LOVE ME TENDER
JACK JAMES BUSA
Jack James Busa is a tall, striking-looking performer that you might see running the streets of downtown New York City, perhaps going to parties with his pretty girlfriends and model boyfriend Daniel, or performing on stage with his super-fab band, UNI. Upon first sight, Jack seems intimidating, whether it be in his super stylish photos on Instagram, or meeting him in person. But if you’re actually lucky enough to meet him, the “Texas” boy in him shines, with an extremely witty sense of humor topped with Southern charm and manners. Jack fled the ultra-conservative South (thank God!) to follow his dream of rock ‘n’ roll stardom. Who wouldn’t, with all that talent? Our crew was mesmerized by all his explosive energy during the shoot and the hauntingly beautiful looks he bestowed upon us. Photography Alexander Thompson. Makeup Ashley Jayne Meyers. Hair Margaret Dwyer. Big thank you to Sean Lennon & Charlotte Kemp Muhl for the location. https://www.instagram.com/jackjamesbusa/?hl=en. https://www.instagram.com/unitheband/?hl=en
PONYBOY: Tell us about your background. Where were you raised? What was your upbringing like?
JACK JAMES BUSA: I was born and raised in Austin, Texas. My mother is a screenplay writer and my father owns a stone masonry. I spent my childhood in imaginary worlds where I put on shows and traveled through time. I was always in costume. I was always singing and dancing. I was always laughing. My mom always said I would wake up and the first thing I would exclaim was, “Another day to be me!” I wanted to be a priest or a magician when I grew up. My heroes were everyone in Monty Python, Bugs Bunny, and Willy Wonka.
Being who I was in a place like Texas, I think I freaked a lot of my classmates and teachers out. I was really bullied in middle school and was too embarrassed to tell anyone. People would call my phone, just to laugh at my voice. The other boys would trip me in the hallway or snicker anytime I opened my mouth. Some friends who were girls would stop hanging out with me because boys they liked thought I was a freak.
I found refuge in my music and drama teachers. I’d have lunch every day with my choir teacher, who I still talk to, because no one wanted me to sit with them. For a people-pleasing kid who only wants to perform, this was a hard pill to swallow.
Once I reached high school and started to figure out who I was, I stopped caring about those mean kids. I looked around and thought to myself, “You just have to bide time until you graduate and then you’re moving to New York to become Debbie Harry”. Once I stopped caring and owned my freakdom, no one picked on me. In fact, I’d say I was pretty popular – or at least well known. I was over 6 feet, had a bleach blonde mohawk, wore platform shoes, 20 rosaries, and tights. I wasn’t pretending to be someone else to make others comfortable anymore. People respond to authenticity and once I owned who I was, no one messed with me. I found my group of like-minded theater nerds and I was happy.
PONYBOY: What brought you to New York City?
JACK JAMES BUSA: A plane!
PONYBOY: You are much taller in person. How tall are you?
JACK JAMES BUSA: On stage wearing platforms, I’m 7 feet tall. For auditions, I’m 6’2″. And that’s all anyone needs to know.
PONYBOY: You’re an actor. Are you studying acting or any other career?
JACK JAMES BUSA: I was 17 or 18 when I left Texas to move to England to study drama at Paul McCartney’s Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts. And other careers? Hmm, I never really thought of myself doing anything other than what I’m doing now. If I had to pick one, I’d like to be one of those girls that pop out of a cake. I hear there is good money in that. Or a game show host in hell.
PONYBOY: You’re also a musician/singer. Tell us about that aspect of your life.
JACK JAMES BUSA: I grew up in a musical family where everyone was expected to play an instrument or sing. I took that expectation and ran with it. I was singing and dancing anywhere I could and for anyone who would watch me. Needless to say, my family was very supportive of me being a ham.
I remember being a kid in the car with my mom and her teaching me how to sing harmony to “In The Highways, In The Hedges” from the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. We would sing that song repeatedly until I got the harmony right – and then I wanted to sing it again. I would sing from the time I woke up, while I was in school, when I got home, at the dinner table, and when I would go to sleep. I started to get into trouble for singing all the time. So when it was time to shower, I would really let it rip like I was performing at Madison Square Garden.
My grandparents really liked crooners and big band music, so I learned all these American standards to impress them. I remember my mom being into Motown, particularly Stevie Wonder (although she loved folk and a variety of other genres) and my dad is the biggest rock ‘n’ roll music head you’ll ever meet. That being said, my shows in the shower would have quite the eclectic line-up – anything from Judy Garland to Black Sabbath. It was always a need to sing, I couldn’t help myself.
PONYBOY: You’re the frontman/lead singer for the Uber cool band known as UNI. How and when did you get involved in this project?
JACK JAMES BUSA: The story of how I got involved with UNI is a cosmic coincidence. One night, I was picking my boyfriend up from his last class at the New School, as we were going to go to an event for this leather brand owned by my friend, Giles Blanchard, called The Face. I was wearing a black velvet flare suit, a ruffled poet blouse, and a wide brim hat to pick him up and decided I wanted a coffee before we went to the party. Around the corner from The New School is a coffee shop on 6th Avenue called “Cafe O”, where Charlotte and David (my future bandmates) sat, arguing over their coffee about finding a lead singer. I was checking them out and they were checking me out. In my head I was repeating, “Go talk to them, go talk to them! You are a singer, you fool! GO TALK TO THEM!”. And I didn’t.
I walked out of Cafe O and went to myself, “I’ll always regret not having the courage to go up and say who I am.” Well, about a year or so later I got a phone call from someone named David Strange, who I vaguely remembered doing a photoshoot with years earlier with my photographer friend Georgia Mitropoulos. “Hey Jack, this is David Strange. I got your number from Georgia. My band just let go of our lead singer and we’re looking for a replacement. Would you like to come audition?”
Now anyone receiving a phone call from a man whose last name is “Strange” should be a little trepidatious, but I remember liking him from the photoshoot because he didn’t judge me for walking around in a thong and drinking tequila all day. In fact, he supported it. “Send me the music, and I’ll get back to you”, I said. He sent me the music video for the song “Adult Video” and I intrinsically knew that this was my band and no one else in the world would be better suited for the job than me – intrinsically knew, but also with a dash of delusion sprinkled with narcissism. After preparing all week long, I went for my audition where I met Charlotte and David. We chatted for a while and they asked, “Can you play guitar?” I said, “Sort of.” Lies! Little did they know “sort of” meant I knew a G chord. And my “large audience” in question was really my grandma listening to me sing show tunes in the shower.
The odds were against me for getting the gig. I mean, these were real musicians and I was just a queer ham and a half with a baritone range. I couldn’t really play guitar. I had a background in classical drama, and they already hired a replacement lead singer for their upcoming tour. (Fun fact, the singer they first hired is another Ponyboy superstar: Spencer Drager, who just released a great new album called Goths a la Discotheque).
I auditioned with their song “Adult Video” and after I finished it just hit me – these were the cool-looking weirdos from Cafe O that I saw over a year ago! I explained the story to them, and before I could finish, Charlotte cut me off and said, “You were wearing the velvet suit! I told David, wow, it would be great if that guy could sing!” That’s when I knew I got the gig.
PONYBOY: You have a very close relationship with bandmate Charlotte Kemp Muhl. Tell us about your friendship.
JACK JAMES BUSA: I love that bitch. The word ‘genius’ gets tossed around a lot, but Kemp is actually a genius. She has always believed in me, supported me, and nurtured my creativity, artistry, and self. It’s an incredible gift to be on the same sonic and aesthetic wavelength with a creative partner, who is leaps and bounds more cultured and skillful than I. And for that person to really believe in me.
She’s totally going to vomit at the mushiness when she reads this, but that’s how I feel. I was always Cinderella, but that chick brought me the glass shoes.
PONYBOY: How many music releases/videos has the band released?
JACK JAMES BUSA: Hmm, I’m not sure of the exact number. I know they released a few with the previous lead singer and I must have done around seven or eight? Our latest release was a song called “Donna Marijuana” that Kemp and David wrote with a great LA band: Warbly Jets. There will be plenty more to come with the new songs on the album.
PONYBOY: Describe UNI’s aesthetic and sound.
JACK JAMES BUSA: I would describe UNI as the sonic and visual representation of monkeys running a circus. UNI started total 70s glam, but with the new record, we’re having an industrial revolution. It’s grunge, grandiloquent, and still glam.
PONYBOY: What musicians//bands have inspired you over the years in your own musical projects?
JACK JAMES BUSA: It’s almost a cliche for me to say this at this point, but David Bowie has always and most likely will always be my main musical inspiration. There is no one greater in my mind. I first heard “Space Oddity” at 12 years old, staying up way past my bedtime, and my life changed forever.
My father soundtracked my childhood with The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, The Who, Black Sabbath, Foghat, Deep Purple, Aerosmith, The Edgar Winter Group, Dr. John, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Eagles, Todd Rundgren, Yes, Jethro Tull, The Beach Boys, CSNY, Fleetwood Mac, Iggy Pop, T-Rex, Sweet, Steely Dan, Queen, Elton John, Jimi Hendrix, and a little James Taylor or Johnny Cash when our ears started ringing. I’m also a Michael Jackson superfan. I know it’s probably not politically correct to profess my love for him anymore, but I am absolutely enamored by Michael.
High school rolled around and I hit my angst prime when I fell deep into a Courtney Love K-Hole (no pun intended). I loved The Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana, as well, but after a childhood that was sonically dominated by male voices, I started exclusively listening to Blondie, Joan Jett, Stevie Nicks, Aretha Franklin, Mama Cass, Karen Carpenter (my favorite voice at the minute), Joan Baez, Pretenders, Patti Smith, Linda Perhacs, Heart and the women of classic country: Patsy Cline, Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris, June Carter, Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn, Wanda Jackson, Tanya Tucker, Kitty Wells and, of course, Dolly mother trucking Parton. Not women, but it should be noted I have a very soft spot for Merle Haggard and, of course, Willie Nelson.
As the hormones kicked in and I realized what everyone else knew (that I was gay AF), I felt liberated by Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson, Judy Garland, Celine Dion, Britney Spears, Diana Ross, Paula Abdul, The Spice Girls, and my main queen: Madonna. In college I was equal parts groovy and sad. Higher education was like speedball. For every TLC bop, I’d play an Elliot Smith melancholy melody. After every Erika Badu or Sade R&B smoke session, I’d cry myself to sleep to Leonard Cohen. Parties would start with “September” by Earth, Wind, and Fire, and end with “Racing In The Streets” by Bruce Springsteen.
When I first moved to New York, my playlists were a hamster wheel of Grace Jones, The Velvet Underground, Talking Heads, Bjork, Rufus Wainwright, Television, Depeche Mode, Gary Numan, Kraftwerk, Cocteau Twins, Pixies, Mazzy Star, Blur, Oasis, Big Star, and Pulp. When I fell in love, all I listened to was Nick Drake.
Lastly, I’d be lying if I didn’t include Lady Gaga in this gumbo of musical inspiration. She blew my little suburban 13-year-old ass out of the water and I’ll always be a die-hard fan. I cannot thank her enough for how she’s influenced my life.
PONYBOY: What is your opinion of the music industry now? What hurdles have you and the band struggled with?
JACK JAMES BUSA: I’m not sure of my opinion of the music industry as we’ve yet to put a record out. We’ve toured and we’ve released music videos that we’ve made ourselves. I will say that the biggest hurdle we need to jump over is the Spotify algorithm. There is so much new music out there that it’s incredibly difficult to be seen by the streaming juggernauts, especially when the name of your band is “UNI”. Do you realize how many groups start with the letters U-N-I?! Universe, unit, unity. The list goes on and on. My friend Sean jokingly suggested renaming our group “AAA”, so it would be the first thing to come up.
PONYBOY: You’re very photogenic. Were you an agency model?
JACK JAMES BUSA: Thank you. That’s very kind. It’s all smoke and mirrors. I was with some smaller agencies, but casting agents didn’t know what to do with me. I was too tall, too gay, and made all the wrong jokes. Casting agents used to say I walked too feminine. I felt misplaced. I felt like a freak. They wanted to put me into a box, but didn’t know which box I fit into. I didn’t know who I was and I think they could smell my desperation. Much like my story of high school I mentioned, it wasn’t until I started to own my “freak”, that doors started opening up for me. This is a lesson I’ve had to learn over and over again. It was only when I made my mantra, “this is who the fuck I am”, that the cool kids started inviting me to their table, so to speak. In your vulnerability, you find your power. Does that sound like a quote from a Snapple bottle cap?
PONYBOY: Describe your style? Who are your style “icons”?
JACK JAMES BUSA: I’d describe my style as larger than life and twice as ugly. My style inspirations are Bowie, Grace Jones, Debbie Harry, Courtney Love, Victoria Gotti, Kurt Cobain, Patsy from AbFab, Pam Hogg, Marilyn Manson, Elvira (both Mistress of The Dark and Michelle Pfeiffer in Starface), Princess Amadala, Edie Sedgwick, and everyone from Neon Genesis Evangelion, Elric of Melnibone, Frank Sinatra to Willy Wonka.
PONYBOY: Who are some of your favorite clothing designers/labels?
JACK JAMES BUSA: I guess my holy trinity would be Mugler, Rick Owens, and Vivienne Westwood. Everyone loves a nice Gucci or Saint Laurent moment as well, don’t they? I also love all the shoes made by or inspired by Terry De Havilland. In fact, my filmmaker and DJ friend, Samantha Michelle, is making the Terry De Havilland documentary now – a pretty amazing story. Terry was a huge contributor to what we know as “glam”. I love vintage shopping, as well. My other DJ friend, Bailey Leiter, is a vintage expert and has the best vintage shop on 1st Ave. called “Hello Banana”. Check it out.
PONYBOY: We met your boyfriend, Daniel Walters, at our shoot. How did the two of you meet? Tell us about your relationship.
JACK JAMES BUSA: Daniel is the best thing that ever happened to me. We met on a photo shoot and fell in love right away. No one loves, believes in, or supports me more than him. No one has ever made me laugh, cry, or love more than him. If anyone reading this ever gets a chance to meet him, you’re a very lucky person. God blessed him with an excess of intuity and grace. I can say wholeheartedly that because I’ve been given the privilege of loving him and him loving me in return, I have been changed for the better. I don’t know where I would be without him, and he’s always on my mind and in my heart. He is my heart.
PONYBOY: Do you have any upcoming acting projects?
JACK JAMES BUSA: I do! I am starring in the new feature film Mister Sister which is directed by Mars Roberge that should be coming out this year. I have my own variety comedy show which is written, directed, and starring me, coming out this summer. I’m thinking of calling it “Jack James is…HAM”, but I’m not sure of the title yet. Think a politically incorrect version of The Carol Burnett Show on acid! I also have another acting project on the horizon that I can’t talk about, but I’m very excited to announce that when I can. And if anyone reading this has a part for a glamorous vampiric alien rockstar, I’m your cosmonaut.
PONYBOY: With people getting vaccinated and music venues opening up, what plans does UNI have on the horizon?
JACK JAMES BUSA: I think we’re (finally) releasing our album this year! I’d like to make a big show and take it on tour. I want to make more music videos and infiltrate the collective American consciousness, if I’m not too busy.