While some may view coronavirus clampdown as a chance to pause, take stock, maybe even relax a little, quirk-popper Jules Shear and his wife Pal Shazar saw it as the perfect time to get busy. On Nov. 13, he released his latest solo outing, the sonically-jubilant, lyrically-morose “Slower,” following hot on the heels of his wife’s folk-sparse “Blondes Prefer Gentlemen” on Oct. 10. Both were tracked at the couple’s rustic home studio in Woodstock, N.Y.
“She just made a record on her own, and I don’t know why,” says Shear, 68. “But she would probably ask the same thing of me: ‘Why did you do it?’ And I don’t have an answer for that. I really don’t know why.”
The Pittsburgh-born singer chalks it up to a creative prime directive that kicked into gear with his first critically-lauded combos in the late-1970s, The Funky Kings, then Jules and the Polar Bears.
He has always been compelled to compose intellectual, oblique-chorded tunes that challenged Top 40 archetypes of the time and often became huge hits for other artists, like “All Through the Night” for Cyndi Lauper, “If She Knew What She Wants” for The Bangles and “Whispering Your Name” for Alison Moyet.
And even under the darkness of COVID-19, he just can’t stop. “This is just what I do — I write a bunch of songs and I record them, and that’s all there is to it, there’s nothing more,” he says. “So it’s really just a matter of whether I’m happy with my records or not; I want that to be the reason that I made them.”
Living off the beaten music-mecca path in upstate New York has accelerated the process, Shear believes. He was first introduced to the quiet musical enclave by then-resident Todd Rundgren, while he was producing Shear’s first solo album “Watch Dog” in 1983.
He fell in love with Woodstock and — with the royalties from all those covers — bought a house there at the end of a dirt road owned by “Oh, God!” novelist Avery Corman, who had also erected a recording studio on the property.
Rundgren lived nearby, as did industry peers like Graham Parker and Marshall Crenshaw. “But now Todd’s in Hawaii, Marshall lives across the Hudson and Graham’s gone back to England,” he says of his hip community, which grew to include edgier newcomers like Sleigh Bells and Still Corners. “But that studio has been my clubhouse ever since. All I ever wanted was to have a place where I could go and just write.”
It’s easy to recruit neighbors for projects, he adds. John Sebastian agreed to play harmonica on “Slower” when he bumped into him at the local health food store. And having an equally-gifted in-house collaborator like Shazar — who has recorded and toured with her husband as Shear Shazar — helps, as well. “But we haven’t been doing the duo lately. She’s making records on her own, and she’s been doing a lot of painting during quarantine, too.”
When it comes to “Slower” material like “Until Now,” “Sugar All Day,” and the reverent-chorded chorale “Feels Like Fall” (with its attendant lyrical punchline of “But it’s spring”), Shear, aided by his wife’s keen ear, keeps quality control high.
The more he talks about songwriting, the more he resembles Phil Hartman’s classic Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer from “Saturday Night Live” — he’s simply unfamiliar with our modern ways. He sneers at modern hit-making factories, many of which are located in far-off Sweden. “Do you ever hear any of this new written-by-committee stuff and go, ‘Oh, that’s great!’?” he asks, rhetorically, explaining why he never listens to the radio anymore. He’s not a fan of Spotify playlists, either.
“I’ve been making lots of CD compilations, of all these songs that I really like, and whenever I’m going somewhere in the car, those are the only things that I listen to,” says the old-schooler, grabbing a disc at random to list its diverse, mostly vintage sources — The Boxtops, The Impressions, Bill Doggett, David Bowie, Frank Sinatra, and his own later band, Reckless Sleepers. “But I guess some listeners just aren’t diggers. They’re not going to try to find who it is at the bottom of all this surface-y new stuff.”
The musician, who came up with the idea for MTV’s “Unplugged” series, hosted its first 13 episodes and later lost legal claim on it, without compensation, has moved on.
“I admit, it’s not very good timing for an album now. First of all, I’m an old guy, and second, we’re in a pandemic,” he says. “But the flame still flickers, and now I just really do this for myself. I just write songs, and let the chips fall where they may.”