Shamir greets me with a hug. He’s just finished soundchecking at London’s intimate Courtyard Theatre, where later he’ll play his first ever UK show for an audience peppered with label heads, music journalists and radio DJs. After the bouncy, Technicolor rap of his breakthrough hit ‘On The Regular’ and the soulful strut of ‘I Know It’s A Good Thing’, one of NME’s Top Tracks of 2014, there’s a gathering consensus that Shamir just might be The Next Big Thing.
Surrounded by hype, the 20-year-old from Las Vegas couldn’t be further from the ambitious diva-in-the-making you might imagine. Shamir is a sweet, shy, androgynous kid who describes his perfect Saturday night as getting into bed and “curling up with my headphones, blasting Natalia Kills and crying”.
Despite being from Las Vegas, he grew up in a world very different to the bright lights of the Strip. His debut EP ‘Northtown’, released last June, was named after the area he calls home. “It’s nothing but dirt, housing complexes and a pig farm that stinks up the whole town,” he says. “I’m from the desert!”
He says he “stuck out like a sore thumb” at school “because of the way I dress, the way I look, the way I talk… I decided I’d give them something to look at, so I came to school dressed crazy and did my hair a different way every day”. His attitude won him a measure of acceptance, his classmates eventually naming him ‘Best Dressed’ and ‘Most Likely To Appear On The Cover Of Vogue’. He was even nominated for prom king. “I didn’t go to prom, because I was too punk,” he says. “But if I ran I feel like I would have slayed them.”
He avoided parties, instead channelling his energy into songwriting. He’d been inspired by his aunt, a paralegal who wrote poems as a hobby. Shamir started writing songs at the age of eight, taught himself guitar at nine and by 13 had accompanied himself at his school’s talent show. “I was the only person who didn’t use a backing track,” he says. “That was my breakout performance.”
As a teen he discovered punk bands like The Slits, Vivian Girls and GG Allin. His band Anorexia, formed with his friend Christina Thompson on bass, won him blog buzz, but when she left to pursue rap, Shamir began work on solo material on a Dr Groove drum machine. “My friends freaked out when I posted ‘I’ll Never Be Able To Love’ on Facebook,” he says. It’s not hard to imagine why. Gone was his early scrappy punk sound; in its place a full-blooded gospel voice that shocks and swells and soars.
Shamir put a handful of these demos online and sent them to labels, hoping to make 50 tapes. Nick Sylvester, of fledgling Brooklyn label Godmode, tells me that hearing them “knocked me on my ass”. He says: “I remember the email: ‘I’m an 18-year-old kid from Las Vegas who makes music.’ There was something so humble and honest about the way Shamir presented himself – not just that note but the tracks, too. They were super raw and unpolished and entirely without guile, just Shamir singing over ragged drum machine loops. I wrote back to him immediately. He told me he was planning to move to Arkansas to work on a farm. I told him to come to New York first just to see if we liked working together. It was just supposed to be a cassette release, then he’d go back to that farm. Now here we are.”
Shamir did indeed have a job lined up in Rogers, Arkansas, a sleepy town of 50,000 people. “There’s a lot of retirement homes there, so I was going to live there with a bunch of old people,” he says. “That was living the dream for me.”
Instead he took the money he had saved for his move and went to New York, although it had never been an ambition to live in the Big Apple. “It’s kinda too much for me. But at that point I’d just graduated high school and I was living at home. When the opportunity came to go to New York, I knew a lot of people would die for that chance, so I took it.”
He’s not exactly become a concrete jungle native just yet. “I’ve been to a couple of big parties, but I ended up getting ID-ed and kicked out,” he says. “Being underage back in home in Vegas, there’s not much for me and my friends to do other than go to my room, drink and talk about life. My alcohol tolerance is pretty high, so it’s been great not to have to hide it [in Europe]. I’ve been having a beer onstage!”
That evening, he does indeed have a can of Red Stripe onstage, but that’s not what people will remember the show for. During the penultimate song of his set, he clambers down offstage and heads into the audience to greet as many of them as he can with a hug, just as he had with me. Even within this extroverted display there’s a hesitancy that reveals his shyness, as if he’s still coming to terms with his place in the limelight. After a full five minutes of hugging, he climbs back onstage to finish with a show-stopping a cappella performance of ‘I’ll Never Be Able To Love’. Shamir’s voice fills the room, sounding unmistakably like the Next Big Thing – whether he’s planned it or not.
“I have absolutely no ambition,” he’d said earlier. “My goal has already been exceeded. I just want to make good music. That’s it. That’s what I care about.”
Shamir is one of NME’s artists to watch in 2015. Read this week’s magazine and check back on NME.com through the week for more interviews with the most exciting new acts this year