Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Michelle McAdorey

Michelle McAdorey, best known to Canadian music fans as the enigmatic singer of Crash Vegas (1988-1996), returns after a 12-year absence with a new solo album, the eighth in her overall discography, called Into Her Future. It reunites her with old friend and collaborator Greg Keelor of Blue Rodeo, who helped her adapt a cappella lullabies into a full-band, countrified psychedelic pop record that—not coincidentally—most recalls Crash Vegas’s perfect 1989 debut, Red Earth.

McAdorey was unlike any other female frontperson back in the day: she wasn’t a quiet folkie (though she did that very well), she wasn’t a grungy rock chick (though she could also do that very well), she wasn’t the flighty artsy girl (she would become that later). She was all of that and much more: she was bold, mysterious, captivating and just as captivating as peers like Gord Downie, to whom she should be rightly compared, as opposed to just her female peers.

After Crash Vegas, guitarist Colin Cripps went on to work with Kathleen Edwards, Jim Cuddy, and now Blue Rodeo. McAdorey released two albums with avant-garde guitarist Eric Chenaux, 2000’s Whirl and 2003’s Love Don’t Change. I hear McAdorey’s influence in everyone from Sarah Harmer to Jennifer Castle; indeed, Castle wrote to me from a tour stop in Munich to say this about McAdorey: “I can't remember what made Michelle stand out, but I noticed her all right. Loved her tattoo and the way she was. Used to listen to Crash Vegas's cover of [Neil Young’s] ‘Pocahontas.’ [1995 single] ‘On and On' was a true summer jam for me and my friends, back when we'd take the yellow ghetto blaster in the boat, paddle to the middle of the lake, strip to naked and float in the night, teenaged. Then I saw her years later with Eric Chenaux playing truly weird and beautiful music in Toronto at Ted’s Wrecking Yard and she stole my heart again.”

Despite my 25 years of fandom, I’d never interviewed McAdorey before. Needless to say, this was a thrill. Her album release show is tonight, Wednesday, November 18, at the Monarch Tavern in Toronto. 

Michelle McAdorey
November 11, 2015

Let me ask you the most obvious question: it’s been 12 years since your last record. How old is your son?

I imagine that’s part of the reason. Were there others? Life?
Sure. Yeah, life, in a big way. The last record I made, I was pregnant. It came out after I had my son. I remember being asked to tour. I maybe stopped [to think] for a few minutes, but I had this baby. I just said no. I had no idea what that would mean, how it could change me. It was very good for me to just surrender completely into mothering.

Did you have any peers at the time who juggled music and parenthood?
No, I really didn’t. Other than knowing about Julie Doiron, and always wondering how [she did it]. Of course, there’s no one way to parent. I knew that it was important for me in ways I could not have predicted, to be a stay-at-home mother. I didn’t have a plan, but it was really good for me to do that. So I did that for a while, and then, yes, other life stuff happened too.

What was your relationship with music during that time? Creating? Appreciating? Did you turn that off for a few years?
I did keep writing. It became about these quiet a cappella songs for a while, using that nursing time. There was so much that was tiring. I found that opposed to fighting it, I embraced it. Another experienced mother I respected, said to me, “It’s just tired, that’s all it is.” Somehow that was a mini-epiphany! To go with it, rather than thinking, “Oh god.” I always record stuff, if just in a crude way with a hand-held recorder. I had these melodies. I’d show these a cappella tunes to the people I made the last record with, Eric Chenaux and Ryan Driver. It was a slow time, but there was a lot going on personally, too.

The two records you made with Chenaux are very different than everything else in your discography. After Crash Vegas ended, it seems to me the material with Chenaux was an unlearning of sorts, the result of stepping off the hamster wheel of being in a rock band on a major label and searching for new processes, carte blanche. Melodically, those two records to me are vastly different than your earlier albums or this album. Do think that’s fair to say?
I would say that more about the second record, Love Don’t Change [2003], maybe not as much about Whirl [2000]. The thread for me is melody informed by folk-rock of the British Isles, which I’ve always been really obsessed with: droning, lilting melodies with lots of minors and seconds. I would agree that this record feels like a continuation [of Crash Vegas]—the fact that I’m working with Greg again. I don’t know if I analyze it in that way. But I like what you said about “unlearning” or stepping off. Post-Crash Vegas I was opening myself up to more improvisation in the songs. It was freeing and interesting doing that, and I loved the sensibility of those incredible players, great people to spend time with. It was an antidote to a fatigue I had felt with some of the music business. And yet, through that time, I also knew that I also loved playing in a band. With these [new] tunes, one way to realize them would be to have them played where there are set parts and arrangements, strong choruses and melodies, and then to try and chase after some of those British Isles records of the ’70s. Our touchstone would be Fairport Convention, sonically, and not being afraid of those sprawling arrangements.

A cappella writing naturally builds strong melodies, no? As opposed to finding four chords you like and kind of flatlining through it.
You’re relying on the voice and the melody and even some of the words. I thought of them as charms, or spells. I was reading this African writer who talked about whispering ideas into the baby’s ear all the time, like charms. I loved that idea: “I’m whispering to you who you are and the things to remember.” They would talk about this long lineage of things that had been whispered over time.

When did you bring Greg in, when did it begin to gel?
I had all the songs. I’d say “The Remainder” was the one I involved Greg more in the writing. That might have been three years ago now, in the winter. He’s someone I really trust, in so many ways. I’d play him a song and he’d respond really positively, but he’d say, “Well, let’s just add a chord here,” or, “Pick up the tempo!” Because a lot of them were quite slow. He helped shape them more for the band.

Was that the first time you’d worked with him on that level in more than 25 years?

How was that different? How has your relationship evolved? You’ve known each other an incredibly long time, since you were a teenager.
We really, really have. (laughs) It was really wonderful. We’re really close pals. It was a bit of a heavy time I was going through, so it was a balm to be able to go out to his place and play. It was magical. He was very passionate about what he was hearing. I really heard this as a band, and he introduced me to most of the people that are playing on the record. That was great, because my longtime buddy pal Eric Chenaux had moved to Paris, and it’s wonderful to make new musical friends, to cultivate new relationships. I felt very lucky.

It sounds like it was very cathartic, too, coming from a place of pain and creating something productive out of it. It can have a very restorative effect.
It was. I want to say: it wasn’t just from a place of pain, but there was a lot going on, and a lot of energy. It was great to have this to pour all that into. And I was really in love with these songs.

What excited you during those years away? What did you discover during those years, musically?
Woah, that’s huge. There’s so much I’ve been listening to. I just got more into those British Isles folk songs. A lot of those artists I love, they haven’t always authored the tunes they’re playing. They play these really old songs. Sonically, I love the sound and all the players. But it didn’t seem to be about persona or images, as much as: “Here’s this ancient tune. How does it go? OK, let’s just get on this thing.” That’s all you have to do: get on it and you do it and it does it.

Have you ever sung those songs?
Just to myself. Some of them I knew of during Crash Vegas, but more after. I don’t know if you know Steeleye Span, or Nic Jones. Martin Arnold is a [Toronto] composer, so brilliant, and he has one of the most extensive record collections ever. He’s responsible for expanding my exposure to more and more music—and his own music. He takes old folk tunes and places them in an experimental context. He treats them in a way that to me is so beautiful, without being too cerebral. It feels visceral. Then another friend was making me mixed CDs. There was a lot of what I’d call pop: songs with structure and strong melodies. There were many songs I knew, but many I didn’t, spanning all eras. Whether it was listening to a demo of Stevie Nicks singing “Dreams,” which is one of the most incredible things I’ve ever heard. Or these Lenny Breau songs, where he sings: "FiveO’Clock Bells" and "New York City." Music from Beirut. A lot of psychedelic pop stuff. All over the place. It’s all seeping in there. It’s fantastic to have those friends. I still love listening to a record from beginning to end, but I really appreciate those mixes. Lately, I like the Steve Gunn record. And my good pal Jennifer Castle, and Ryan Driver.

You grew up in Toronto?
For parts of it. I went away to boarding school a couple of times and had adventures there. Eventually I moved to London as a teenager.

What do you remember seeing here?
My parents were quasi-hippies. I went to the Riverboat when I was really, really young. I saw Kris Kristofferson. He sang to me. I think I was 7. He wanted to talk to me after and give me a kiss, it was a scratchy, alcoholic kiss, but I was still smitten with him and he wrote me this beautiful autograph. I’d go to lots of festivals with my parents.

Were you a Mariposa kid?
A little bit. But do you know the band Perth County Conspiracy? (laughs) There were, like, mushroom circles, mushroom tea. At the Bathurst Street United Church there would be [events there], and I remember being a kid and trying to find places to hang out while your parents were into this weird performance art or whatever. Then I’d sneak into bars when new wave and punk was happening. Lots of great shows at the Palais Royale: Selecter, Specials, Gang of Four. Then going to Maple Leaf Gardens, where I saw Bob Marley a few times. A friend had an older brother who had a great record collection, and he—I don’t know why—but he’d take us to these fantastic shows at the Gardens. I saw Springsteen there, in the concert bowl. Queen, with Thin Lizzy. Things that would blow my mind.

Did you go to Britain to be a musician?
Maybe. I lied about my age to go to theatre school there. And so much of the music I was obsessed with came from there. There were music paper ads asking for singers.

Is that how you found Kirsty MacColl?
No, that was happenstance. I took a trip to Spain. I might have been in the U.K. six months, and a friend said, “Hey, you should go to Ibiza. A friend has a recording studio there.” “OK, sure.” So I went, and the Yellow Magic Orchestra are there, these Japanese guys who came up to me, very formal, and would say, “Secret meeting?” And I’d think, “What? Does that mean what I think it means? I’m going to go back upstairs and have some marmalade and bread.” But it was on the plane trip back where I was held over in Valencia, and Kristy MacColl and her pal get on the plane and start drinking. We start talking and singing and just formed a friendship. She said, “You should be my background vocalist!”

Did she have much going on then, or was she just beginning? That was 1981?
She was more or less just beginning. She might have had one record out before. But this was the record…

Yes, I sing on that.

“Blanche McAdorey” it says in the credits.
That’s right! It was just all silly. We were always pretending to be in Streetcar Named Desire and fooling around with Southern accents.  Her thing was cool, she loved to layer all these harmonies on top of another. And I’d never been in a recording studio before. It was fantastic to be there with her. I had no idea who her father was [Ewan MacColl, most famous for “Dirty Old Town” and “The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face”].

Then your band Corect Spelling, a.k.a. Cold Fish…
Yes, that was hilarious. (laughs) I had met a guy named Speedy Keen. He really looked out for me and was encouraging me to write. He was my first songwriting coach. I had this band, Cold Fish, and he loved it. His band was Thunderclap Newman and he wrote a song called “Something in the Air.” (sings it) This was his huge hit. He was such a character. He’d also produced Motorhead. He was a good pal of Lemmy’s. He knew Pete Townshend. He had these stories you’d tell, and you’d occasionally meet some of these people. He was a big drinker and really into gambling. He was broke. He spent all his money. He was one of the most kind-hearted, generous, sweet people. Very funny. He took this band, Cold Fish, into a really fancy studio owned by his friend. We did these demos that I wish I had. I was really into the B-52’s at the time. One song was called “American Salad.” We had this glass bowl and thought we’d just smash it against the wall and record it—because the lyrics was, “I’ve got American salad on the wall!” (laughs)

Please tell me you have that demo.
I don’t think so. I do wonder about that. I purged a bunch of cassettes a while back, which I regret now. So after that demo, interest started to develop in the band. Speedy would say, [adopts accent of old, crusty British man] “Watch out for the sharks! They will destroy you!” But for us, these fancy people were coming around and we were taken in a bit.

Was everybody else in the band as young as you were?
No. They were a little bit older.

So it wasn’t a teenage band.
I was the only teenager. Eventually Midge Ure, who I met through someone else, this manager Falcon Stuart, who had been managing X-Ray Spex and Adam Ant. He was kind of a creep. He wasn’t so ethical. It was a weird thing. We went into the studio. I remember getting the finished product and thinking, what is this? It sounds like Ultravox. I think it’s my voice, but maybe it’s Midge’s voice. It was such a weird time.

Did you come back right away?
I stayed there for a while. It’s a hard place to survive. Also, the drummer of that band was my boyfriend and then he became the drummer of the Clash, after Topper Headon.

The Cut the Crap era?
Yeah, he did that record and toured with them just before that. He at least got to play with Mick Jones for a while. Pete Howard was his name. The rest of us were Clash fanatics. It was bizarre. It changed things quite a bit. We were a couple and I went on the road a bit and did that, but we parted. I started recording with other people and made some interesting recordings that I liked. More experimental, odd. I became more disillusioned at the hardness of trying to exist, just working all the time trying to figure out how to live. I’d still talk to Greg now and again. We’d known each other since I’d sneak into bars and see the Viletones and the Bopcats and the Hi-Fis.

The Sharks.
Exactly! I thought those bands were incredible.

Somebody told me, maybe Margo Timmins, that the Sharks’ Sherry Kean was so incredible, that they’d never seen a woman on the Toronto scene front a band like that before. It was a very dude scene.
Yeah, she was strong. There weren’t many role models, really. Blondie, Chrissie Hynde, Slits, B-52s. There were others, too, but not in that edgy, tough way. And Sherry Kean had that.

What made you want to come home?
The Brits have this cynicism, it’s critical thinking but it can sort of degrade into a cynicism and get stuck there, it’s just anti-everything. I think I just wanted some more sunshine. I wanted things to be easier. And Greg was saying that he’d felt a similar thing in New York. Suddenly he found himself in Toronto [in 1985] and he said, “It’s great, Toronto is like nowhere. You have this space you can afford, and only work three or four days.” I felt like London was the centre of the universe, and I wasn’t sure how I would find my form of expression here, my aesthetic.

When I think of Toronto at that time, I think of you and Mary Margaret O’Hara and Margo Timmins and Jane Siberry and all these strong women who didn’t really fit traditional archetypes. Then the scene got a bit more dude-ish in the ’90s, but for a time there so many of my favourite Toronto artists were women. Sherry Kean’s children, if you will.
I think that’s true. There’s a nice long lineage of strong, incredible women musicians, singers, songwriters.

I feel like Crash Vegas stood out during that time, that you didn’t fit any archetype: your voice, your stage presence, and I really got the sense that Crash Vegas was a band, not just a singer with backing musicians. Did it feel at all like you were square pegs in a round hole?
I don’t know if I was self-conscious about it. I was definitely questioning what it was to be a woman, what that meant. Do you have to shave your armpits? Wear makeup? A lot of the women I thought were really cool didn’t do that. I thought you could still be beautiful and sexy and powerful without conforming to that. I was thinking too of Martha and the Muffins, they were great. A lot of women I liked were androgynous and played with their image in a way that was not so cliché. It bugged me that we’d go to do some TV thing and they’d immediately descend on me to put on all this makeup, while the guys are just sitting over there. I hated makeup, too. It made me feel kind of allergic, like I was going to start breaking out or get itchy. For me, music was always about not being self-conscious. That was probably one of the harder parts of being in a band that gets attention: suddenly people are looking at you or you have to get your picture taken. As much as I dig parts of that, I’d feel uncomfortable, too, because of the way women get dissected—and because I was dissecting myself, too, and noticing that and trying not to fall prey of that kind of evaluating. Ultimately, it’s just about trying to lose yourself. I mean, Patti Smith would take a piss on stage!  I didn’t necessarily want to do that, but I liked that she was doing that. When the parameters are so wide, I’d rather veer more toward that than wearing heels and foundation.

You had proximity to Blue Rodeo as they blew up, and you toured with the Tragically Hip at the absolute height, in 1993, when their fans were so rabid and reverent in ways I still don’t think I’ve seen with any other act since. What did you observe or learn being that close to that level of stardom?
First of all, it was so much fun. As a band, we were really lucky that some fantastic bands dug what we were doing—and liked our company (laughs). That’s one of the things about being on the road; you want to be with people you like. Gord [Downie] would always stand out; that band was a machine, very reliable, and they provided a platform for Gord to do this kind of shamanic spell work. People needed a way to express and move the spirit, and there is Gord almost giving you permission. He’s doing this thing, or talking in tongues, or freaking out, so I guess we have permission to freak out. That’s one of the best things about music, is that it can transport you. It would definitely confirm that we could keep doing what we were doing. Being in the moment in the live experience—you are going to play the same songs, but where can you take it? We would have improvisation, sections would become extended, we wouldn’t know how long or when. It’s one of the most exciting things to listen to or be a part of. Suddenly there is no age, no time. It just breaks down a lot of structures.

That was around 1993. Was Crash Vegas almost done when Sony asked you do “Pocahontas” and then make another record?
We parted with our record company, and then Sony suddenly wanted us to do this song, and then they liked our versions and wanted to offer us a record deal. So we thought, “Uh, okay, let’s try this one.” It was like a factory, recording in their building. But at least you’re cloistered; nobody really came in. And the engineer there was fantastic, Lenny DeRose. So great to work with.

The band split a year later, after Aurora?
When did that come out? 96? Maybe, I don’t remember.

What did you think you wanted to do right after? Did you feel like the rug was pulled out or were you ready for something totally fresh?
I just wanted to kind of stop. Meanwhile, Gavin Brown and Eric Chenaux were in the live Crash Vegas, and Eric and I were already starting to try some stuff. I was a big fan of Lifelike Weeds; I didn’t know Phleg Camp as much. Lifelike Weeds were just incredible. I felt there was a box I was in, and wasn’t sure how to reinvent myself in it. It was a good time to just stop. I remember being told by a manager, “Okay, we should get you a deal now for your solo album.” I remember taking a moment and thinking, “Oh, is that the good business choice?” I knew I couldn’t do it. I wasn’t even sure that was the model anymore.

But you knew you weren’t suddenly going to take a day job?
Oh yeah, maybe naively. I should have prepared more! I was really getting into yoga—not like yoga now, though!

You prefer yoga’s earlier work.
Definitely! Also, I was living in a warehouse, an interesting community of people. Art was looming for me. I wanted that to be more a part of what I was doing, whereas I felt like the emphasis on the biz part of music, I didn’t have the balance right in my mind. I wanted to step back and feel the excitement of something. It was important to do that. I had a friend who was riding freight trains. It was like, what? I didn’t know people were still doing that! I had a lot of things I wanted to do.

The lyrics here are very much about a life of experience. It’s not a young person’s record, per se. Do you think there’s a thematic thread?
I think so. Nothing I planned. That’s what’s interesting about songs: what they reveal, and what you don’t necessarily want to tell people. I feel: what life is there left to live? What is life now? The idea of optimistic melancholy, how to still conjure or call forth the life. And of course, love. Love not really being romantic love, but the thing that really animates us, or is so intrinsic to the connection of life experiences—to reach for that. But it’s a paradox because you can’t reach for it and grab it: you have to let go. Again, coming back to the idea of incantations: maybe if I send out these little messages, I can call forth life. How to thrive: that’s also been a question I have as a parent, and as a musician. Can I thrive as a musician? I don’t know if I really can. Thriving and doing something we love is an important thing we have to show our kids.

As a parent, one learns early on that you don’t want your own poisons or toxicity to pass on to your children, to be witnessed by your children.
Yeah. You don’t want to drag your child down the rabbit hole with you, but at the same time I realize that I’m going to make mistakes. I’m going to screw up, and it’s okay to show them that, and how you make your way out of that. My boy is good at helping me to be better than I could have been, [helping me at] owning my own shit, or knowing that I need to choose different things sometimes. It’s definitely different than when I was a single person responsible only for myself.

I hear a lot more optimism from you in this record than I have in the past. I was listening to everything in the past week. On the first record you sing about “If I could bury her with my two hands.” On the second record, “With today’s amazing murder.” Or “My mother died of childbirth because her husband had a gun.” There’s a lot of darkness on those records. I don’t see those clouds here.
I think you’re right. I think we can’t control many things—most things—but perhaps we can choose some things. Given the choice between feeling really gloomy or trying not to, we can choose to love. Through becoming a mother, that’s where I’ve learned so much about love, in so many ways, and what I’m reflecting. The importance of that. The responsibility of that. The echo. Another thing in the record is about freedom. What is that? It’s not the same for each person. There’s something very rebellious in me. I’m trying to have a peace with that.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015


When I was 12 I was obsessed with Yazoo and Bronski Beat. Those voices—what were they? Why did they sound like that? Where did they come from? (Britain, it turns out.) The rest of my life, I’ve been drawn to voices and personalities who confound expectations of gender and genre, who frighten the fearful and broaden possibilities, voices who sound like no one else: k.d. lang, Bjork, Martin Tielli, Nina Simone, et al. In the summer of 2014, I discovered another one: a 19-year-old kid from Las Vegas named Shamir Bailey.

Shamir’s debut EP, Northtown, drew heavily—and apparently unintentionally (see below)—from early ’90s house music, like that of the recently departed Frankie Knuckles. The Pitchfork review that tipped me to it referenced Camille, Prince’s androgynous alter-ego circa Sign O the Times. The EP closed with a solo acoustic cover of a song by Canadian country singer Lindi Ortega. I was pretty sure Shamir was going to push all the right buttons for me. He did.

His follow-up single, “On the Regular,” got picked up in a couple of ads and boasted a colourful video. He then signed to XL, who released his debut full-length, Ratchet, this spring. The album wasn’t the knockout punch I was hoping for, but at least half of it was as good or better than Northtown, and songs like “Demon” demonstrated his continuing growth as a songwriter. (There was nothing left to improve about his singing: it was and is thrilling.)

I somehow convinced Maclean’s to let me write about my latest obsession; the story is here.

Sadly, Shamir’s only Toronto date until now was an appearance at Bestival in June. He’s finally headlining a local show, on Friday, Nov. 20 at the Mod Club. He plays the night before, Nov. 19, at the Fairmount Theatre in Montreal. Then he flies to Mexico City for the final date of a tour that’s lasted six months straight, it seems.

The following interview, conducted over the phone in May 2015, was neither condensed nor edited.

When I read about you talking about your favourite bands, you talk about Austra, Tegan and Sara, Mac DeMarco, and Alvvays and Lindi Ortega. Is there a theme there?
I love Canadian music, it’s ridiculous! Alexz Johnson, FeFe Dobson, the Pettit Project, which was a really old Canadian band. And Lindi Ortega is amazing, she’s definitely one of my faves. I’ve never met her, only on the Internet, but hopefully I’ll make it to Nashville soon.

But she’s heard your version of her song, no?
She has, and she approves, and that makes me so happy.

I know you’ve also covered Miranda Lambert and you have roots in country music. How long did you spend thinking country music was something you might do? You had a lo-fi pop band, Anorexia, before this current project. What were your forays into country like?
It was something that was always around me when I was younger. I really decided to write country music when I was 13 or 14. I’d discovered Taylor Swift, and I had a friend from Texas who listened to a lot of country and she put me onto a lot of it. We’d listen to it together. I had an acoustic guitar, so it was natural.

One of my favourite songs on the new record is “Demon”…
Oh my goodness, that’s everyone’s favourite! Literally, every single person has said that.

Is there a country demo of that song? I could see that lending itself to a different arrangement.
Yeah, actually. There is, and a video I did with Yours Truly, where they followed me around Vegas, like a mini-doc, way before I even recorded it. It started as an acoustic song.

Speaking of Canadians and country music and people who subvert what country music can be, I think of k.d. lang. People have this perception of who she is now, but when she first came out she shook Nashville to its knees. They did not know what to make of this woman who existed outside of gender.
Totally. That’s how I felt initially when I decided to do country, but it was getting too hard, and a lot of people think country music has to be one way with the same structure. I found people like Miranda Lambert and Lindi Ortega because they both do something different with country. They have their own style. That’s where I got fed up with it. That’s when I started Anorexia. I was 16 and almost tired of music in general, but I still wanted to make it. I just wanted to make it with pure expression.

I know you didn’t listen to a lot of electronic music when you made the demos. What was it like for you when [producer] Nick Sylvester or whoever it was played stuff that sounded similar to yours from 20 years ago?
I knew that there would be some similarity because I was producing all my stuff on an old drum machine, that literally was probably made and produced in the 1990s. All the sounds are very vintage-sounding. I was blown away by how much the structure of some of the songs I was making was so much like house music. I had no idea. I’d heard of house music, but never really knew what it was, musically. I’d never listened to dance music, outside of pop—that was the only electronic thing I listened to. It was very funny to see that what I thought was different had already been done, but also I think what sets it apart is that it’s completely uninspired but still have its own sound and feel to it. I feel like I’m doing something very old and with a throwback feel, but what makes it new is the fact that I don’t listen to this type of music. It’s completely inspired by other kinds of music: the sound palette, the lyrics, the melodies.

Who gave you that drum machine?
I got it from my stepdad’s godbrother. He was a producer, and he used it to make music and ran it through a program like Fruity Loops or something. Then he wasn’t using it anymore, so I said, “I’ll take it! This is so cool! I can physically tap these buttons to make the tracks.” I’m more of a hands-on person. I’m a musician, so I’d much rather play an instrument, as opposed to programming a bunch of settings and adding things by clicking. That’s just how I am. That’s also how Nick Sylvester works, too. This whole album is all analog instruments. He uses drum machines, old synths and handmade analog synth boxes that he pitch-shifts. The only thing we used a computer for was to record the instruments.

The first line on the first record is, “I’m sitting on the couch feeling alone.” You’ve described yourself as an introvert, and yet I read reports of you hugging literally hundreds of people at any given show?

How many people did you hug in Austin, at SXSW? Like, a rough number?
I haven’t had time to think about it! I decided I’d keep hugging people until I fade into oblivion. Seriously, that’s how it works. At my show in L.A., it was this little show for maybe 200, 300 people. I feel like I hugged literally everyone in that venue. It was two hours after I got off stage, and I was still hugging people and signing things and taking pictures. I’m an introvert in a way, where if I had the option of going out or staying in my room, I’ll stay in my room. But when I am out, I enjoy other people’s company. I know how to be social—I just choose not to be social. Also, if I’m out and there are good and positive vibes, I definitely want my shows to be a party. I don’t want all these people who paid money to see me play these songs to just feel grateful that they got to see these songs. No. I want them to have a whole experience, as opposed to just coming here and seeing me sing. I also want to break the whole barrier down of, “I’m an artist, look up to me, I’m a high priestess or something.” I don’t like that. I want to hop in the crowd and hug everyone and get to know everyone. It’s one of my favourite things about performing live.

Who comes to see Shamir? Who is drawn to your music?
That’s what I love about my audience. It ranges from so far. From what I see the most, it’s mostly teenage girls and older gay men. (laughs) It is so funny, to see that together in the crowd. Pretty much everything in between, too, which is super cool. Once I went to some music-streaming service or whatever and they showed me the statistics for me, and my male to female ratio was 50/50, which is super rare. I was super excited about that.

We can guess so much about a person from their singing voice: race, gender, regional accents. Your voice doesn’t conform to what we expect: we can’t identify what it is, but we can identify that this is someone who knows what it’s like to be different, that anyone who feels on the outside is drawn to it immediately.
I definitely want to be the voice for those people who can’t fall into a category or box. Those in-betweeners. I’ve always been one my whole life, and I’ve learned to accept it and realize that I’m never going to be able to blend in with the crowd. I have this really weird voice and really weird face. I feel like my job as a musician is to show other people that if they don’t belong or fit in that it’s okay, and they should embrace what makes them unique.

A lot of people don’t figure that out for a long time, if ever, and they carry a lot of pain trying to conform. I’ve heard you say that if you just own it, just wear it on your sleeve, that people will respect that.
A lot of people’s problem too, with wanting to conform, is they conform so they can fit in and have company. What made it easy for me to not conform is that I’m an introvert and I’ve never had a fear of not having friends. I’m like, I don’t care! Music is such a big part of me, that as long as I had music, I didn’t care.

Your aunt knew a lot of musicians. Were those people making music in the house, or you just knew them peripherally, and that that lifestyle existed?
My earliest experience from like kindergarten to second grade was my mom, her twin sister, me and her twin sister’s son, we all lived together in a house. It was super chill. My mom was really young. She had me at 19. She was very free flow. They were both really young with really young kids. They would have a lot of musicians and older people over all the time, having parties. The weird thing is that now that I think about it, people would always say, “Oh Shamir, why are you so mature,” even when I was growing up I had problems relating to and communicating to kids my age. Now I realize it’s because when I was growing up there were so many adults around; I learned how to communicate with adults before I did with kids my own age. Most of her friends were musicians, singers, rappers and producers, to help her put music to her lyrics. She was a lyricist. She liked to write poetry, but she doesn’t play or sing anything. She’d do that in her free time, as a hobby. She had a huge piano in our room, and a bass guitar and a computer recording setup. We’d have recording sessions in our living room and she’d let me sit in. I just loved the whole process of making music, it was so intriguing to me. It was what planted the seed in my head.

That maturity extends to your musical taste, too. It sounds like you grew up listening to a lot of Nina Simone, among other things. But Nina Simone is so heavy on so many levels: so beautiful and joyous but also so fiery and socially conscious, so much range to what she does.
Do you know how scary it is for a seven- or eight-year-old to listen to her version of “Pirate Jenny”? That song used to scare me, but I loved it.

You’re not just listening to “My Baby Just Cares For Me.” There’s an obvious parallel between yourself and her in terms of unusual timbre. I’m fascinated with countertenors and contraltos. Have you heard Klaus Nomi before?
No, I haven’t.

Have you been with vocal teachers who can identify your range? What have you learned about your voice in the last year?
When I was in high school, I wanted to join a men’s choir. The choir teacher there was really, really horrible. He was convinced I was singing in a falsetto the whole time, and forced me to sing in a low register. I do have a low register, but it’s so, so weak, and it’s hard for me to project. But I did it for a week, and I completely lost my voice. It was so scary. So I thought, okay, forget him, he obviously doesn’t know what he’s talking about, I’m going to sing in a way that’s comfortable for me. I actually just came from a voice lesson, two days ago, and it was my second voice lesson ever. My teacher told me I’m a high tenor; that’s just how my voice is. The technique he’s shown me is amazing. I’ve always had this voice; it’s the only one I’ve ever had. Some people think this is stylistically that I’ve chosen to do, and then they meet me and say, “Oh, your speaking voice is exactly the same!”

What do you think that choir teacher’s problem was, just his problem with construction of gender?
Pretty much! And it was a men’s choir, so it sounded weird. Then I auditioned for West Side Story in high school and got in. I was a Shark. They were all picking on me, saying, “It sounds like there’s a girl in the Sharks!” So I dropped out and thought, okay, whatever: obviously my voice has to stand alone.

Even in the last 12 months there’s been such an explosion of conversation about gender and how it does or doesn’t define us, and I feel like I’ve heard more about trans rights in the last year than I have in my whole life. I know you’re 20, but do you feel things are different now than they even were five years ago? Do you feel the conversation has shifted?
Yes, it’s more different now than ever. People are becoming less and less afraid to stand up for who they are. They’re more vocal. Back then, people felt ashamed and didn’t say anything, and now you have someone like Bruce Jenner, who’s from an older generation. Now younger generations like mine are not afraid. We feel we have the space to do that. Which is super cool, but people think I’m an advocate for it because of who I am so naturally. I tried to fall on one side of the binary, but I naturally could not. This is something I couldn’t even attempt to hide. I definite think it’s cool that it’s me being myself, 100 per cent true to myself, and that helps others, and there’s a whole other movement—my friend Hari Nef, she’s a transgender runway model. She seems to be in most everything I’m in. Gender, to me, is not something that’s just one thing. I’m glad that message is being taken more seriously in the last couple of years.

The #1 record in America right now is Alabama Shakes, and that woman’s voice is not a womanly voice.
Yeah, she’s tough! I love her ways. She’s crazy amazing. She’s reminiscent of Janis Joplin, who really threw people off. It’s great to have another voice like that, and in the mainstream.

I know everything happened very fast for you: you sent demos to Nick Sylvester at Godmode and he flew you out to New York to record with him. I didn’t think his label was big enough to fly unknown people around the country!
Um, no, it’s not! He definitely took a huge risk, financially and just in general. He really, really, really believed in me.

What was that first trip like? Had you been to New York before?
No, I hadn’t. I definitely wasn’t one of those people who had a New York state of mind. I never thought, “Oh, I want to move to New York one day.” I was trying to move to Arkansas at the time.

Really? Why?
Because I wanted to live more simply. I’d just graduated from high school, wasn’t really doing anything, wasn’t going to go to college, I was just working. And then someone offered me a free trip to New York, so of course I’m going to take it.

Were you worried at all?
He lives in Williamsburg in Brooklyn. I flew out there and took a cab to Williamsburg. He had a day job then, and he was stuck at his office and told me he’d be a little late. So he told me to just tool around, maybe get something to eat. I was wandering around Williamsburg with all these bad thoughts in my head, like, “Oh my goodness, what if this is all fake and he’s going to take me somewhere and murder me?” All the stuff I should have thought of beforehand. I tell people, “Yeah, I met this random stranger on email and we talked on the phone once and then I flew out to New York to record with him—and he didn’t murder me!” Then I met him and he’s super sweet and cool, and we banged out two songs in that first weekend. Then I got back home, and a month later I wake up to find out one of those songs is on Pitchfork as “best new track.” It’s like, “What happened?” I was going about my normal life. But it’s been crazy ever since.