Exclusive: The Androgynous Dance-Pop of Shamir

Flopped on a fluffy, mustard sofa, 20-year-old Shamir Bailey has spent the previous hour alone in the artist lounge at XL Recordings in SoHo. When I walk in, he leaps up and greets me with a hug and an animated story about Gilmore Girls. Was he watching the show on his phone, I ask. “Oh no,” he says, sitting back down and taking a swig of water, “I’ve just been hiding in here singing.”

A self-described introvert, Shamir has always relished his own company. As a kid growing up in suburban Las Vegas, he’d lock himself away for hours, teaching himself acoustic guitar and later, writing songs. Once he discovered his voice – a mesmerizing, androgynous countertenor that critics have been swooning over since the release of his debut single ‘If It Wasn’t True’ – and his knack for crafting dance-pop tunes with a disco bent, he figured he’d give music a proper go. His debut EP Northtown, released in June, cemented his status as a star on the rise, while his eclectic sound has garnered praise from all corners of the globe. Milk Made joined him on the sofa to chat about everything from his upbringing in Las Vegas and finding his voice to accepting himself and his love of Taylor Swift.

How much did growing up in Vegas influence your writing and your style?

Oh, I’m definitely a desert child. Vegas is a very flamboyant place, but the people who actually live there aren’t necessarily that way. I guess because you see so much flamboyance, you tone it down a bit, but I never did. I try and wear as much color as possible [laughs]. That was my thing in high school – lots of color. If I’m in all black and my hair is down, it’s probably not a good day.

So we can tell your mood from your hair.

Literally! I mean, my hair is usually down when I’m lounging and the other day, this guy in my building came up to me and said ‘Hi, I’m Ernie, nice to meet you’ and I was like, ‘I know you’re Ernie! We’ve met a bunch of times already!’ He didn’t recognize me. I’m two different people with my hair up or down.

You’re a man of many moods.

I am! I’m a chameleon [laughs].

Tell us a little about how you found your way into music.

My aunt was a huge inspiration for me. I was raised with my mum and her twin – my aunt – and it was a cool way to grow up. It was a very free flow type of vibe. Nobody in my family plays. My aunt isn’t musical, she doesn’t sing, she just writes beautiful poems and I was like, well, my aunt is writing, so I want to write. I started writing and around middle school, she realized that I could actually write songs. I taught myself to play guitar decently so she scooped me up for her own reasons, you know: ‘Shamir, will you sing this for me?’ ‘Shamir, will you arrange this for me?’ We vibe very well and we became a songwriting team. She co-wrote three songs on the album.

Where do you get ideas for songs?

Sometimes I find inspiration comes out of nowhere. I wrote a song about GG Allin, one of my favorite punk singers, just because I felt his presence on me [laughs]. Other times, they’re about life and relationships. I feel like my songs are very coming-of-age. I want them to have a vulnerability to them.

Right. Because even though they’re up tempo, they often have introspective lyrics.

Yeah totally. I wanted to bring that to pop music, to have people dance to it but have sad lyrics. I like that combination. Just because it’s a sad song doesn’t mean you should sit around and mope. Dance the sadness away [laughs].

Your voice has been described as a hybrid of Nina Simone and a young Michael Jackson. Do you think that’s true?

Well, I grew up on Nina Simone and Michael Jackson obviously, but back home my friends describe my voice as part Bjork, part Stevie Nicks, which I like too. A lot of the people I’ve been compared to are people I listened to growing up, so the fact that people hear that back in my voice is amazing to me. Those people taught me how to sing. I never had training, I just used to sit down and listen to Nina Simone records and mimic.

Has the focus on your androgyny ever bothered you?

It bothered me at first. I think a lot of people think that my androgyny is like a gimmick or something I decided to use as a shtick, but honestly, I’d be walking down the street and get mistaken for a girl. It was weird for me because I only wear menswear but I don’t know…I guess I have softer features. At first it was weird and annoying because it wasn’t something that I chose, it’s just me. Eventually I thought, ‘well this is naturally me so I need to embrace it’ and I did and went full force with it. Androgyny figures like Nina Simone and Andreja Pejić are amazing. Andreja really inspired me to just embrace it. I think gender is very relative. It’s not a black and white topic like people make it seem. There’s a gray area. I think when a lot of people think of androgyny, they think of gender bending. I think of it as being right down the middle: equal parts feminine and masculine, and that’s how it’s been perceived in my voice. Half the people think it’s a guy singing and half think it’s a girl. I think I have both qualities in my voice. There’s a duality.

Do you like performing live?

I’m horrible!

I don’t believe that.

I am! I mean, okay, I’m not going to say I’m a horrible performer, but the music is hype, you could stand there and just sing and still get hype, you know? That’s pretty much what I do, I feel like the music is very danceable and literally every show the crowd is dancing and I just stand there and sing.

So you feel like the music speaks for itself?

Yeah. I am a performer and I want to have a good presence but at the same time, it’s great because everybody is just partying. Everyone in the crowd is dancing – not one person is still but me. And I’m helping them do that, that’s my job. I just want to sing, not have everybody pay attention to just me.

How did you come to record ‘Lived and Died Alone’, that beautiful Lindi Ortega cover?

It’s such a beautiful song. When I first started singing, I would often play country and folk songs because my first instrument was an acoustic guitar. I was a huge fan of Lindi Ortega for the longest, and I had just come back from New York after recording ‘If It Wasn’t True’ and ‘I’ll Never Be Able to Love’ and I was on the bus in Vegas listening to Lindi Ortega’s new album and that song came on and I was just like, on the bus crying. So when I came back to New York to finish up the EP, I was like, ‘I have to do this cover’. My producer sat the microphone in the middle of the room and I just played guitar and sang it.

Where do you find inspiration?

I just always stay open to things. There’s never just one way. I get tones of inspiration from Taylor Swift, though. I wrote the whole album in a Taylor Swift notebook! If I could collab with Taylor Swift I would die.

Should we put that in the story? She might see it, you never know…

Oh my god, yes. Imagine! I would die. Taylor Swift and Sia. I feel like if I could write a song with Sia, that would be amazing. My goal in life as a musician right now is to literally just be Sia. Hopefully I’ll eventually be able to hide my face if I get too big and just write all these amazing pop songs for all these really big pop artists. That’s the dream for me.

Photography by Mitchell Mclennan, creative direction by Paul Bui

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