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‘I want people to see a new way to make pop music.’ Inside Shamir’s incredible musical journey

After five wild years of musical experimentation, Shamir has finally found his most pure sound yet. What to expect from his just-announced new album.

‘I want people to see a new way to make pop music.’ Inside Shamir’s incredible musical journey
[Photo: courtesy of Shamir Bailey]

Nobody was supposed to hear Cataclysm, the most recent album by ethereal-voiced chameleon Shamir Bailey.

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It was one of the handful of projects the artist, who mostly just goes by Shamir, recorded in order to purge it from his head, and which he never intended to see the light of day. The dirge-rock collection seemed only too appropriate, though, for the onset of COVID-19, so he released it on Bandcamp in the middle of March.

Dark rhythms for dark times.

Shamir’s next release also felt appropriate for the pandemic, but in a much different way.

A few months after Cataclysm, on June 10, he put out a video for the much sunnier, poppier new single, “On My Own,” an unabashed quarantine banger. He’d written the song well before the COVID era, a salute to post-breakup resiliency, but it took on a different, more defiant meaning with listeners who had been indoors for months, swimming in Purell. The song earned rave reviews everywhere from the Wall Street Journal to Vice, setting the stage for the ever-evolving artist’s most accessible album in ages.

When it arrives, it will be the culmination of one musician’s long, eclectic journey to find the purest sound possible.

[Photo: courtesy of Shamir Bailey]
The forthcoming Shamir, just announced on Thursday and due in October, is self-titled because it’s Shamir’s truest expression of self yet. The decision to call the label he founded last year, “Accidental Popstar,” however, is a wink to how his first album created a false sonic identity.

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Prior to releasing the breakout indie hit, Ratchet, in 2015, Shamir played in a Las Vegas punk duo called Anorexia (“I hate that name,” he says in a phone conversation.) After sending in demos of some “electronic goth-pop” he was dabbling with on the side, though, the then 19-year old flew out to Brooklyn to make some songs with the microlabel Godmode. These blippy dance tracks, influenced by house music, got Shamir a deal with XL Records. The album that ultimately came from them, Ratchet, rocked the Pitchfork faithful upon its release, and turned Shamir into the darling of a scene he wasn’t much interested in being a part of.

With nothing that resembled Ratchet Part 2 in earshot, Shamir’s label dropped him within two years. The artist then discarded a couple first attempts at a followup, before making and releasing the sophomore set, Hope, in one sleepless weekend. It was a guitar-heavy retreat from the sound that put him on the map. Shamir then spent the next few years opting for fuzzy distortion, patient torch songs, and even occasional bits of acoustic twang. In addition to starting Accidental Popstar as a way to develop new artists with the kind of grooming he wishes he’d had, Shamir has kept busy lately writing a TV column at Talkhouse, cameoing in Netflix’s Dear White People, and supplying the voice of Draca the impossibly cool houseplant for Tuca and Bertie.

As he prepared to announce his self-titled new album with the single, “I Wonder,” this week, Fast Company caught up with Shamir to talk about his new musical direction, his creative process, and what comes next.

Being an artist on your own terms

Reading interviews with Shamir from the Ratchet promotional cycle, the artist is very up front about what kind of music he’d rather be making than the kind he’d just put out. Shamir’s output ever since has proven he meant what he said, but back then, nobody seemed to believe him.

“If I had the chance to make that album again, I’d change basically the whole thing,” Shamir says. “Like, I wouldn’t have gone through with it. It was cool, but electronic music was not my wheelhouse. And the only reason why I agreed to do it is because I looked at it as an experiment and without really realizing the impact that it would have as my first outing as an artist. I think everyone thought I would be blinded by the success that would come and then I’d just, like, capitulate. That was the furthest thing from the truth. So shame on them for not thinking I was serious.”

A one-person band well before quarantine

On My Own [Photo: courtesy of Shamir Bailey]
Shamir has always been the quintessential DIY artist, teaching himself guitar at an early age, and whatever instruments proved necessary afterward. Although he tours as a three-piece band, Shamir mostly tends to record alone, with a four-track, playing all the parts himself.

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His process during the pandemic is nearly identical to the way it was before.

“I’m a jack-of-all-trades and really master of none, except for guitar—and even then, barely,” the artist says. “The music-making process has been, like, a very ‘bottle of Sherry’ pastime for me. I think a lot of it is just working my way around these instruments to get these ideas down and then, why spend the extra money to hire someone and teach them the parts? Might as well just play them myself. I’m not, like, the best, but studio magic is real. Most of the baselines in my songs, because I’m so bad at bass and drums too, are usually super chopped up and Frankensteined. For these new songs, I worked with three different producers, but I also self-recorded a lot of it. We emailed back and forth collaborations. That’s kind of what’s normal for me, so not much has changed since quarantine.”

Postmidnight is the most creative time of the day

When other people are getting ready for bed, Shamir is getting ready to start recording for the day. The new album was largely a nocturnal affair.

“A lot of the new songs were written back home, just being super inspired from my night out, purging these songs before I go to sleep, and then waking up and listening to what came out of me because I barely knew what I was doing,” Shamir says. “I am a night owl, through and through. For as long as I can remember, since I was a child, nighttime has always been my time. That’s when I do everything. My brain can’t really function during the day. I have a whole new IQ during the day. And it’s not that I don’t like the daytime, because I do, especially when it’s nice and sunny and I can enjoy it on an external sense, but I always feel the most foggy during the day. Then, as soon as it’s midnight, my brain is just like, ‘Okay, we’re live. We’re here, let’s do this.'”

Wanting to DIY in a bigger sandbox

Although Shamir self-releasing his forthcoming album—and feels comfortable doing it—the ultimate goal is for it to make a big enough splash that he won’t have to self-release the next one.

“I want to work with another label again, if it makes sense, and get back to basic industry things,” Shamir says. “I’d rather use all of my resources and income for my artists instead of digging into that for myself. But it’s always great to have more resources if you can. I just want to make a record with a bunch of resources one day, because even with Ratchet, my budget was still really small because I was a new artist and virtually unknown. I want to make an album one day with an actual budget. I would like to know what that’s like, because I don’t.”

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[Photo: courtesy of Shamir Bailey]

Accessibility without compromise

Not long before Shamir started planning for the new album, which he plans to release without a label, he parted ways with his management. Stumped for a way to communicate his preferred path toward the next phase of his career, Shamir decided to chart the course alone.

“I had a clear vision, and you can’t really explain something that’s never been done,” he says. “I went in knowing I wanted to make a more commercial record again, because I felt like it was time. It had been five years and I thought people were kind of, just like ‘Oh, he can only do this weird shit.’ No, I just wanted to take a break. I can make a pop record. I think I just wanted to prove to myself that I can make a pop record with the setup that I have now, without compromising. I also just want people to see a new way to make pop music. I don’t think any of my music is really too groundbreaking, except for the fact that it’s insanely sincere, which, I guess, is unfortunately groundbreaking. My sincerity is all I have.”

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