It’s another muggy New York City afternoon in June, and Jake Shears is dealing with a hangover that just won’t quit. “I got super drunk last night,” he admits, sitting at a wobbly table inside Club Cumming, a Lower East Side bar the ex-New Yorker likes to visit when he’s in town (and one that mercifully has the air conditioning flowing). But none of that keeps his face from lighting up as talks about his first-ever solo record.
“I just feel like I found my voice again,” says the 39-year-old. “The journey from where I was at — which was a pretty low point in my life — to getting to this moment and finishing this thing that I am so intensely proud of, it trips me out to think about it.”
Before creating his self-titled album, released last Friday (August 10), Shears found himself in a dark place. His band had announced a hiatus in 2012, and in 2015 he split with his partner of 11 years. For the first time in a long time, Shears was untethered — so three years ago he took a chance and bought a one-way ticket from his home in Los Angeles to New Orleans, where he’d always fantasized about living (and has since called home). “I fell in love with the town,” he says. “It feels like a person to me.”
It was there that Shears started to craft his new album, drawing inspiration from the city’s rich musical heritage and swampy ambiance with songs that channeled a bluesy, live-band feel. (All of the tracks were recorded in one take.) Yet despite its dramatic origin story, Shears says the record isn’t a breakup record — its dozen tracks are about finding yourself, not cataloging what’s lost. He points to a song like “Big Bushy Mustache,” whose campy music video arrived last week
“‘Mustache’ is quite flirty,” Shears explains. “When you do go through life changes, there are [times] when you’re like, ‘I need to look in the mirror and look different than I have from the last couple years to feel like I’m moving on.’ That’s what the mustache was for me.” Yet his facial hair also tapped into something deeper about masculinity, identity and self-presentation: “Straight guys would come up to me in parking lots, telling me they like my mustache, and all of them would say that they would grow one but their girlfriend wouldn’t let them,” he says, letting out an amused laugh.
On “Mustache” — and the bulk of his album — Shears doesn’t shy away from the over-the-top flamboyance fans fell in love with on the Scissor’s 2004 self-titled debut. Back then, artists like Shears were rarer in the American mainstream, or at least often on its fringes. Today, his band wouldn’t be so alone in its mission, as artists like Troye Sivan, Hayley Kiyoko and Janelle Monáe — artists who aren’t just openly queer, but also write explicitly about queer experiences and perspectives in their music — have secured a more visible presence in the pop culture and on the U.S. charts.
“It’s been a long, difficult road [for queer representation in pop], and I think cultural attitudes have slowly shifted,” he says. “It’s exciting.” He pauses for a moment. “But then you have stuff like “Girls” [by Rita Ora]. My only problem with that song is just that it’s just a shit song, and took nine people to write — nine straight men. You can hear the session happening.”
In fact, it was the Scissor Sisters’ mainstream ascension that helped convince Shears it was time to move on. He points to the viral success of “Let’s Have a Kiki” — which culminated in a memorable cover on Glee in 2012, when Sarah Jessica Parker mashed it up with “Turkey Lurkey Time” — as an indicator that the group had run its course.
“It was just one of the weirdest things, I loved it,” he says of Parker’s performance. “Sometimes when something breaks through to the mainstream at that level, it’s just really funny … I had this feeling like we did what we set out to do. I was at a loss as to what the next thing would be through that voice.”
So what would it take for Shears to make another Sisters record? Inspiration.
“That’s all I would need: me to be deeply inspired,” he says. And then he flashes a grin: “Maybe after the fourth Jake Shears record.”