The pop stars’ hit-maker

WAG music critic Gregg Shapiro visits with songwriting legend Jules Shear, who discusses life in Woodstock, his love of dogs and his “shear” chart-topping ability.

If the name of Woodstock songwriter Jules Shear doesn’t instantly ring any bells, perhaps the titles of some the hits he’s written for others will.

Cyndi Lauper’s recording of Shear’s “All Through The Night,” from her multiplatinum, Grammy Award-winning album “She’s So Unusual” went to No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100. The Bangles’ cover of “If She Knew What She Wants” was the second single from the band’s best-selling “Different Light” album and Alison Moyet’s rendition of “Whispering Your Name” was a hit in the United States and the United Kingdom. 

Shear, himself, has released more than a dozen albums under his own name, including 1985’s “The Eternal Return,” which included the single “Steady,” co-written with Lauper. His new album “Slower” (Funzalo), described as his “most personal work to date,” is a collection of songs about embracing the prospect and process of aging, which comes with the benefit of being able to “sit around and eat sugar all day,” from the song of the same name. Shear was kind enough to answer a few questions shortly after the release of the album:

Jules, you are a performer whom I would describe as the definition of someone who plays well with others, beginning with your membership in bands such as Funky Kings, Jules and the Polar Bears and Reckless Sleepers. Additionally, you have a history of songwriting collaborations with Lauper, Aimee Mann, Matthew Sweet and Rick Danko as well as your wife, Pal Shazar. What makes you such a good creative partner?

“Well, I don’t think that I’m a particularly good collaborator. I will try from time to time, but I’d rather write by myself. Those five that you noted are or were great people that were just fun to hang out with.”

Despite not being “a particularly good collaborator,” one of the best examples of your collaborative nature is your 1998 album “Between Us,” on which you performed duets with Rosanne Cash, Patty Griffin, Carole King, Suzzy Roche, Amy Rigby and Ron Sexsmith. Were these songs written with the intention of being duets or is that something that came about later?

‘I don’t think they were written with those people in mind, but they were written to be duets with someone. I think I wrote those songs by myself, then used my duet partners during recording.”

Some of your songs have been covered by others, including Lauper (“All Through The Night”), Moyet (“Whispering Your Name”), ‘Til Tuesday (with Aimee Mann, “Everything’s Different Now”) and The Bangles (“If She Knew What She Wants,” as well as an entire album of your songs by Iain Matthews. Do you have an all-time favorite cover version?

“I guess that Cyndi’s would be my favorite because it did the best. Plus, I got to sing the background vocals on Cyndi’s version. That was fun.” 

Is there a dream cover artist you would like to sing one of your songs?

“Yeah. Eric Clapton. Whatever song he’d want, that’d be fine with me.”

Dogs appear in the album artwork for on “Eternal Return,” “Between Us” and “More,” and your 1983 solo debut album was titled “Watch Dog.” Can you please say something about the role that dogs play in your life?

“I’ve had four dogs at this point and they’ve all had their own thang. I’ve loved them all and I think they’ve liked me, too. All were mixed breeds, not that they’d know.”

Your previously mentioned history of playing well with others continues on your new album “Slower,” which features the return of guest musician John Sebastian (of The Lovin’ Spoonful and “Welcome Back Kotter” theme song fame), as well as Sara Lee (of Gang of Four). What made Sara and John a good fit for this album?

“Sara kind of lives in the neighborhood. I always wanted to use her and finally got the chance. I saw John at the health food store. He asked what I was up to and when I told him, he said he’d play. I asked him, ‘How about tomorrow?’ He showed up and played great, but he was also really fun to hang out with. (A) great guy.”

Heaven and hell are recurring themes on “Slower,” in songs such as “It Came Down From Heaven,” “Between Hell and Hello” and “Sugar All Day.” Can you please say a few words about that?

“You know, I didn’t even realize that it was a theme. I was just writing every day and didn’t realize it until I was sequencing. Then I realized that I had a recurring theme here. So I put them together. I didn’t know, I swear.”

“It’s Love” is a wonderful love song. Of all the various subjects for a song, are love songs easier or harder to write?

“I suppose that it’s a common theme for songs. Yet they’re all different. I like having a reason to write one though. That’s good.”

What do you enjoy most about living in Woodstock, New York?

“It’s beautiful here. Good people, too. Plus, good places to walk the dogs. I first came here to work with Todd Rundgren. He was nice enough to give me time in his guest house (while I tried) to find a place to live. I just stayed.”

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