Jake Shears is turning a page.
The Scissor Sisters frontman, known for his flamboyant performance style and provocative dancing, is so far having the kind of year that those familiar with him could hardly expect. He took over for the role of Charlie Price on Broadway’s Tony-winning Kinky Boots in January, earning strong notices and boosting ticket sales, and on Tuesday published his memoir, Boys Keep Swinging, which explores his coming-of-age as a gay kid to a Baptist mother and the Scissor Sisters’ improbable rise. (Buy it here.)
But this is not your typical celebrity memoir: It’s candid and star-studded, sure, with plenty of name-dropping and salacious tales of Downtown New York, but it’s also poignant and lyrical in consistently surprising ways. When you speak to Shears, it becomes clear as to why: The singer-songwriter actually majored in fiction and expected to pursue a writing career before landing in the music industry. He was always going to write his memoir his way.
Shears sounded exhausted as he spoke with EW about the course his career has taken, still recovering from a Kinky Boots off-day while preparing for another week of grinding. But his enthusiasm was palpable nonetheless: Telling his stories of being an outcast, wrestling with self-loathing through both anonymity and fame, and finally discovering new talents and abilities has given Shears a better sense of self. He’s ready for the next chapter in his career, to introduce people to a whole new side of himself.
Read on below for his full chat with EW.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So you’ve got a lot going on right now.
JAKE SHEARS: I’m tired, man. [Laughs] I’ve got a show tonight. We had a day off [from Kinky Boots] yesterday, which was much-needed, but it’s funny: It’s hard to catch up. The show definitely takes a lot out of me. But it sure is fun! It’s a lot of fun. Even if I’m tired, once the show gets going, I get energy from doing it.
Let’s jump into the book first: How did you decide to write a memoir?
I’ve always loved to write and I wrote fiction all my life. That’s what I thought I was going to do in my life, until I started writing songs. I’d thought about writing a memoir, but I didn’t want to write a book while my parents are still alive. It’s just embarrassing for your mom to read all this stuff. But I got over that. My editor at Atria — his name’s Rakesh — it was his idea. He contacted me and was like, “Would you be interested in writing a memoir?” We had quite a few conversations and hung out. I really liked him, and we talked about what the scope of it would be and the span of time, and how it wouldn’t necessarily be about my entire life but just go up to a certain point and mainly focus a lot of it around New York, right at the millennium. Then I just started writing. One day, it turned into a book. I just remember how overwhelming and intimidating it was just to even — I remember writing the first paragraph. It was pretty overwhelming. I really stayed dedicated to it. It took me two years and I’m really proud of it.
It can be hard to decide what to put in a memoir, and how to craft a narrative around your life.
It is really funny: There’s 30 different books I could’ve written, all just depending. You really have to figure out what are the details and what are the important things to this story and to streamline it. Originally, I started the book where part 2 starts. I had been writing that for a while, and then I realized I needed to go back and write that whole first third. Once I started doing that — I thought it was really important to have my high school years in there and be a big part of that, because I think it has so much to do with what happened to me later in life. I decided to end it in 2006 for a couple of reasons: I didn’t want it to be a whole book about the band. I wanted it to be about the band getting started and how that all happened. I didn’t want it to be a history of the band or anything. And I thought ending it after we’d finished our first record was a good spot. That was the time my friend Mary died; she’d been such a huge part of my life, and it was a good framework — it did feel like where the book ends, in a certain way, was the end of a chapter and a personal era for me.
It’s interesting because the way you talk about unhappiness and the way that struggle continued, even into fame, is rooted in the book’s first third. Why were you initially reluctant to dig into your childhood and adolescence?
It was really hard. I underestimated, I think, a little bit of what it would be like to revisit a lot of that and write it down and turn it into something — to put it out on the page. I would find myself really emotionally spent sometimes, and then I would look back at my day and realize what I’d been doing. I was writing about some particularly hard spots in my life. Also, having to fit the pieces together. I’ve never been super talented at self-exploration. [Laughs] I’ve never been great at being really analytical about myself. I don’t necessarily think I’m overly analytical about myself in the book, but it’s just something that I hadn’t done before. It took quite a bit out of me. But then it was also incredibly satisfying, too, and I think that in certain ways this book really — it was hard to let go of it. It was hard to finish it. I still don’t feel like it’s finished — I was editing until the very last hour I possibly could. It’s scary to let something like that go. I think that was the hardest part of the whole thing: saying it was done.
It comes through, the difficulty of going that deep, but I think that’s why it might resonate. I think queer kids, or anybody who doesn’t fit in growing up, will find a lot to relate to here.
I hope they do. It’s been really interesting, with people reading it now for the first time. I’ve been surprised and really pleased with the reactions. I’ve had no expectations. I really didn’t know what people would think of it.
You never do.
Yeah. I also tried to keep it fun too. There is heavy stuff in it, but I think overall, I wanted to keep it juicy and fun.
Speaking of juicy and fun: It must have been fun to revisit and trace the Scissor Sisters’ rise, as you do in the book.
Funny and sweet. It just made me realize how unlikely it all was, and how special it was, in what we did and accomplished. It made me realize, “Wow, our story as a band is a pretty unique one.” It made me think about how special that time was. And everyone’s got their own point of view — especially being a band, everybody can look at the same scenario in different ways. Del [Marquiz], our guitar player, is the only one in the band that has read it. I needed his permission for some of the stuff that I put in there. He came back and he loved it; he thought it was great, and that made me feel good. But you never know how people are going to react about how you’ve written about them. There are things that are remembered very differently — moments in that book that, I have to say, are exactly how I remember them, but that other people tell me did not happen like that. This is how I remember it happening.
Switching gears briefly: What’s the Kinky Boots experience been like overall?
It’s been one of the biggest challenges I’ve ever had. There was a little while where I was like, “Can I even do this?” I really didn’t know, and I just had faith that I would get there in the end.
Does it feel like you’re turning a page in your career? Between this book and Broadway?
In a big way. I didn’t know what the hell I was going to do. I didn’t want to make another Scissor Sisters record, but I wanted to make more music, so the last couple years, I really tucked myself away. I worked really hard. It didn’t feel like work, though; I made this new album on my own and wrote this book, and then Kinky Boots happened. There are very few times in one’s life where you have so much stuff going on all at once. It’s really fun to have this moment where I get to put all this stuff out that I’ve been working so hard on. Not only that, I get to star in a Broadway show, which I never thought that I’d do or be able to do. It’s been nice to find that I can surprise myself. It’s given me this perspective. I love creating things, I love making things. It’s made me feel kind of limitless. I don’t mean that in a cheesy way or anything. It’s made me realize I can do what I want to do, and right now, this year feels like the moment to redefine himself.