Shamir began his career with the kind of immediate success most pop music makers can only dream of.
There was only one problem, says the Las Vegas-raised songwriter, who’s been a Philadelphian for five years: It wasn’t his dream.
While still a teenager, the singer and multi-instrumentalist — whose last name is Bailey — won acclaim for his 2014 EP, Northtown, named after the working-class Sin City neighborhood where he grew up, across the street from a pig farm.
The next year, he blew up with Ratchet, an album of sly electro-pop recorded in Brooklyn. “On the Regular,” an irresistibly, infectious single, became a viral hit.
“I was on the same label as Adele, and I was playing arenas,” Shamir, 25, recalled, speaking this week from his home in South Philly, a few days after the release of his superb, self-released seventh album, the genre-fluid Shamir.
Back when Ratchet was taking off, Shamir did dates with Duran Duran and Nile Rodgers & Chic, and was the first act to ever play the T-Mobile Arena in Vegas, opening for fellow hometown heroes the Killers.
“When it all started, it was like, ‘OK, this isn’t my dream, but a lot of people want this. People die for this. So let’s give it a try.’ ”
Instead, during his time as what he calls an “accidental pop star,” he saw that it was hard to create intimacy when playing in such big rooms.
True self-expression was discouraged.
Shamir identifies as nonbinary but uses “he” and “him” as pronouns. “How do I say this?” he told the Inquirer in 2017. “I’m a male biologically, and I’ve always felt like a boy. But I’ve always been very feminine.”
When he was being marketed as a pop star, though, “if I wanted to dress in a more feminine way, I’d get a call from my management to tell me not to do that. ... There’s just that control aspect of it, where I was forced to be like this one-dimensional caricature.”
Which Shamir most decidedly is not. As a Black artist who made his name with a hip-hop-flavored earworm powered by programmed beats, the music industry wanted to put him in an “urban” pigeonhole.
That rubbed him the wrong way. “I like guitar music. I hate playing to backing tracks. Live music is more fun when it’s all live. It gives you more room to improvise. When I’m playing with my three-piece, I’m like, let it rip!”
Shamir sings in a high, piercing voice that’s technically a countertenor but bears a resemblance to falsetto singers like Russell Thompkins Jr. of the Stylistics. Shamir effortlessly blends punk, pop, grunge, and country.
He’s shown an affinity for the latter genre going back to the Northtown EP, which included a cover of Canadian country singer Lindi Ortega, who he hung out with for a weekend-long songwriting session in Toronto last year. He told New York magazine that the one songwriter he’s “never not inspired by” is Taylor Swift.
The most straight-ahead country on Shamir is “Other Side,” a song written from the perspective of a woman raising three children while her husband is serving in Vietnam.
It was inspired by an Unsolved Mysteries” episode. “There are certain things I’ll watch to the point where it’s the only thing that can help me go to sleep,” he says. “That was one of those.” His current fave is YouTuber Bailey Sarian, who mixes true crime stories and makeup tips. “She was made for me,” he says.
Shamir moved to Philadelphia in 2015 after coming from Brooklyn to see a punk band play a West Philly house show. “I was just blown away by how diverse it was. I feel a lot of kinship and love for the scene here. People aren’t creepy and weird.”
Since settling in South Philadelphia, he’s suffered through personal struggles and stayed creatively productive.
In 2017, he released two home-recorded albums of guitar-driven indie rock — Hope and Revelations. That year, a manic episode resulted in his being hospitalized at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, where he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
Last year, he released an album, Be the Yee, Here Comes the Haw, whose title wryly mocked “Old Town Road” trendiness. He’s written TV reviews and horoscopes (with his mother, Ameenah) for online magazine Talkhouse. On the absurdist Netflix animated show Tuca & Bertie, he voices Draca, a talking houseplant.
And now he’s also a label boss. Last year, he launched Accidental Popstar records, which he runs out of his house.
“The label is just music,” he says. “I’m focused on getting my artists everything they need. I’m producing the records. I’m shipping the records. I’m doing everything. It’s very rewarding.”
The first full-length Accidental Popstar release is About a Year by Philadelphia guitarist Grant Pavol, a junior at the University of Pennsylvania. The quietly stunning collection hints at Nick Drake and Elliott Smith, as well as evoking 1990s alt-rockers Sonic Youth and Pavement.
“Grant is one of the most gifted people I’ve ever met in my life,” says Shamir. They met at a West Philly house show at which Shamir thought Pavol wanted to bum a cigarette. Turned out, he was a fan.
“When I first started working with Shamir, I wasn’t really aware of how wide his interests were,” says Pavol, who’s 20 and recorded his debut in his freshman dorm room.
“It startled me. ... I just really admire how effortlessly eclectic his music can be without being disingenuous. The latest album is a great example. There’s a pretty absurd array of styles on it, but none of it sounds like pastiche. It all sounds genuine.”
Shamir was recorded at Headroom Studios in North Philly with producer Kyle Pulley. “It’s huge, so it was easy to social distance,” say Shamir. Remotely, Philly lap steel guitarist Mike “Slo-Mo” Brenner plays on two songs, including the closing “In This Hole.”
“There’s a really beautiful string arrangement on that song by Molly Germer,” says Brenner, who recorded remotely. “Shamir’s vocal is very unique, almost operatic.”
Shamir pulses with an optimistic energy absent from much of his recent work.
“Sonically, it’s the best representation of how I always wanted to sound," he says. "A lot of people were mad because my stuff after Ratchet wasn’t danceable. I wanted this record to merge every corner of my fan base. Over the past few years, everyone felt alienated. People wanted more pop songs, more indie stuff, more grunge stuff. I’m just like, listen: You can have it all.”
“On My Own” is a post-breakup song written before the pandemic, but it celebrates self-reliance in uneasy times. “I refuse to .... suffer, just to feel whole,” Shamir sings, in a self-directed video he shot at home during lockdown.
The artist is gratified by its popularity, particularly in relation to a certain song. “'On My Own' is my top track now on Spotify," Shamir says. “It beat out ‘On the Regular.’ That’s something that I thought would never happen.”