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May/June 2023 Cover Story: Shears Genius

Jake Shears opens up on the eros and ethos behind his groundbreaking album, Last Man Dancing

By Elio Iannacci
Photos by Damon Baker

If ever there was an album born to be adapted for a biopic, it’s Jake Shears’ Last Man Dancing. Fuelled by the dramas, traumas and hot mammas pinched from five decades of queer nightlife, Shears’ 12 new songs present as epic movie scenes made to be meme-ed about. Each track has an intricate storyline of its own, mining the emotional depths of queer life and love in a way that reflects the astute collection of iconic names invited to collaborate with Shears. This includes a stellar VIP list ranging from Big Freedia and Jane Fonda to Kylie Minogue and Iggy Pop. 

Although Last Man Standing counts as a sophomore album for the former front man of the Grammy-nominated pop group known as the Scissor Sisters, it is wholeheartedly giving major debut energy. It simply needs to be reiterated: if there’s a modicum of justice in the world, the album should sweep the next Grammys, as it delivers in ways that Shears’ past solo efforts merely point to. The project shines with glorious, danceable verses and unforgettable choruses, and blends house, trance, disco, funk, rock and folk while serving an off-the-cuff audaciousness that would make both Lil Nas X and Charo proud. As would the bold, theatrical songwriting on it.

Fuelled by Shears’ past work – starring in Broadway’s Kinky Boots, his side hustle as lyricist on the bio-adaptation of Tammy Faye Bakker’s life and his stint as co-creator of Armistead Maupin’s Tales Of The City musical – his new album’s lyrics go beyond just having a kiki. Instead, Shears’ songs echo moments on the dance floor that lead to thirsty sexual connections and the filthy/gorgeous late-night hookups that follow. Shears’ orgasmic lyrics on the track “Voices” spell it out thoroughly – Last Man Dancing is constantly “calling you to action.” 

Yet beyond the lusty wordsmithing, Shears’ vocals on the disc – solo, background and in duet mode – are a fierce force to contend with. Notes are delivered in such a way that Shears effortlessly tributes and amalgamates the sonic stylings of the superfecta of queer voices that came before him – precursors such as Sylvester, George Michael, Elton John and David Bowie. 

In the midst of rolling out his new crop of songs and planning his first major tour in years, Shears sat down with IN Magazine to discuss how his life, art and queerness overlap and intersect. 

Your memoir of 2018, Boys Keep Swinging, looks back at early 2000s nightlife in New York City, a time where you wrote: ‘People feared touching each other.’ After living through another pandemic, is your new album an exercise in PTSD, nostalgia or a manifestation of hope for the future of dance music?
All of the above. The record has two very distinct parts. There’s the pop songs on the first side, and then on the second side of the record, where I’ve never really gone. It’s one big chunk of dance music that flows in this nostalgic way – almost like you’re spending a whole night on the dance floor. The Scissor Sisters hinted at that with our album Night Work, but I think the second half of [Last Man Dancing] takes it further. ‘Last Man Dancing’ – the song – looks forward because it showcases how much my song craftsmanship has developed and where it is going.

That second part of the album has fewer vocals from you on it too – which is so unlike your debut disc. Why?
At some points I just disappear off the record entirely. You’ve got Amber Martin doing the lead [on ‘Devil Came Down The Dance Floor’], then Big Freedia comes on strong [on ‘Doses’]. There are whole parts of the album where I just go away and let the music take over. I love producing music but I don’t necessarily feel the need or desire to hear myself sing on everything. I’m more interested in the musical creation and what that journey sounds like and brings you to…rather than keeping me in the centre of everything.

‘Voices’ – your duet with Kylie Minogue – is one of the strongest examples of queer-diva collaboration I’ve heard in a long time. There are so many iconic works that queer artists and divas have made together, from Liza Minelli and the Pet Shop Boys to Madonna and Junior Vasquez to Lady Gaga and Nicola Formichetti. How do you think you and Kylie fit into this legacy?
Kylie, Kate Bush and Dolly Parton…they all have this thing that they can do with their voice – a softness and lilt that appeals to me so much – nobody else can do it. Kylie, who I think is one of the greatest voices we’ve got, is also somebody I love very much, and you can get that from our work together: it pours into the music. The way I hear her flavour of sound and the texture of her voice comes from a big connection between queer men, gay men and divas and female singers. 

Have you always been aware of this connection?
Yes. In the past, we’ve always funnelled our hopes, dreams and fears through divas. They are the mouthpieces of our expression – all the way back to Judy Garland. That’s what so many queer people end up doing: work with a lot of divas who are these intensely powerful women with big voices. It’s something that’s inherent in gay and queer culture: they see themselves in us, we see ourselves in them. Also: gay men are able to hear their desires expressed freely with divas in a way that they were never able to express themselves. And I think that is the tie, that is this relationship – and straight guys don’t have that, because they’ve been walking in the world without those insecurities, without fears, without that story.

A Scissor Sister’s song called ‘The Other Side’ includes a voice clip of Judy Garland saying ‘I have a right to be in love. I have a right to be loved. There will be over the rainbow for me.’ Looking back at that track, why was it important to end the song with her?
That’s the origin of what we’re discussing here. Judy was someone that gay men identified with. She had this gorgeous voice, and her dramas and problems became our problems and dramas. Gay men were obsessed with her and in some ways, she ended up becoming this Jesus Christ figure to many in the community. She died right before Stonewall and I think there’s definitely a confluence there. That devastation had to have fuelled the anger that helped make Stonewall happen. I think that’s where that connection and that love, that bond, started to build. Judy Garland is the dawn of that legacy you’re talking about.

Your new track, ‘Radio Eyes,’ features Jane Fonda. What does she represent in the song?
Believe it or not, a warning sign. I was working with her on this short called Future of The Flesh.… It is this over-the-top film with a sci-fi quality directed by Luke Gilford for Prada. The movie is really creepy and I scored it. Jane graciously worked with me on it one afternoon and recorded dialogue for it. When I was making this record, I used her raw take for the song and sent it to her. She was just like, ‘Have at it. Go for it.’ It’s a theatrical story about aliens coming and taking us over – a full fantasy. You realize halfway through the song that Jane’s line – ‘If you receive this message should anyone return, run and tell the others the situation’s turned’ – is really bad news, as she’s saying the humans are being defeated. Sometimes my songs are scripts: I’ll create a character and story around that role. With that song, it goes into this really intense breakdown, and shoots out into a triumphant instrumental.

Were there any soundtracks you were fuelled by?
I was thinking about the end of David Lynch’s Dune. I wanted to capture that feeling of when the Fremen tribe is controlling the sandworms and riding them through the dessert. I was also thinking of the character of Falkor flying in The NeverEnding Story.

With all of its right-wing church allusions in the lyrics, your song ‘Devil Came Down’ sounds like a critique of Don’t Say Gay and anti-trans and anti-drag legislation. Did activism come into play while making this record?
I don’t make anything as a protest song, I try not to infuse any lessons or messages in the music I write. I find when you attempt such things, you usually end up with something really bad. Rick Rubin just put out this amazing book on creativity, and writes about how you don’t know the cultural repercussions of whatever it is you make. He thinks – and I agree – that the context your creation lives in and comes out in actually decides whether something ends up being a protest song for you. Any time you try to be didactic or moralize something in music, I find that it can really turn out to be horrible.

Then you have someone like Sandra Bernhard, another friend of yours, who believes that just being yourself is a stance and a protest. Is that something you agree with?
Yes. Being true to yourself and making art is inherently a political act, but if you think about it too much, I think it can spoil the fun!

‘Mess of Me,’ ‘Last Man Dancing’ and ‘I Used To Be In Love’ all sound like they were written pre-Grindr, and capture this idea of picking up a lover on the dance floor. Was nightlife in the early 2000s part of your own sex education?
Oh my God, yes! I think about this so much. Nightlife is an amazing way to learn socialization, and to learn how to be able to look out for yourself and fall in and out of love. You have got to figure out how to talk to people off-screen. I’m in London now…it’s a great town, but it blows me away how there are few casual, queer hangs and bars. I feel like the culture has really moved into big, ticketed events. There’s no spontaneity in it: you’ve got to plan ahead, stand in line, go through security, be in these giant rooms where there’s very little connection happening. There’s something to be said for the smaller dance floors and intimate clubs. 

So if clubs were like colleges or universities, which ones had the best classes?
At the time I hated it but I look back now and realize how special The Roxy in New York City was.… DJ Peter Rauhofer was a genius. I learned a lot from The Cock in New York and that was a more intimate space. I lived right above it, so having that access and being able to pop in and hang out and meet people was amazing. One of the main reasons why I go out or go clubbing is to hear music I haven’t heard and find stuff that turns me on. I would find that at The Cock when Sammy Joe was DJing there. He became one of my best friends, and we’ve got a radio show on Sirius XM every Friday now. I found amazing weird, classic rock stuff at The Cock, songs that would really inspire me like ‘Walk the Night’ by Scat Brothers.

Over in Williamsburg, it was all the new electro stuff that was coming out and ’80s vintage electronic pop that I never knew…Wham! records I knew nothing about, Human League records I haven’t heard yet. I feel like that education still hasn’t stopped.

It was strange to read in your memoirs that the Scissor Sisters were once considered electroclash. Was the backlash for the genre something you felt was detrimental to the Scissor Sisters?
It was something we had to shake off but without electroclash, I don’t think we would’ve existed. I just read a biography of Sylvester called The Fabulous Sylvester, which I highly recommend. He started out with The Cockettes, which was this ramshackle, crazy, honky-tonk, piano hippie group, but Sylvester was doing something completely different and they offered a stage for him to later reconsider. Electroclash was like our stage.

You were outed by a classmate when you were caught reading a sequel to V.C. Andrews’s Flowers in The Attic – a book called If There Be Thorns. How have books shaped your lyricism?
Reading is really important to me, as is watching film and taking in art. The more you feed yourself, and the more you suck it up, the more your brain expands and allows for creativity. Sometimes you just see something, read something or hear something new, that makes you want to write.

When was the last time that happened?
Will Gregory, who is the main producer from Goldfrapp and Portishead, just did a live score for this crazy British collage film called Arcadia, about Britain and its relationship with agriculture and paganism. That gave me a rush. It felt similar to when I was 12 and saw The Rocky Horror Picture Show for the first time. I knew there was something magical in it, something that was going to change my life. I just knew it.

Was Rocky Horror a forecasting of a future for you?
Definitely. I was starving for it, and it was forbidden to me to see it. I look back when I was 15 and couldn’t date any queer kids my age for a long time, so it shaped me. I’m so glad that I’m not growing up in this moment, right now.

I wonder if Scissor Sisters songs like ‘The Year of Living Dangerously,’ ‘Sex and Violence’ and ‘Self-Control’ could be made without adversity?
I love using those dark forces and using darkness as a colour in my work. ‘Do The Television’ is a very dark song – even though it has this uplifting chorus, it’s really creepy and very unsettling. 

In a previous interview, you mentioned that the song was about the loss of meaning and forgotten histories. Tell me about the history that you think the next generation of queers should not forget?
I hope queer people growing up have the curiosity to figure out where they come from. I’m fortunate to have been born in 1978 – I came of age during AIDS before the cocktail, [and I] experienced what that felt like, to move around in the world as a gay guy, with death permeating your existence. I was told as a 16-year-old coming out to my parents that being gay was a death sentence. I’ve been out for 30 years now and I feel like I lived through an important portion of queer history.

In your memoir, you wrote about how you emailed David Bowie and told him that you didn’t want to cross paths with him after he saw you in concert. Did you ever change your mind or see him again?
No. It was just too overwhelming for me at the time. At my desk, I have an altar to him that I light three times a week. When he saw me sing, I did not feel worthy, I felt like a fraud. Just getting any attention from him was too much. He was a god to me and how I first fantasized about becoming a performer. I think my spiritual relationship with him is stronger than ever.

One of the most interesting periods of Bowie’s life was when he met and collaborated with Iggy Pop. You end your album with clips from an old Iggy Pop interview, taken from the CBC in 1977. Why?
Iggy was out there on the show, giving this spiel on how he feels about music. We had to get it licensed from the CBC, but it was worth it. It’s such a beautiful moment and it makes for such a great thesis for this record. He summed up the art of performance and defined the process of making music to me in a way which made me have a deeper understanding of my own album.

ELIO IANNACCI is an award-winning arts reporter and graduate student at York University whose research interests include ethnomusicology and gender studies. He has contributed to more than 80 publications worldwide, profiling icons such as Barbra Streisand, Lady Gaga, Aretha Franklin and Beyoncé. His academic work is supported in part by funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

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