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'No Music, No Headphones': Sharon Jones On Getting Through Cancer

Sharon Jones' new album with the Dap-Kings, Give the People What They Want, comes out Jan. 14. (Courtesy of the artist)

For soul music fans, the name Sharon Jones means sheer excitement and boundless energy. Jones and her band, The Dap-Kings, have been leading a classic soul revival for more than 10 years now. The band's latest album is out this Tuesday — though it isn't exactly new.

Give the People What They Want was originally scheduled for release last August. Earlier that summer, however, Jones got the word that she had stage-two pancreatic cancer — and everything came to a halt. The illness, she says, didn't creep up on her: It hit her square in the back during a performance in Boise, Idaho.

"The pain hit me so hard that I doubled over. But, you know, I brushed it off, came off the stage," Jones says. "That night I could barely straighten up from the pain, so what do I do? I go get a massage, thinking it's muscle-relaxing, this and that. I couldn't even lift the bag on the plane, when I would go to put my bag overhead. You know, we really have to pay more attention to our body. The signs are there; it tells you everything. But we just don't pay attention."

Sharon Jones spoke with NPR's Arun Rath about what it was like to put her music aside entirely — even listening to it — and how she found it had changed when she returned. Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read part of their conversation below.

It sounds like your treatment has been pretty successful. Are you finished with the chemo now?

Yeah, my last chemo was New Year's Eve.

Congratulations!

I know, that was so cool. I wanted to get away faster, but I have to be patient and not go out and overdo things yet, because I'm still in the healing process. The funny part is, I'm going to be out on the road as these changes are going — as my hair is growing, my eyelashes and eyebrows are coming back — I'm going to be working and people are going to be seeing all this stuff happen as I see it. So, I'm nervous. I'm so happy that I'm getting back into the swing of things, but I'm nervous.

I know for a lot of people that have been through chemotherapy, everybody's got headphones on. A lot of people use music to help them get through it.

And I was the opposite.

No kidding?

No music, no headphones. Music is my joy, is my happiness, and that's what everyone doesn't seem to understand. They're like, "What? You didn't listen to music?" No! I didn't feel happy with my music. I couldn't keep it on my mind, because that's a whole other Sharon. Music is my joy, and since I've been sick, I can't concentrate on the music. I'm just basically concentrating on trying to get well.

What strikes me on the new album right from the first track, "Retreat!", is that even though the band has been together for a while, it sounds so fresh.

When I recorded that — it's been, like, a year and a half, the recording was done. When I got sick, "Retreat" had a whole different meaning. No longer was I talking to this guy: That was the cancer. And I'm telling this sickness to retreat.

There are several songs here that I think probably might have a different meaning for you, having gone through your recovery.

Oh, yeah. Even when I was recording "Stranger To My Happiness." The guys said, "We're going to do a video." I looked in the mirror and I said, "Wow. Do I really want to do this video, with no hair? Do I really want to do this video with this port sticking out of the top of my chest?" And then, the more I thought about it, I went in and I said, "Yeah, let me do this. Let my fans see what I'm going through."

That's part of my healing process, is to not try to hide the way I look, or stay away another eight or nine months until my hair grows back, or until I think I'm strong enough. And I think, also, maybe someone out there that's going through cancer and that's going through what I'm going through can see that life doesn't stop, or sickness isn't until death. You've got to keep going, because if you get into it, that's part of the healing. That'll help you heal faster, if you try to get back into your routine.

So I'm looking at your tour schedule here ...

Don't look at it, don't look at it!

It's brutal! You're playing 13 cities next month, from New York to Dallas. The following month is just as busy. Are you concerned about overdoing it now?

No, the doctor told me to just take my time. He was like, "Don't push yourself. You'll feel how you feel." And the guys in the band have got my back, no matter what. If I'm out there 15, 20 minutes and I look at them like, "I can't do it," they know I can walk off and they can jam something and I can come back on.

I sing this song in church — "I don't believe He brought me this far to leave me." I got a feeling that all these shows, all this everything, is part of my blessing. And in my heart, I know I'm going to do every show and everything is going to be OK.

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Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Again, you're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHARON JONES: (Singing) When I was a child, I believed what they told me. To each one shall come what each one shall earn...

RATH: This is the sheer excitement and boundless energy that is Sharon Jones. She and her band, the Dap-Kings, have been leading a classic soul revival for more than 10 years now. You're listening to a track from their latest album, coming out on Tuesday, "Give the People What they Want."

I hesitate to call it their new album, though. It was supposed to be released back in August. But earlier that summer, Sharon Jones got the word that she had stage two pancreatic cancer. Everything came to a halt. Her illness didn't creep up on her, though. It hit her square in the back during a performance in Boise, Idaho.

JONES: I was on stage one night, and the pain hit me so hard I doubled over. But, you know, I brushed it off, came off the stage. And, I mean, that night, I could barely straighten up, you know, from the pain. So what do I do? I go get a massage thinking it's muscle relaxing, you know, this and that. And I couldn't even lift the bag on the plane when I would go to put my bag overhead. I was like, I would jump down real fast from the pain in my back.

And the doctor told me at the time it was probably my pancreas and gall bladder letting me know. That was the sickness coming on. I mean, it was pancreatic cancer stage two. And usually, stage three and four pancreatic cancer, there's all that survivor or people don't survive. It's really aggressive. You know, we really have to pay more attention to our bodies. The signs are there. It tells you everything, but we just don't pay attention.

RATH: So it sounds like your treatment has been pretty successful. And are you finished with the chemo now?

JONES: Yeah. My last chemo was New Year's Eve.

RATH: Oh, congratulations.

JONES: I know. That was so cool.

RATH: Just brutal to go through that. You must be so happy to be done with that.

JONES: I am. But I wanted to get away faster. But, you know, I have to be patient and not to go out and overdue things yet because I'm still in the healing process, you know? And the funny part is I'm going to be out on the road. As these changes are going, as the hair is growing and my eyelashes and eyebrows are coming back, I'm going to be working. And people are going to be seeing all this stuff happen as I see it, you know?

So it's - I'm like - I'm nervous. I'm like, I'm so happy that I'm getting back into the swing of things, but I'm nervous.

RATH: Because your performances on stage, I mean, they're pretty mad energetic.

JONES: I know. And right now, I'm just like - I can't walk a good half a block right now without, you know, so...

RATH: You know, I know for a lot of people that have been through chemotherapy, everybody's got headphones on. Like, a lot of people just use music to help them get through it.

JONES: And I was the opposite.

RATH: No kidding.

JONES: No music, no headphones. Music is my joy. It's my happiness. And that's what everyone doesn't seem to understand. They're like, what? You didn't listen to music? Like, no. I didn't feel happy with my music. I couldn't keep it on my mind because that's a whole another Sharon.

But I'm getting the music back into me. You know, it's been a rough road these last few months. And, you know, music is my joy. And since I've been sick, I can't concentrate on the music. I just basically concentrate on trying to get well.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JONES: (Singing) But the sun is coming with all of his smile. I'll know, I know it'll be all right. Mm, yeah. Yeah. We've proved again and again and again through all of our lives through sorrows and strength.

RATH: Now, was the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, was that the first time you performed since?

JONES: Well, that was the first time I really did perform. But in October, I did - my pastor at - my preacher at my church, she was celebrating her 10th anniversary. And that Saturday, they had a dinner for her. And I sang for the first time. I was able to do - I did "In the Garden." You know, that song, (singing) I come to the garden alone. You know, I did that song. And then that Monday, I had rehearsal with the band, and we went through all 10 songs on the album.

RATH: I loved at the Macy's Day Parade you sang "Ain't No Chimneys in the Projects."

JONES: Thank God we lip-synced. I didn't have to really sing. So that was pretty...

RATH: Everybody lip-syncs at the parade, though, right?

JONES: Yeah. You lip-sync. But that waving, and that turning, and it was cold. That's something you do once in a lifetime. You know, I can sit back and say, yeah, in 2013, I did that old Macy's Day Parade.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T NO CHIMNEYS IN THE PROJECTS")

JONES: (Singing) When I was a child I used to wonder how Santa put my toys under the tree. I said, Momma, can you tell me how this can be when there ain't no chimneys in the projects, Not in the ghetto.

RATH: My guest is Sharon Jones. She and her band the Dap-Kings have an album coming out on Tuesday called "Give the People what they Want." What strikes me just from - right at the beginning, right from the first track "Retreat" is that even though you all have been at this for a while, the band has been together for a while, it sounds so fresh.

JONES: When I recorded that, it's been over like a year and a half. And "Retreat" was the first release. When I got sick, "Retreat" had a whole different meaning. It wasn't - no longer I was talking to this guy: that was the cancer, and I'm telling this sickness to retreat.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RETREAT")

JONES: (Singing) I'll chew you up and then I'll spit you out. So if you know what's good for you, retreat. Retreat, yeah. Step back, boy, because you can't fix crazy. Retreat. Retreat. (Unintelligible).

RATH: You know, because it was interesting listening to the album and the rest of the songs on it. There are several that I think probably might have a different meaning for you having gone through your recovery.

JONES: Oh, yeah. Even when I was recording "Stranger to My Happiness," you know, the guys said, we're going to do the video. And I looked in the mirror, and I said, wow, do I really want to do this video with no hair? Do I really want to do this video with this port sticking out the top of my chest?

And then the more I thought about it, yeah, let me do this. Let my fans see what I'm going through. And I - that's part of my healing process is to not try to hide the way I look or stay away another eight or nine months until my hair grow back or until I think I'm strong enough. And then I think also maybe someone out there that's going through cancer and is going through what I'm going with can see that.

You know, life doesn't stop. All sickness isn't unto death, you know, and you got to keep going. Because if you get into it, that's part of the healing. That'll help you heal faster if you try to get back into your routine.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JONES: (Singing) Oh, yeah. But it's a misery, just how you came right in and stole my heart away and left me there again. (Unintelligible)

RATH: It's hard to pick a favorite, but I love the groove on "You'll Be Lonely."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU'LL BE LONELY")

JONES: That was written by a baritone sax player, right?

Chemea, Cochemea. You know, his people are from the Yuchi Indians up in Alaska. So, you know, he got that Indian thing in him. And that's why when I first heard that, so I think the groove - isn't it a beautiful groove?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU'LL BE LONELY")

JONES: (Singing) You've been searching all of your life for a good (unintelligible) that'll treat you right.

RATH: How does it come together when you do that? Like, how do you sort of test drive the tune? I imagine, obviously, he wrote that with you in mind. And how do we come to the version here on the album?

JONES: Yeah. You know what? The guys, when they write a song, they know I'm going to sing it, and they know it's got to be a story that I want to tell, you know, because if you write something stupid, you know, portraying me as like a maniac or someone that's running somebody down - like my drummer Homer wrote the song, I'm like, what do this mean? I said, you got me sounding like I'm chasing some guy. I'm nobody's fool.

You know I'm not going to run nobody down and beg nobody. So that's not me, so don't even have me sing it like that, you know. But Cochemea, his song about "You'll be Lonely," and knowing him over the years - and I know what he's going through. So when he wrote that song, I understood what he was talking about.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU'LL BE LONELY")

JONES: (Singing) is going to come around, babe. It's a (unintelligible). You'll be lonely after I'm gone.

RATH: So I'm looking at your tour schedule here. You're playing...

JONES: Don't look at it. Don't tell.

RATH: Well, it's brutal. You're playing 13 cities next month from New York to Dallas.

JONES: Oh, I know.

RATH: The following month is just as busy. Are you concerned about overdoing it now?

JONES: No. The doctor told me just take my time. The doctor has faith in me, Dr. Leonardo. He's such a great doctor. He was like, you know, don't push yourself. You know, you feel how you feel.

And the guys in the band got my back no matter what. If I go out, and if I'm out there 15, 20 minutes, I look at them, I go, I can't do it, they know I can walk off and they can jam something and I can come back on.

Whichever we - I have no idea. But I - the way I believe in my faith, and I sing this song in church, I don't believe he brought me this far to leave me. I got a feeling that all these shows, all this, everything is my - part of my blessing. In my heart, I know I'm going to do every show and everything is going to be okay.

RATH: What do you think you're going to be saying to your fans when you hit that stage next month?

JONES: I have no idea. I'll just follow my heart. I know there'll probably be a lot of crying. Get some tissues ready.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JONES: (Singing) Long time since I've seen your face.

RATH: Sharon Jones leads the band the Dap-Kings for a long-awaited new album. It's called "Give the People What They Want." Sharon, thank you so much.

JONES: Oh, thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JONES: (Singing) I'm coming home baby don't you cry. What am I going to find?

RATH: And for Sunday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Arun Rath. Check out our weekly podcast. Look for WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes or on the NPR app. And you can follow me on Twitter @arunrath. That's A-R-U-N R-A-T-H. We're back next weekend. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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