Jake Shears Strikes Out On His Own

Aug 10, 2018
Originally published on August 10, 2018 4:05 pm

In just over a decade, Scissor Sisters gained the respect of some of music's biggest figures. Bono said it was "the best pop group in the world." Elton John played piano on one of the band's songs. David Bowie wrote the band a fan letter.

Scissor Sisters first developed a huge following with LGBT crowds, then the United Kingdom fell in love with the New York City-based band. In its live shows, Scissor Sisters brought the spirit of underground New York clubs everywhere it went with singer and songwriter Jake Shears at the helm.

The group first garnered attention with its disco-pop cover of Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb." "We were just in the studio messing around, and we really didn't know what we were doing," Shears says.

But the band wanted to be known for more than just a cover, he says, so they put out an album — then three more. But in 2012, the party came to an end. Shears parted ways with Babydaddy, Ana Matronic, Del Marquis and Randy Real.

"I never thought that I would make a solo record," Shears says. "I don't know why, it just seemed to be a very kind of narcissistic thing to do."

In the time since, he's written and published a memoir and performed in the musical Kinky Boots on Broadway. Now, he's finally taking time to release his eponymous solo album, out Aug. 10.

Shears worked on the album between New Orleans and Louisville, Ky., resulting in a distinct Southern influence in the new music. Shears still writes big, audacious songs that should appeal to his Scissor Sisters fans, but his new work is also a departure — a more personal album with sometimes painfully-revealing lyrics.

Shears spoke with NPR's Noel King about his formative time writing music in New Orleans and Scissor Sisters' legacy (including if the band will ever get back together.) Hear the full conversation at the audio link and read an edited transcript below.


Noel King: I've read interviews with you where you talk about feeling a little bit "ghettoized" by mainstream press as a gay band. Does time make you feel better about that? Do you now look back and be like, "Who cares? I was famous."

Jake Shears: It wasn't like, "Who cares? I was famous." It's more like I'm glad that in certain ways, in entertainment, I feel like we're sort of through that.

Back then, it was like everything was about me and Babydaddy and Del being gay. That was the first thing any press wanted to talk about. It was frustrating, but I knew if we just kept moving ahead, it was going to make it easier for people that came after us.

I was listening to your new song "Sad Song Backwards," and I was doing that thing you do where you don't quite pay attention to the lyrics. And I was just bopping up and down, and all of a sudden I heard you say "Taking double fistfuls of Prozac," and I was like, "Oh God, I got to go back to the beginning and figure out what he's saying." What is this about?

It's really dark. I had just broken up with my partner of 11 years when I went to New Orleans, and I was just devastated by myself, and I knew I sort of had to write my way out of it. The concept, though, when I had the idea for it I thought about that joke: What do you get when you play a country song backwards? You get your wife back, your dog back, your car back, your truck back, whatever.

It sounds like you love the South. The song "Mississippi Delta (I'm Your Man)" seems like a love letter to the Mississippi Delta.

New Orleans changed my life. I'd always dreamed of moving there, and I just hit this crossroads in my life where I knew I needed to go somewhere, I needed to do something, and so, I was like, "I'm going to New Orleans." I just went by myself and just started living there and taking it all in and writing songs. All of these songs really go back directly to my own heart and my life and experiences the last couple years.

I think of the South as a place where you can't quite be as outrageous as you were in New York in your early years. You guys were known for really bringing down the house. I'm just wondering, when you're living in the South, do you feel like you become a different person? Do you present differently publicly? How do you change?

It still can get pretty wild. I mean, New Orleans is the most flamboyant, eccentric — there's no place like it in this country. I can walk down the street, like, in a naughty nurse's uniform and go to a bar at three in the afternoon, and no one is going to look at me twice.

And I can tell you've done it.

I've been known to do stuff like that [Laughs]. And Louisville is a very liberal city, and what I love about Louisville is that in a lot of bigger cities you can go to a gay bar, and it's just gay men, but down there, you can go out and it's ... Everybody's kind of out. And that's also something I experience a lot in New Orleans.

It sounds like evolving is important to you.

I go on this cycle, like every five years or so, there's just a transformation I kind of need to constantly be going under. I just love being creative, and if I'm not making something, if I'm not getting my hands dirty, I'm just not happy.

Do you mind if I ask — because there are members of our listening audience who will kill me if I don't — what happened with Scissor Sisters?

We just called it a hiatus. There's no plans to do anything. When we started Scissor Sisters, we were just doing performance art in bars, and I think that's all we ever thought it was going to be. We had such a great run. We did four albums. But my instinct was everyone needs to go be able to live their own lives now. I would never write off doing another Scissors record — I think we probably will someday. But that's why it stopped, because I felt like it was time to give everybody time to find their own way.

Web intern Emily Abshire contributed to this story.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Bono called them the best pop group in the world. Elton John played piano on one of their songs. David Bowie wrote them a fan letter. Which band earned this kind of respect? Scissor Sisters.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FILTHY/GORGEOUS")

SCISSOR SISTERS: (Singing) 'Cause you're filthy. Oh, and I'm gorgeous.

KING: The New York City-based band developed a cult following, especially with LGBT fans. In their live shows, Scissor Sisters brought the spirit of underground New York clubs everywhere they went. And singer and songwriter Jake Shears was the front man. But in 2012, the party came to an end, and Shears struck out on his own.

JAKE SHEARS: I didn't really know what I was going to do. I didn't know if I was going to start a new project. I never thought that I would make a solo record. I don't know why. It always just seemed to be a very kind of narcissistic thing to do.

KING: So in the meantime, Jake Shears did a lot of things. He wrote and published a memoir. He performed in the musical "Kinky Boots" on Broadway. And now, he has finally released that narcissistic solo album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CREEP CITY")

SHEARS: (Singing) Get me out of this creep city. I'm flat broke, and I don't need pity right now.

KING: When I talked to him recently, I asked Shears to revisit one of the first hits he had with Scissor Sisters. It was a cover of "Comfortably Numb" by Pink Floyd.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COMFORTABLY NUMB")

SCISSOR SISTERS: (Singing) When I was a child, I caught a fleeting glimpse out of the corner of my eye.

That was kind of the first thing we ever made. I mean, we were just in the studio messing around. And we really didn't know what we were doing. It's just so funny to go back and hear it because it just sounds...

KING: (Laughter).

SHEARS: ...Terrible to me.

KING: No.

SHEARS: It's really funny because when we were continuing to make that record, part of the magic of us doing that song, which was so good, is that it started getting legs. And we realized that we didn't want to be known just for a cover.

KING: You were ambitious. And it's interesting because I've read interviews with you where you talk about feeling a little bit ghettoized by mainstream press as a gay band. Does time make you feel better about that? Do you now look back and be like, who cares, I was famous?

SHEARS: It wasn't like, who cares, I was famous. It's more like, I'm glad that in certain ways in entertainment, I feel like we're sort of through that.

KING: Why? Say more.

SHEARS: Back then, it was, like, everything was about me and Babydaddy and Del being gay.

KING: Yeah.

SHEARS: That was, like, the first thing that any press wanted to talk about. And it was frustrating. But I knew that if we just kept moving ahead, that it was going to make it easier for people that came after us.

KING: Jake Shears still writes big, audacious songs that should appeal to his Scissor Sisters fans. But this album is also a departure. It's more personal. And it has revealing, sometimes painfully revealing lyrics. Take, for example, this track, "Sad Song Backwards," which he wrote after moving to New Orleans.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAD SONG BACKWARDS")

SHEARS: (Singing) Play a sad song backwards and pretend I got you back, make believe that I'm not pacing up and down these halls and taking double fistfuls of Prozac.

KING: So I was listening to this song, and I was doing that thing you do where you don't quite pay attention to the lyrics. And I was just, like, bopping up and down. And all of a sudden, I heard you say, taking double fistfuls of Prozac.

SHEARS: (Laughter).

KING: And I was like oh, God. I got to go back to the beginning and figure out what he's saying. What was this about?

SHEARS: It's really dark.

KING: It's so dark (laughter).

SHEARS: It's really dark. This song - I mean, I had just broken up with my partner of 11 years...

KING: Oh.

SHEARS: ...When I went to New Orleans. And, you know, I was just devastated, by myself. And I knew that I just sort of had to write my way out of it. So the concept, though, was when I had the idea for it, I thought about that joke. You know, what do you get when you play a country song backwards? You get your wife back, your dog back, your car back, your truck back, whatever (laughter).

KING: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAD SONG BACKWARDS")

SHEARS: (Singing) Hindsight is 20/20. And I see clearly love is blind.

KING: Shears worked on the album between New Orleans and Louisville. And he says you can hear the Southern influence throughout the record, like the song "Mississippi Delta (I'm Your Man)."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MISSISSIPPI DELTA (I'M YOUR MAN)")

SHEARS: (Singing) Now I drive my sedan, oh, through Louisiana. I got questions, you've got the answers.

KING: It sounds like you love the South. That seems like a love letter to the Mississippi Delta.

SHEARS: Well, New Orleans changed my life.

KING: Yeah?

SHEARS: I'd always dreamed of moving there. And I just sort of hit this crossroads in my life where I knew I needed to go somewhere. I needed to do something. And so I was like, I'm going to New Orleans. And I just went by myself and just started living there and taking it all in and writing songs. And all of these songs really go back directly to my own heart and my life and experiences the last couple years.

KING: Well, that makes me wonder something else. I mean, I think of the South as a place where you can't quite be as outrageous as you were in New York in your early years. I mean, you guys were known for, like, really bringing down the house (laughter).

SHEARS: (Laughter) Yeah.

KING: And I'm just wondering, you know, when you're living in the South, do you feel like you become a different person? Do you present differently publicly? Like, how do you change?

SHEARS: Well, I'm definitely still, you know - can get pretty wild.

KING: (Laughter).

SHEARS: I mean, New Orleans is...

KING: Fair enough. Yeah (laughter).

SHEARS: ...The most flamboyant, eccentric - there's no place like it in this country. I can walk down the street, like, in a naughty nurse's uniform and go to a bar at like 3 in the afternoon.

KING: (Laughter).

SHEARS: No one is going to look at me twice, which I've...

KING: And I can tell you've done it (laughter).

SHEARS: ...Been known to do stuff like that. And Louisville is a very liberal city. And what I love about Louisville is that in a lot of bigger cities, you can go to a gay bar, and it's just gay men. But down there, you can go out, and it's - everybody's kind of out. And that's also something that I experience a lot in New Orleans.

KING: It sounds like evolving is important to you.

SHEARS: I go on this cycle, like, every five years or so. There's just a transformation that I kind of need to constantly be going under. I just love being creative. And if I'm not making something, if I'm not getting my hands dirty, I'm just not happy.

KING: Do you mind if I ask - because there are members of our listening audience who will kill me if I don't - what happened with Scissor Sisters?

SHEARS: We just called it a hiatus.

KING: Yeah?

SHEARS: I mean, there's no plans to do anything. You know, when we started Scissor Sisters, we were just doing, like, performance art in bars. And I think that that's all we ever thought it was going to be. And we had such a great run. We did four albums.

But my instinct was everyone needs to go be able to live their own lives now. And I would never write off doing another Scissors record. I think we probably will someday. But that's why it stopped was because I just felt like it was time to give everybody time to find their own way.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MISSISSIPPI DELTA (I'M YOUR MAN)")

KING: Jake Shears. His first solo album is self-titled, and it's out today. Jake, thank you so much for joining us.

SHEARS: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MISSISSIPPI DELTA (I'M YOUR MAN)")

SHEARS: (Singing) God bless the girls up front sweating underneath the band. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.