We meet Jake Wesley Rogers in what looks like a 19th-century bordello. The brick-walled room, painted black floor to ceiling, features a tall lamp adorned with black fringe, a black sofa, and several paintings in gilded Louis XIV frames. Around the room, thick, red velvet curtains adorn the walls. We half expect a corseted courtesan to offer us a glass of absinthe.
The room is, in actuality, Rogers’ dressing room. We find the man himself sprawled across the sofa, prepped for his sing-off opposite hip-hop artist Bren Joy as part of RedBull’s SoundClash concert series. The show sees the pair take to the stage to play some of their new songs, perform a cover, and even battle it out singing a song together on the stage of Nashville’s historic Marathon Music Works. His surprise guest for the night: singer Sheryl Crow, who will join Rogers for a special rendition of her song “Strong Enough.”
Rogers first appeared on the music scene with his debut EP Evergreen in 2017. His music attracted immediate attention for its unapologetic and explicit discussion of gay themes, often intertwined with quasi-religious imagery. He followed up with his sophomore EP Spiritual in April 2019. In 2021, he signed with Warner/Facet records and released acclaimed singles “Middle of Love” and “Momentary.”
Dressed in a black & white sequined bellbottom jumpsuit and with imitation rubies glued to his eyelids, Rogers looks like a Millennial, twinkish version of Elton John. A pair of platform heels add to the comparison. His stage antics later that night would also bring to mind another queer powerhouse: Freddie Mercury.
We ask Rogers him if he has trouble keeping his eyes open with the gems glued on. He cocks his head back, his lids drooping ever so slightly, and smiles.
“I think it weighs on my tear ducts or something. It makes me close to tears,” he giggles.
We sit down, settle in, and prepare to explore the glamazon crooner Jake Wesley Rogers.
So, you have a big show tonight. How do you feel? What are you thinking about?
I feel good. It’s been a lot of rehearsal and prep work, but it’s all come together. Now I get to enjoy it. I love performing.
I would never have guessed.
I’m very shy. I am. But there are some big surprises—one in particular—that made it hard to sleep last night.
What’s your routine like getting ready for a concert?
Meditation is always a non-negotiable thing for me. I do mindfulness meditation. I always warm-up. I like to have a slower morning and talk to warm up my voice. And we have to do a full run-through, so I’m looking forward to that.
How do you save your energy when you have to, essentially do the show twice?
You have to guard your heart. I heard recently an Alanis Morisette quote: “Keep your heart guarded and your music dangerous.” That’s my new motto. I keep my heart pretty guarded.
How do you decide what to wear on stage?
I definitely decide in advance. We had to start a few weeks ago to get something put together for this show. This show is sponsored by Red Bull, so they wanted to really be involved in putting together my outfit. I usually meet with a stylist or designer and we go from there.
How do you put together a setlist? Does it have movement, like a symphony or an album?
Yeah, it has to. I feel like it’s sort of like listening to music on your headphones alone. It just feels different. I think it serves no purpose to replicate the recording from the studio. So I geek out over the right transitions and flow. I want to hold on to a crowd—get them excited, then do a song that makes them want to cry, then pick them up, then do a cover. It’s somewhat scientific.
So I analyzed your lyrics, and found some themes I want to ask you about, the first being religiosity. Not spirituality, but the idea of attending church, having a church family, the ritual habits of that. You also make a number of Biblical allusions in your lyrics. Where does that come from?
That’s really interesting. One note I get a lot after my shows from a lot of people is that it’s a lot like what they wanted church to be like. They want it to be cathartic and freeing and loving and a celebration of life. I think the reason I’m inspired so much by the imagery and stories of the Bible is that, well A) I grew up with it. It’s the way I navigate life and learn lessons. And, it’s powerful in a way. I got a note recently about “Jacob From the Bible,” that he listened to it and realized it was a gay love story. He was in a fundamentalist church, and said it really stuck for him. I’ll never forget, he said: “How can something so beautiful be so evil?” I never expected talking about these things would release someone from a cage. So I’m not being intentional about it, I just think it’s something in me.
Are you a religious person?
I think I’m religious in terms of my practices and my spirituality rather than taking part in organized religion.
Another major theme I see–and I don’t see this in too many other artists–is anxiety around relationships.
So many of your lyrics deal with this feeling of vulnerability around a new man. Feeling young and sweet when he’s handsome and it’s new. Or feeling lied to and used. Where does that come from?
I think, for me, navigating what it means to love somebody else and love myself is not easy. A lot of role models we have are not healthy, even if they seem healthy. I think, especially in the music I write lately, the statement is how long will I let love hurt me? I was thinking about Oscar Wilde and Bosie Douglas, his sort of star-crossed lover that ended up sending [Wilde] to jail. That’s kind of the dramatized version of what love can do: it can send you to jail.
It’s like, how can I stop making love into something harmful?
Do relationships still haunt you? You refer to love as a prison.
Not so much anymore. I feel very free.
The other element that stands out in your lyrics is this peculiar nostalgia for childhood. What spoke to me in a song like Pluto, is this notion that as a kid, everything was simple. Pluto was a planet. It was easy. Does that make you a grown-up now?
I hope not!
Every day I’m sort of like what would little Jake do? How would he respond? It was the younger me that was called to create and still inspires me to be free, to dance to Britney Spears and not think of art in a commodified way.
It’s interesting. In your lyrics, it almost sounds like you feel you lost something. What is it you’re looking for?
Don’t we all feel like we lose something?
Maybe. But what is that?
I think we lose a sense of wonder. I feel like it’s just kind of this process of learning: learning that your parents aren’t perfect. That hit me hard. You start to see them as real people that did their best.
Obviously, everybody gets traumatized in different ways.
That’s probably true.
It’s interesting though. There are, in retrospect, sort of pivotal, terrible things that happened early on that defined me. Those are things that made me grow up really fast. I guess some of its trauma, and some of it’s DRAMA. But I think I’ve forgiven myself.
And hopefully, you work through that in your music.
All the time.
So when you’re performing an emotional song, one that is maybe intensely personal and connected to the trauma you’re talking about, is it difficult for you to go out and feel that in front of an audience? Are there nights you just can’t do it?
It’s essential. I think if I didn’t, I’d hate my life. It’s about truth, being true.
Does it scare you to be that naked in front of an audience?
Maybe the first time, but I kind of love it. Earlier this year I wrote a lot of songs that, I don’t know…playing them sometimes terrifies me. Maybe that’s just because I haven’t done them before, but I do feel like I get a little more naked. Especially when I go to bed those nights, I feel at peace, like I’ve done my job.
One of my favorite paintings is Flaying of Marsyas by Titian. Marsyas was a satyr that challenged Apollo to a song contest. Obviously, he lost, and in the painting, Marsyas is skinned by Apollo. The metaphor here is that art is a challenge to God. You will always lose, but you see in his eyes: he knew what he was doing. He made art and he played it. He’s wondering if he went far enough. I wake up every morning and I want to flay myself more.
That’s a show unto itself.
I hope not.
Speaking of pain, life on the road in showbiz is a flaying life. It affects personal relationships. How has your career takeoff affected your relationships with your family, or your dating life?
I don’t know. I have really good parents. I have f*cking good friends. A great best friend. I was with someone for five years up until last year. That was really before I got to this speed. I haven’t really dated someone at this point, and I really don’t want to. I think this is a period of my life where I just need to kind of live for myself. I think I was kind of a serial monogamist from like 14 to 24. So I’m going to fool around for a little bit. I really can be quite alone.
You acknowledge forerunners of the queer rights movement in your songs, people who carved out a legacy. What do you want yours to be?
Freedom. I contain multitudes, to borrow from my favorite homosexual poet, Walt Whitman. I can be this. I can have flashy eyes, a crazy outfit, or I can just wear something simple to Trader Joe’s. I can be anything in between. And I also want to normalize queerness. I’m tired of these f*cking movies about coming out. And it’s important we have those, but that’s not my storyline. That’s something I really try to do in my music. I’m telling a story. Some people might think it’s political because it’s two guys kissing. And maybe to someone, it is, but that’s my reality. So I want to bridge that gap and make it normal.