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Sharon Jones Discusses Cancer Fight, Upcoming Tour + New Album ‘Give the People What They Want’

Kyle Dean Reinford

Sharon Jones is ready for a fresh start in 2014. Heaven knows she deserves one, after the year she had in 2013.

The 57-year-old soul singer announced last June that she had been diagnosed with bile duct cancer, and after undergoing surgery to remove her gall bladder, part of her pancreas and a section of her small intestine, she received a course of preventative chemotherapy that finally ended on New Year’s Eve. Perfect timing, Jones tells Diffuser.fm from Upstate New York, where she’s finishing up her convalescence.

“I’m feeling like I’ve been feeling the past few months, but at least this Tuesday, they’re not putting any more chemo in me,” she says.

The end of her cancer treatment means the release, finally, of her fifth studio LP, ‘Give the People What They Want,’ which was originally due in August on Daptone Records. With the new album now out Jan. 14, Jones is preparing for a tour that will mark the singer’s first extended engagement with the outside world since her surgery. That’s a daunting prospect for a weakened dynamo who has earned a reputation for high-energy, leave-it-all-onstage performances. The cancer drugs have affected her appearance, she says, causing her hair to fall out and blackening her fingernails.

“A couple times I looked in the mirror, I cried at myself, but on the other side, this is who I am — I can’t change this,” she says. “Do I stay hidden for another nine months until I look better, or do I get back out there? I chose to get back out there.”

With her strength and endurance reduced by her illness, Jones warns that she may not be in peak form by the time her tour kicks off Feb. 6 at the Beacon Theatre in New York.

“Whatever I can do, I’m going to do it,” Jones says. “I got a feeling that by February, by the time I get back on the road, I’m going to be OK. It’s going to be a different Sharon out there. I can’t wear those dresses. I can’t go out there with my sandals on.”

Still, the singer welcomes the chance to pick up where she left off last year. Jones had already finished recording ‘Give the People What They Want’ and was preparing to leave for Europe to begin promoting the album, which was two years in the making, when she learned she had cancer.

“I was like, ‘Oh, my God, what am I going to do?’” she says. “When my doctor told me it was bile duct cancer that had spread to the lymph nodes, I thought I was going to die.”

But not without a fight — in keeping with the character of a woman who has never ducked adversity. Though she has sung since she was a child, Jones held down day jobs as a corrections officer and an armored-car guard while performing on the side, working and hoping for a break. She was nearly 40 before she landed a session gig with soul veteran Lee Fields and impressed the future founders of Daptone Records. It took another six years before the release of her debut album, 2002’s vintage-style soul collection ‘Dap Dippin’ With Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings.’

“I’ve always been a fighter,” Jones says. “I’ve never been a follower. It’s always got to be who I am. I think that’s one of the reasons I succeeded.”

It’s been a theme in her music, too. Jones often sings from the perspective of women standing up for themselves against no-good men. She lays down on the law on tunes like ‘Window Shopping,’ from 2010’s ‘I Learned the Hard Way,’ and counsels caution in love on the title track from ‘100 Days, 100 Nights,’ her 2007 album. The songs on ‘Give the People What They Want’ follow in a similar vein, though opener ‘Retreat!’ took on new meaning for Jones while she was recovering from cancer surgery.

“After I was sick, and I saw the video, it was like a whole other story, like I was talking to my cancer,” Jones says.

With her health on the mend, Jones can return her attention to another project that’s close to her heart: proselytizing about the current crop of soul musicians, on Daptone and other labels, who she feels aren’t getting the respect they deserve.

“My goal is, before I decide to retire, I want this industry to say, ‘There are soul singers, there are soul records,’” Jones says. “Aretha is still out there, but she’s not making new music. Here we are, creating new soul music, so give us our props.”

A good start for Jones would be for an awards show like the Grammys to feature a soul showcase among the Beatles tributes and oddball performer pairings, though she has no intention of following the Miley Cyrus template for awards-show notoriety.

“Sharon won’t be coming out there naked for nobody,” Jones says.

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