Dancing through the heartbreak with Jake Shears

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Jake Shears
Jake Shears photo credit Damon Baker
Jake Shears barely dressed
Jake Shears photo credit Damon Baker

Listening to his new album, you wouldn’t know Jake Shears went through a pandemic breakup. After all, he doesn’t process his personal hardships through his music, Shears admitted to me during our recent interview.

And so Last Man Dancing, his second solo release after his 2018 self-titled album, is a “party album through and through,” he says. This, then, is a Shears LP down to its deeply disco-heavy core, rooted in the glittery glam-pop sounds of the Scissor Sisters (which, by the way, haven’t totally disbanded, though they are on a very long indefinite hiatus — Shears spoke on that in our interview, too).

The Scissor Sisters made Shears, the band’s frontman, a gay icon almost 20 years ago when the quartet’s self-titled 2004 debut embraced the kind of unabashed queerness we’ve now come to expect from LGBTQ artists.

Shears, whose look has gone from twink to daddy (is there a 44-year-old gay man who can’t relate?), tells me he watches up-and-coming queer artists with great admiration. But without Shears, it’s hard to imagine what their careers might look like — could they be as freely expressive if he wasn’t leading the way in feather-adorned leather pants or that bare-chested suspenders look he favored? Even for a generation of LGBTQ people who aren’t musicians (including yours truly), Shears made celebrating ourselves easier by always outwardly celebrating himself.

The publicity notes for the new album call it a “reminder to keep moving through whatever life throws at you.” So while he may not have created a breakup album or one that speaks directly to this current climate of Republican-charged anti-queer expression, Shears’ message of defiance through joy, dance and self-celebration profoundly resonates. It’s an exultant Pride proclamation to get us through the night.

When we last spoke in 2018, I felt like you were just getting settled into New Orleans. You had just maybe moved, is that right?

Jake Shears: Yeah, I’d been there for a little while and I had my apartment. I bought my house after. I have a house there now; you’re like, what are you doing in London now?

That was my follow-up question, actually.

JS: New Orleans is always my wind-down spot, you know what I mean? It was always a place for me to go be creative and feel free. And I love it so much. I can’t be there year round. I started getting a little twitchy. So I wanted to come to London because I knew I could just get all my work done here; I could get loads of stuff done. It’s been super busy this last year, so it’s been good. It’s just kept me on my toes.

With Last Man Dancing, I always appreciate when you have a new album out because so much of my experience is rooted in your music.

JS: Thank you. I get excited about it too.

Jake Shears dancing
Jake Shears photo credit Damon Baker

And this is cool because it’s an all- out party. I was like, where are the Jake ballads? And it kept playing and I’m like, OK, I guess I’m just supposed to dance the whole time.

JS: Yeah, they don’t come. It was an idea that I had when I had half of the songs written for this and the album was taking shape, and then I was like, “What if it just doesn’t stop?” And there’s a halfway point to the record, so I put it in two parts — but what if it just keeps going and literally the second half doesn’t stop; there’s no stops between the tracks. It’s definitely a party record with a lot of different influences going on.

I imagine you created it during the thick of Covid.

JS: Some of it. There’s a few songs before, some during and some after. So not wholly. “I Used to Be in Love” and “Devil Came Down the Dance Floor” [featuring Amber Martin] were made totally remotely. Me and [producer Michael] Cheever made them a world apart and made a really cool ballet of studio monitors, iPads, iPhones, headphones, earbuds, all on top of each other to mute. If you’ve got your monitors going and you’ve got your mics going, and it’s echoing and reverbing… it was just a load of muting; we’d have to get each other’s attention on the screen and wave “turn things off.” Yeah, it was complicated.

I read that a lot of the vibe of the album was influenced by your parties, specifically ones you’ve had in New Orleans, which made me feel like I had missed out on a lot of good Jake Shears parties.

JS: Oh god, they’re still going to go on and on. My house there is very special and it’s very central. It’s a couple blocks out of the [French] Quarter. It’s really nice. It’s not fancy, but it’s super cozy and vibe-y and there’s loads of books and there’s record players everywhere and great art and, yeah, there’s a place to dance.

Jake Shears sitting
Jake Shears photo credit Damon Baker

Collaboration has been a significant aspect of your career. What do you value most about collaborative experiences and how do they influence your creative process?

JS: I don’t make anything by myself. I get seeds of ideas. I’ll do some writing. I’ll get concepts, but the joy of making music is the joy of hanging out with somebody else that you like and doing something with them. Cheever, Boys Noize, Vaughn Oliver, and Ryland Blackinton — we all are just great friends. We just love working together. So there’s fun happening while we’re making music and geeking out on stuff. It’s a great hang and it’s super fun. You build something together and there’s payoffs. Cheever and I wrote “Diamonds Don’t Burn.” I was literally doing vocals in his 3-year-old’s nursery when she was at school.

What was going on in your life when you wrote these songs?

JS: It’s kind of all over the place. There was nothing too personal, although my boyfriend and I broke up in the summer of 2020. I was just absolutely devastated, and it took me two years to get over it. I’ve never been so heartbroken, but I had no desire to put that into the music. I wanted to put the good times into it and the joy and the fun that I was having, especially when stuff started opening back up, when New Orleans sort of came alive again and we could all get together. That was what I wanted to infuse into it, the fun that I was having as well. But yeah, that was a super rough moment. A breakup in the middle of lockdown is just not fun.

So many artists write best when they’re heartbroken, and so the fact that you didn’t take advantage of that musically and went in the opposite direction is really interesting — maybe making a dance album was, for you, the catharsis?

JS: It is, and also, I’m just the opposite. If I’m having a bad day and if I’m not feeling good and if I’m feeling depressed, I don’t want to write, I don’t make myself write, I don’t feel like working on creative stuff. I really only like to work creatively if I’m feeling good, if I’m feeling healthy, if my brain feels good. I’m not one of those people that makes lemons into lemonade, necessarily.

Even now, you’re still addressing themes of self-acceptance, love, and empowerment. How do you think your work from Scissor Sisters and beyond has contributed to the broader conversation surrounding LGBTQ rights and representation?

JS: It was a funny, old world in 2003, and it is in 2023. I do think that we are in a better spot in so many ways. It’s such a big conversation. I feel like it was such a different world then; we didn’t have social media and we weren’t communicating the same way that we are now. I would never want to go through what I did then, now. Just having that spotlight, everybody can so easily just get amplified unwillingly in one moment, and I liked that world better.

I hope that I opened up some doors and pathways as I feel like people did for me who came before me, and it’s nice to see queerness being celebrated in mainstream culture and risks still being taken. I also find some of it to be… I’m really going to have a really hard time getting to my point. I think there’s been a lot of inauthentic allyship. Look at the Dodgers right now.

Jake Shears "Last Man Dancing" album cover
Jake Shears “Last Man Dancing” album cover

Do you see that same kind of inauthentic allyship in music?

JS: Not necessarily. No. I see a wide breadth of artists being listened to and adored and these artists taking risks. Just seeing Anohni put out a record or announce an album was really exciting. But then there’s the new kids I’ve become friends with, like Jake Wesley Rogers, whom I love so much. It’s just been really amazing watching him blossom. It’s also really interesting because he has a completely different experience in what he is doing. I mean, he’s on TikTok all day long. It’s so strange. To me, I just think it’s weird. I think it’s unnatural, and I don’t ever really want to do that.

But if the kids want to do it, then have at it.

JS: So listen, I can feel like an absolute grumpy old man, but I also don’t feel like an old man yet. So I don’t know. I’m going to be 45 this year, which is just crazy. I don’t know how I’m going to feel at 45. I’m so proud of everything I’ve done, and so I feel so lucky and fortunate with my career and I’ve been able to do all this stuff and then at the same time I’m like, “Am I going to have a family? Who’s going to look after me when I start losing my marbles?”

Do you have any nieces or nephews who dote on you?

JS: Kelly Ripa and Mark Consuelos are two of my best friends. I pull their kids aside all the time and I tell Lola, I’m just like, “You are going fucking to take care of me. I know you are going to take care of me.”

I plan on living on a Golden Girls-style compound with all of my queer friends, and we will just all take care of each other. We’re going to help each other keep our marbles.

JS: It’s what’s happened in New Orleans. All my best friends have moved down there. When I’m down there now, it’s just loads of family around. Although the other day I held a baby and burst into tears, so I’m just like, “What?”

So maybe you were meant to be a real daddy.

JS: I don’t know, though. I just feel like it’s a new phase of life. I definitely want to just keep working. Now, another musician friend of mine who’s putting out a record next month, we had about an hour on FaceTime last week, and he’s going to be 50, and he was just like, “We can’t do this forever.” It’s like, “We got to do it now,” and I agree.

Next year is the 20th anniversary of Scissor Sisters’ debut album. I know you get this question all the time about a reunion, and based on what I’ve read, you’re very open to it. So if you’re very open to it, why hasn’t it happened yet?

JS: I don’t know. I think I want everybody to be down and ready and stoked if that was ever to happen. I definitely don’t want to be twisting anybody’s arm. Not that that’s happening, but yeah, it would be nice. I think it would be really fun, and I think it would be great. So yeah, you never know. Stranger things have happened.

I think people want you to be the ringleader here and get the troop together, but I guess everyone has to be in on that, too.

JS: Everyone’s got their own lives and stuff, you know what I mean? All I can do is just keep moving forward and doing what I love to do, and I’m so happy about just getting to put this album out. I feel like this record’s got some Scissor spirit to it in a lot of ways. It’s all one. I look at it as one body of work.

instagram.com/JakeShears