Shamir is Philly's terrifically talented music maker unbound by genre or gender
The Las Vegas-born and Philly-based singer has just released "Revelations," the second of two 2017 albums. He plays the First Unitarian Church on Dec. 16.
Six months ago, Shamir decided to stop making music.
"I was getting so frustrated," says the Las Vegas-raised songwriter, who's lived in Philadelphia since 2015. "I was feeling defeated. And Hope was kind of like the last word."
Hope is the album that Shamir — whose last name is Bailey — recorded in its entirety in a burst of energy in his South Philly rowhouse in one weekend in May. He then released it as a free stream on Soundcloud that Monday morning.
Unlike Ratchet, Shamir's mostly electronic 2015 debut album that misleadingly positioned him as an alt-R&B artist and produced the irresistible earworm hit "On the Regular," Hope was a guitar-based, fuzzed-out, deliberately unpolished collection of songs.
Now, Shamir has followed Hope with Revelations (Father & Daughter *** 1/2), out Nov. 3, his second self-produced, full-length album this calendar year. Together, the albums much more closely represent what the singer, who turns 23 on Tuesday, says is "the real Shamir."
And who is the real Shamir? He's a terrifically talented multi-instrumentalist music-maker unbound by genre or gender who's spent 2017 finding his voice after battling through personal crises. He plays the First Unitarian Church on Dec. 16.
He grew up across the street from a pig farm in a working-class housing development in unglamorous North Las Vegas, raised by his mother, Mena, who now assists him writing horoscopes for the music site the Talkhouse. The feature is dubbed "Shamir-oscopes."
His Aunt Mila was an aspiring songwriter who brought musician friends over to the house to jam, and by the time Shamir was 9, he was writing songs on his first guitar.
"She wrote everything from country to R&B," recalls the singer, sitting inside a Center City coffee shop after an afternoon rain shower spoiled an opportunity for a smoke. He's wearing a butterfly pin in his hair.
"I think that's why genre is not something that holds me down. Because when I was really young, rock and hip-hop and jazz were played at my house. Genre never seemed like a confinement to me. It seemed more like a tool."
He doesn't feel confined by gender, either. It's OK to refer to Shamir as "he," but he identifies as non-binary. "How do I say this?" he says. "I'm a male biologically, and I've always felt like a boy. But I've always been very feminine.
"When puberty happened, all the boys started to look more masculine. But my voice didn't change, somehow my features got softer, and it was around that time that I started to grow my dreads out. So even when I was wearing boy clothes, people would call me ma'am."
Shamir's singing voice is technically a countertenor. But on songs like Revelations' opener, "Games," in which he declares his artistic independence by singing "I don't have much to offer you, but my heart, my soul, and everything I've been through," a supple, high-pitched quality resembles male falsettos like Russell Tompkins Jr. of Philly soul greats the Stylistics.
"Being non-binary is me acknowledging and accepting my androgyny," the singer says. "I sat myself down and said, 'Why am I offended if people refer to me as a woman?' " It caused him stress, but "to my mom, it was never a thing. She always let me do me." He found a role model in Australian trans model Andreja Pejic, whom he discovered on Tumblr. "That was the first, 'Ooh, this person's like me.' "
Shamir released his debut EP, Northtown in 2014, named for his Vegas 'hood, and worked with producer Nick Sylvester, who managed him until this year.
They recorded Ratchet in Brooklyn that year, and the singer took a Megabus to check out a Philadelphia punk band, Joy Again, in a West Philly house show. "As soon as I stepped off the bus and walked around Center City and saw the Liberty Bell and all that, I just fell in love with the vibe of the city," he says. "There's just something magical about it. I think because it's old."
Ratchet and "On the Regular" were immediate successes, earning critical praise and turning Shamir into "an accidental pop star" barely out of his teens. The song was used in Old Navy, Samsung, and Spotify ads. "It's like Ratchet pays my bills, so I can do what I want," says Shamir.
The scope of the talent of the singer — who names Nina Simone, feminist punk band the Slits, Nick Drake, Tegan and Sarah, and Lana Del Rey as his five favorite artists — was apparent to anyone paying close attention. And his love of country music was signaled by the cover of Kacey Musgraves' "Merry Go Round" that he recorded for the BBC.
Another favorite is Regina Spektor. "She's really good at making the weird sound not that weird," a feat that Shamir is correct in thinking he also accomplishes.
Ratchet revealed only one facet of him, Shamir says. He doesn't perform the album's songs live. "I like guitar music. I would have never stepped on stage before Ratchet without a guitar. … It's hard to 100 percent put yourself into something that isn't 100 percent you."
When it came time to record a follow, his label's efforts to pair the singer with multiple producers didn't result in anything that he felt represented him accurately.
By last spring, he had given up. He compares his situation with another Philly artist. "A lot of people forget that Pink started as an R&B singer. She was able to successfully change her sound. But that was at a time when labels could afford that. Now the music industry is on crutches. They don't want artists to grow. They just want them to be money-making machines."
He made Hope in May, writing half the songs the same weekend he recorded them.
"I put it out there so people could see why I was quitting music," he says. "I was getting very frustrated with the focus on production values, or how pristine something sounds rather than the construction of the song and the feeling. Hope was like pure emotion. "
The reaction was positive, but his troubles weren't over. Hope was created at "the beginning of a manic episode," he says. "And a week or two after it came out, I fell into psychosis." He was admitted to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania for a week, and diagnosed as bipolar.
"My mom had to come out and visit me every day," he says. After his discharge, he retreated to Vegas and began to write Revelations. Back home in Philadelphia, he again recorded almost entirely in his home studio, though this time the sound is much cleaner and more self-assured. "I used the same four-track," he says with a smile. "I've just gotten better at it."
Shamir says he's now "in a better place," warding off insomnia by going on long walks or reading. He's making his way through favorite female comedians' books, like Mindy Kaling, Phoebe Robinson, and Chelsea Handler. And he's seeing a psychiatrist and a psychologist.
Revelations is every bit as emotional as Hope, but it conveys an air of maturity and self-confidence even as it details personal and generational struggles in songs like " '90s Kids" and "Cloudy."
The latter was written before he was hospitalized but points to a healthy, positive way forward for an artist who has no intention of quitting making music anytime soon. "Used to carry the weight of the world on my shoulder," Shamir sings. "But now that I am getting older / I can't keeping stressing over this petty s-, 'cause stress will kill you, if you allow it."