If being a teenager is about finding yourself, Shamir Bailey has been taking his time looking. When we meet in the New York offices of XL Recordings — the label that the 19-year-old singer has just been signed to and also interns for three times a week — he’s soft-spoken with a wavering, borderline falsetto that runs through his speaking voice. “I’ve been trying to figure out where I fit in musically since I was, like, 12 years old,” he says laughing. “I don’t know how I ended up working on music for a living, but I’m just trying to go wherever the universe takes me.” The sentiment is more than just a zen-like mantra. In the last year Shamir has gone from putting out his first bedroom-produced single, “If It Wasn’t True,” in February to recording and releasing his Northtown EP on New York’s Godmode imprint in June. Today, just four months later, the singer is busy recording his first full-length for XL. “This all happened really, really fast,” he says. “I’m really learning as I go.”
Growing up in Las Vegas, a city dry on local musical inspiration outside of the hotel industry’s booming EDM scene, Shamir’s house-infected R&B is a far cry from basically everything he made before it. He grew up on bands like the Who, participated in country-music competitions after being inspired by the acoustic storytelling of Johnny Cash and gave himself an education in the raucous catchiness of punk icons like the Slits and GG Allin before playing in his own punk band in high school. Disparate as those sounds seemed, Shamir’s goal was to mine the pop elements of them all into his latest musical endeavor. “I took my drum machine from my punk band and decided to try to make some alternative, dancey, pop stuff with really strong, storytelling vocals,” he says. The end result was a gorgeous, emotionally stunning set of minimal, deconstructed beats overlaid with folksy, introspective hooks about love, loss and being alone. Shamir had, by almost complete accident, started making throwback house music before ever even hearing it.
We talked with the singer about navigating through a strange musical education, his witchy mom, Taylor Swift and being schooled on house.
1. (Surprise!) Las Vegas doesn’t have an organic music scene.
There was no music scene in Vegas! There was none! Just the big hotel shows that locals didn’t go to. So music was more of a hobby thing than a large community thing. Music became my hobby in third or fourth grade; that’s when I found my way around music outside of what my parents played at my house. My parents were listening to a lot of Nina Simone, Janis Joplin, Lenny Kravitz and George Michael, which is funny. I found the Who on my own, which isn’t too far from what my parents were listening to, but they had never heard of them. So once I found the Who is when I started searching for my own music. By the time I was in middle school I decided I wanted to start making my own. I got a guitar and I was pretty good at it and began writing my own songs.
2. Country music was his gateway into songwriting.
When I was in seventh grade I got really into country and was writing acoustic singer-songwriter stuff because of it. I was listening to a lot of old classic country; Loretta Lynn, George Jones, Johnny Cash. I wasn’t into newer radio country or pop country until my friend from Texas introduced me to Taylor Swift’s music and my whole world changed. I loved Brad Paisley and Sugarland and all that stuff made me want to explore that sound. I was trying to write in that direction while trying to add a vintage feel to the new pop country and still sound my age. I was working with local Vegas producers and stuff and even competed in a big, local country music competition. Everyone loved my music except they told me that my voice wasn’t really working out for them; that it wasn’t “country” enough.
3. He contacted his first label through Tumblr.
I was really into Yvette; that whole no-wave, noise rock thing; and saw from Pitchfork that they were on this label GODMODE. I thought I was pretty knowledgeable about all the tape labels and stuff so was surprised I didn’t know who they were. So I basically messaged them on Tumblr and said, “Hey I’m an 18-year-old from Las Vegas and I love Yvette. Here’s some of the music I make.” The next day I woke up and [label-founder] Nick [Sylvester] had emailed me saying, “This is some of the best demo stuff I’ve heard. You have to come out to New York, like, now.”
4. Shamir made house music before ever hearing it.
I had this drum machine that I had used for my old punk band Anorexia, and felt like I hadn’t used it to its full potential. I thought, “Maybe I can make some actual songs with this,” and started experimenting with it, which is what led to the early Shamir stuff. That’s when I wrote “If It Wasn’t True” and “I’ll Never Be Able to Love.” I was just experimenting and walked into dance and R&B; I didn’t know dance music at all. Dance music to me was EDM, it was the shit that they played at the hotel pools in Vegas. I was just trying to make my own alternative to that — I was trying to make something very pop, very danceable, very alternative, while still very minimal. Little did I know at the time that it was house music! [Laughs.] I thought I had made this interesting, minimal dance sound! Later Nick was like, “You’re making house music. Here are some Larry Levan mixes. Go listen to this.”
5. Not knowing where you fit in is totally fine.
I’ve always been interested in so many different types of music, and I consider them to be very “me,” so the album has a lot of range. I have a song that samples Scratch Acid and is a song about life and life after love, when love is your life. I have a song about GG Allin. I have a song about the universe and how it works. I do write a lot of love songs but also a lot that are nothing about it. “If It Wasn’t True” is the real song about a hard breakup. If you listen to it I try to sing about it nonchalantly; like I’m fine that he broke up with me and I don’t even care. That said, “I’ll Never Be Able to Love” isn’t about a relationship at all. It’s about how fine I am with being alone. It’s about how scared I am about how fine I am with being alone. Like, “Will there ever be someone who I will always want by my side?” It’s about all of that. It’s about being an introvert. It’s about me.
6. It’s a challenge to be happy.
I have one song on the album where the hook is, “It doesn’t get darker unless you expect it to.” Music is a way for me to get all of that dark stuff out so I don’t bring it to my real life and personality. If I didn’t have music I would be a melancholy person; it’s very easy to fall into that place where you are the person you are in your music. Music is my outlet. And in the day to day you have to wear colors and live life. In the day to day it’s a challenge to do that sometimes! You have to challenge yourself to be happy.
7. His mom might be a witch.
My mom has always been crazy. She’s a witch! She has long dreads and makes potions and is very earthy. She didn’t freak out when I decided I was moving to New York all of a sudden. When my music started getting noticed she said she was prepared, she said she saw it happen in her tarot cards. There was only one time, a few days before I came to New York, when I went out with my friends and we were out partying and my phone died. The next morning my roommate woke me up and told me my aunt had come over; my aunt is my mom’s twin sister and has a huge afro; and she was crying telling me she thought I had died because I didn’t answer my phone. That was the only time that anyone freaked or showed that they might actually be nervous about my moving across the country. But that’s just moms for you.