By Timothy Rawles; photos by Kevin Tachman, April 2020 Issue.
Tight pants, colorful costumes, chart-topping disco-infused bops, and dictionary entries into the gay vernacular, Scissor Sisters front man Jake Shears has given the world a lot of himself and it all started right here in Arizona.
Before he was rubbing elbows with Elton John and confiding in Kyle Minogue, Shears was walking among the orchards of Mesa, Arizona with his father.
“We had the whole huge corner of Southern and Greenfield,” Shears tells me. You can almost hear him thinking about it over the phone. “It was all orange groves around there. So, my dad had built that house and he had all these fields around where we would grow stuff, depending on what season.”
Shears’ father had some business endeavors in Seattle which required them to move to Washington for a while. “He would build these big fishing boats out of scrap metal and design all of this stuff,” he says, adding that he did return to Mesa, “for junior high and some early high school.”
Remarkably Phoenix Pride is only a year older than the openly gay singer and he says he loved living in Arizona while exploring that side of himself for the most part.
“When I came out — when I was there in junior high it was fun, it was exciting because I was sort of going back and forth from there to a very isolated island in the northwest, it was super-beautiful.”
Fueled by his love of music, Shears, then 15, was instantly drawn to the amazing music scene which dominated Phoenix and Mesa at the time.
“All the bands used to come through, as far as I know.” He remembers it being a big music and concert market at the time. “I saw so many shows at the Mesa Amphitheater. My first concert was Siouxsie and the Banshees at the Mesa Amphitheater when I was in eighth grade. So that was really exciting. And there was a radio station called KUKQ that was an AM station back then that played all alternative music. And this was pre-Nirvana so it was before grunge broke so it was a really special time in music.”
This community of music lovers was the first to embrace him while he tried to manage life as a gay teen in a school that wasn’t so accepting.
“Even though I came out at school — I was going to Mountain View — I was having a really hard time there, I still found, in my way, I found an amazing community of people that I really could plug into and you know, I was hanging out in Tempe a lot, and Mill Avenue was a very different place back then. But I was able to go to Rocky Horror every weekend and you could still find the weirdos — it was a great community of weirdos there.”
He was bullied in school, but he says he got through it. One of the biggest ways he dealt with all the negativity was using his resources, and the fact he could be mobile meant he didn’t have to stay in one place too long. “As hard as it was in certain ways, it was also amazing for me in other ways because at that moment I would rather have been there than being kind of stuck on the island without much to do.”
Shears started his journey to becoming a pop icon in 2001 after he formed the band Scissor Sisters. Three years later they would release their groovy chart-topping cover of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” which would go on to become a Grammy nominee. The coveted golden phonograph ultimately went to Britney Spears’ for “Toxic” that year, her first-ever win.
But the Sisters were only being half-appreciated in the United States. Over in the UK their self-titled debut album reached number one and garnered a BRIT Award.
For many a Yankee listener, including myself, they thought the group was actually from England. Shears understands that. “We were working over there a whole lot. We got signed at Polydor over there. It was kind of our initial bread and butter in a way.”
England may have been a better fit for appreciating the sounds and style of Scissor Sisters. Shears modeled the band after some of his favorite groups that lay on the fringe of pop. He says at the time he was coming up with the persona of the group, music had a lot more variation.
“What I was really obsessed with was all those bands that I grew up with whether it was like Chili Peppers or Daft Punk that came out when I was in college or Siouxsie and the Banshees or B-52s,” he says. “There was one time I feel like classic alternative music was built by artists and bands that had really singular identities. Where you just mention the name and it’s like they’re their own genre, they got their own styles.”
He says he was fixated on making Scissor Sisters have its own blend, a concoction of influences and a singular style. “It was really important that we were doing our own thing.”
Whether the name of the band went over people’s heads or fans were in on the innuendo, Shears himself didn’t know what Scissor Sisters meant at first.
“A friend of mine in New York, and during this moment I was having this conversation with him on the phone and he used the term which I had never heard before and I thought it was really funny,” he laughs. “So days later when Babydaddy and I were talking about like, ‘what do we call ourselves,’ that name came up — we came up with the logo just like right then. So all this happened in one moment. It just happened.”
The group went on to see great success with songs such as “Filthy/Gorgeous,” “Take Your Mama,” and “I Don’t Feel Like Dancin.” But after “Let’s Have a Kiki” became a big single thanks in part to the television show Glee, Shears was beginning to think it was time for the Sisters to take a break.
The front man says the decision was a tough one, but he felt it was the right time for everybody.
“No one in the band had really expected for this to become their lives,” he explains. “I was kind of the only one that like had the big dream of doing this; this sort of vision of what it all could be, everybody else really started it to have a good time. Everyone dedicated a good ten years of their lives you know, it became everyone’s life and I just felt very strongly that it was time for everybody to get their lives back and to follow their own dreams of stuff that they had always wanted to do. I don’t know it was my instinct.”
His first album after going solo came out in 2018. It was called, simply, Jake Shears. It was a mild departure from what Scissor Sisters had made previously, but it still contained a psychedelic beat-driven flair in some spots.
“It was less about reinventing myself and just basically taking Scissor Sisters’ sound and this sort of thing that I helped create. I really consider my solo stuff and extension of Scissor Sisters,” Shears says about the effort.
“There are a lot people who probably wish my last record was more of a disco album than like a roots-y, southern boogie record whatever it was,” he laughs. “But that was my dream album, that was something that I always dreamed of making. I love it and I wouldn’t change a thing. But I also after doing that, after three years, I’m ready to make pop music again, like dance pop.”
And that brings us to his latest release “Meltdown,” a dance-heavy, disco-infused single sung with Shears’ signature falsetto. This is only the first song in a set of singles he hopes to release in the near future. He’s also not opposed to getting the band back together when the time is right.
He’s been keeping busy beyond the studio as well. He made his debut on Broadway in Kinky Boots and just finished a stint on The Masked Singer UK as the unicorn.
We wind down our conversation and I’m struck by how down-to-earth the pop star is. His energy is so enthusiastic that you wouldn’t know he’s already a global A-list celebrity. It feels like I’m talking to the same young guy dreaming about the success he’s already experienced.
I ask how he feels about being called a gay icon. His answer is modest and feels completely sincere.
“Oh, I just say that’s for them to decide,” he laughs. “I’m just a regular person and I love doing what I do and I’m proud of all the things I’ve done and I’m excited to keep doing it. I feel very inspired just to keep going and I really hope that I have a long and varied career.”