Updated: Apr 25
There’s thunder in his lungs and lightning in his limbs.
When he pinwheels to center stage, bell sleeves flying, to sit at his little white piano, his legs are too long to fold up underneath, so he falls to the stool in a graceful, split-legged lunge, or otherwise he stands to play. He pounds at the keys like he wants answers from them.
At his sold-out show at The Basement East in Nashville, the largest he’s ever headlined, Jake Wesley Rogers is 6 feet, 4 inches of glitter and eyeshadow and jawline and jewel-bright red hair. He towers above his bandmates in platform boots “like a big, gay monster,” he told Elton John on the English superstar’s “Rocket Hour” radio show.
“Hate on me, hate on me, hate on me, hate on me,” Rogers sings on stage. “You might as well hate the sun for shining just a little too much.”
Nashville screams his lyrics back to him, matching his energy note for note.
The song is “Pluto,” off Rogers’ debut major-label EP of the same name, and he gives his heart and soul to it at every performance.
“Live, that song really transforms a room,” said Rogers in an interview before his Basement show. “That’s the moment in the set where I really get lost in it and I feel people respond the most, so I really look forward to that one.”
He moves his body the same way he sings — hugely, openly, unafraid. He throws his arms open, his head back. He stands and slinks to the low edge of the stage to touch faces in the crowd. In every moment, he demands you pay attention.
“Performing, for me, is very second nature. I am comfortable doing that and I feel most vital when I’m doing that,” said Rogers.
And he’s a performer worth crossing the country for, said Meghan Anderson, a fan from Seattle who stood first in line for doors at The Basement East.
“He brings a different flair to each show,” said Anderson. She should know; she’s followed Rogers to five of his concerts this year, from his first tour date at the Troubadour in Los Angeles to all three of his sets at Lollapalooza. She’s on a first-name basis with his backing bandmates, “Simon, Emma and Mike” — that’s Simon Knudtson on drums, Emma Lambiase on bass, and Mike Miller on keys.
Anderson talks about Rogers like a friend, with a smile in her voice. She sees herself in him and in his music.
“He’s a big LGBTQ advocate. And there’s not a lot of young talent around who are voicing for people like myself, so it feels really special to have someone who’s really like, ‘Be true to yourself. Don’t hide who you are,’” she said.
For many of Rogers’ fans, that’s what it’s all about. A queer artist who grew up in southern Missouri, his story is one that many resonate with, and his lyrics speak to self-discovery.
“Hate on me, hate on me,” he continues in “Pluto.” “Maybe at the end of the day, you and me are just the same. We just wanna be loved.”
“He’s just so proud of being himself,” said Rachel Hillman, another fan in the Nashville crowd, whose solar system tattoo spills across her clavicle and, yes, includes Pluto. “You can’t help but be watching him. … Literally the best live performance I’ve ever seen.”
Rogers strips out of his copper-colored jacket down to the mesh top he wears underneath. Draping a cloak of sienna satin around his shoulders, he swishes back to the piano to bring things down a little. He caresses into existence the first, heart-wrenching bars of “Cause of a Scene.”
“This is my favorite song I’ve ever written,” he says.
“Well, I’m blue like the color, and I’m stubborn like my father. And I wish I could be like a baby and scream without anyone staring at me like a freak show. … But I don’t wanna be the cause of a scene.”
It’s the kind of song people turn their phone flashlights on for, filling the venue with one massive, messy, gently shifting constellation.
“Haven’t told my grandpa ’bout you, ’cause my parents told me not to. It might be a little too much at the end of his life. … I don’t wanna be the cause of a scene.”
In conversation, Rogers speaks softly, thoughtfully, in lines of poetry. He’s a tea-drinker. A Sagittarius. A lover of Oscar Wilde and Carole King. He posts reflective vlogs to his TikTok account every Sunday.
As part of his pre-show ritual, he often reflects on the words of Maya Angelou: “I bring everyone who has ever been kind to me with me.” Backstage, he speaks the names of those he loves — Wilde to his late grandparents — so he can bring their presence with him.
“I feel very stoic before shows. Like I’m contracting in order to expand when I go onstage,” Rogers said.
In his early days as a songwriting student at Belmont University, Rogers was the quiet, persevering presence in the classroom, said James Elliott, chair of Belmont’s songwriting program and one of Rogers’ professors.
But when Rogers is sharing his music, he becomes a dynamo.
“He just takes on this whole other persona of who he is as an artist. And it’s fun to experience it. … It’s just so powerful,” said Elliott.
His mentors could tell he was something special from the start.
“Jake’s singing voice and melodic sensibility is the first thing that grabs your attention. His ability to control where his voice goes emotionally, not just technically, is something that he uses to serve his songs,” said Drew Ramsey, another of Rogers’ songwriting instructors.
“But more than the musical characteristics, it’s really Jake’s spirit that is the quiet champion in the room. He’s so open emotionally but also so loving. It makes anything he’s singing about palatable regardless of how raw or controversial it might be.”
A second slow song, “The Pretender,” this one from a self-released EP:
“He lit me up, rewrote my name. He smoked his weed and I hesitated. Oh, Heavenly Father, if I sin, will you ever look at me the same again?”
“Lightning storm on my sweet sixteen. I locked my door, told him my teenage dreams, and we embraced like the sand and the sea. I handed over contraband parts of me. After that, well I’m sure you know. He never called again.”
“The main thing I noticed with Jake during his time at Belmont was how he became increasingly comfortable addressing issues of faith and sexuality in his music,” said Ramsey. “There was always love at the core of what he was unpacking along with the raw honesty. I’ve witnessed people — that I know didn’t expect it — be genuinely touched and moved by his music. I think it’s the love doing that.”
Rogers got himself in front of Sony executives in his freshman year and went on to cut a publishing deal while still in college.
“He really commanded the stage, even at that point. He loves it. He puts a lot of work into it. And I think it’s so good people respond,” said Elliott.
That response seems near-universal — no matter where he goes, Rogers’ audience pays attention. While on a study-abroad trip to Ireland with his songwriting class, Rogers put on an impromptu show at The Anchor Bar in Newcastle. He was invited to the piano and performed a song he wrote when he first moved to Nashville, and continues to sing on tour: “Evergreen,” a warm, soaring ode to a grounding and dependable love.
“You’re evergreen, I’m feeling warm in the wintertime. And it seems it’s getting colder but I’m feeling fine.”
“When he got up there and played and sang,” said Elliot. “It’s like you could have heard a pin drop. All the bar staff, everybody just stopped.”
Silence. A far cry from the cacophonous crowds Rogers plays to now, but the music and the meaning are still there, heavy and whole.
Rogers disappears from the stage and remerges in a tall-collared cape of white feathers, which he whips away to reveal matching chaps over tiny black briefs. He belts out one of his bigger hits, “Weddings and Funerals.” Raw reverence for love, for life, resounds in the tenor of his every word.
“Everything’s always weddings and funerals, no room to celebrate everyday miracles. Like the sun in the sky. Like your body on mine. … Can I come over, or do I need a reason why?”
Since graduating from the songwriting program at Belmont, Rogers has certainly made room for himself in the music industry. His art has grown in scale and spectacle.
“I follow my intuition,” Rogers said. “I was writing a lot of chiller piano ballads. My songs are still probably ballads, but they’re just more energy and more upbeat.”
“I’m just suddenly more bold, I feel.”
And he hopes the music he’s in the process of recording now will be his boldest work yet.
“Darker is the wrong word, and pop is probably not the right word either. It’s just bigger … monumental. Bigger statues,” said Rogers.
Costume change, the last one of the night.
Rogers struts out for his encore in a handmade baseball jersey, baby pink with “PLUTO” studded across his back in pearls. The number on the back is nine, for the ninth planet, the odd one out.
He crosses the stage in white go-go boots before settling into a cheeky, unplanned game of truth or dare with his bandmates. When Rogers turn rolls around, Miller challenges him to something he’s never, ever done before:
“If we play some music, Jake, will you crowd surf?”
Nervous but game, Rogers tips himself backward into Nashville’s loving arms, and his fans pass him along above their heads as he grins wide and bright under the lights.
These days, it seems Rogers is up to a lot of things he’s never done before.
In 2021, he’s made national TV appearances as guests of James Corden and Seth Meyers; he’s toured his music across the country, backed by a Warner Chappell Music recording label; he’s announced an upcoming tour with Ben Platt as the Broadway star’s opening act, and come 2022, he’ll be playing to stadium crowds.
“The bigger the better for Jake,” said Elliot. He and others who know the music industry well say Rogers can’t go anywhere but up.
“The potential of his career knows no boundary,” said Ramsey. “Jake will apply his creativity to all aspects of his platform, and I know he will not impose any limitations upon it.”
As fans mob Rogers at the merch stand after his Basement show — and it’s easy to find him, his vermilion head the tallest in the crowd — he may not yet be used to signing autograph after autograph after autograph, but he wears the mantle of a star with ease.
“I’m getting better at these,” he laughs, scratching his signature onto a fan’s tour T-shirt. The ones on sale in the stall behind him are see-me yellow, with the words “I AM A MOMENT” bubbling across the front inside a lava lamp illustration.
It’s a phrase that carries a lot of weight with Rogers, he said, and he described an incident in July when a heckler in small-town Missouri hollered at him about his look. After shrugging it off, Rogers was suddenly overtaken by the need to film a message for his followers.
“I just put my phone up … I said, ‘Someone just asked me if I was a boy or a girl.’ And I said, ‘I’m neither. I’m a moment.’”
“‘I’m a journey, I’m a destination. I’m a cross between a leaf and a cloud and a heavy piece of machinery. I am.’”
No matter who you are, Rogers’ music is for you, all at once soul-bearing, sky-scraping, delicate as a teacup and magnificent as the sun. In the crowd at The Basement East, hundreds sing out as a single, proud voice.
“We are constantly labeling ourselves,” said Rogers. “I am gay, I am a male, I am a songwriter, I am an artist. If you take all that away — I am. I live, I’m alive right now. … Despite all that you’ve done, I am.”
“I still am.”
PHOTO: Jake Wesley Rogers onstage at Red Bull SoundClash on Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021 at Marathon Music Works. Belmont Vision / Sarah Maninger
This article was written by Anna Jackson.