Shamir Bailey doesn’t mind having the New Age tell him who he is. Though he may eschew most forms of categorization, the singer doesn’t resist the vague boxes that astrology, tarot cards, and aura readings put people in. It seems he even enjoys them. His Twitter, where he’s been known to assert his defiance of the confines of gender and sexuality, is linked in to a “Twittascope” that tweets Scorpio horoscopes, daily, onto his feed. Though he was raised under the Nation of Islam, the religion was more of a family heirloom than anything else, and he now considers himself more generally, universe-worshippingly “spiritual.”
Before we’ve said a word to each other, he hugs me outside Chinatown’s Magic Jewelry, purveyor of crystals, exquisite oolong tea, sessions in a chair-of-rejuvenation, and the only aura photographs taken in Manhattan, using something called Kirlian photography. Shamir, whose aural defloration happened long ago, assures me it doesn’t hurt. “This aura stuff’s not weird to me because my hippie mom tries to do it to me all the time,” he says.
The compact store is hidden in an equally compact shopping mall, couched between souvenir and bubble-tea shops. In the window, they’ve displayed examples of auras — intimate, supposedly energy-based indications of a person’s past, present, and future, stretching from two weeks ago to two weeks from the time of the reading. With their neon obfuscation of standard portraits, they’re an odd coupling of tacky and haunting, halfway between a cheap souvenir and an epiphany. Standing just beside them by the window display, Shamir looks like a giant 3D reconstitution of the photos.
Perhaps as a foil for what I’d later learn about his self-diagnosed introversion, Shamir dresses as though trying to exude the whole world — both the external world and, perhaps, his internal one — in an outfit. His clashingly patterned jacket bears every color in the rainbow, and is worn over a bright red sweater. A septum piercing and black nail polish subvert all that secondhand sartorial joy with a deliberately heavy-handed sense of “Edge.”
An aura reader/crystal vendor greets us with equal parts warmth and sarcasm, and tells us there’s a bit of a wait. Over in the corner, there lurks a black velvet curtain, a chair placed in front of two metal plates, all facing a Polaroid camera. It’s the DMV of mindfulness.
And it’s here that Shamir and I try to have a conversation — over the din of tourists being told who they are and contemplating the purchase of costly crystals which may or may not help them be that person just a little better — and over the exhausting notion that, starting about now, people are going to be asking Shamir to define himself for the rest of his life.
His speaking voice, like his persona, is similarly rife with fascinating multitudes. It’s high-pitched, giggly, and mischievously fast, yet coupled with the worn softness of someone on their death bed. It’s also, like his singing voice, unquestionably androgynous.
Despite what may be assumed from his visible-in-dress, audible-in-voice defiance of the gender identities high schoolers — which he was only two years ago — so militantly adhere to, adolescence wasn’t, at least at school, the tumultuous time one might expect.
“Compared to other kids at my school, I was actually not bullied,” Shamir says. “I was myself. I still stood out, but it was very low-key. And sometimes they’d make fun of me for the weird shit that I’d wear, but I’d still wear it. I think they started to respect it more when they realized, ‘Oh, Shamir’s not going to change.’ It’s actually kind of cute! I dress for me and people respect that.” (He slyly says he even got voted “best dressed” over the class president, who “looked like a Banana Republic model.”)
Shamir’s mother gave birth to him when she was 19. “She’s almost like a sister. I had to grow up really fast, because she needed help. Since I was nine, I’d been cooking every dinner,” he says, noting that he had to become self-possessed at a young age. Yet he comes from Vegas, perhaps the least self-possessed place in the country — in that it, as Shamir says, “caters more to people that are not from there than people that are.” Growing up, he was made increasingly aware of “the negative effects of tourist lust on the locals.” It is a city that outsiders possess provisionally, that so easily gives in to the quick, pleasure-driven definitions tourists seek in it. It is also notoriously delineated by separate, divided mimicries of other places: the Venetian, Paris Las Vegas, the Luxor pyramid.
Perhaps because of these surroundings, Shamir’s musical and identity-based blurring act suggests a desire to evade such possession-by-definition. In Pitchfork’s recent profile of him, the singer also recalls his high school popularity, but with skepticism towards it being “reductive” or “pet-like.” “It was always ‘Shamir With the Guitar’ or ‘Shamir With the Hair,’” he told the site.
Shamir’s gender-queering was something he was already bringing into play in his music towards the end of high school. The still-extant Bandcamp page for his high school band Anorexia (a project of “two 18 year olds who love to have fun and make simple Lo-fi pop music”) notes Shamir’s “haunting and androgynous vocals.” The chorus of the first song on their 2013 digital self-release is, simply, “Girl or boy,” repeated.
Even then, he was approaching his divergence from norms with confidence. He recalls another moment of unconventional, and successful, ambition: when an English teacher assigned his class to write short stories, he acknowledged the form not being his forte. “Everyone had written a five to ten-page story, and I came to school the next week with a 60-page movie script,” he says. (The screenplay was about a high school teacher who gets in trouble for sleeping with a student — but it turns out she was set up as an initiation ritual by older, “hardened” teachers. Shamir calls it a “coming-of-age” comedy.) If he hadn’t found professional success as a musician, he says, he would have wanted to further explore screenwriting or comedy. But it’s becoming abundantly clear that this is no longer a matter of “if.”
Only two years after having been that fun-loving adolescent maker of “simple lo-fi pop music,” subverting norms in the Northern Las Vegas suburbs, Shamir is about to release his first LP, Ratchet — an ecstatic amalgam of house, punk and country. It’s arriving via XL — the notoriously selective indie label that puts out a few decidedly huge albums a year. (In the past, these have included Radiohead’s In Rainbows, FKA twigs’ LP1, Adele’s 21, and Jack White’s solo debut, Blunderbuss.) Now, Shamir’s on Out Magazine’s Hot List. Now, he’s been made into a Muppet by Jim Henson studios. Now, he’s a billboard in Times Square.
This chapter of “nows” began when Godmode founder Nick Sylvester impulsively flew Shamir out to NYC after listening to the demos the singer sent out while on hiatus with Anorexia. Sylvester recalls how Shamir convinced his mother that it was all right for him, as an 18-year-old recent high school graduate, to take off to New York, to meet a strange man. All Shamir had to do was invoke astrology. “I think that I said to him, ‘Do you want me to talk to your mom or anything?’ And he was like, ‘No, no. It’s cool. I’m a Scorpio and you’re a Cancer, and I told her that, and she’s cool.'”
In Godmode’s humbly stuffy and stuffily DIY basement studio in a former Williamsburg glove factory, the two recorded the Northtown EP, whose first three tracks showed off Shamir’s penchant for thoughtful dance music, and whose last two tracks showcased a secret weapon: Shamir’s ability to devastate. Pitchfork put the release on the radar, singling out the more reserved dance track, “If It Wasn’t True.” Despite it being predominantly spoken — and offering only a mere dose of his vocal and songwriting capacity — that dose was enough.
Shamir soon signed to XL, though as Sylvester notes, “everybody on [Ratchet] is a Godmode person.” It was clear that XL had no intent of laying an expensive varnish over the record, or trying to stifle the punk sensibilities that Sylvester wanted to highlight. “Shamir had a vision going into these signing meetings,” Sylvester says, “and part of the reason that he wanted to sign with XL was that they were going to let him make this record exactly how he wanted to.”
Shamir’s early media champions also rapidly ignited wider media interest, and when Shamir debuted some of his new work at a concert at Baby’s All Right in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NPR Music Events Manager Saidah Blount was in attendance. “It’s a party on stage — he’s engaging as all get-out. He sounded young, and kind of green, yet there was an energy there that I haven’t heard. It was kind of like a pure joy,” says Blount, who praised Shamir to her NPR colleagues.
“We need somebody who’s going to give us a really great live product,” Blount says. “We’re bringing it to a larger audience. We really think that Shamir has something to bring to this kind of electronic dance music/soul hybrid that’s emerging.”
Shamir’s set at NPR Music’s SXSW showcase finished with the 20-year-old singer standing at the precipice of the audience, as though readying to crowd-surf, and instead leaping down and hugging everyone in sight. Perhaps this was less an unbridled gesture of gratitude than the logical conclusion to his new, almost life-coaching feel-good album. It’s clear he’s already trying to share his energy with a ton of people. When we meet, it’s a couple of days after the performance, and it’s also evident this task has left him somewhat depleted.
Ratchet is noteworthy in part for its unbridled, youthful ebullience, brought out by cowbell, synthesized squelching, and a patchwork of other noises that don’t take themselves too seriously. But it’s silly to think that such vigor, even for a 20-year-old, is wholly sustainable when you’re on the verge of rising to fame, and when your publicists, producer, and of course, journalists, are treating you as such.
“I got here last night, but I’ve been pretty tired and just been doing work,” Shamir says, back at the crystal shop. Earlier that day, a New York Magazine writer had questioned Shamir over Mexican food — his favorite cuisine. During a particularly exhausted moment at SXSW, a reporter (maybe from BuzzFeed, he tries to recall) had attempted to take a picture of him holding up a sign with a word he’d misspelled in his fatigue; I’d later have him hold up an image of his aura — smiling, warm but beat — in exactly the same way.
Though this merely seems like the beginning, albeit an explosive one, Shamir admits, “I have no motivation… I’ve done everything I’ve ever wanted to do, so to ask for anything more is almost kind of selfish.”
This sounds wholly bizarre coming from any 20-year-old, even one who’s on the verge of fame. The idea of exiting adolescence, when all you want and all that’s least likely to happen is to be heard — only to find your music and lyrics dictating the feelings of a bunch of people who are likely older than you — doesn’t sound so bad. But, says Shamir, “It’s annoying because I feel like I’m not listened to any other way. There’s this song, ‘City,’ by Sarah Bareilles. It’s one of my faves. She sings, ‘Cause these boys only listen to me when I sing/ And I don’t feel like singing tonight.’ I always related to those lyrics, but even more now. I’ve got to find ways to be heard otherwise. But I’d rather be heard in one specific way than not at all.”
Sylvester attempts to explain, claiming that Shamir’s “expectation [when he sent him his first solo tracks] was to put out a handful of demos that he recorded on his own on cassette player,” and that “everything has already exceeded his expectations.” Indeed, as Shamir once said, he comes from a place where, sometimes, if you wanted something to do, you’d “literally just drive around and look at dirt.”
Regardless, at least today, the gimmicky stampede of recreational activities hosted by people he doesn’t know and, after a brief hour, will likely cease to almost-know, seems to be wearing on him. He’s completely gracious, but distant. “Last year, it was the second time I’d been on a plane. [Now], I’m like a gypsy,” he says, eying the yawning mouth of a giant amethyst geode — a set piece in a new gimmick: an appeal to his spiritual side.
As we wait for it to be our turn to approach the aura-photographing apparatus, Shamir is quiet, and he’s aware of it.
“I’m sadly sometimes a very stoic person. I almost kind of live in like this delusional reality, where feelings don’t matter. At least your own. I care about other people’s feelings more than my own sometimes,” he says. “I either eat my feelings or I put them in a song.” The cooking he’s been doing since he was nine, he says, can serve as a proxy for visibly emoting.
His current disinterest in talking about his own feelings is reflected in the Northtown EP song, “I’ll Never Be Able to Love.” At this very early stage in his career, it already seems a subtle thesis for his coupling of emotive vocals and personal guardedness. On the track, he declares, “I’ll never find my missing piece/ To make up for what I lack/ I’ll never be able to cry/ ‘Cause when I do I feel ashamed/ ‘Cause I was taught when I was young/ That crying means you’ve lost the game.” It may be one of the most expressive songs about fearing expression. When he finishes with, “I’ll never find that person I wouldn’t mind seeing everyday/ Everyday/ Everyday/ Everyday,” each “everyday” bears more and more longing and less vehemence.
Sylvester likewise mentions having been hypnotized by this track’s arresting paradox. It was one of the first Shamir tracks he’d heard. “At 18 when he’d written that song, the emotions that would require one to enter into love, let alone to even know what it is — he just isn’t there yet. He still hasn’t figured out what that would mean for him. I think he loves people, but this is romantic love. He’s still sorting out what that means for him. It wasn’t even his voice that jumped out at me at first, it was the fact that someone with his voice would sing a song where the first words are ‘I’ll never be able to love’ and, just like — the weight of that.”
What Sylvester means by “his voice” goes back to the rough but magnetic, simultaneous maturity and callowness of his speaking voice. (When I start gushing to Shamir about his voice, he self-deprecatingly assumes I’m leading up to saying it “sounds like a Muppet.”)
“When he was in Vegas, people didn’t know what to do with [his voice],” says Sylvester. “He sings with a lot of vibrato. He slides in and out of pitch in a way that sometimes you have to know how to fix it, and sometimes you have to know to leave it alone. Part of why he liked working with me is because I knew when to do that.”
One thing Shamir is very open about is his trust in Sylvester. “I am not a producer,” he says. “When I was producing my own demos, it was out of necessity. I’m strictly a singer/songwriter. As long as the words are still coming across over the music, I don’t care.”
None of this is to say that Shamir is self-effacing. Though he may not directly let you in on what he’s feeling, “On The Regular,” his first single off Ratchet, is a fast, in-your-face, predominantly rapped debutante’s ball of a song.
On his dance tracks, which dominate the album, Shamir’s confident side far outweighs his self-deprecating one. Blount mentions the connections between Shamir and Sylvester (the androgynous ’80s disco/soul musician, not to be confused with Shamir’s producer), emphasizing that Sylvester “did a lot for dance music and inclusion across a lot of lines, and was over the top and very proud and tapping into this revolution that was going on.”
Shamir’s gender and genre-blurring universalize the experiences he sings about, and his tweeted assertion that he has “no gender, no sexuality, and no fucks to give” is among many of the huge statements he makes (which for him just seem natural) of transcendence across plethoric societal lines. When an interviewer recently tried to link him to gay culture, he responded, “I see myself as just, like, a being, and genderless. I don’t see how I can be part of the gay culture, because I’m assuming gay culture is homosexual men who like other homosexual men — I’ve never been in a serious relationship with a guy, my only serious relationship has been with a female.”
Shamir tells me, soon before we part ways, that “people are hungry for something different, people are hungry for uniqueness, nobody wants to see the same tired thing all the time.”
Yet when you’re a musician, and especially an up-and-coming musician whose every performance and every interview is an introduction, it’s inevitable that people will try to understand your whole life, and your essence, through simple labels:
The photo on the left alleges itself to be an indication of Shamir’s essence (his is the purplish one on the right, mine is the red one next to it) — at least over a four-week period. It is dominated by the crown chakra — or pure consciousness, along with some third-eye and throat chakra. It pegs him as cerebral, and with uncanny astuteness, he is told that the last week has left him stressed and tired. It also contains some requisite hints about Shamir’s love life: “I think the most accurate thing was about the stress level being a bit high, the least accurate was definitely the love thing cause eww,” Shamir later says.
On seeking a clearer explanation of how this cloud of colors came to sum up the musician, a very limited amount of research will inform you that, scientifically speaking, Kirlian photography boils down to a matter of moisture. Sweaty palms, for example, are likely to form a brighter “aura” than dry ones.
So, depending on how you see the world, the blue-purple cloud surrounding the musician is either his past and future energies, or dry hands. The definitions and clarifications one might automatically be led to look for can, as Shamir seems so aware, have a flattening effect on the world.
There is, unsurprisingly, a more complete and constant depiction of who Shamir is than the image, or the article, above. And it’s coming from Shamir, as opposed to a contraption conceived in 1939 and scientifically pondered and debunked ad infinitum, and as opposed to a journalist. Despite his being tired, despite his wanting to be heard as more than just a voice — there’s something about his voice itself that is more than just a voice.
“I don’t use my voice so much as an instrument sometimes — there are times when I just go for it,” he says. “Not when I’m talking, but when I’m singing, I’m not thinking. It’s not a controlled thing. I open my mouth and something else takes over.”
His voice epitomizes his ideals of definition-evading confluence — of age and youth, of musical genres, and of masculine and feminine. The back cover of his new album smartly reads: “I am not fine art. I am a doodle in your copybook.”