Jake Shears of Scissor Sisters: My Journey to Self-Acceptance

  • TextNick Levine

The Scissor-Sister-turned-solo-artist speaks candidly about his need for attention, his battles with depression and body dysmorphia, and how, as he approaches his 40th birthday, he finally feels ‘free, sexy and proud’ of what he’s doing

As lead singer and co-songwriter in Scissor Sisters, Jake Shears brought a playful queer sensibility to the charts in the 2000s: the NYC band’s debut album was the UK’s 10th biggest-seller of the decade, and their glammy bangers I Don’t Feel Like Dancin’ and Take Your Mama became inescapable. After the group went on hiatus in 2012, Shears kept a pretty low profile, but he’s now back with a brilliant self-titled solo album of hooky, honky-tonk rock and roll that features his most personal lyrics yet. Here, as he approaches his 40th birthday, he shares his ongoing journey to self-acceptance.

“I’ve always needed attention from the time I was a little kid. That kind of ‘do or die’ desperation for attention has kind of ebbed off the older I’ve got, but I think the need is always going to be there. If I’m with friends for the weekend, and I’m rambling on and no one’s listening to me, I will look at someone and say, ‘I want attention. Give it to me.’ But I’ve definitely tried to curb having these outrageous things fly out of my mouth at any given moment just to wake people up.

“And I’ve always loved being in front of people, whether that was doing a one-act play in high school or performing with a band. I think it was around ’91 or ’92 that I really started listening to great music. Then Nirvana broke with Nevermind and it was amazing. That moment affected me and gave me dreams of making rock and roll. I was writing all the time in journals and I learned to play guitar and just wrote a load of really shit songs. But more than anything else I found a real thrill in performing. I’ve tried about 75% of highs that you can try and nothing really stands up to that. It’s what I love and I’ll do almost anything to get there.

“I think coming out made me fearless on stage. On tour at the moment I’ve got this amazing ornate fairy dress – it’s like a granny dress – that I come out and perform in. It’s so absurd, but in a good way, and I love that. It’s so much fun for me being able to go out and do something totally silly and really not care about it. And I think that fearlessness comes from my coming out process and what my teenage life felt like.

“The reason it would take a long time between Scissors records is because I would go in circles and get depressed. I couldn’t even write songs because my whole brain would flash forward to: ‘Who’s listening to this? What will they think?’ It was paralysing”

“Making and putting this record out myself has been daunting. I made it down in New Orleans with real musicians and it was really expensive – more expensive than any Scissors record. There’s no record label; it’s just me and the people I’ve assembled to get it out there. And that’s wild. But at the same time, there’s a lot at stake for me. I’m not a super-ostentatious person, but my goal in life is to be able to do what I did with this record again. I just want to have the finances to have creative freedom and make music exactly how I want to.

“Over time, I’ve learned not to care what people think about my music. I love my new album – it’s exactly how I wanted it to be, and nothing on it happened by accident. And it’s so nice to really not give a fuck what people think about it. Obviously I want people to connect with it, but I’m definitely not worrying about bad reviews. That’s a great feeling and it’s not how I used to feel at all. The reason it would take a long time between Scissors records is because I would go in circles and get depressed. I couldn’t even write songs because my whole brain would flash forward to: ‘Who’s listening to this? What will they think?’ It was paralysing, but I definitely feel I’ve learned my lesson.

“I look back at pictures of myself from three years ago [when I bulked up] and I’m shocked and appalled. I look so thick and like a completely different person. It was just serious dysmorphia”

“Away from music, I’ve always considered myself a very easy and laid-back person – very normal. But I’ve sort of come to realise that I’m not. I’ve really had to look at the effects my desires and needs have on the people I’m with. I’m a total wanderer and I’m constantly needing to be stimulated or else I kind of shut down. Put it this way: my backpack contains the two books I’m reading, a Kindle, a Nintendo Switch and a laptop. I had a boyfriend for the last year and the relationship made me realise, ‘Wow, in this respect, I’m not an easy person to be with at all. It has to be exhausting for the other person.’ But at this point, I also know I need to be really upfront with myself about this and accept it. It’s just my make-up; it’s who I am.

“I’m still grappling with body image issues. The root definitely lies in my adolescence and not feeling like a proper man – not having that experience of being one of the guys. In British and American culture there’s so much importance placed on masculinity. I look back at pictures of myself from three years ago [when I bulked up] and I’m shocked and appalled. I look so thick and like a completely different person. It was just serious dysmorphia. I think as a culture we’ve placed too much importance on body image, and I now feel a responsibility to not use that to sell what I’m doing. I’m not trying to shame anyone, but maybe that picture we put out when we feel good about the way we look is going to make someone else feel insecure. It’s a chain. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a 21-year-old guy looking at pictures of other guys on Instagram now.

“I know this birthday is kind of a landmark, but I feel free, I feel sexy, and I feel proud of what I’m doing”

“But overall, I’m very happy with where I’m at now. I turn 40 in October and I feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. I was a little lost for a while after disbanding Scissor Sisters but getting to where I am now, I’ve definitely accomplished more than I’d ever imagined. It’s such a great feeling to feel as though I did what I set out to do with this record, and then some. I know this birthday is kind of a landmark, but I feel free, I feel sexy, and I feel proud of what I’m doing.”

Jake Shears’ self-titled debut solo album is out now