Shamir Bailey: ‘I’ve felt different all my life. I’ve always looked weird’
20-year-old Shamir is a star in the making, with a bold, bouncy debut album of pop and r’n’b, but it all started with a love of folk and country music
Shamir Bailey isn’t the only 20-year-old kid you’ll come across who has stories to tell about his internship, though his is a little different.
The Las Vegas native was working in the offices of a New York record label and one day he copped that there was a change in the air. The other interns were staring at him strangely. One of them came over to him when he got to his desk and asked, “Are you signed to this label?”
There are not many pop stars in the making who decide to work unpaid for the label that has just signed them. For Bailey, there were a some simple, practical reasons for his course of action.
“I needed something to do with my time in between signing and making the album. I always wanted to intern at a label, but I couldn’t get it based on my own grades or anything. I figured that XL couldn’t say no to me now that they’ve signed me and if they did, I’ll be really sad.”
Bailey took a lot of notes in his time on the office floor. “I learned the process behind releasing an album. I worked with the publicist and learned about the press process and contacting people like you. I worked with the art guys and the distribution people and saw how the whole thing comes together.
“It was really cool to be so hands-on, probably more hands-on than most artists get to be. It helped especially in my case because no one really knew who I was and I wasn’t going out all the time and people didn’t really care about me. If these people are investing so much time and money in what you’re doing and you want to find out what’s going on, it’s really super-good to be that hands-on.”
When it came to the music and songs on the album, Bailey already had that licked. His first EP came about when he sent some rough and ready Soundcloud demos to Nick Sylvester at the Godmode label. Sylvester dug what he heard, brought Bailey to New York to record a release and the Northtown EP brought this pop star in the making into the limelight.
Fast-forward a year and Bailey’s debut album Ratchet is here to win you over with its charm and gumption. It’s pop music full of bounce and boldness, demonstrating all of Bailey’s musical smarts from dirty funk to croontastic r’n’b, his handiwork with hooks and melodies and his lovely, distinctive near-falsetto voice.
It’s a far cry from the music which Bailey was first kicking around a few years ago. “The first music I did was folk and country because that was the music around me and that kind of music worked best on the acoustic guitar I had. I even did a few recordings and shows, but it didn’t work because my voice didn’t suit the material.
“But all my songs still start out on the acoustic. Demon definitely started out as a country song. I wrote it on guitar, I sent it to Nick [Sylvester, who produced Ratchet] and he built around it. That’s how I write naturally to this day. I’ve always been obsessed by country and folk music and I wanted to be this weird hybrid between Laura Marling and Taylor Swift.”
That was back in his home of Northtown, a suburb north of Las Vegas. It wasn’t quite the Sin City of legend, notes Bailey. “Of course, there were slot machines in the grocery stores and convenience stores and there’s three or four casinos like the Cannery and Fiesta, but it’s totally not what people expect when they think of Vegas. It’s a small town in the middle of the city. We even have a pig farm. It was suburbia, but it had an edge to it.”
Vegas may be home to big live spectaculars and electronic dance-music superclubs, but those scenes were not for Bailey. For a start, he was too young to get in so he spent his time soaking up “the mad energy” at DIY and punk shows and checking out the city’s alternative scene.
“Downtown was where you could find more alternative people. You’d punk rock bowling and things like that. It was definitely more progressive than the Strip, which is superficial and touristy. We pretty much stayed away from the Strip because there was nothing there for us.”
Bailey’s embrace of dance music, then, didn’t come about through the EDM scene which currently soundtracks Vegas and other US cities. “What I knew as dance music was EDM and I really didn’t like it at all. It was the kind of music they played at the hotel pool parties on the Strip and it was horrible.
“I was trying to do something pop and melodic and when I was shown house music, I went ‘oh yeah, I want to do this’. It was a relief to know that I was able to find this music and put a name on it. I loved the melodic aspect of house music pretty much right away.
“But I didn’t want to go too deep into it because Nick was already well versed in it. I think the fresh vibes in my music come from the fact that I’m not immersed in the house and disco scene and I’ve also taken inspiration from a bunch of music outside those genres.”
Shake it off
He’s still getting used to hearing what other people are hearing in his music.
“When people mention influences that are actually influences, that’s the coolest thing. It’s kind of weird to think that all the voices I listened to and liked when I was growing up now form a part of what I do and my voice. Music and sound are very powerful things and how they get into your head and personality and mannerisms is amazing.”
Bailey says producer Sylvester played a strong role in how Ratchet turned out because he could make sense of what the young singer wanted to do. “It’s often hard for me to get my ideas into one cohesive thing as I like so many different things. He made it so easy for me to pull from a different bunch of genres and inspirations.”
Lyrically, the album deals with the ins and outs of a teenager coming of age complete with love songs, break-up songs and songs about being misunderstood.
“I never was horribly, horribly bullied, but I’ve felt different all my life. I’ve always looked weird my whole life so I definitely jarred on some people.
“It’s almost like shocking how hard it is to hurt my feelings. I’ve never ever cared. It’s a good way of dealing with it. You can trash talk as much as you want about me if that makes you happy, but nothing you can say is going to bring me down.”
Bailey giggles. It’s unlikely then that anything which is going to come his way in the next few months and years is going to phase him all that much. His main focus now is on the live show and that’s a relatively new experience from him, both as a performer and a fan.
“I don’t have live show experiences to act as influences because most of the shows in Vegas were 21 and over so I didn’t get to as many concerts as I’d like to have done. It’s only recently that I’ve started going to and seeing more live shows. When it comes to my own show, I just get onstage and vibe with the crowd.
“My show depends on the crowd and if the vibe is good, you’re in for a good show.”
Shamir Bailey on some of the singers who have influenced him
“I listened to a lot of people like Nina Simone and other androgynous voices to make me feel like I’m not alone. She had a very distinctive voice, which I’m sure she got a lot of flak for. But she knew how to use her voice, even though it was unusual.
“My favourite singer ever is Ari Up from The Slits, her voice is amazing.
“I covered Lindi Ortega’s Lived and Died Alone because I really liked her approach to the song and about not wanting to be alone. It’s like a perfect song for me.”