Las Vegas teen Shamir Bailey might just be one of the most exciting propositions in music right now. With new EP 'Northtown' out on Godmode – the fledgling New York label that's doing everything right in 2014 – and live dates on the horizon, writer Alex Denney caught up with him to chew the fat for a piece that's published in this week's magazine. Listen to the EP below, and after the jump read more as Shamir chats candidly the day before playing his debut solo show, part of a Godmode showcase in Brooklyn.
NME: Hi Shamir, you’re playing your first solo show tomorrow night in Brooklyn, are you nervous at all? I read that your last debut show, with your band Anorexia, was a bit of a disaster...
Shamir Bailey: I don’t really get nervous. When I was with my band it’s in the back of your head, simply because you have to worry about sound and all of that [Anorexia were a duo with Shamir on guitar], but now that I have a lot of back-up behind me I can just go up there free-spirited.
NME: Speaking of Anorexia, why on earth did you call yourselves that?
SB: We got our first show three months into forming and we didn’t have a name, they were making a poster and they asked us if we had a name and we were like ‘no’. They gave us like two hours to come up with a name. So it was random, my friend just came up with it. It was really only supposed to be temporary, but we were lazy and we just stuck with it.
NME: Your new EP [‘Northtown’] is mostly made up of electronic material, but you started out playing guitar music. How did you get into dance?
SB: I’m not really sure, I’ll tell you when I find out!
NME: Er! Seriously though, did someone introduce you or what?
SB: I wasn’t even introduced when I was doing it. I mean, I come from a folk and country background. My first time doing music was on acoustic guitar, I had a friend from Texas who taught me so much country, I entered a few country competitions. But eventually I got tired of it. Not because I was tired of country music, it was just the people around me wanted to take me and do that very current young Taylor Swift pop-country route and I really wasn’t feeling it.
NME: Who were you working with?
SB: A few local producers in Vegas. I would go to the studio and listen back to these songs and be like, ‘I sound horrible!’ And the producers would say, ‘That’s how you sound...’ People just aren’t really good at their jobs, they’re not really good at producing, and they blame it on you! For the longest time I thought I couldn’t even sing, that’s how bad the recordings were.”
NME: What was the problem? Was the production style not a natural fit for your voice?
SB: Exactly. My voice, it’s a very vintage-sounding thing, and it’s just not gonna fit in with the sound of today’s pop-country. I still sing a lot of that stuff, but it sounds very old [when I do it], that’s just my voice. I’m not gonna be able to sing a Taylor Swift song exactly like Taylor Swift, you know? And so I was getting real tired of that. I listened to everything and I’d always listened to a lot of punk stuff, but I was really inspired to do it after hearing the Vivian Girls, they’re my favourite band, period. Because even though it’s punk they still have a lot of pop melodies, I was really drawn to it, and that’s how Anorexia came about. Then last summer we went on hiatus because the other member [Christina Thompson] was experimenting with more rap stuff, and I was listening to a lot of pop stuff at the time, like CocknBullKid, Robyn, Marina & The Diamonds… I got handed down this drum machine from my dad’s godbrother, and I was just experimenting, I shared a song on SoundCloud with my friends and they all freaked out, so then I sent it to Nick [Sylvester, founder of New York label Godmode] and he freaked out also! Literally within two or three months I was out in New York recording with him. It was very natural, I had no background of dance music.
NME: Did it feel like a big step flying out to New York to record with Nick?
SB: Of course not! I’d just graduated from high school, I was living at home so I didn’t have anything to lose, if it all went to shit while I was out there I could always go back home. So it was easy for me to make that job.
NME: What did Nick have to say about your demo, exactly? Did he have a good pitch?
SB: He said it was kind of like an R&B ‘Yeezus’. I felt like that was a huge compliment, it was enough to get me on the plane and make me go across the country.
NME: Do the songs as they appear on the EP differ hugely from demos?
SB: No, they’re pretty much identical. That’s what I loved about Nick, he didn’t really change anything, he embellished it more, he got them to open up and bring more warmth and light to them.
NME: Your voice is obviously a big part of what you do, can you remember the first time you sang in front of someone who wasn’t either a friend or member of your family?
SB: I can, it was in second grade. I was doing a little talent show, and I was like, ‘I can sing... I think!’ I sang ‘Emotional Rollercoaster’ by a singer called Vivian Green, she’s a soul singer. The teacher liked it so I was like, maybe I can do this. But then I tried singing for my mom a little later and she told me it was kinda horrible, ha ha. But I’m a person she can’t tell no [to], so I was like, ‘I’m gonna prove her wrong one day’, and she’s glad I did.
NME: You mentioned in a previous interview your love of Nina Simone, and how you liked listening to androgynous singers to “make me feel like I’m not alone”. Were you able to take a lot from that?
SB: Nina Simone had such an androgynous voice, the first time I listened to her I thought it was a man and I’m sure a lot of people listening to me think I’m a woman. Her voice is kinda like the poster child for me. But when I first heard her I was a little boy, I had no idea that when I grew up I was going to have an androgynous voice like her, I thought I was going to have a normal voice. But it’s funny reflecting about that now, how much more profound it would have been listening to her knowing what I know now.
NME: Are there any other singers you look up to or admire?
SB: My favourite singer ever in the world is Ari Up from The Slits, her voice is amazing to me. It’s carefree, but it’s also really amazing. I just like unique voices like Billie Holiday, Joanna Newsom...
NME: You’ve said before North Las Vegas is quite a boring environment to grow up in, but the video for ‘Sometimes A Man’ does a great job making the local landscape look psychedelic and even a little threatening, was that the idea?
SB: Yeah it’s funny you should say threatening because it is very threatening. It’s very roughing it, but it’s also very rural, it’s full of wildlife. This last week it’s funny, me and my friends were at the store and there’s a lot of barren land around all the houses and stuff. We looked over into the distance and I see a dog, and I’m like, ‘Ahh, look at the cute dog!’ and my friend’s like, ‘That’s a fucking wolf.’ I was gonna go up and pet it! But we have lizards and bobcats, bats and stuff. You gotta be careful with that. But even though it’s boring, I love nature, we go see caves and hike almost every week, that’s pretty much the fun part of living there, you can lose yourself in that. But for a normal person there’s not much to do. Just for partying or even just going out, like having a drink or whatever we don’t even have that. You have to do stuff yourself.
NME: There’s also a house in the video with what appear to be bloodstains all over the wall, what was that about?
SB: We were debating on that, I feel like it was blood, I feel like someone died in there and that’s why the house was abandoned. I had a vibe, and it definitely looked like blood. The director was like, ‘Maybe it’s paint’, and I was like, ‘Why is there paint on the floor? Just splattered like that?’ But the place is on the way to these caves we go to hike to and chill in.
NME: The song seems to carry a certain element of threat too, especially the line “Sometimes a man ain’t what he says he is” — what were you inspired by there?
SB: For me the song is kinda talking about how everyone’s the same. Not in a bad or vulgar way, like everyone’s not unique. But just in that everyone is capable of doing what the next person can do. Even going into prophets in religion, people in the bible and stuff like that, [those people] were just like us, like sometimes a man or a woman can do extraordinary things but we’re all physically the same.
NME: Did you have a religious upbringing?
SB: Yeah, I was brought up Muslim actually. I was brought up in the Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan was always on the TV at home. I’m more spiritual than religious, I don’t believe in god per se, I kind of feel like god is the universe.
NME: What’s Las Vegas actually like, beyond the casinos and stuff? Is it quite a conservative place?
SB: Yeah it actually really is. The part I’m from, everyone’s pretty much cookie-cutter, suburban... There’s a huge Mormon community, there are always missionaries on their bikes and stuff like that.
NME: The Lindi Ortega cover (‘Lived And Died Alone’) and ‘I’ll Never Be Able To Love’ seem to share a fear of loneliness, is that a theme you’re particularly drawn to with your work?
SB: It’s funny that you should make a connection with those, because that’s why I wanted to do the Lindi Ortega cover. I discovered it just after I came back from New York recording ‘I’ll Never Be Able To Love’, and when I hear her song, it was just like, they’re really on the same wavelength, it’s pretty much the same song when you think about it. So I was like, ‘I have to cover it, and put it at the end.’ And also it shows my old acoustic background, because anyone knows that I have to play guitar. That’s my therapy, if I don’t play it for a while I get withdrawals, it’s really bad. I feel like [Lindi’s] song is more about wanting to not be alone, and she uses a very gothic approach about digging up the dead. I think it’s a very perfect song. But ‘I’ll Never Be Able To Love’, a lot of people think it’s completely about loneliness, and it’s not so much about me being lonely, it’s more about me wanting... I have a lot of friends, people are naturally very drawn to me, but I’m very introverted in a way. Like, if I have the choice to go out and do something or stay home and stay in my head [I’ll stay at home] and that’s kind of the song, it’s me battling with that and trying to get out and live with people again. Because for the longest time, I would just be inside all the time. Not even because I didn’t have friends or anything, I just chose to. I have a cousin, he’s very much like that too, but he wasn’t blessed with the same draw and appeal that I have to people, and one day he just sat me down and said, ‘You know how lucky you [are to] have it? People are naturally drawn to you, wanna go out with you and you keep turning them down and you’re in your room right now?’ And that really hit me, because it was like, ‘OK, I’m being selfish’, and that’s how that song came about. It’s me just trying to live in the world, deal with people and stuff like that.
NME: Your Twitter handle claims you’re also a “comedian, singer, rapper, twerker, chef, writer, and filmmaker”, among other things, can you back any of that stuff up?
SB: I do comedy here and there, I do a lot of screenwriting and short films with my friends.
NME: Like sit-com stuff? Sketches?
SB: I was doing a lot of footage with my friends, we’d do like little scenarios and act it out, just fun stuff, stuff for me to practice with, dip my feet in.
NME: Is there anything I can look at online?
SB: There’s one thing on Funny Or Die, it’s called ‘Cave Dwellers’.
NME: In terms of your music, it sounds like you have a lot of different styles you want to play around with — how do you think you’ll make it all work together on future releases?
SB: I don’t think about it. I don’t look at music as a technical thing. I don’t listen to music with my ears, music to me is kind of past that. It’s a spiritual experience. Which is why me and Nick work so well together, it’s like a yin and yang thing. Because it’s good to think like that, the technical side to music’s also an important thing, and sometimes I just don’t wanna be bothered with it. And I think that’s where Nick comes in, and I’m very lucky for that.
Pick up this week's issue of NME (dated June 28) to read Shamir's Radar feature. Also, click here to read him talking about his hometown in Vegas.