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Shamir: Finding resolution

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Electronic-turned-rock musician, Shamir, talks about going back to his roots, life in Trump’s America, and taking inspiration from the unexpected.

Shamir Bailey’s personal and musical style has changed dramatically in the past few years. After nigh-on instant success with his sugary, brightly coloured electro-pop arrival to the scene – the album, Ratchet – he went underground almost as quickly again. Now, after some time out of the spotlight, Shamir is back.

This time, though, he’s stripped down his musical and visual style; his gigs are pared-back, simple affairs of stage and musician, no outlandish props or lighting. The bubblegum-hued polos, mixed patterns and white jeans of Ratchet (complete with album artwork designed by Hen’s Teeth Fantasy 12 collaborator Mike Zimmerman) have been shelved for plain button-down shirts, roll-neck sweaters and dark pants. He’s going back to his roots of playing guitar in his bedroom as a young teenager in Northtown, Las Vegas, and bringing his audience with him.

“Playing electronic music was an experiment for me that got out of hand, and took on a whole life of its own. It didn’t make me happy in the end, but I did it to prove it to myself that I could. I was always that guy with his guitar in hand, and I didn’t want to fit that trope of the musician who never comes out from behind his guitar. Anyone who knew me before my Ratchet days would have been so shocked to see me perform without my guitar. So I did it, and I proved to myself that it could be done. But I was naive. It never occurred to me that my playing electronic music was my main introduction to the world. Since then, I’ve pretty much become a whole other person, and I’ve changed the style of music I play. To most people on the outside, it’s been a shock. It was such a 180 turn, but really, it was just me going back to my roots, and doing the type of music that I’ve always done.

It used to not be so unusual for artists to change their styles between albums, to experiment with different sounds from one record to another. There was more room to innovate, but now we live in a world of algorithms. It you stray outside your designated genre, Spotify has a heart attack. Music is so saturated by everyone playing everything, that they don’t want one person who will play it all or it’ll mess up the system. So you're just playing to satisfy that algorithm, and that’s not for me as an artist.

There’s nothing more comfortable for me than sitting down with a guitar, singing and writing. And although I have a fondness for a lo-fi sound, the whole DIY thing is mostly about necessity. Of course I want nicely recorded albums, but I’m not the type of person to wait around, so if I can’t find people to help me, I just do it myself. Going lo-fi strengthened my song-writing, because it meant I couldn’t lean on production, my songs had to be on point. My performances are just real, raw music. We’re a three piece: bass, drums, and me on guitar. I play and sing the whole time, I’m loud, and I scream – it’s very cathartic. The shows are just about me performing and making that connection with the people.

While I was on tour, I was introducing my drummer – a New Zealander – to American country music. One of the tracks on the playlist was the Dixie Chicks’ Goodbye Earl, which is about domestic abuse. It’s really sad, but it’s also funny and dark, and it inspired me to write about something else that affects many people. My song, I Can’t Breathe, [the final words of Eric Garner as he died while being arrested by police in the US] is resonating with people, because the genre of music and the subject aren’t an expected combination. I’m not usually political in my music, but this was an important subject to me.

A few years ago, I might have been hesitant about releasing a political song, but now I had to. I’m not sure that I’d be where I am if I wasn’t living in Trump’s America. I’m not comfortable living in it – many people aren’t. But there’s simply no room in it to not be yourself. It’s so important to be as vocal as possible, to call things out for what they are. For me, as a black, queer, non-binary, Muslim-raised person in Trump’s America, my voice has to be the loudest. I must be entirely myself, and speak my mind.

I used to want to be a farmer during the Obama years. I was on the verge of moving to Arkansas and starting that life there. But just when I was about to move, I got the call to go to New York, which led to Ratchet. And I think that was the universe looking out for me, I wouldn’t know what to do living in the south of Trump’s America.”

As told to Polly Dennison

Shamir plays Body&Soul 2018, 23-25 June.