In late 2014, a 19-year-old named Shamir Bailey burst onto the indie scene with the cheeky, cowbell-driven dance-pop banger “On the Regular,” followed by the funky-fresh debut album Ratchet, which landed on best-of-2015 lists at NME, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, Stereogum, and Spin. But the Vegas-born, Philly-based, category-defying prodigy, who’d actually grown up listening to ‘90s punk and Riot Grrrl, felt stifled and panicked by his newfound success — so he took one of the riskiest stylistic left turns since maybe Terence Trent D’Arby's second album.
Shamir’s unofficial sophomore release was 2017’s Hope, a lo-fi bedroom album he recorded over one weekend and surprise-dropped for free on Soundcloud without any promotion or support; it has since become a cult classic. A manic episode ensued, leading to a two-week stay in a psychiatric hospital and a bipolar disorder diagnosis, followed by a break from his major label and management team. But Shamir came out on the other side with a crystal-clear vision of what he wanted to do artistically, a new deal with indie label Father/Daughter Records, and the gut-punching song “I Can’t Breathe,” written just hours before he recorded it in 2018. Shamir tells Yahoo Entertainment/SiriusXM Volume that in his poppier Ratchet days, he was discouraged by the since-dismantled team around him from making this sort of unflinching protest music.
“I used to open my set with that song, and it opens my album Resolution. When you're a quote-unquote soon-to-be-mainstream pop star — as I was back then — a lot of people in my team were leery about me being vocal about these subjects, because it was a touchy thing back then,” Shamir says. “Now, everyone's ready for that conversation, but back then it was like, ‘Pop stars shouldn't have a say in these things!’ And that was so frustrating for me at the time. Had I not been stuck in the [major label record] contract or whatever, a song like ‘I Can’t Breathe’ would have already been out. And so when I had this freedom, that was one of the first songs that was just like, ‘I need to talk about this, and I need to talk about this within a genre that these topics aren't really talked about.’ Like, how many indie-rock songs are about Black Lives Matter?”
“I Can’t Breathe” is a poetic retelling of the stories of the murders of Eric Garner and Tamir Rice, with the chorus hauntingly intoning Garner’s last words: “I can’t breathe/Somebody help me please/I see the light/I think I’m gonna die.” Tragically, the song resonates all the more in 2020, and it has ironically found a new audience on streaming services just as Shamir is releasing his most commercial single in years, the shoegazey “On My Own.” But the singer-songwriter, now 25, says even as recently as two years ago, “Black Lives Matter was not really a conversation like it is now.”
“I remember when I did an interview [in 2018]. I forgot what the interview was for, and it actually didn't make the interview because I think after I said this, they realized that they were very ignorant,” Shamir recalls. “But someone said, ‘You know, this is after Trayvon [Martin] and everything’ — blah, blah, blah, blah, blah – ‘Why did you decide to release the song now?’ And I was like, ‘Who said this has ended? Who said that this doesn't happen anymore?’ So, that was the first thing that came to mind when all of this happened and people started revisiting the song. I'm just like, for most people of color and Black people, this never ended for us. Just because the conversation on a mainstream level ended, we always still were fighting. And so I think it's great that people are revisiting the song now. I think the fact that it came out two years ago, people are realizing that this was always a problem. And this needs to be something that it's changed that needs to be changed from the roots.”
Check out the rest of Shamir’s candid conversation about his artistic, professional, and mental health journey, and how he’s trying to do “something no one has really seen.”
Yahoo Entertainment: You started off quite funky and dance-pop with Ratchet “On the Regular” in 2014, 2015. But then you went in the complete opposite direction — super lo-fi, super-raw, super-uncommercial.
Shamir: Yeah, it was very risky, but the whole thing is, I was in a punk band before. I did not expect Ratchet to be what it was or turn into what it was. I was so young, and I didn't know anything about the industry. I didn't know what I was getting myself into. In the back of my mind, even though I'm signed to the same label [XL Recordings] as Adele and like, getting Best New Artist on Pitchfork, I'm just like, “This is an experiment. … I'll have my whole career to like do whatever I want.” And I didn't realize like the impact of first impressions and how aesthetics and optics play a huge part in the industry and in the music world. So after Ratchet, I wasn't happy. I was just like, “This experiment has gone out of hand and now this is what people think I am.” I knew that it was going to be a long road to reintroduce myself, but I felt it was important to do that because I felt the real me my was needed in the world. Because I still hadn't seen, on a mainstream level, what I wanted to see in music that I felt I could bring.
And what was that, exactly?
Realistically, honestly? Queer rage on a mainstream level. Because realistically, it’s usually just happy-go-lucky, fun, Pride, bubbly, colorful, queer people. And that’s great to see too, but there's so much pain tied up into queerness, especially being Black and queer like myself. And I felt so inauthentic not being able to express that in a real way.
Why do you think the stereotype of LBGTQ+ music is it being dance-y, clubby, upbeat fare?
I think two reasons. I think one, just like aesthetically, no one wants to see an angry queer. And, then, because there is so much trauma wrapped around queerness. The queer community, we are very colorful people and that's great, but I think a lot of times we will use that color and lightness as a way of escapism. I definitely have been guilty of that of kind of like burying like my own queer trauma behind aesthetics and colors and like everything. But I think it's important as the queer community as a whole to really have those conversations about the traumatization around our queerness.
So where do you tap into for that queer rage?
Well, going back to even just the term “queer rage” or “Black rage” or any kind of quote-unquote “rage,” I think it's also coded language. Because when an indie, straight, cis white boy is sitting there singing about his pain and the struggles that he goes through, they don't call it “rage,” you know? So I don't think it's any specific thing that's I’m tapping into. I'm just singing about my experiences, whether they be good or bad, like anyone else.
That makes sense. So when you went and took that detour after Ratchet, your team must've been trying to talk you out of it.
Yeah, they wanted Ratchet Part 2. They weren't going to get it. I got dropped by XL. And while a lot of people might have thought that was like going to be a bad thing, that to me signaled, “OK, I can really do whatever I want. This is an opening for me. I think this is the universe giving me this opening. If I have this newfound freedom, why not use that to be as authentic as myself as I possibly can?” But it was definitely hard to convince my management at the time, and obviously I don't work with them now. Now I'm self-managing and doing all of this on my own. I had no choice but to do it on my own, because what I'm trying to do is something no one has really seen. How can you explain something to other people that has never been done before?
Is it true that you considered quitting music for a time?
Yeah, that's where I was after Ratchet. Officially my second record was Revelation, but technically my second record was [the self-released] Hope, which it has such a really cute cult following. That's so funny to me — like, there's this a specific subsection of Shamir fans that tell me, “I love Hope, it like changed my life.” That a record that I made when I was seriously considering quitting music in general. And the thing about that record is it was the beginning of a manic episode, which led to a psychotic episode, which led to my bipolar diagnosis, and I spent two weeks in the hospital after that.
Were your music-business struggles the catalyst for that breakdown in any way?
Well, I knew my mental health was in decline and I knew that some of it what's hereditary; I have some family history of it. But I also knew a lot of it was triggered from a lot of like the stress and trauma that I was experiencing, going through all of like the Ratchet stuff and just simply not being prepared, and being so young and not really having the time to process it correctly. … Like, I had scrapped two records that were supposed to be my follow-up records because the first time I tried to do it, I did it with a bunch of like top producers in L.A., but the sound was just did not feel authentic and I didn't like it. And then the second time I went back to Philly and worked on the whole record with a close friend, and we ended up falling out as friends because he basically didn't want to go with the vision that I had and we kept bumping heads. I was feeling really, really, really out of place, and that's when I did Hope. And then I guess something snapped. I was experiencing a manic psychosis state, which I had never been in. That lasted for about a week until I had a full episode, where like my friends had to come, I to be sent to the hospital. My mom had to fly out from Vegas to Philadelphia. That was really, really eye-opening for me, and obviously it was the start to my mental health and self-care journey.
And now with “On My Own,” it seems like you’re in a good place — and the world may also be more ready for what you have to offer.
Yeah, and I think that's why people are really connecting with that song right now. The fact that the song is about finding solace and being alone and coming within, it's something that a lot of people have been forced to do lately. It’s basically not even a choice; people are forced to do this right now during these times. [“On My Own”] deals with being solitary, but in a positive way, in a way of using that time to go within and find that peace within yourself to move on in a very concrete way — whether it be how I originally wrote it, which was going on from a relationship, but also that can be applied with everything that's going on now. Because I think a lot of white people during these days have to look inward in a way that they've never had before. The song could definitely be applied in that way as well. It's really perfect timing, even though I wrote it a year ago.
Do you think with “On My Own” and the album coming out this fall, you’ve struck the right balance between your pop past and your punk aesthetic?
Yeah, I think finally with this project, I’ve merged the effervescent energy of Ratchet with the lo-fi ‘90s, indie-rock type of feel. I think the last five years, with all my other projects, was just me perfecting that. Because you know, in a weird way, I felt bad. I didn't feel bad about the change of music for myself, because I had to do what made me happy, but I did feel bad about not being able to bring the lightness of Ratchet to my new music. So I think with each release that I had did after Ratchet, I was trying to find ways to make my sound less heavy – like, still have it feel substantial and very urgent, but bring back that light energy that made a lot of people happy.
The above interview is taken from a portion of Shamir’s appearance on the SiriusXM show “Volume West.” Full audio of this conversation is available on demand via the SiriusXM app.
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