Shamir Bailey's voice rises a half-octave as he breathlessly tells me about one of the best things to happen to him recently — meeting his musical heroes Tegan and Sara. The pop duo, who also happen to be sisters, invited Shamir to cover their song "Like O, Like H" for their recently released The Con X: Covers.
Over the past three years, Shamir has proved himself to be a creative polymath. There was his 2015 debut album, Ratchet, a collection of bubbly disco-pop songs included in album-of-the-year roundups by a handful of respected music publications like Rolling Stone, Spin, NME, and Pitchfork. His about-face lo-fi sophomore album, Hope, was a surprise four-track record self-released on Soundcloud that he mixed, wrote, and produced himself. He has an ongoing astrology column (co-written by his mother) for Talkhouse, an online journal where musicians and filmmakers write essays and critics, and, earlier this year, he even appeared in Netflix's Dear White People, which he booked on his first-ever acting audition. Being asked to cover his favorite Tegan and Sara track was a sign he had leveled up. Two years prior, he'd even gotten a tattoo inspired by the lyrics — of a stomach with an H on it attached to a mouth shouting "SOS." The meeting, he recalls, was emotional.
"Every time I think of Tegan and Sara, it makes me want to cry," says Shamir, over the phone from his home in Philadelphia. "They've always been fans and super-supportive. They check on me and ask how it's going."
It's all a lot to take in for a 22-year-old. Growing up in northern Las Vegas, music was central for Shamir. In high school, he was known as the kid with the guitar, his genre-gobbling fascination with music playing out across a string of different school bands, including a brief foray into country music. And he still keeps in touch with old bandmates — the single "90's Kids" was co-written with a pal from that era. But it was a message to Godmode label owner Nick Sylvester (Shamir sent him a few solo electronic demos) that resulted in Shamir's first music incarnation. Together, the two released the single "On The Regular," which reached number 36 on the Billboard Emerging Artists chart.
"A lot of people think things happen because shit happens. I think shit happens, but I always try to react to everything that happens to me and see what I can get out of it. The glass is always half full. Even if the glass is completely empty, honestly, it can be refilled."
In a tweet from 2015, Shamir declared he had "No gender, no sexuality, and no fucks to give," and it quickly becomes clear in our conversation that his passion for convention-breaking isn't limited simply to his musical endeavors. Instead, his approach to life in general is more akin to a tasting menu. With life offering so much, why would anyone settle for one dish?
Shamir's anything-is-possible worldview was challenged earlier this year. He was dropped from his label, XL Recordings, after releasing Rachet, though he assures me it wasn't as terrible as it might seem — plus the album underperformed, and he wanted to explore different sounds. Other life issues cropped up. On the day after his birthday, November 7, America elected Donald Trump. The next day, Shamir left the house to discover swastikas painted on his street. Then, shortly after self-releasing his album Hope, he poured himself into writing more music, only to be stymied by a psychotic break. It's a subject he uncharacteristically brushes past in our phone call, but he does reveal to me that he was briefly hospitalized and diagnosed as bipolar. He says in order to recover, he chose to briefly leave Philadelphia, decamping back to his hometown.
"It's never been hard for me to be a positive person," Shamir says. "I've always decided to be as positive as possible. But just with the amount of things that have happened this year — a bunch of crazy things happened to me all at once. This whole year even from the beginning has been hard. That time in Vegas really put my confidence to the test."
It's that weight that informs Revelations, an album, which drops today, written in roughly two weeks. It further explores his lo-fi tendencies; many songs are composed strictly of guitar and drums. On it, Shamir calls out sexual bigotry on "Straight Boys" ("And trust I give isn't given to me / And the hate inside is all I see"). He takes aim at unrealistic expectations on "Games" ("They say you've got to own it / but all the money's gone"). And in a fluttery falsetto on the album's pounding piano single "90's Kids," he unleashes a series of ennui-laced generational battle cries, declaring, "We talk with vocal fry / we watch our futures die" and "Put a drink in the air for the college girls and boys / paralyzing anxiety is just a chore."
But even though he can stare down life's demons, Shamir's commitment to positivity pierces through on each song. On "Blooming," a joyful track that blends garage and doo-wop, he crafts the message of standing strong after heartbreak: "I'm too strong to just lay down and die."
While the album plays like an open letter from Shamir to the world, he drew much inspiration from another of his favorite bands. "I'm honestly just a Vivian Girls tribute band," he says, laughing.
A fan of the now-defunct Brooklyn trio's heavy garage-style guitars and retro girl-group vocals, Shamir recently realized that more than a little bit of their style had subconsciously slipped into his work. "When I first played ["Blooming"] for my friend Christina, she said she could hear Vivian Girls in it," he says. "They're my favorite band ever! That song is Vivian Girls. They have doo-wop guitars within their music."
Shamir tells me that like Tegan and Sara, the Vivian Girls also earned a place in his collection of tattoos (he has one of their name). He's also forged an unexpected connection with the band — Vivian Girls' former drummer Fiona Campbell now joins him on tour. Like so many moments of congruence, the musician happily takes it in stride.
"I completely believe that everything happens for a reason," he says. "A lot of people think things happen because shit happens. I think shit happens, but I always try to react to everything that happens to me and see what I can get out of it. The glass is always half full. Even if the glass is completely empty, honestly, it can be refilled."
Laura Studarus's Patronus is a platypus. Follow her on Twitter: @Laura_Studarus.