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.
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.