Scissor Sisters frontman on going solo, aging and the day Davie Bowie died
“Oh, did I print that?”
Jake Shears is in a state of surprised perplexity, wondering if a version of his new (and very moving) memoir, Boys Keep Swinging, landed in the hands of journalists, such as myself, with what he calls the “weird epilogue.”
After all, Shears (born Jason Sellards) thought he stripped that throwaway entry — quite literally, as “I had them rip that page out from the ones that hadn’t been sent out already when I found out about that” — but those not-to-be-published pages still made the rounds.
In addition to reflecting on the process of reaching into tucked away corners of his life for the two-years-in-the-making memoir, the flash-forward epilogue explains his lengthy break from the Scissor Sisters, which Shears formed with Scott “Babydaddy” Hoffman in 2001, just days after Sept. 11. He writes, “I didn’t have much to say anymore through that particular filter.”
Calling from New York, where he’s starring as Charlie Price in Broadway’s Kinky Boots, it’s clear in conversation that even if you didn’t know Shears studied fiction writing at the New School in New York City and went on to adapt Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City into a stage musical, you’d catch on to his writerly conscience quickly. He cycles through his thoughts carefully, acknowledging his tendency to get lost in thought — “here I’m not talking in complete sentences” — or prefacing his explanation of the Trump era’s judgy, joy-shaming rhetoric with, “I’m not gonna be eloquent saying this, I don’t think.”
A love letter to the band of misfits he met living in Seattle and New York responsible for his queer coming of age, a journey that transformed his youth as a suppressed, bullied Christian outcast into a flagrantly gay, go-go dancing, glam-rock superstar, the wonderful Boys Keep Swinging is an unflinching account of sexuality in bloom, imbued with Shears’ colorful record of his most formative years.
Musically, he’s found his creative mojo again, releasing last year’s ’70s-inspired groove “Creep City,” a prelude to his upcoming summer solo debut. “I feel like, through the kind of lens of Scissor Sisters, I wasn’t particularly inspired at the moment to make more music that goes through that filter,” he tells me, elaborating on the nixed epilogue. “I wanted that filter just to be me, and I’m definitely in a place where I am very comfortable and happy to call the shots.”
My mom is a fan of yours, and we’ve been to a Scissor Sisters show together. She wants to read your book, and I want her to, but I’m worried she’ll ask me a lot of questions about the gay community’s deep, dark secrets — like, what are International Male catalogues? — after she does.
It was weird to have my mom read it! She read it in a day, and I was really beside myself when I finally gave it to her, but I had her primed for it for a couple of years while I was writing it, so she was ready for it. She’s been super supportive and loved it.
Considering she wasn’t accepting of you after you came out to her, that’s a pretty evolved woman.
Yeah, my mom’s amazing. I couldn’t have a better mom.
Reading it, I don’t think I expected to find parts of myself in your life story. But some of my earliest memories have been jolted and brought back to life because of you sharing your own. I forgot B. Dalton Bookseller even existed until you mentioned it.
I had no expectations as to what people were going to think or respond to, or whether people would identify with it. It’s funny: (Musician) Sam Sparro, a great friend of mine in Los Angeles and one of the first people I gave (the book) to when I got the uncorrected proofs, that’s what he said. He was just like, “I feel like this is my own story in so many ways.” The day I turned this book in was devastating to me. I was very unhappy. It had to be ripped out of my hands. (Laughs)
Why was letting the book go so difficult for you?
It’d been such a part of my life for a couple of years. I don’t know if I would call it a crutch, but it was this obsession once I had started editing it. I was editing it until the last hour. When I turned in the final — the very last edits — I was so unhappy! I feel a lot better about it now. (Laughs)
When your friend, novelist Rakesh Satyal, suggested you write the book, did you immediately know where to start?
For a while, the book had started where the New York section starts. That was the beginning of the book, and I was going for quite a while. I wasn’t planning on writing that whole first third (about my youth), and then I hit this point when I was writing well into what is now the second section where I was like, I’m not gonna be able to go any further without actually starting from the beginning. So, I went back. That whole first third I ended up going back and writing.
As gay people in their 30s, it’s sometimes easy to forget the emotional turmoil and personal struggle we went through to be comfortable with ourselves. Did reflecting on your sexual adversity give you a greater appreciation for who you’ve become — this unabashedly gay role model?
I don’t think of myself like that, but the thing I did underestimate, though, is, I’m a pretty resilient person. Going back and writing some of the more painful stuff, I feel like I underestimated its effect on me, just in general in my everyday life. I would finish a week and feel terrible and realize I had been reliving some hard stuff, and I didn’t consider that when I was getting into it and didn’t know that was happening at the time. It’s strange. I feel like there are 30 different books that I could’ve written.
Did you tap into any other queer memoirists for advice or insight?
The Carrie Brownstein book (Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl) came along exactly when I needed it. It resonated with me, and it was very influential. Over the summer I met up with (gay author of The Hours) Michael Cunningham, and I’ve had a couple of great talks with him about this thing and have gotten a lot of support from him.
It’s hard to give the book to somebody when it’s not finished. It’s just strange. You’ve gotta pick the right people to give it to before it’s done. I had lunch with Elton (John) a couple of weeks ago, and I was excited for him to read it because he plays a prominent part in the last third of the book. He read it in a day and wrote me this email, and he was so happy and loved it. That was sweet.
In addition to Elton, you write a lot about your childhood idol, David Bowie, in the book. You didn’t meet Bowie, right?
No, he just came to a show, and I found out about it after I got off stage. I was heartbroken. It was the scariest. Just a freaky moment for me.
When you found out about his passing how did that affect you?
It was so strange because I’d been pounding Black Star all weekend and just absolutely loving it, and then I had told my friend Laura it was great and she needed to listen to it. And so, it was Sunday night, and I was hanging out with this guy, this friend of a friend, and we were just having a drink, and he didn’t know any Bowie stuff, so I was like, “I’ll play you some good Bowie tunes.” And I was playing Bowie, and I got an instant message from my friend Laura that just said, “David Bowie,” with a frowny face. I was so confused. I wrote back and then she gave me the news. It was just a really strange moment because I was playing his music when I found out he died. It was a very weird night. This person that I didn’t know ended up just being with me all night. I was wrecked.
I woke up the next morning and was going through a lot of stuff at that time in my life, and I was overjoyed in the following weeks to see the outpouring of love for him. All the parties and all the memories and just everyone’s enthusiasm and love for him was so wonderful, and my darkest time was just that night, and I’ve been celebrating him ever since.
Considering Bowie’s influence on you as an artist, did his death have you contemplating your legacy as an artist?
Oh, I don’t know. I don’t even really think about it. (Laughs) I do feel like I’m into probably chapter three. The next 10 years are gonna be another thing for me. The album is coming out this summer, and it’s an album that I’m so beyond proud of and that I love so much and that I’m so excited to put out. You’re gonna dig it. I’ve never been prouder of something so much, as a whole.
Your photos, including the single cover for “Creep City,” have crossed over from twink to daddy, at least according to the gay men who comment on your Instagram photos.
I know! (The daddy name) just started a few years ago and I’m like, “Well, I guess we’re here now.” I turn 40 in October and have a great life and feel as sexy now as ever, if not sexier. I don’t mind going into my 40s. I’m excited about the next 10 years, and then the next 10 years after that. It was weirder finishing up my 20s and going into my 30s, but now I’m very happy with my age and aging.
Regarding the Scissor Sisters, can you give me an example of something you had to compromise on that you no longer have to as a solo artist?
This whole record is about a time and a place in my life, and it’s me writing about a very specific place that I was at when I wrote it. There’s no way I could’ve made this record without everybody being like, “Why do we all have to perform songs about you?” (Laughs)
Will it reflect the political turmoil that a lot of Trump-era art has?
In an inverted way. I personally think the world needs more joy at the moment. There needs to be joyful music, and I think sometimes we forget that in hard times. Sometimes we can forget to have fun, and I think right now there are a lot of hands on the hips and frowning upon having fun, and I just don’t subscribe to that.
Being in Kinky Boots has been the perfect show for me because it sums up my philosophy with the music that I make. It’s been a nice fit in that way, and the magic of being in that show is getting to see all the people come from all over the world that have never seen anything like that. As a New Yorker, we take a lot of stuff for granted. Urban sophisticates take a lot for granted, and here’s a show about being yourself, and in a very loud and proud way. Seeing the various people come to the show who have never seen anything like it before is a really beautiful thing. I do think that it opens and changes people’s minds.
I make music for everybody, and I don’t care who you are or what you believe. If somebody who has a different belief system than I do finds something in my music to like, I think that’s a great thing. I just really can’t stand the rhetoric happening from everybody — or from a lot of people — at the moment.
What rhetoric are you referring to?
I just think there’s so much judgment coming from all sides with social media. It’s just one big pile of judgment on everybody and everything. I just think everybody’s got room to grow, and I think that should be encouraged.
You go through a lot of personal growth in the book. Had you known what you know now about life, what would you tell your younger self?
I would try to bolster my confidence that my instincts at the time were correct. There’s nothing I would go back and tell myself to do differently because I don’t have any regrets or anything — okay, I mean, of course, we all have regrets. But I just took my path, and I would tell myself, at 18, 19 years old, “You’re headed in the right direction. Don’t second guess.” It’s so crazy how much more self-doubt I have now as a 40-year-old man sometimes than I did then. Just writing this book and looking at me being 21 years old, I’m like, “Oh my god, I probably should’ve had a little more fear than I did!”
As editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBTQ wire service, Chris Azzopardi has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey, and Beyoncé. Reach him via his website at www.chris-azzopardi.com and on Twitter (@chrisazzopardi).