Although he started playing his brother’s castoff guitar at the age of 12, songwriter Jules Shear had no idea, when he was growing up in Pittsburgh, that he would become a musician. “I didn’t think I was allowed to think that,” he recalls. “You get a normal job, that’s what you do — that’s what everyone I knew did.”
But Shear ended up writing two hit songs, “All Through the Night,” performed by Cyndi Lauper, and “If She Knew What She Wants,” by the Bangles. A total of 11 of his songs have made the top 100 either here or abroad, including his own recording of “Steady,” which made it to number 57 on the U.S. chart. He continues to write and record his music and has been living in Woodstock since the 1980s.
In his songwriting studio in the woods, one wall is lined with CDs under a cathedral ceiling. With the woodstove burning, surrounded by four or five guitars, Shear spoke about his long career. He and his two brothers, sons of a postal worker and a housewife, all had enough musical talent to sing in the glee club at the University of Pittsburgh. There was no one to teach him to play guitar, so Shear, playing left handed on a guitar strung for a rightie, worked out his own system of tuning, playing chords with his thumb laid across a single fret. He still plays that way. “I’d tell guys in session, ‘That’s a G, but it’s got a weird thing in it, listen. You got it?’ I know how to explain that stuff.”
After his third year of college, a classmate went home to Los Angeles for the summer, and Shear went along. He never returned to school. “I was writing songs and going to shows where a bunch of songwriters would get together and play songs all night. I found that people weren’t very good at writing songs, and maybe I could make a go of this.” At one of the gatherings, he met Jeff Barry, who wrote “Sugar, Sugar”, “Chapel of Love”, “Leader of the Pack”, “River Deep, Mountain High”, and other hits. Barry was working at A & M Records and invited Shear to the office. “One thing led to another. I liked the people I met and thought, maybe I’ll get serious about this now. He disappeared from my life, but I kept meeting people.”
Jules was shy, so progress was slow. In 1976, he was invited to join the Funky Kings, where he was one of three songwriters. They recorded one album before breaking up. “I decided, I’ll start another group where I write all songs myself,” Shear said. “That was Jules and the Polar Bears, with two guys who lived in Woodstock for a while — Stephen Hague and David Beebe. I was the first of us to move here. I loved it, but it didn’t work out so well for them.”
The Polar Bears made three albums, without significant commercial success, but their third record, Got No Breeding, later developed a cult following, attracted to its catchy melodies, deft musicianship, and Shear’s compelling vocals. The record was reissued in 2007. When the band broke up, Shear went to Woodstock to make a solo album produced by Todd Rundgren, who had a studio in his house. “They called him the Hermit of Mink Hollow,” said Shear. “I really liked him, although I didn’t think he spent enough time on my record, Watchdog. It was fun, but it went by too quick — less than two weeks, including the mixes. That was the way Todd liked to work.” One song from the album, “Whispering Your Name”, was later a U.K. chart hit for Alison Moyet.
Shear and his wife, artist and musician Pal Shazar, had moved to Boston but didn’t feel at home there. Rundgren let them stay at his house while they looked for a place to live in Woodstock. For a while they bounced back and forth between a local rental and living in New York City. Then Lauper’s single, “All Through the Night,” made it big (with Shear doing background vocals on the recording), and Shear and Shazar decided to buy a house.
At the time, author Larry Beinhart was building a writing studio outside his home, when friends down the street decided to move, and Beinhart decided to buy their house. First, though, he finished the studio, and it was all ready for Shear to take it over when he bought Beinhart’s property.
“I love it here,” said Shear with a childlike smile. “It’s so quiiiiiet. I shouldn’t have too many distractions.” Unlike many local musicians who end up installing their own recording studio, or at least a sound board and computer, Shear — who doesn’t even have an active website — said, “I don’t like the idea of recording songs here. This room is strictly for writing.”
Asked about his songwriting process, Shear said, “I’m not thinking about writing songs till I sit down to write a song. I hear it in my head first. These days, I’ll have some words I’ve written down, then after I have that, I’ll start making up music and fill in the gaps.” And what are his recent songs about? He really couldn’t say.
Shear’s most recent record, One More Crooked Dance, is his thirteenth album, recorded at Lee Danziger’s Woodstock studio, with local personnel. Shear and Molly Farley, owner of Rock City Vintage, do the vocals, with Pepe on piano and the legendary John Sebastian on harmonica. “With those three I made the whole record,” said Shear. “I knew it was unusual without drums or guitar, maybe a little plain-wrapped for people, but thought it was fine the way it was. It’ll be out in a couple months, and I’ll be going to L.A. to do some stuff with it.”
Meanwhile, he’ll be sitting in his room in the woods. “I couldn’t find any place I liked better,” he mused. “Quiet — that’s all I need.”