Las Vegas is a weird place. As you approach along the razor-straight stretch of road from the city’s airport, stitched together imitations of foreign cultural landmarks jut out of the desert surroundings one-by-one. It’s a place both overtly flamboyant and yet somewhat devoid of its own identity – a mirage of flat-packed culture which can take you from the stoic romanticism of the Eiffel Tower to the grandeur of the Statue of Liberty with a simple left turn of the head. It’s here that a young Shamir Bailey found his niche.
“There aren’t really musical scenes out here,” he explains from the sofa of his Nevada home. “When I grew up listening to music, and started becoming a music-head, I was just listening to a bunch of music that wouldn’t be around me otherwise, because no one else was really listening to music outside of the radio. Being genreless has always been something that was instilled in me, because scenes pretty much don’t exist where I’m from. I never think about ‘who’ listens to it, I’m just like, ‘oh, I like this song! And I listen to it!’”
He laughs at the simplicity of his personal music curation, but being unrestrained by the idea of genres or scenes has granted Shamir’s debut full length ‘Ratchet’ an interesting setting. Sitting somewhere between bubblegum pop and club-ready dance music, and yet skipping through every other genre under the sun along the way, it’s a debut that reads like a personal checklist for the energetic young buzz-blog graduate. The ear for a pop melody that threads throughout, however, suggests his radio-centric friends might be tuning in before long.
“I wanted something different for everyone,” he explains. “I wanted people to leave the album saying ‘I at least liked one song’ and ‘I at least vibed with one song’. I’m very proud of that – I felt that even though the album is very eclectic and has a bunch of different sounds, it still has a very cohesive aesthetic and it’s not too jarring of a sound.”
“It’s crazy to think that I’ve only really made this music for a little over a year.”
That consistency is something he willingly attributes to his manager and co-producer Nick Sylvester of Brooklyn record label GODMODE, and a writing process that was “pretty much 50/50” in the share of duties - the vocals that aren’t in Shamir’s signature, high-pitched countertenor voice? That’s Nick. The little embellishments and flourishes? Nick again.
“Each song starts off different,” says Shamir of the collaborative process. “I might write on guitar and I’d send him a demo and he’d write around that, or a quick little drum machine demo and he’ll work around that. Or he’ll send me demos that he’s done, and I’ll write around that. For the most part, the lyrics are me, and the little ad-libs and low voices and things, those are usually Nick. He usually just adds into his production, which is good, because when I write my lyrics I have to be completely alone. It’s good that he’s fine with the idea of bringing each other stuff – we come together and build around it, as opposed to building from scratch, because we both work really well in isolation.”
They’re a truly inseparable duo, so much so that Nick and his GODMODE ties came as “kind of a package deal” once XL came to Shamir with an offer following debut EP ‘Northtown’’s runaway success last summer. “It’s not like it was a switch,” Shamir clarifies of the jump to the indie super-label; “it’s kind of just like adding to the family.”
“I always wanted to intern,” he continues; possibly the only time those words have willingly left a young adult’s mouth. But intern he did, mucking in at XL’s New York office between recording sessions – an experience which kept him grounded in the business of things, and with his eyes on the prize after ‘Northtown’ and its mega-hit single ‘On The Regular’ went stratospheric.
“It’s crazy to think that I’ve only really made this music for a little over a year, and within that year I’ve had an EP out, I’ve recorded an album, and that album is soon to come out,” he beams. “It seems really fast when I look at it in hindsight, but it felt very gradual in a very good way, for me.”
“House music was something new to me.”
It was a gradual learning experience in more ways than one though, with Shamir and Nick’s twosome provoking some profound musical epiphanies.
“I never really listened to electronic music, or disco, or house music,” he confesses. “I used to absolutely be so annoyed by disco music, actually! It wasn’t until I got my drum machine and I started to experiment with it, and then I came to Nick and showed him some demos, and he was like ‘oh, you must listen to a lot of house music’ – at this time I thought I was just doing something that had never been done before, something completely new. And he was like ‘no, this is house music!’ so I was like ‘okay, what is house music?!’”
“He kind of schooled me, and put me up on game. And I was like oh wow – I guess I kind of was doing this. ‘Cause coming from Vegas, electronic music to me was EDM music and the stuff they play on the Strip and in the pools – like Diplo and Aviicii, and all that stuff. House music was something new to me. And it was something very old and something Nick really loved, and already had such a huge knack for. So bringing it together was good for him because it was an old love and it was very nostalgic for him. It was also a challenge for me, because it was almost experimental and something new and a new way to push myself as a musician.”
It’s that idea of constantly pushing both himself and his boundaries that makes Shamir one of pop’s most exciting prospects. ‘Ratchet’’s piecemeal approach to music making may skip from genre-to-genre - cultural reference point to cultural reference point - but with Shamir’s vocal signature tying it all together, it never feels as disjointed as the skyline of his Vegas home.
“I think that’s kind of where the uniqueness of my music comes from… the fact that with the type of music that I do, I don’t really have too many influences for - because I really don’t listen to that type of music. I think that kind of takes away from sounding like a copycat. It’s completely fresh - at least to me.
“I also like to have different mixes of genres in my music as kind of an homage,” he ponders. “You know, showing where I came from and what I listened to – the type of music that got me to the point where I am now.” As he makes his move from Las Vegas to New York and from the blog world to a potential storming of the charts, it’s not where he is now, but where he’s heading, that should really pique Shamir’s imagination.
Taken from the May issue of DIY, out now. Shamir’s debut album ‘Ratchet’ will be released on 18th May via XL Recordings.