Shamir Interview: On ‘Ratchet’, Androgyny And Growing Up In Las Vegas

“Welcome to the Las Vegas that God passed over,” says Shamir. We’re in Northtown, a suburb of Sin City that’s a world away from the infamous gamblers’ paradise of the Las Vegas Strip. It’s a place so far on the edge that it’s near Area 51, the restricted section of a US Air Force base where – if you believe the conspiracy theorists – the US government keeps its alien invaders. Pocket-sized soul-pop-hip-hop singer Shamir Bailey was born in Northtown, fittingly to a teenage hippy mother who believed she was an alien in a past life.

Touted as the blueprint for the super-modern star – the effortlessly androgynous end-point of 40 years of dance-pop – the 20-year-old’s highly anticipated debut is a 10-track seedy-disco trip into his hometown’s forgotten fringes called ‘Ratchet’, shaped by the musical and economic constraints Las Vegas places on its young. ‘Make A Scene’ is an anthem for bored, reckless teens like his roommates, “weird-ass rockers” River and Andrew. “It’s about being underage in America,” he enthuses. “We’re adults, pay taxes, live alone, work, can join the army… but we can’t have a drink?” The bass-y house of opener ‘Vegas’ plays off the Strip’s cliches and glamorous lies. ‘Call It Off’ is about cutting all the negative influences out of life, be they dead-end jobs or bad lovers. Highlight track ‘Demon’ was written when he was bored working at budget clothes store Ross. “If I’m a demon, baby, you’re the beast that made me”, he sings, relieved there’s salvation in music.

Today, Shamir is bringing the songs to life for us via a guided tour of his local haunts, including the ‘bro pad’ he shares with River and Andrew when he’s not in New York working with indie label Godmode, who snapped him up for the 2014 ‘Northtown’ EP after his bedroom drum-machine pop found its way to them. The house is a box opposite a pig farm surrounded by miles of identical buildings. Inside, it has fairy lights, Jack White posters, empty beer cans and an upturned bicycle that Andrew traded for 10 cigarettes. Then there’s the creperie, where he goes to “act European” – chain smoke and drink espressos. It’s also where he used to gig, because there was nowhere else to play. “The city government ensures all money goes to the Strip,” he says. “We locals are left to our own devices.”

After school, Shamir’s friends would drive to what they called “the rave cave”, up in the mountains. They invited Danish punks Iceage to play there once, but the band backed out because of lack of transport. We visit Shamir’s school, down a long road.

“The government give nothing to education either.” Shamir guides us along a never-ending road that stops at his former school, Legacy High. “The road ends with the mountains,” he chirps. “The prisons are behind them.” Shamir would stare at the picturesque scene from inside his classroom. “It’s beautiful and it’s a hellhole. Let’s be real,” he laughs.

Only two summers ago, Shamir was still messing about with a solo project on his drum machine, figuring out how to make music that resembled influences such as Zola Jesus and Robyn. “My plan was to release a tape, move to Arkansas, live on a farm and make music like Bon Iver.” His rural dreams were thwarted by producer Nick Sylvester at Godmode. “One day, my job texted me: ‘Are you coming in?’ I said, ‘Nope, tell the manager to suck my ass, I’m flying to New York.’ Nick [Sylvester] listened to the demos and said, ‘Oh, you must like a lot of house music?’ I was like, ‘What’s that?’ All I knew was the EDM from the Strip and I was not down.” Within a year he was interning at and signed to label XL, meeting cultured people he could finally geek out with about music, Girls and philosophy.

The title ‘Ratchet’ is slang for ‘diva’. Its release has been manic: last week he was in five countries. It’s left him understandably irritable. At the shoot, he stares down the lens like Grace Jones, stating, “This is my resting bitch face.”

Yet the real Shamir is the opposite of the extrovert he channels in cartoonish videos or singles ‘Call It Off’ and ‘On The Regular’. “I prefer to stay in if I have a choice,” he says. “I lose energy being around people. I know that sounds horrible.” Throughout his life, people have forced him to be a poster-child for something. He never went to prom or graduation, despite being nominated Prom King. “It was flattering but I didn’t wanna be popular. I tried really hard to be an outsider. People liked me for some reason.” His efforts to deflect friends backfired when he named his punk band Anorexia and wound up counselling people with eating disorders. “They thought our Facebook was the official anorexia support group,” he says. “They listened to the music, though. It was a win-win!”

His latest unwelcome crown is as a spokesman for androgyny. He’s confused by the notion that he’s had a difficult upbringing or a troubled school experience. “I’m naturally androgynous. I don’t wear makeup or skirts.” He looks down at his chipped black talons. “Yeah, my nails are did but they’re fucked-up. When I look in the mirror I see a boy. People say I push boundaries. I’m not going out of my way to do that.” Today he gets antsy having to act ‘bubbly’ to camera. “Anybody who tries to confine me won’t be successful,” he pouts. “Photographers always want Happy Shamir, but that’s just one side of Shamir. Right now I’m Chill Shamir.”

Even Chill Shamir, though, is still shocked he shares a roster with Adele and Vampire Weekend. He recently brought back an FKA Twigs vinyl from London for the ‘bro pad’, but Andrew and River didn’t get it. “I told them I’m labelmates with Jack White. They were like, ‘We don’t care unless you’re on [Jack’s label] Third Man.’ That’s beautiful. It makes me feel human.” And though it was the limitations of Northtown that shaped ‘Ratchet’, now that he’s begun his escape, Shamir is already plotting a return to his hometown.

“I want to establish my own DIY space here in Northtown,” he says. “All ages and artistic, like the places in New York… I don’t wanna become an untouchable demigod. I’m just, ‘Hi, I’m Shamir. I’m gonna sing, hug you, then you can buy my album,’” he says. “’Cos I am hungry.”