Shamir: Burning It All Down and Rebuilding

Music Features Shamir
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Shamir: Burning It All Down and Rebuilding

Shamir Bailey is nothing if not constantly evolving. The artist found critical and commercial acclaim with his 2015 breakout record Ratchet, an album that seemed to herald a neon-tinged vision of the future of pop, one populated with bouncing synths, pastel atmospherics and Bailey’s elastic, genderless tenor.

But commercial acceptance was never Bailey’s aim. He spent much of the intervening years trying to run as from the pop machine as he could, turning to the alternative music of his youth for inspiration in the process. 2017’s Hope marked the first major shift in his public persona—the album was self-recorded and released through Shamir’s SoundCloud page without the support of his previous label XL. Its singer/songwriter musical cues were a world away from the synth-pop of Ratchet, but, according to Bailey, it was the first record that felt truly like him.

Now 24, the Vegas-based singer has found himself continuing to evolve along that track and into the role of a full-blown rock singer. Following an incredibly busy year, which saw the release of the Room EP, through new label Father/Daughter, as well as the surprise-release Resolution, again through SoundCloud, Bailey sat down with Paste to talk about his past, present and future.

Paste: So it seems that last year was kind of a year of transformation for you. You left XL Recordings, you left L.A. You changed your musical style. So if 2017 was the year of change, what would you say 2018 was the year of?
Shamir: Basically rebuilding what I burnt down. [Laughs] That’s it, really. It was very meditative. I got to find myself, and… I don’t know I just feel so lucky to have very naturally found support. Because I thought that this year was going to be harder to rebuild. But people have been so supportive.

Paste: So rebuilding wasn’t exactly a struggle for you?
Shamir: I think more of the struggle was last year. Especially when I was like self-managing and had a record coming. I thought that it was going to continue over into this year. But as soon as the new year came it just got, yeah, way easier.

Paste: It seems that Revelations was your album of self-discovery and change. What does Resolution mean to you?
Shamir: I think Resolution was like literally, like, a divide. I wrote most of Resolution in the two weeks that I was home for the holidays, into the new year. And then as soon as I got back to Philly, like literally I landed in Philly and went straight to the studio. [Laughs.] But that’s why I call it Resolution—because it felt like the end of suffering. But I didn’t really think that it was actually it’s my personal life too. So, you know, Resolution did its job.

Paste: Was it like a New Year’s resolution?
Shamir: I think it’s like the resolution of—not even necessarily the “struggle” chapter of my life. But more of just finding confidence in my new life, because you know, it changed drastically. And Resolution is just kind of like putting an end to that chapter and moving forward, being excited for what’s to come.

Paste: It’s the resolution of that story of your life and onto a new story.
Shamir: I guess it’s the resolution of, honestly, childhood, you know? I was so young, and now I finally feel like an adult.

Paste: So this next chapter is adulthood then?
Shamir: I think so.

Paste: What does adulthood mean to you? What changes between childhood and adulthood?
Shamir: Well I live alone now in a house, and last year when I first moved in, it was my first time paying my bills myself. And I texted my day-to-day manager who originally did that and I was like “I just paid my bills by myself for the first time,” and she was like “Oh my god. Any time you do something by yourself an angel gets its wings.” Like that’s how I was just like completely, you know, detached. Which is kind of sad, too, because I think the pop world really harbors that. And I’m such a self-sufficient person, and really thrive on being independent. And to most people that’s seen as like a luxury, something that people want. But for me it kind of made me feel pigeonholed, you know?

Paste: Yeah, definitely. You’ve mentioned that you’re generally pretty introverted. So do you find that living alone, paying bills—all that- do you find that this new independence is freeing or limiting?
Shamir: I think it’s completely freeing.

Paste: It’s funny you say that, because to me, Resolution feels heavier and more hopeless than Revelations. Even the song titles feel more urgent—songs like “I Can’t Breathe” and “Panic” and “Dead Inside.” What was the songwriting process like for you?
Shamir: It was actually very joyous! [Laughs.] I think with Revelations a lot of the content behind what I was writing was so detrimental for me that I think I was very conscious of not making that record sound as heavy as it was for me to write it, so that I would still be able to even perform those songs. I think that with Resolution, even though both heavier and darker, it was birthed out of a more positive place.

Paste: So you were able to make it sound sonically darker because the subject matter wasn’t as visceral?
Shamir: Well maybe not necessarily the subject matter. I think the subject matter is just the start, but it wasn’t born in a dark place, whereas Revelations and Hope were like literally born out of a very dark place. I think with songwriting, for me, it’s not necessarily the content that I connect to. I think I connect more to the place where I was when I was writing it. No matter if it’s a happy song or a sad song.

Paste: Hope in particular I know was born out of a place of darkness. You’ve said that you wrote it while suffering from a borderline mental break. I guess it couldn’t get much worse than that. Where and when did Resolution come from? You were home for the holidays, right?
Shamir: Yeah. It was a very joyous time for me because it was like right after my first tour that I had put together myself because I didn’t have management up until, like, maybe the spring? So I was like, truly suffering. [Laughs.] But it was also very rewarding and I think after finishing tour, the songs just kind of felt like a pat on the back for me, despite everything I went through. Hope was a purging, Revelations was me coping with that, and then Resolution was me growing from that.

Paste: Did signing to Father/Daughter help with that sense of rebuilding?
Shamir: Yeah, they played a huge role in that and were so helpful. They completely understood the struggle that it was for me to release the record, and just the lack of support I was having at the time. And they’re really instrumental in me also finding the support that I have now.

Paste: It’s gotta help with that whole mindset of “freeing,” having a smaller, more label like F/D.
Shamir: Yeah of course. A lot of people think that I want to bring XL down. And that was never the case at all! They’re a great label but they’re also on a whole complete other level. For them to be where they are takes an extreme level of organization, you know? And that’s very hard for me, personally. Because I work best when I’m literally fumbling. I do my best work when I’m fumbling. I’ve always felt like I’d fumbled my way to success, and that’s just how I work best. I think when things are super structured around me, it makes me feel bad about the ways that I’m able to fumble through work. And I think a part of just like learning and finding myself and everything within the last year and a half was me accepting the fact that I have an unorthodox way of doing things, but it comes out successful. So whatever.

Paste: No, I think I think you’re right. It just seems that there are almost tracks that they expect artists to develop along. And it seems hard to switch lanes.
Shamir: Exactly. And also, the artists that they find are very together and fully formed and really knew what they wanted to do before going in. And I think I really kind of like fooled them into thinking that I knew, too. And that just wasn’t the case. Like sometimes I feel bad! But also it wasn’t like I falsely presented myself. It was more of like, I was 19 and I didn’t know who the hell I was. [Laughs.]

Paste: Do you feel like you were fooling yourself too?
Shamir: Yeah! I played myself. I’ve been very vocal about that. I played myself. [Laughs.]

Paste: So do you think you’re now fully formed? Or are you still fumbling, still changing who you are as an artist?
Shamir: You’re always growing. Growth should never stop. But I do feel fully formed, and the fact that now that I am fully formed, I can grow as this full person.

Paste: To bring back that track metaphor…
Shamir: Yes, now I’ve found my track my track. Or at least I know what it means and I know how to get there. It Just feels tangible. It felt like I was just floating, and now it feels like I’m able to actually make a plan to get to the track that I’m want to.

Paste: Well, and you also blew up and got signed so young. I think that’s a natural part of being that age. You fumble your plans.
Shamir: Mm-hmm. Exactly. And I can be quite self-destructive if I don’t get what I want. And especially in the pop world, kids get signed so early! Earlier and earlier these days. And they kind of like, you know, get basically groomed into thinking that that’s what they are. But I’ve always had a really good sense of self and I knew that that wasn’t who I was going to be forever. I knew from the beginning. But I tried to convince myself that I would be able to assimilate, I guess.

Paste: So that’s got to be tough, admitting to yourself that, you know, “I can’t masquerade like this any longer.” Especially in the context of a major label.
Shamir: Once a punk, always a punk, you know? [Laughs.] And it can get very suffocating. Especially in the beginning, because I think it was more accepted then, just living your life through that pop machine. You have to tailor yourself up. I just couldn’t do it.

Paste: Do you think it’s detrimental to those artists who get signed young?
Shamir: I think it’s detrimental for both the industry and the artist. The industry’s just trying to make a quick buck. And it makes it harder for the artists because they don’t really know themselves. And back then, you look at artists that are fully formed, and those are the ones who became legends. You look at someone like Cyndi Lauper, who was literally 30 when her debut came out. I remember when I was really going through it, and I was just like, “I can’t do this. What are my next steps? Am I already washed up, and old, and a has-been?” Literally at 21! Which is so dark and stupid to think about. And one of the things turned me around was reading Girl in the Band, Kim Gordon’s book, and realizing that she didn’t even start Sonic Youth until she was 27.

Paste: And that’s the year that rock stars “burn out,” in legend, of course.
Shamir: And I think if I were to stay on the same track that I was on, I would’ve been burnt out by 27 too. And I was like “I don’t want to be burnt out by 27!” [Laughs.] Like, I want to learn from the past, and I think that’s so hard for a lot of people to do. And people do people just keep cycling and cycling and cycling. Making the same mistakes, making the same mistakes, making the same mistakes. And that’s not something I like to do. At all.

Paste: I think it’s the hardest thing to admit that you need to change for yourself.
Shamir: Oh, I think it’s hard for a lot of people. It’s always been easy for me because I was blessed enough to have come up in a family that always allowed me to be myself. So I realized that I had that privilege, and that played a huge role into why I am who I am. And I always thank my parents for that, as crazy as they are.

Paste: You were raised in Las Vegas. What was the music scene like there when you were growing up?
Shamir: It was damn near nonexistent. There wasn’t anything, really. A small thing that did exist was this club that was 21 and over. There were virtually no all-ages venues, and the ones that we did have, they were quickly closed down. I found music because I was a Millennial and I was raised with the Internet. I was able to educate myself, especially when I was in middle school. Because I didn’t have any friends when I was in middle school—like, I was honestly a loner. And I kind of just used my time to just educate myself and learn skills and perfect my songwriting.

Paste: Totally. In the past, musical education came from local scenes. But a lot of it has become more interior when you seek out music online.
Shamir: Mm-hmm, and I think that honestly it’s really cool in that if it’s around you, you can take it for granted, whereas if you’re actively seeking it out, you appreciate it a lot more. And I appreciated the art a lot more because it wasn’t just already readily around me. I think Las Vegas has just started building its first contemporary art museum? It’s like, nothing out there! It’s very dry. And I always knew that I had a real love for art and music. And I would stream, even before Spotify, in middle school on a Rhapsody account. And I remember just sitting my mom down and making a PowerPoint and being like, “So I know you always buy me CD’s, but for the cost of one CD a month, I get all of the music!” You know? And that was really my saving grace.

Paste: Was there any artist in particular that you remember just like blowing your mind when you found them?
Shamir: Constantly. My mind was blown constantly in middle school. From The Slits, to The Raincoats to Hole to Japanther to the Vivian Girls, who were my favorite band. I would just go deep. Listen to albums all night.

Paste: Did you draw on any of those albums when writing Resolution? Which sounds were running through your head?
Shamir: Yes. But I think they always are, with everything. I think even with Ratchet. Whether it’s good or not, that’s not what I really care about, and that’s obviously up to everyone else. I think it’s very safe to say that with every album that I release, it’s very obvious that I tried to create a very whole different world with each album. I’m not trying to make good music just for the sake of the music. I like to create worlds and completely different vibes with my album. So that some day, someone hears it, and it kind of changes their whole concept of everything, like a lot of like my favorite albums did for me. Like when I first heard Cut [The Slits’ 1979 album] that just changed my whole reality. I was like, “Everything I know is a lie, and I must re-evaluate.” [Laughs] And that’s always my goal with my records.

Paste: And you’ve stated as much before—that every record is going to sound different. Have you found resistance from fans?
Shamir: Of course. It’s a small price to pay, honestly, for me to be happy onstage.

Paste: And how was the transition between sounds for you?
Shamir: I think the biggest change was going from electronic-based to guitar-based. And I think that change was not hard at all to make, because I didn’t produce my first record, and I wouldn’t even know how to produce something along those lines. I don’t have a computer. But I can produce a record myself if I’m able to play all the instruments. I remember talking to my first producer [Nick Sylvester] when I started doing a bunch of sessions in L.A., and I told him, “I literally gave up my childhood to teach myself all these instruments, to become a multi-instrumentalist, just to be stuck in L.A. working with a bunch of producers. Electronic producers, at that. Like, I’m literally not playing anything.” Now what I do feels so natural. It’s like what I basically tailored my whole life to.

Paste: So, playing guitar and just working with your own hands again—did that change your songwriting process in any meaningful way?
Shamir: Yeah of course. I still feel like I’m growing and changing and learning. Hope was just a whole trip, honestly. Like, I’m not even fully sure how the songwriting process went during that time. [Laughs.] But there are a few riffs on there. Whereas when I was fully aware while writing Revelations, I wasn’t really writing riffs—like there weren’t really riffs on that. It was mostly my singer/songwriter record. Now I’m just starting to consciously write riffs, as seen on Resolution, and I think that’s the biggest change that I’ve seen as far as my songwriting process with me playing guitar. I’m actually learning how to write riffs and delegating different parts for different instruments.

Paste: So you’re fully a rock artist now. Something that I’ve noticed is that people have this resistance toward categorizing, especially black artists, as just purely rock. It’s always seems to me that they’re more likely to get categorized as…
Shamir: R&B. Mm-hmm. Which is basically the modern version of “colored music.”

Paste: Right. So have you found yourself struggling against that classification now?
Shamir: No, because I think when people do it now, it’s so fucking obvious that it’s just racism. Like all you have to do is listen to the record. If anyone says “this is R&B,” it’s just very blatantly racism. It’s just very, apparently so. Especially with the last record.

Paste: It’s just rock music.
Shamir: Yes.

Paste: On a somewhat related note—I want to ask you about something you wrote when Hope was released. You wrote on SoundCloud, saying, “When I would listen to immaculate recordings with my friends their praise over the quality of the art as opposed to the art itself made me feel really sad for music.” What does the act of recording mean to you as an artist?
Shamir: It’s so secondary for me. Obviously, what makes a great record is the combination of both. I just haven’t found the person to help me really get to that point on a production aspect, or on a whatever aspect. So now I just do everything myself. And like I said, I’m young. I have forever to make my manifesto or my greatest record ever. So now I’m just trying to just perfect my craft. And, you know, make good art as best as I can for right now and with what I have.

Paste: So the act of recording is just a way to get it out into the world. It’s not an important layer to the art?
Shamir: It’s just a chaser.

Paste: And for Hope, both writing and recording took place over the course of a weekend, right?
Shamir: Well I had written it in pieces dating back to December. But I had recorded and basically fleshed everything out in that whole weekend, yeah.

Paste: Was there anything like that on Resolution? Old songs and fragments that made their way in?
Shamir: Yeah, actually. “The Things You Loved” and “Glass.” “Thing You Loved” is still obviously very much a country song, but that was supposed to be a collaboration with a country artist that I know. And “Glass” was actually a fully electronic production that I just had the riff and everything and I was trying to think of lyrics. And then that song popped up as I was going through my DropBox, and the lyrics fit literally perfectly. I didn’t change any of the lyrics.

Paste: Where did “10/11” come from? That one in particular feels almost like a short story.
Shamir: Actually it’s super straightforward. So like 10/11—all those numbers are just dates. They’re all relative to a friend that had literally just passed last October. So that’s what 10/11 is—the actual day, October 11th. And it was his birthday.

Paste: That’s why I asked—the way it’s fragmented, it feels real. There’s a sense of tragedy.
Shamir: Yes.

Paste: I also want to ask about “Larry Clark.” What about him captivates you? Why name the song after him?
Shamir: The song is about me not feeling sorry for being angsty. And I think Larry Clark is someone doesn’t feel bad about being angsty.

Paste: It’s funny you say angst. The song is very romantic, and the music video has that homage to Odetta performing on CBS. It’s another kind of textual callback, but it doesn’t feel angsty to me. You said that you’d watch the Odetta video to kind of calm yourself down. What about it specifically was so attractive to you?
Shamir: Well, again, it’s one of the artists and videos that I’ve been drawn to since middle school. Odetta’s one of the artists that, even moreso now these days, being a professional artist, that I really resonate with. Because she really paid the price for being unapologetically herself. She’s a major legend, and still doesn’t get her due diligence. That’s why I paid homage, because I felt like her. I am her. Besides the fact that we already basically look the same. [Laughs.] It all just fit together perfectly. Like, might as well. Why not?

Paste: You’ve been pretty open about your mental health struggles—you were diagnosed with Borderline Personality DIsorder last year. And you said that Hope was written on the verge of a of a break, of sorts. There’s a persistent perception that says that art comes from mental anguish—that to produce art means means suffering. What do you think of that outlook?
Shamir: I think it’s true, but negative. I think it’s really true, in the sense that for me at least, art is me facing my struggles and my pain. But I think it can be negative because I think a lot of artists think that they have to be in a state of pain to really pull it out. And maybe that is the case for some artists. But I don’t think that it’s the default. I think there is a way to have a healthy perspective of that pain, before you really channel it and let it kind of fulfill you in a negative way. I think it really all just comes back to the fact that artists need to be very mindful of their mental health and make that just as much as of a priority. That pain is always going to be there if you don’t really deal with it. You could channel it, but that’s not dealing with it. Self-care is a full-time job, you know? I think once you realize that, and really put in the work, you see a healthy way of channelling. It’s like you mentioned in the beginning—like how can an album like Resolution, that’s so dark, make you think about good times? And that’s why. Because I was writing it from perspective. And even though I was talking about pain, it comes from a perspective of getting through it.

Paste: Right. But like you said, art can’t be your only way through it. So what other things do you do to make sure you’re taking care of yourself and taking care of your mind?
Shamir: I think the biggest thing, the hardest thing, about mental illness is not only stigma, but guilt. You know? The biggest thing about being mentally ill is the guilt. And especially the guilt of falling off the wagon and not really giving yourself time. I think the biggest thing for me was just not guilting myself when I fuck up, or if I fall off the wagon, or if I do something that I know is unhealthy. Know that you can just always restart, and nothing’s going to change. The world will continue to go around and everything will be fine. So yeah, on top of my therapist and actually putting in the work, of course. But guilt—guilt is really detrimental.

Paste: In some ways, your music kind of reflects that. Like we were saying, it just naturally reflects where you’re at, and you’ve kind of started again, in your own way.
Shamir: Right. Yes.

Paste: So if 2017 was a year changing, and 2018 was a year of rebuilding, what does 2019 look like for you?
Shamir: Right now, I don’t know… optimism? I actually feel optimistic. I have hope that the work that I did this year actually pays off. Yeah, I have a lot in store. I’m very excited to reap the fruits of my labor next year.

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