Until recently, Scissor Sisters front man Jake Shears wanted nothing to do with his former life. Following the 2012 dissolution of his most famous band, the singer left his longtime home in Brooklyn for Los Angeles, struggled with depression and anxiety while there, and by 2015 — after splitting with his longtime boyfriend of 11 years and decamping for New Orleans — the singer figured his days as an over-the-top glam-rocker were behind him. But that soon changed: after connecting with fellow musicians in the Crescent City and rediscovering his love of songwriting, Shears began working on what would become his solo debut album. “Once I got started on new music it just completely enveloped me,” Shears said over the phone from New Orleans. “But it took a while to get there.”
Shears, who worked with former bandmate Scott “Babydaddy” Hoffman for select songs on the LP, goes so far as to call his solo debut, Jake Shears (due August 10), “sort of my next Scissors record,” and to that end, the album includes wild, sometimes campy songs like “Big Bushy Mustache” and “Creep City.” But Shears is far more introspective on his new album than his previous work might suggest. On “Sad Song Backwards” the singer digs into his depression that at times included thoughts of suicide, and he sings of taking “double fistfuls of Prozac.”
The new album is only one part of a major creative renaissance for Shears: Last fall, the 39-year-old made his Broadway debut, performing 100 shows as Charlie Price in Kinky Boots. “It changed my life and gave me a whole new perspective,” he says of stage acting. “It wore me out but it made me really happy.”
He also published a memoir, Boys Keep Swinging, that traces his band’s rise: The Seattle native was 20 when he moved to New York City for college, and, along with his friend Hoffman, he began writing and composing music that they soon began performing at underground clubs on the Lower East Side. After recruiting Ana Matronic, who was at the time running a weekly cabaret event called Knock Off at the Slipper Room, the Scissors Sisters were solidified. In a few short years, following the surprise success of their cover of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb,” signing a record deal, and then seeing their 2004 eponymous debut album become a chart-topping phenomenon in the U.K., Shears became the voice of a new iteration of the glam-rock scene.
Now set to enter a new chapter with his debut solo LP, Shears spoke to Vulture about his past with the Scissor Sisters, his solo material, and accidentally drinking THC lemonade.
This is your first solo release. I imagine there’s some added pressure there.
Definitely. It’s not quite starting from scratch but it’s been a long process. You’re basically starting an entirely new business endeavor. But at the same time, the people onstage with me in the band are the people who made this record with me. Craig Pfunder, who used to be in VHS or Beta, does all the guitar on this record. Ben Hudson who is playing bass — he wrote a whole bunch of the songs with me. So it definitely still feels like it’s a band. To me, it feels like they’re my bandmates. It’s not one of those things where I’m like “Oh, you’re replaceable.” Everybody is definitely a part of it, which I like.
When did you regain a desire to make and release music? By your own admission, it sounds like the time immediately post–Scissor Sisters was a struggle.
It became clear after finally I had some excellent songs in my pocket. It’s just all up in the air until you kind of know what something’s going to be about or until you know what you’re writing about and what the feel of it is. I was writing songs this whole time the last five years but it was all very piecemeal and nothing was really connected. It wasn’t until I was living in New Orleans and my buddy Lance Horne came down and we started writing. And then some songs on my new album, “Sad Song Backwards” and “Everything You’ll Ever Need” and “Good Friends,” those all came out in a week.
How long ago was this?
That would have been about two years ago. This record’s been done for just about a year. And August is when I got the call for Kinky Boots so that definitely threw a whole monkey wrench in it, which was frustrating for me at the time, but now I’m so glad because it really gave us the time to get all of our ducks in a row and map out what the world of this record looked like.
During those five years that you were working off the grid, was your intention always to one day release music again?
Well, I know that I’m at my best when I’m doing music. Whether that’s performing or doing records. That’s just when I’m happiest. Though I was sort of directionless for a while: I thought I was going to maybe start a new band or start a whole new project? I couldn’t really say. It just wasn’t coming together.
How much of your uncertainty came from needing to distance yourself from Scissor Sisters?
Looking back on the Scissor Sisters era of my life, what I remember really is just the overwork. It’s fascinating to me the amount of hoofing that we had to do and the amount of work we did and the lack of sleep. The lifestyle of a touring musician, I think whether you’re super famous or whether you’re not, is just really, really hard on you. It’s hard on your body and it’s hard on your head. And that changed me forever. I never ended up the same. It’s not that I felt like my life had been hijacked but it’s more that I felt like I hijacked everybody else in my band’s life. I had this incredible guilt that no one had really intended on doing this thing and all had their own lives before things with the band took off and we all ended up on this really intense ride that wasn’t necessarily in anyone’s best-laid plans.
And that’s why you put the band on hiatus in 2012?
Yeah, that’s really why I stopped the band. I felt like everybody had had enough of it. We’d had a great run. I think we made great records and we had amazing tours and had this incredible experience. You don’t want to run everybody into the ground and I definitely wanted to allow space for everyone to have their own lives back.
Were you concerned that your album would sound too much like Scissor Sisters?
That’s where I stopped worrying and learned to love the bomb. Of course it’s a band, but in so many ways Scissor Sisters is my vision and my aesthetic and I wrote all those songs and I have a style of songwriting and the kind of music that I liked to make. I think I had this realization, like, “Why am I not making still the music that I love to make and that I’m good at making?”
Does that mean this is basically another Scissor Sisters record?
Well, in so many ways this album is a spiritual successor to Scissors. Babydaddy from Scissors even co-wrote some of the songs with me. So it’s got that blood in it. As I was working on it I kind of realized that I was picking up where we left off. With Scissors, we did four albums, but our third album really went in a different direction than our first two. And in a lot of ways I feel like I’m picking up the conversation where the second Scissors album [Ta-Dah] left off. If you look at the album cover, it even looks like a Scissors album cover. Also, what I realized is I still want to be able to sing those Scissors songs; people still want to hear those songs. So now I can sing those songs in the set with my new material and it will all go together.
Talk a bit more about your time spent in the immediate wake of Scissors ending.
When I got to New Orleans I had actually split with my partner of 11 years and I was just not in a good way. I think anybody who basically gets a divorce understands; it’s a long time to be with somebody and I didn’t have anything really solid under my feet as far as what I was working on. I was bummed out.
Once I got started on new music here it just completely enveloped me. It was a lot of work and I just loved every minute of it. I just had the best time creating it and I hope that comes through. It helped me work a lot of stuff out and get my head back together. But it definitely took some time to get there. It was necessary time.
You also wrote a memoir, Boys Keep Swinging, about forming Scissor Scissors, the New York nightlife scene, and generally coming into your own …
It probably took me 14–15 months to write the whole first draft which was just super embarrassing. I wouldn’t call it fun. But I love writing, so it became a lot more fun as it went along. But It was just important for me to have a lot of separation between where the book ends and now. That’s why I ended the book in 2006. I feel like anything after that would have been too close to the chest. Kim Gordon’s Girl in a Band was great but the last 50 pages were just really brutal. She was still living it. It was really uncomfortable to read. That’s not to say I could put it down [laughs]. I just didn’t want to be writing about my breakup with my boyfriend or anything like that.
I hope you came to terms with the book before its release earlier this year.
I was editing it up until the final hour and I was really devastated when I turned it in. I was super upset; I was just so disappointed in myself. I was staying at my buddy Tom’s place and he was out of town. And I woke up one morning and had a full-fledged panic attack. Like heart racing. I got back in bed and thought I was going to have to call the hospital. But I just took a Lunesta and went to sleep till 4 p.m. I got up again, felt better, went and ate some more food, had some juice and then, 20 minutes later, started feeling really panicky all over again. I realized I had drank 200 mg of THC lemonade without knowing it. And dosed myself twice! It was 8 a.m. and it wasn’t until 2 a.m. that I went to bed again. So all day long I was just sitting there. As you might imagine, I’m not a big THC fan; it doesn’t do great things to me. I had completely poisoned myself not realizing that’s what was happening.
But now you’re okay with the book?
[Laughs] Yes. Now I’m really proud of it and I’m glad that people came to really love it. I’ve made peace with it and take pride in it.
You seem to be in a particularly creative headspace at the moment. Earlier this year you wrapped a 100-show starring run in Kinky Boots on Broadway.
It’s an amazing spot to be in and I appreciate it. There’s always ups and downs and I go through cycles and I’ve struggled with depression for the last 15 years. So when I’m kind of in the thick of being busy I am really, really happy. And it’s just nice to feel independent. I need that time with myself to be able to make things happen.
Does anxiety or depression still come up for you?
My anxiety now is sort of like, “What’s next?” I haven’t written a single song in a long time now. I kind of feel like creatively I’m always planting seeds that sometimes grow into something, sometimes they don’t. I’ve had this musical I’ve been working on, but musicals take forever. I do like to be in the thick of projects and right now I’m just a little bit on edge thinking about what to do next.
How do you feel about this new album now that it’s about to be released?
I don’t have much anxiety about it. Because I feel very confident in the record itself. I’m extremely proud of it. I don’t feel much anxiety as far as whether it’s good or not. I’ve got a very high opinion of myself [laughs]. I think the only anxiety is on the business side of things. Getting together the first tour in August and all that; touring is a hairy business these days. I definitely want that side of it to work. I want to be able to play this record for the next year and be able to perform it as much as possible. That’s the only place where I have an anxiety. I just want to be able to go out and hoof it as much as I can.
And how do you hope Scissor Sisters’ fans react to this album on first listen?
Hopefully, it’s going to be like an old friend, or something they didn’t even realize they were waiting for, but here it is.