. But to hear the hoopla and the build up about [the documentary]? Yeah, I’m excited. The thing I like about home, when they see you, they just speak to you. They see me and they speak and they keep going.
How did you decide to let Barbara Kopple and her team into your very personal health struggle?
Barbara, you look at her and who could tell her “no”? She has a passion for getting into it and getting stuff out of people. Once I accepted and said they could do it, you forget they’re there sometimes. I didn’t want it to be one of those reality shows. If they would’ve caught me in the morning — like, “Yawn! Sharon’s waking up!” — that’s a reality show, to me. You don’t need any of that. Whatever I asked them not to have on film, they did not have on film.
Barbara did a great, great job. We’re going to be friends forever. Even after we finish all this, we’re still going to be talking to each other.
In the documentary your sense of humor really comes through. How has that helped you throughout your career and this battle with cancer?
People always told me I’ve always been funny, even in school. Some people told me a long time ago, “You know, you should’ve been a comedian.” I’ve always been funny and I love doing that. Humor, laughter, it eases the pain.
What motivated you to keep trying, for so many years, to break into the music industry?
I said, “One day they will pick me for my voice, and not for the way that I look. They’ll see I can sing and it has nothing to do with the way I look.” I never got away from music. I had to always be a fighter. It’s always been like that. I’m a fighter, and I keep my faith and my belief.
What music do you have in the works?
We always have stuff coming up, because those guys [in the Dap-Kings] are always writing songs. We’re going to have a new album out soon — next year — so that when we’re touring we have new material. As we start finishing up this year, people will more and more weird songs that they never heard before. Sometimes we don’t like to [perform new material], because people are always recording every doggone thing now. No matter what you do, you look on YouTube and it’s there!
Looking toward the future, I wanna do a gospel album. In my head, I want to do the gospel songs I’ve done with my choir. I always try to rearrange songs, like “Keys to the Kingdom” or “Already Been to the Water.” I can hear the Dap-Kings behind me — I could make up some horn lines! This is how I’m battling cancer and beating this sickness: Just keep working. I don’t wanna sit home and wait for the cancer to take over my body. I’ve gotta keep fighting, taking it one day at a time.