JULES SHEAR: mini interview from 1998

Joint Account: Swapping notes with Jules Shear
Hearsay #17 / 1998 / Email interview with Ewen and Neil

"I told Carole King I'd only use something she came up with if I thought it was better. Of course, she did."

In the grand spirit of Channel 4's legendary Mavis Catches Up With..., we thought it timely and sensible to look in again on our favourite Woodstock resident: the demi-legendary, giddily label-hopping Jules Shear (last seen in #12). We popped a few questions at him concerning his idiosyncratic and conceptual duets project Between Us — a work which finds him variously anchored to a glittering parade of thoughtful talent from Margo Timmins to Freedy Johnston, Rosanne Cash to Ron Sexsmith and beyond...

HEARSAY: So, Jules, did you manage to find a label which will let you make an album a year? Less specifically, do you find High Street a saner environment than Polydor?
I didn't make an album a year part of the deal, but I did get the feeling that High Street was a less structured environment. The idea that the new album was conceptual not only didn't scare them, but they embraced it. This was different from some of the meetings that I was in where a record exec would construe my concept to mean that I was making a tribute record to myself! I mean, on the one hand, I think all albums should be that. I just felt that I was being wilfully misunderstood. I couldn't really give an example of someone having written an album of duets and, to some small minds, if it hasn't been done there's got to be a good reason why.

On paper, the prospect of a duets album conjures up images of the recent Elton John/Frank Sinatra cheese-fests than cool and serious works such as those albums by Rob Wassermann and Emmylou Harris. Was it important to make an ‘anti-duet’ record, and which are your favourite duets records of all time?
When I think of duets, most likely my thoughts go to Ashford & Simpson and those who sang their songs, Lee Hazelwood's duets with Nancy Sinatra, and show tunes like It's Been A Long Day from How To Succeed In Business — all stuff from my childhood where having two voices instead of one somehow more than doubled the meaning. Or the Everly Brothers and after them John & Paul, where the two voices made you almost hear a third. I used to sometimes get that going when I sang with my brother as teenagers. It was great to sing with him and experience the genetic blend again on this album, but you don't have to be related to get it. It happened lots of times on these songs. I think humans like the sound of harmony. We aspire to it in our lives and, when we hear it, even non-musical people distinguish that something good is going on.

Presumably most of the people you’re singing with are friends you called up. Is that how it worked or did you track down people whose voices you knew you wanted but who you didn’t already know? Were any songs written with particular people in mind, and did anyone bring something to them you hadn’t already envisaged?
At the start of this project, Stewart Lerman and I decided that the duetists had to want to be there doing it, not career moves, not favours or what we could pay them. One idea that went out the window early on was me singing with my singing/songwriting heroes. We went instead for singers who I knew as friends. In the case of Carole King, she fit into both categories, but I had become very comfortable with her and we had written a few songs together. I had vague ideas of who might sing each song as I wrote them, but I feared to get too specific. One of the cautions that we got entering into this was that record companies might not let their artists participate. I mostly wrote for vocal ranges, then got specific later regarding personalities. As it turns out, only once were we prohibited from using someone by a record company lawyer. It was a drag because I had already sung that song with her live a couple of times and I knew it worked. Eventually, we got Margo Timmins for that song. Though I once opened a date for Cowboy Junkies in San Francisco, we said "hi" and that's it so she was the only one on the album I didn't know and she was very generous to accept my invitation to sing. Then she blew me away because, to me, she changed the song without changing the words or the melody. I'm saying it was strictly by the sound of her voice. And I was happy with the original singer! That's saying something. Other than that, Carole told me that one harmony part was incorrect so I told her I didn't know from correct, and I'd only use something that she came up with if I thought it was better. Of course, she did.

Some of the duets sound like single points of view voiced by two singers while others seem to blend, say, the male and female perspectives. Did you write the songs with two perspectives in mind and, if so, how is it to step into a woman’s shoes? Or are your songs universal enough for gender not to be an issue?
I wanted to come at the duet idea a few different ways. Comparative points of view or single, harmony singing all the way through or almost no harmony. It just depended on my mood that day. It would have been a little unfair to sing a verse where she was a rat and then write one for my guest to sing where she admits that, ‘well, you're absolutely right.’ Very rarely in life do we get to make up both sides of the conversation, and it calls for some responsibility. I actually like that in Sealed Up Hollow, Margo gets to say 'hey, it hurts me, too. Imagine that slipping your mind.' When couples tell the story of what went wrong, guess what? DIFFERENT STORIES. And that, by the way, has got nothing to do with gender.

The sound of Between Us is very distinctive. Was the live and pared-down feel born out of your Bottom Line songwriters shows? Does the album feel like an extension of that live project or were the Spartan arrangements more a reflection of the songs' often bleak subject matter?
We wanted the album to revolve around my acoustic guitar and the sound of two vocalists. I didn't want to be dogmatic about the production, so additional instruments were cool with me, but we soon found that we had to be very discreet in order to preserve an overall mood. This was not a 'one of each' kind of album in terms of song selection. It was more 'all of a piece'. A lot of this did come out of the series that I did for a year at New York's Bottom Line called Writers In The Round. Some of the songs were first performed there with other participants and I attributed a lot of the great reaction to the uncluttered arrangements. I get that making records is different, but we still went for intimacy first.

It was an unexpected surprise to find 1980's Bad for Business (re)issued... how do you feel about that material now? How do you think your songwriting has changed in the two decades since?
Jules & the Polar Bears was a band with its own personality. I loved it and it was fun to write songs for those guys to play. They were always on my mind while I was making the songs up, just like on Between Us, The Last In Love was written for a certain kind of singer to sing with me. I didn't know Paula Cole was going to be that singer and she made it specifically hers like the Polar Bears did for me back then. I never knew what they'd do, but I figured whatever it was was gonna make me happy. One difference I can point out from that period though, is in the rewriting. I didn't do it in that band. The songs dropped out and there they were. I thought that if I rewrote something, the chances were 50-50 that it would be better, 50-50 it would be worse so why bother? I have no such fear now and I can only attribute that to maturity.

Any favourite listening from 1997?
I can't remember 1997.

Neither can we. So what's next up your sleeve(s)?
I'm going to play a bunch of shows and I'm starting to think about the next album but the idea I have now could change altogether, so I ain't tellin'...

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