A new album named Slower shows Shears’ knack for songs that sound like standards
Jules Shear is an artist, singer and songwriter who is mostly known for the songs he’s written for others — Cyndi Lauper “All Through the Night”), the Bangles (“If She Knew What She Wants”) and Allison Moyet (“Whispering Your Name”) among many others.
Yet despite a lengthy career that includes his stints in several groups — The Funky Kings, Jules and the Polar Bears, The Reckless Sleepers — and, of course, a lengthy list of solo albums that date back more than 35 years, Shear himself has remained just below the radar as far as his own singular efforts are concerned. With the release of his latest album, appropriately titled Slower, Shear may yet gain that wider recognition he’s been lacking, even though he insists that was never his intention to begin with.
“I really do that stuff for me,” he admits. “I don’t really do it for the listener. I do it for me to have it sound like I want it to sound. If somebody gets it, great, but I can’t really can’t depend on people getting it. I know that by now. It’s not really by choice…”
It’s notable then that the discussion begins with both parties affirming the value of physical product, a seemingly diminished option in light of today’s increased emphasis on streaming and downloading as a means of sharing music. Hearing that his interviewer also laments the forced obsolescence of CDs as the music industry stumbles forward, Shear immediately makes it clear that he’s in total sympathy.
“I know exactly what you mean because I’m the same way,” he insists while also noting his tendency to make his own mix tapes. “I don’t download at all. It’s CDs for me, and although I have a lot of vinyl records, I don’t go to them that often. It’s really CDs for me. Don’t let go of it, man!”
Talk begins to turn to how the art of the album seems to have been negated in the age of spotlighting individual tracks in lieu of an entire album, while mention is made as to how Slower seems to flow together as a whole, like a series of nocturnal songs that would find a perfect fit in an after-hours setting. In fact, it sounds like a series of standards, even at the outset.
“I’m glad you feel you way,” Shear remarks. When he’s reminded that it’s been nearly 45 years since he launched his recording career with the Funky Kings, a budding supergroup of sorts whose line-up also included Jack Tempchin (a songwriter whose material was frequently covered by the Eagles), he denies being totally taken with his own productivity.
“If I am a music machine, I am a low key one,” he admits. “The consequences don’t really affect what I do. I’m really doing it for the same reason I started out doing it, which is just to do it for me and to be able to hear it when it’s all done. I’m doing it for me and not for any other reason.”
Of course, that sense of inner satisfaction rather than public adulation runs counter to the affirmation most artists hope to attain from fans, followers and critics. “I don’t think that’s healthy,” Shear insists. “If I thought about it, I guess I could understand it. But as far as why I’m like this, I don’t know…(laughs).”
¾It’s suggested that indeed Shear’s confidence and self-assurance seem to preclude the need for counseling, although he doesn’t seem totally convinced. “Maybe I need to see a counselor for that,” he laughs. “I don’t know if I’m all that different. I know I’m different from some people, but I don’t know if I’m different from everybody. I don’t know why people do this though. I really don’t.”
Ah, but isn’t it all about ego, and more than that, ultimately, the affirmation?
“I just feel like I have to satisfy myself, and everybody else will be cool with it,” Shear muses. “And if they’re not cool with it, that’s okay. I’m just this in this for myself. Ah, it doesn’t matter. I’m just going to keep doing this and nobody’s going to stop me. Fortunately, I don’t have to bow to the corporate machine. I just sent this record to my label and said if you want to put this out, put it out. I didn’t consult with anybody along the way. I’ve often had to do that record companies in the past.”
VIDEO: Jules Shear “Steady”
Dogs bark in the distance and the talk inexplicably turns to some furry friends. A plea is passed on that he not share any sad songs about his canine pals, lest they come across as trembling tearjerkers. “I wouldn’t do that,” he agrees. “If I thought of that, I’d just pass it over, because I’d have to live in that while I’m writing them.”
Nevertheless, the new album is, true to its title, a soft and sobering set of songs that adheres to a decidedly mellow mindset. “I did kind of have a concept for it in that way,” Shear admits. “I’m not going to put something rocking in there and interrupt this thing. It doesn’t mean I don’t make records like that and I won’t make records like that in the future. But it was fun to do it this way. It’s not so much jazz-sounding as trying to emulate the great songs of the past. People should hear those songs, but people aren’t going to hear them because they’re not contemporary. Maybe I would just write some songs like that I like, and it won’t matter if it’s contemporary or not. I don’t know. Maybe it would. I didn’t know if I was playing to that level.
Whether or not that was the case, it does appear Shear was in a somewhat reflective mood when he composed these tracks, especially given the titles — “Sugar All Day,” “Between Hell and Hello,” “It’s Love,” “Feels Like Fall,” and “Until Now” — all of which find a mix of clarity contemplation and clarity.”
“I guess so,” he replies. “But that comes from living in Woodstock, living in the country. Being up here and being cut off. People will ask me, ‘I know a guy that lives in Woodstock. Do you know him,’ and I never do. I don’t know hardly anybody.”
That might have made him an advocate for social distancing before social distancing became necessary. “I think so,” he agrees. “I didn’t really do it on purpose. Maybe I have that kind of image. I don’t know. I don’t know what it is. I just don’t seem to know that many people. I don’t think there are many people here that are in the music community that Woodstock used to have here. There are still some people. I can still get people to play on my records that I’m interested in having. So that’s really good. I just don’t know that many people in the music community nowadays.”
Shear says he was originally lured to Woodstock by Todd Rundgren, the man behind the boards for his 1983 solo debut Watch Dog. Rundgren was living in Woodstock at the time and he later offered to let Shear live in his guest house after expressing interest in relocating. That was 25 years ago and Shear and his wife, singer/songwriter Pal Shazar, have lived there ever since.
These days, Shear also says he’s no longer involved in shopping his songs to other artists and seeing them spread about like they once were. “It doesn’t really occur to me,” he suggests. “I feel like I’d be hung up on stuff I wouldn’t ordinarily get hung up on. If I just write, just make up a song, and that’s the way that any song of mine has been recorded by someone or has b been successful has come about, from me just writing songs and not really thinking what it was for, or who it was for, or anything. It’s just me writing a song. So that’s all I’m doing. If one isn’t right, then maybe tomorrow it will be right. That’s all. I gotta keep writing songs. It’s spontaneity. Something in the moment that allows me to start something and see if I can make it finish. See if I can make it a song.”
He also says that any artist that covers one of his songs is at liberty to do whichever way they want. His own interpretive ideas never enter into the process.
VIDEO: Jules Shear “Whispering Your Name”
“I had no visions of them at all,” he reflects. “Just the way I did it. That was it for me. Anyone can do a song any way they want. I mean, I can do a song any way I want to if it’s someone else’s song. It doesn’t matter. I’ve heard so many song that were not what the songwriter had in mind. It doesn’t make it worse. It just makes it interesting. I don’t have a problem with any artist doing any song of mine any way they like. I get to do my own versions, and that’s what I’m interested in. So anybody who wants to do a version of my song any way they want to is fine with me. How could anyone know what I had in mind.”
For the record, Shear’s covered other people’s songs himself in the past. His 2004 album Saying Hello to the Folks was comprised of material written by Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson, the Dave Clark Five and other iconic individuals. Yet at a certain point it becomes a fine line between an astute interpretation and instilling his own individuality. “I would sometimes think later on, I could have done something completely differently,” he admits in retrospect. “But whatever. They’re just songs. And that’s just my thing.”