‘Accidental pop star’ Shamir comes around again—this time on his own terms

Photo: Jason MacDonald / Courtesy

For a minute, it looked like Shamir Bailey—you can simply call him Shamir—might become a huge pop star. Two years ago, the North Las Vegas native was riding an incredible wave of industry buzz. His debut LP Ratchet—a booming disco and house set released on XL Recordings, the label of Vampire Weekend and Adele—got rapturously positive reviews from Pitchfork, NME and Spin, and he was profiled in The New York Times, Out and The Guardian. He performed at Coachella, Bonnaroo and Sasquatch, and opened shows for Duran Duran. And his single “On the Regular” was a sensation, appearing on multiple year-end best-of lists and even finding its way into commercials for Old Navy and Android.

What critics and fans didn’t know was that one key person was opposed to Shamir’s rapid ascent: Shamir himself. While he was celebrated, and rightly so, for some of the things that set him apart from anyone else currently making music—his exquisite countertenor voice and his proud repudiation of gender conventions (“I have no gender, no sexuality, and no f*cks to give,” he once tweeted)—he felt increasingly constrained by the direction of his career. And one night in November 2015, shortly before he performed “On the Regular” on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, he experienced a cold, uncomfortable realization.

“I wanted to do literally any other song, and it just wasn’t happening,” Shamir, now 22, says by phone. “I realized that if I was going to do something again, I would have to do something along the lines of “On the Regular”, even though there’s no other music on my EP or record like it.”

That was the first time Shamir weighed his success against his happiness and found the latter inadequate. “I thought, ‘I’d rather not have a career at all than continue to do this.’ That’s just how I felt. … I didn’t even think ‘On the Regular’ was good when I made it.”

But that wasn’t the moment when everything changed for Shamir. That was still ahead, after nearly another year of performing a song he couldn’t stomach, and a traumatic episode that would change his life.

Shamir is a pleasure to talk to. He’s soft-spoken, polite, self-deprecating (“Oh my God, what the hell? I’m not cool,” he protests, when I suggest that he is), and when you compliment him on his music, he blankets you with profuse, genuine thanks. I like to think Shamir is the way he is because he’s as much a Las Vegas native as one can be. Both of his parents were born and raised here; his grandmother moved to town from Arkansas “when she was 6 or 7,” Shamir says. “So I’m like Vegas as hell.”

He grew up in North Las Vegas, within sniffing distance of the buffet leftovers-fed pigs of R.C. Farms. His family encouraged his musical gifts practically from the beginning; his mother gifted him an Epiphone guitar at age 9, and his aunt, a fellow songwriter and “my best friend in the family,” turned him onto artists ranging from Nina Simone to OutKast.

While attending Legacy High School, he and his friend Christina Thompson formed a lo-fi pop band, Anorexia, which performed at South by Southwest in 2013. His first solo EP, 2014’s Northtown, was both a gift to his hometown and a lament for how dull and dispiriting it can be, growing up in a city made by and for adults of drinking age. (“We stay stuck in one place with nothing to do,” he sings in Northtown’s “Sometimes a Man.”)

And that’s the problem with being a Vegas musical wunderkind: There aren’t a lot of places for an under-21 performer to be seen and heard. Shamir has played Las Vegas as a solo artist only twice: at the 2015 Life Is Beautiful festival and at the April 2016 opening of T-Mobile Arena, on a schizophrenic Vegas-centric bill that also included Wayne Newton and The Killers. Shamir has never stepped foot inside Beauty Bar, the Bunkhouse, the Griffin or any of the other small venues where our local bands hone their skills and simultaneously shape this city’s independent musical identity. He has little connection to our local music scene because, until recently, he was rarely allowed within 10 yards of it.

“You’re in publications and playing South by Southwest, but we could barely find a venue to have [Anorexia’s] album-release show in Vegas,” Shamir says. There were hardcore-punk showcases the band could have joined, he admits, but he surmised that Anorexia’s post-punk style wouldn’t go over well with those audiences. (Pressed for his punk and indie influences, Shamir names The Slits, along with a bunch of 1990s indie-pop bands that, like him, knew how to mix sweet vocals with buzzy guitars: Velocity Girl, Blake Babies, Black Tambourine and others.)

“We didn’t have a choice but to get outside of Vegas, because we couldn’t play anywhere,” he says. “You know, I think that helped me in that sense, that I never felt tied to the city. I just did music because I loved it.”

So Shamir decamped, first to New York City and then to Philadelphia, where he now lives. But Shamir wasn’t done with Las Vegas just yet. This city, home to both Shamir’s beloved family and his earliest musical frustrations, would yet play an unexpected role in his career.

New album Revelations drops on November 3.

If you haven’t yet heard Shamir’s music, start with his new album, Revelations, set for a November 3 release but already streaming online. While it’s tempting to call it a return to the lo-fi honesty of Anorexia (and it is that, to a degree), that’s also a dismissal of all the living and learning Shamir has done since he was a high-school kid—experiences that have found their way into the songs, giving them a full spectrum of emotional shadings. This is indie rock as catharsis.

If you like that, check out Hope, the ragged, recorded-in-a-weekend album he dropped for free last April. If Revelations is an answer, Hope is the question. Made while Shamir was in the grip of uncertainty and tumult, Hope asks, What should I do now? And Revelations replies, this. You should do this.

Then, and only then, should you drop the needle on Northtown or Ratchet. After listening to Shamir’s two latest albums, you’ll understand what he’s given up. In essence, he’s abandoning a machine that, given another Ratchet or two, could have been induced to print money for him. But the more the industry wanted to package Shamir, the more he wanted to wiggle his way out. He was, in his own words, “an accidental pop star.”

Ratchet feels like a whole other artist. It is a whole other artist,” he says. “I feel like I’m really starting over. I really have. I think Ratchet still has its own fanbase that doesn’t even know about Hope and Revelations.” He chuckles. “It’s kind of cool. It’s, like, a Hannah Montana situation.”

The story isn’t without its ready-for-television dramatic turns. Unwilling to conform to a type, Shamir was dropped by XL and spiraled into a depression that didn’t let up even when he poured Hope into a 4-track recorder last spring. It was tempting to see it as the record that brought Shamir back to music, back to wanting to be a recording artist. He even intimated as much, in a post accompanying the free release. (“My music only feels exciting for me if it’s in the moment, and that’s what this album is,” he wrote.) But Hope wasn’t the happy-ending rebound it appeared to be.

“I was kinda thinking that Hope was going to be my last thing, because I thought that nobody would like it and that everyone was gonna be like, ‘What the f*ck?’ and then that would have been the end of me. I was totally prepared for that,” he says. “I just wanted Hope to be my last statement, and at least show the world the real me … who I am as an artist, and what I can do on my own. And it was bad, but at least I was able to show the world me.”

But Hope proved to be more than that: It was “the beginning of a manic episode for me that eventually turned into psychosis,” he says. “I had a really bad manic episode and was hospitalized for a whole week.”

While in a Philadelphia hospital, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a realization that put the speedy recording of Hope into perspective for him. “Wanting to make an album in a weekend kind of was like the early signs of something a little bit more serious,” he said in a voice memo that was later released by Talkhouse Podcast. He was prescribed the necessary medications and flew back to Vegas to recuperate.

Shamir landed at the Southern Highlands home of his musician aunt and immediately felt antsy. The Las Vegas he knew was literally on the other side of the Valley, out of reach. “I had nothing to do but write and channel my boredom into something else, and that’s how Revelations came about.”

(Let’s just let that sink in for a second: One of this year’s most anticipated indie releases, an album that NPR has already called Shamir’s “most vulnerable and sure-footed work,” was made in Southern Highlands. Rock on, Southern Highlands.)

“I still feel like it’s a sister record,” he continues. “I think Hope, even though it’s a full project, feels like a cliffhanger. Revelations rounds out Hope and closes this chapter of my life.”

And opens another. The vulnerabilities laid bare on Revelations become strengths in the sureness of Shamir’s been-through-it delivery. “You’re from the dark, I’m from the light/I knew that you weren’t worth the fight,” he sings in “You Have a Song,” while “90s Kids” throws your millennial-bashing back in your face: “Well our parents say we’re dramatic/But they always ask for more than we do/So f*ck you/We out here strugglin’.” And his latest single, “Straight Boy,” sideswipes the constant, tiresome discussion of his sexuality (“They say I’m brave for being true/But act like it’s not something they can do”), while taking direct aim at the “vibe of toxic masculinity” that left him feeling “wronged and excommunicated.”

“Moving to Philly—as much as I love it, there seems to be a lack of feminine energy here. I guess that’s why they call it the City of Brotherly Love,” he says. “I was surrounded by so many straight dudes, and it was hard for me to work with, because I didn’t have so many female friends out here. That was kind of hard for me coming from Vegas, where all my friends are female and I had all of two straight guy friends. It was hard navigating that. And after I got out of the hospital, a lot of the same quote-unquote friends weren’t there for me while I was trying to get better. All of my queer and female friends were huge support systems for me, and none of my straight guy friends were there.

“It just really put things in perspective for me. I was just taking out my frustrations in that song. And I knew it was something a lot of people could relate to.”

It’s a safe bet that a lot of people will take “Straight Boys” to heart. And the song might not have existed if Shamir hadn’t turned his back on a future of Ratchet and retreated to the comfort of his guitar and 4-track. Ratchet made Shamir an unlikely star, but Revelations cements him as an artist who deserves to be widely heard.

I’m not at all ashamed to say that I spent a good chunk of our interview urging Shamir to give Vegas another chance. He really likes Philadelphia, calling it “a real city”—a term that sharply divides Las Vegans, even though they live in a city of 2 million people. “People think that Vegas is a city, because of the Strip, and I’m like, no one lives in the Strip. That’s one thing I always have to explain to everyone: Vegas is like the suburbs, y’all.”

I don’t think Shamir means that as a slight. He likes our suburbs well enough to visit them several times a year, and even felt comfortable enough to record an album in their midst. The next time he comes back here, it might well be to one of those small clubs he couldn’t visit as a pop star.

It’s not only Shamir who’s starting fresh; it’s Shamir and Las Vegas, pretty much meeting for the first time. The only way this could be more exciting is if that venue, whichever one he ends up playing, grants him an all ages-show.

“I think the youth definitely makes the scene,” Shamir says. He would know.

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