It’s been a busy year for Jake Wesley Rogers. The 25-year-old glam pop artist with three EPs under his belt has been working on releasing his first album, touring with Ben Platt, playing with Brandi Carlile at Elton John’s Academy Awards party and performing on “Ellen.” He’s hitting his stride, leaving the male-presenting constraints of his upbringing in the Ozarks far behind and transforming into a queer fashion icon for Gen Z every time he takes the stage. The well-over-6-foot artist, rocking hot pink hair and ‘80s-inspired glasses when we spoke, spent much of last year performing in a gold suit with wings inspired by stained glass — an “Icarus glam god moment.”
His music, like his style, is unapologetically his own. On his latest EP, “Pluto,” he explores many forms of love with the sagacity of someone with decades more life experience. But he also pays homage to his heroes — Lady Gaga chief among them. He’s a firm believer in pop icon lineage: The way Gaga influenced him is the way Bowie and Madonna inspired her. The pianist is often described as the next Elton John, and it’s easy to see why. We caught up with Rogers during a rare quiet moment for the rising star, delving into the intentionality of the songwriting process, shotgunning matcha at SXSW and why D.C. will always have a special place in his heart.
District Fray: I was front row at your Cheer Up Charlies set at SXSW and your energy was phenomenal. How was your experience at the festival this year?
Jake Wesley Rogers: I went to SXSW first in 2018 and again in 2019. It was such an interesting marker of time and just how much has changed and evolved. When I was there in 2018, I had a mustache — I still looked fabulous, for sure — but it was a three-piece band and we drove there, and the car broke down. It was all very high stakes and low budget. Coming back and having a proper headline time and being with the full band with all this new music — and there were people there who knew my music — was really, really fantastic and affirming. Releasing so much music during Covid, the one thing I was always missing was the performance. [SXSW] is just insane. It’s so much energy. You’re always tired and inspired.
I can only imagine. I felt exhausted after a week of just covering the festival.
I always come back from SXSW needing five days to do nothing because you’re performing at midnight or 1 a.m. for four nights in a row. I shotgunned a matcha in a can.
That’s hardcore. What kept you inspired to create during Covid, especially while you were missing the live music element and being able to connect with audiences?
Right before Covid, I wrote the majority of my EP. Two weeks before lockdown, I got a record deal offer. I found for the first few months of [the pandemic], I in no way could or wanted to create. I actually turned to painting. It felt right. It felt safe. It still felt like an expression of something. After about six months, I was ready to piece together the EP that became “Pluto.” It was a funny time because I was living in Tennessee, so I would come to L.A. pre-vaccine and have 14 masks on and be locked down for 10 days before I could record. If you wanted to create during that time, if you wanted to work with people, you had to really want to because you’re risking a lot. It was all very intentional, which I appreciated because I think I create best when it’s with people I really trust and not just with random people I’ve been thrown in the room with. I’m grateful for that.
Have you shared your paintings with the world yet?
One of the main ones has become my logo for all the performances and album art. The dove has become a central symbol for me, my music and my fans — I call them little doves. It’s all become part of it and really inspired some songs, too. It’s hand-in-hand.
You are often described as the next Elton John. How does that land with you? Is that an accurate representation of who and what you’re trying to embody through your sound, stage presence and general ethos?
A year ago, I left Nashville and went to New Orleans and became friends with Jake Shears, who is in Scissor Sisters. People on TikTok, before I met Elton or he heard my music, were saying, “This reminds me of Elton John.” And Jake was saying that when he started writing music, he had never really listened to much Elton John, but he played a song for his mom. She said, “Oh, this reminds me of Elton John.” His theory is that with music like Elton and Queen and Bowie, there’s this current. It’s this kind of queer rock ‘n’ roll energy and it flows through them. And Jake was saying, “I think it flows through us, too.” That really made me feel good because it’s less of a “There can only be one gay piano player with glasses” and more of this lineage that began before us and will continue, and I feel that. I am so honored to be compared to someone like Elton because he represents so much. [Elton] represents freedom and art and beauty and rock ‘n’ roll and power and love. I’m happy to represent something that means something to someone, and then also where I’m doing my own thing. And if people want to see that, they can see that.
You’ve had a lot of exciting opportunities in the past few months, including performing “Lavender Forever” on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” and sharing the stage with Brandi Carlile during Elton John’s 30th annual viewing party for the Academy Awards. How are you feeling about all this success?
It’s f—king awesome and dreamlike. I’ve found that I love outside validation, but it makes me forget that I have to validate myself, too. That’s the give and take with positive things and change happening: enjoying it and loving it, and also not letting it define who you are. And most importantly, not letting it get in the way of the art you’re making. I think the reason why these things are happening is because I spent time making this art, so I’m in this place where I’m like, “Okay, I’m working on the first album while all of these things are happening. How do I find the space to do both?” I’m also really trying to be intentional about the creation, too, because I’m an artist. If I stop making art, I just become an influencer and I don’t particularly want that.
You have an incredible eye for fashion and seem to transform into a new persona for each show. What is your artistic process for putting together a look?
It’s a lot of dreaming up. It’s a lot of sketching. I always have my journal with me. If I have an idea, I’ll just sketch it out or be like, “Suit with wings — gold.” The past year or so, I’ve been able to meet some really incredible designers and tailors and people who can actually make clothes, which blows my mind. I don’t know how to sew. I love feeling like the superhero version of myself onstage, and the costume in many ways makes the superhero. In the movies, when they put on the costume — when Peter Parker finally gets the Spider-Man costume — that’s when it all molds together. I feel the same way with performing.
What new look are you working on now?
I have this really distinct vision of a spacesuit that’s white and puffy — like a space suit with bell bottoms. I’m working on that in my brain.
What would a dream collaboration be for you?
One of my dream ones is happening this fall [on tour] and that’s all I can say. Stevie Nicks, for sure. I want to meet her, but I think it would blow my mind a little too much. She’s been my number one since I was 14, 15. And Lady Gaga. I would love to do something with those two. And I would love to have coffee with Patti Smith. I don’t know if that’s a collaboration, but it feels sort of like one.
I feel like everything with Patti is a collaboration. I’m sure you’d walk away with gorgeous poetry in your journal. On a final note, do you have any favorite memories of visiting or playing music in D.C.?
I love D.C. I really do. I’m not just saying that because you asked. Some of my first shows were with Sofar Sounds. I did a little Sofar tour in 2018 and for the first stop, I drove from Nashville to D.C. This was about a week or so after I wrote one of my songs called “Jacob from the Bible.” The first room I played it for was in D.C. It was really special for me because it was one of the first times I sat down to sing a song that felt really vulnerable and really like my story. I’ll never forget that room because everybody was so eager and receptive to hear it. I realized songs can be a portal that people can connect to their story. I was raised in the Bible Belt and I’m gay, and my first boyfriend’s name was Jacob, too. The song is a gay love story through the lens of the story of Jacob from the Bible. That was one of the first moments where I realized the more specific and authentic you are, the more other people feel they can be. I will truly always remember that, so thank you, D.C. I can’t wait to come back with a full band and sing that song again — maybe in a full-circle moment.
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