The mad scientist

The double life of the man behind Boulder-based, one-man project Ballroom Cancer and his search for a place in the city’s music scene

Elleree Fletcher

By day, Jake Sheppard is a Boulder-based scientist, studying how the immune system interacts with cancer, using gene-editing software to explore how cancer cells change when certain genes are repressed.

By night, Sheppard practices a different science, studying how his emotions interact with music, using music-editing software to explore the depths of his eclectic predilections.

“I’ve kind of had an alter ego — nobody at work knows I do [music], and I’ve got a [public relations representative] in [Los Angeles] and she has no idea that I do science,” Sheppard says.

And while the 24-year-old from Edwards, Colo., has managed to keep his dissimilar worlds from colliding thus far, the gravity of his musical talent may yet close the gap as the first tracks from his not-easily-defined oneman project, Ballroom Cancer, make their way into the public consciousness.

The first single from his upcoming EP Lightning, No? is the haunting song “Sides,” set in motion by clean, minor-key plucks of a lone acoustic guitar, with Sheppard channeling Thom Yorke’s delicate falsetto overtop. But listeners are quickly introduced to the scope of Sheppard’s vocal range as he takes on a rich baritone that belies the recent college grad’s age. The result is stripped, poignant and ethereal.

“Alone in the desert/ where you have no one/ alone in the desert/ with nothing at all,” Sheppard sings in the chorus, again using the wispy falsetto to drive home the sense of vulnerability that comes from acute loneliness.

The chorus seems to epitomize how Sheppard feels in Boulder’s music scene — isolated.

“It is so fucking hard [here],” Sheppard admits. “A lot of people ask me, ‘Why don’t you find some people to play with?’ Because you have, like, ‘bro-step’ remixes of Journey songs that I can’t stand — it has no artistic integrity at all — and then you have jam band stuff, and those people are awesome [musicians], but it’s not something that I find interesting. So it’s been really, really hard to find a group of people that are supportive and actually want to hear your stuff and give you the time of day because it’s different.”

As a one-man project, Sheppard says he is still dreaming of how to translate his music into a live show.

“I could go up there on a stage and play stripped-down versions of my stuff. Would it be interesting? It could be,” Sheppard muses. “I love to perform, but I don’t know… That would be such a sacrifice for the music. Maybe one day I’ll find some people [to play with].”

Sheppard says when he does meet people who share his penchant for genre bending and blending, they’re usually on their way out of the state.

“They want to go to LA or they wanna go to New York, and you can understand that. There’s really not a market here for [experimental music],” he says.

Despite his feelings of isolation, Sheppard’s music as Ballroom Cancer has generated some buzz in media outlets — in October, Brooklyn-based indie music magazine IMPOSE featured a Q&A with Sheppard, as did Radio 1190 here in Boulder in early December. But what has generated the most response is a 66-word blurb in Entertainment Weekly.

“I’ve been in IMPOSE a couple times, which was fucking awesome — ‘I can’t believe I’m in IMPOSE,’” Sheppard says. “But I didn’t get any reaction to [those pieces] on social media. … But posting that I was in Entertainment Weekly, I got this huge spike. But I was like, ‘Who cares? Look who’s in this magazine — it’s a bunch of garbage. I don’t care about the Hunger Games.’ It’s just funny how that stuff works.”

Entertainment Weekly called Ballroom Cancer’s second single, the far more experimental “Misinterest,” “fascinatingly strange.”

The process to create this “fascinatingly strange” music has been slow, Sheppard says, as he divides his time between his “real job” and his music.

“They definitely sap away from each other,” he says. “Pretty much what happens is that everything takes a shitload of time because obviously my job takes priority over my music. This process has been much slower than I’ve wanted it to be, but it has to be, and for the time being, until I can start making money by making art, I’m a scientist by trade.”

Where his “trade” requires following orders and adhering to the pragmatism of science, Sheppard’s alter ego as Ballroom Cancer provides an outlet for unrestrained experimentation.

Sheppard’s strange and somewhat macabre musical moniker arose after stumbling on a poster for a ballroom dancing class — a dark-haired women in a red dress, a rose pursed between her teeth— after a long day of work in his lab on the campus of the University of Colorado Boulder.

“The photo on [the poster] was just so grandiose and just so ridiculous and melodramatic in its own right and I had this idea: ballroom cancer,” Sheppard says, adding, “It’s not that great of an idea.

“But I just stopped and laughed at it. That’s a ridiculous thing to think of — why would I think of that?” 

But Sheppard couldn’t stop think ing about “ballroom cancer” and the phrase eventually became a part of his vernacular, a reference to things and people that were conventionally elegant but had mutated into something unrecognizable.

Sheppard eventually connected the phrase to his music.

“I’ll usually start with this idea and it’s very pure and all the sudden it’s just like, ‘What the fuck have I done here?’” Sheppard says. “There are just so many elements of my life that I think that [phrase] applies to and it just made me laugh. It’s difficult to explain. It’s sort of intangible, but I love it.”

Sheppard says he hopes the indefinable sounds of Ballroom Cancer will be available to the public via his 8-track EP Lightning, No? some time in or 2015.