Shamir Has Always Been a Grungy Little Punk Kid

We spoke to the Las Vegas singer about how he ripped everything up to start again on his latest, lo-fi album 'Revelations.'

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Nov 10 2017, 5:45pm

Shamir is reclining on a sofa, a tiny plastic butterfly pinned to his hair, his face pressed up against the phone screen he’s speaking to me through via Skype. “My friend has come to visit from Toronto!” he tells me excitedly, waving his phone in the direction of a girl sat a few steps away. “Hiya!” she raises her hand in reply. He sticks a pre-rolled joint in his mouth and carries the phone out to the garden. “I’ve been living alone here the past year,” he says softly, shutting the door, lighting up, blowing out smoke. “It’s a small three bedroom so it’s great that I have room for guests. It’s scary though; sometimes you hear things. The homes in South Philadelphia are super old so I assume they all have ghosts—those are my real roommates.”

At 23 years old, it’s no small feat that Shamir can afford to live in a three-bedroom in the city with a garden. But a lot has happened up to this point. He’s already on his third record Revelationswhich we’ll get to later—and in the years since he emerged with debut album Ratchet in 2014, his career has been one of ebbs and flows, of glittering successes and creative milestones, coupled with personal struggles and an urge to retreat from the limelight. Navigating those strange, shaky few years from your late teens to early twenties is never meant to be easy, but throw artistic difficulties and a mental health diagnosis into the mix and I’d imagine it’s even harder to see through the haze of growing pains. That said, he tells me he’s feeling good right now, in all senses of the word, but it’s taken a while to get here.

From the very beginning, Shamir’s incredible countertenor voice made people sit up and pay attention. Part fierce and fragile, part soulful and spiky, it means he can stretch and dive through pain and pleasure in the space of a single note. But as with any artist who possesses a unique talent, he was signed very quickly—in this case to XL Recordings, who wanted to work on a debut album right away. “When I started, it was literally to get a few tapes made to give to my mum so I could show her the songs that I was making in my bedroom,” he explains now, looking back. “Then when the music finally came out, all these people started talking about it. Then the crazier it got, the deeper I was in. It felt like I was digging a hole for myself and I was like, ‘I’ll just keep digging, I’ll just keep digging,’ then it was like ‘Oh, I’m 6 feet under’.” He pauses. “I got a lot of attention really fast—it was like boom, boom, boom—and then I was just touring nonstop. It felt really overbearing at the time.”

It may have felt overbearing, but the fruits of that time period are astonishing. With its glorious blend of disco, house and electro-pop, Ratchet is like a love letter to the campy glamour of his hometown, Las Vegas, while also throwing out stylistic winks to dance music’s queer, racialized roots. It’s the kind of record you’d demand someone play at 3AM at a house party; all fluttering, after-dark euphoria and rapturous tracks that smell like sweat. But while Shamir speaks about his first album with love, he says it felt more like an experiment than a reflection of his authentic self. “My first record was electronic but I didn’t produce it, and if I was left to my own devices I don’t think I would be able to produce an electronic record. I don’t even own a computer. They definitely thought they’d signed this Las Vegas party kid, but I was like… no. I’m actually a grungy little punk kid who likes hanging in my basement and listening to Hole. I’m sorry.” For his second album, he didn’t want to make another version of Ratchet. And so he and XL Recordings parted ways.

After the chaos of Ratchet, Shamir decided to take some time away from the spotlight to figure shit out. But during this time his mental health began to falter, and he wrestled with what to do with himself or how to fall back in love with music. Earlier this year, in spring, he uploaded a ten-track collection of lo-fi, guitar-led DIY recordings called Hope to Soundcloud alongside an open-hearted, anxious-sounding note that explained both his absence and change of sound. “I was gonna quit music this weekend,” it reads. “From day 1 it was clear i was an accidental pop star. I loved the idea of it, I mean who doesn’t? Still the wear of staying polished with how I’m presented and how my music was presented took a huge toll on me mentally.” In the note, he goes on to explain that people would praise the quality of the art rather than the art itself, and that didn’t feel right. “I’m not gonna lie, this album is hard to listen to, but it was even harder for me to share,” he writes at the very end.

But shortly after the release of Hope, his health took a turn for the worse and he wound up experiencing a psychotic break. According to this New York Times profile he was subsequently diagnosed with bipolar disorder. “I spent some time in a mental facility,” he tells me now, stubbing his joint out and settling back into a wicker chair in the garden. “After that, I went straight home to Las Vegas.” While people tend to think of that city as the antithesis to self-care, Shamir says that for him, it’s always been a place to unwind and recentre. “My upbringing was very country,” he explains. “A lot of people don’t realise that outside of the strip it’s all birds and desert and I grew up across the street from a pig farm and got woken up by roosters every morning. When I tell people that they’re shocked, because they think Vegas is a party city, but it’s surrounded by farm.”

As such, it was a great place for Shamir to start making art again. “I was literally writing nonstop and it was definitely very therapeutic for me as well… I didn’t have my guitar or anything, so I had this pent-up energy that I wanted to get out. And that’s how Revelations was written. It was very cathartic and just like me understanding a lot about myself; once you get a diagnosis so many other things start to make sense, you know?”

And now, here we are, a few months later, and Revelations is being released. If you only started listening to Shamir because you were into Nick Sylvester’s polished electro-house production on Ratchet, then there might not be much for you here. Like Hope, Shamir’s latest album is raw and stripped back, much of it just his glimmering vocal spread over sludgy guitar strums. But that doesn’t make it any less powerful—to me, personally, it’s my favorite thing he’s done so far. In Revelations, Shamir takes the off-kilter mechanics of grunge and twists them into catchy, pop melodies that stick with you. Rather than what you’d hear pounding on the dancefloor, these tracks are like stumbling across a secret show in some smoky basement dive bar, his captivating voice taking centre stage.

Whether Shamir is singing about how the internet generation deal with constant anxiety by tagging each other in sardonic memes on “90s Kids” (“Our parents say we’re dramatic, but they always ask for more than we do / so fuck you”) or the lingering specter of toxic masculinity among cishet dudes on “Straight Boy” (“Cause being true is not their thing / Oh, it eats them up internally”) or dealing with existential dread and what it means to be alive in “Astral Plane” (“And I'm ready for the sky to move, and beam me up to space / And I know, the world will miss me so”), each track feels like peering into somebody’s late night iPhone notes and realising they kind of resemble your own. On the surface, they seem very insular, but they also allow enough space and relatability to be intimate.

While many of the songs on Revelations were written back when Shamir was in Vegas and recovering from a personal crisis, he tells me that they still feel relevant; they still feel like his. “This feels more natural,” he says, compared to his earlier output. “The funny thing is, with this record, a lot of people close to me have said ‘this sounds like you.’ Because this is the kind of stuff I was making before I was doing electronic music. It feels more true to myself and I have poured myself completely into it. It feels like I’ve put a lot of emotional and physical labour into it. I did with my first record too, but not as much as I wanted to; I wrote it and then it felt like I gave the songs to somebody else, whereas these songs are exactly how I envisioned them.”

Stylistically, Revelations is an authentic expression of Shamir’s tastes. He tells me he’s always been into “femme-y post punk, early 80s stuff like the Slits and X-Ray Spex and the Raincoats” as well as grungier sounds like Hole. It’s something he wants to hear more of in pop music today. “Courtney Love is my idol,” he explains. “I was definitely into grunge when I was a teenager, like everyone else, but I’ve been really feeling the lack of it these days in music. Grunge music was pop music for a hot second in the 90s and that’s crazy for me to think about. As far as pop music goes, I want there to be more guitars on the radio. I miss that. And I always try to be the change in the world that I want to see.”

As our chat reaches its natural end, I ask Shamir how he feels now, compared to when he started all of this. “I’m an adult now,” he says assuredly, strolling back through the apartment and reclaiming his position on the sofa, the butterfly pin fluttering in his hair. “I was a teen when I started! I was still figuring out what I wanted and rolling with the punches and seeing where life took me. But now I know what I want and where to put my foot down and how to be bold. It’s hard to be bold when you’re the youngest person in the room. But now I know how to stand up for myself and express what I want. When you’re young, you don’t really know how to put what you want it into words… but I do now.”

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