A password will be e-mailed to you.

By Philip Runco

“Just wanna see my name somewhere in the Hall of Fame,” Shamir declares on “Head in the Clouds”,  the closing track of his full-length debut, Ratchet. “So on the day that I die, there’ll be something to remember me by.”

It’s the final mission statement on an album that’s full of them. Over Ratchet‘s 38 minutes, almost everything that leaves the 20-year-old’s mouth can feel like a declaration of purpose or a call to action.  He’s living in the moment. (“We’re giving up on all our dreams, so why not go out and make a scene?”) He has a grand vision. (“Feel so alone, don’t have a home, but I’m part of a bigger mission.”) And he’s not going to take your shit. (“Don’t try me, I’m not a free sample. Step to me and you will be handled.”)

But if the singer has been pursuing a night’s release and eternal recognition in equal measure, he’s just now in the process of adjusting to what the latter might actually look like.

“It’s pretty…” he trails off with a sigh. “I don’t know, it’s, like, really crazy.”

The other day in a London Underground station, he came across a billboard featuring his bull-ringed likeness. “I literally started walking as fast as I possibly could,” he remembers. “My friend was like, ‘Oh my goodness, let’s go take a picture in front of it.’ I was like, ‘I am definitely not doing that.’ I don’t know what she was thinking.”

These are the perks of being signed to XL Recordings, the independent label whose coffers have been filled by the success of Adele, Vampire Weekend, and the xx, among other savvy investments.

“It’s cool, I guess, when you don’t have to be around it,” he says of the exposure. “But even I don’t want to see my face everywhere.”

A big component of this story isn’t just that all of this is happening to Shamir – it’s how quickly he’s arrived at this point.

As has been recounted elsewhere, Shamir Bailey grew up across the street from a pig farm in North Las Vegas, a decidedly unglamorous suburb of Sin City. At the tail end of 2013, he e-mailed some rough-hewn demos to Godmode Records, a small Brooklyn label that has thus trafficked primarily in cassettes. A month later, Godmode founder and writer-turned-producer Nick Sylvester would put Shamir on an airplane for the first time, and together in New York City, the two would record the songs that ended up on his Northtown EP. Then Shamir went back to Nevada and his life working at a Topshop. Another month later, the Internet took notice, and nothing has been the same.

This is the lore of Shamir, and as far as lore goes, it’s pretty fucking good.

When the time came to craft his XL debut, he returned to Brooklyn to work with Sylvester. In many ways, the record is a document of their partnership. Shamir has frequently displayed an appreciation for a broad range of music – he previously fronted a punk band, he’s fond of country covers, and he writes on an acoustic guitar – but with Ratchet, Sylvester focuses the singer’s energy almost entirely on dance music of sorts: house and electro-pop, crisply record and colored with post-punk flourishes. It’s a combination of analog synth and cowbell that DFA Records mastered on its seminal Compilation #2, but Sylvester has sanded down the edges and formed three to five minute pop songs. And, of course, coolly detached vocals have been replaced with the magnetic and boundlessly expressive Shamir.

Even on the phone from London, he finds ways to give every other word its own special emphasis. It makes a mockery of italicizing portions of a transcript. But when I ask him if he’s enjoying the UK, he shoots back a flat, “Yeah.”

I tell him that he doesn’t sound overly enthused.

Shamir laughs.

“I rarely sound overly enthused.”

Spoken like someone with his head in the clouds.

Shamir plays DC’s U Street Music Hall tonight and Brooklyn’s Music Hall of Williamsburg Thursday. Soft Lit – whose slinky disco stunner “I Can’t Help It” opens Godmode’s recent American Music compilation – supports both shows. Ratchet is out now on XL Recordings.


When did you decide that you wanted to release music as just Shamir?

The thing is that I’ve always put out music. I was in a band [Anorexia] before this. Looking back, knowing what I know now, I would not have used my name or probably even my face. When I originally did these demos in my room and sent them out, I expected them to have a small little tape run. I never expected it to get to this point.

Shamir was definitely a fun little experimental project that I was doing in the meantime of recording with Anorexia. That’s why I used my real name. If I had known what I know now, I probably wouldn’t have.

Was there a moment you realized this had become something much bigger?

Yeah, when I was on Pitchfork literally a month after recording my first song. [Laughs] I was like, “What just happened?”

I had no heads up. I had no idea that my producer was really good with PR stuff and used to be a writer – for Pitchfork, too. I went to New York, recorded these songs, and went back home thinking that I was going to continue living my normal life. I thought that Godmode was going to release, like, a hundred tapes of what we recorded, and that would be that.

I literally woke up one day and saw myself on Pitchfork, and I was like, “What. Just. Happened?” [Laughs]

How did your friends and family respond?

I was home alone, literally in my underwear, on the computer, watching TV. All of a sudden, I’m getting all of these messages, and my Twitter’s blowing up, and I got, like, 250 followers in the first hour or something. I was just like, “What is going on?”

Then I looked [at Pitchfork] and I was like, “What?!?” I literally had a panic attack. Not only was I on Pitchfork, but it was Best New Track. It was like, “Come on.”

When you went to make Ratchet, how had the mood changed? Knowing that there would be an audience, did you feel some sense of heightened expectations? Or did you still want to keep it loose?

I definitely still wanted to keep it somewhat loose, but I wanted to put more attention towards it. With my EP and the first song that I did, “If It Wasn’t True”, I remember a certain writer saying, “Oh Shamir sounds, like, so cool and chill. It doesn’t even sound like he’s trying to make a fuss with his debut.” But that was literally because I didn’t think that anyone would hear it. [Laughs] I sound bored singing on that song because I literally didn’t even try singing. I didn’t think that anyone was going to hear it!

Now, knowing that people will actually hear the album, I actually sang and, you know, actually gave somewhat of an effort and everything, but it’s definitely still loose. I don’t take my music too seriously. It’s definitely a fun thing for me.

There’s an off-the-cuff quality to the uptempo tracks. How long do you usually spend writing a song?

I actually write songs pretty quickly. I don’t like to spend too much time on a song. If I spend too much time on a song, I feel like it’s not meant to be.

I’ll have bursts of creative energy, and that’s when I generally do my best stuff. I usually have to write in silence – in my room, on guitar, and if there’s a nice progression, I’ll start spewing out lyrics.

Or my producer will send me a track, and I’ll listen to it and immediately get inspired and start banging out lyrics.

Ratchet comes from a very specific place sonically. It stands in contrast to the punk you once made and the country music you’ve discussed loving. How much of the album’s house and electro-pop landscape was the result of Nick’s guidance or suggestion?

It was totally all on him. With my early bedroom demos, I was trying to find a very specific pop sound to make or call my own. It naturally happened to veer into that house / disco type lane without me really even knowing it. I played some of the stuff for him, and he was like, “Oh there’s such a house vibe.” And I was like, “What is house music?” [Laughs] He was like, “Are you kidding?”

He definitely schooled me of some stuff. He’s from the DFA era, and he’s close friends with James Murphy and everything. It was almost like a puzzle piece. It’s crazy how it worked out.

This record has opened a door for you in terms of an audience and being on XL, but given your other musical interests, it seems like you could go somewhere entirely different the next time around.

Oh, I know that I will. I’ve been very vocal and upfront about letting people know that every album that you get from me is going to have a different vibe completely.

I’ve been writing for the second album already. I’m very inspired by people like Tegan & Sara, where every single one of their albums is completely different, but still has a very cohesive identity to it. That’s definitely something that I try to do as an artist. I want to challenge myself. I never want to keep myself in the box or feel like I have to continually do the same thing because the first thing worked.

What is it about country music that speaks to you?

I just love the honesty and simplicity of country music. At the root of all of my music is pretty much that. All of my songs started off as country songs. They were literally just me on a guitar. I think that’s where music has to start from for me. It has to start in a very raw, simple, and honest place before it grows into something bigger.

That’s definitely what I love about my album: If you take back all of the production, the computers, and the machines, and just give me a guitar, I’ll still be able to play the same songs.

You’ve said that you prefer the second half of the record, because you’re a “comedown type of person.” What did you mean by that?

A lot people like the high and the energy and getting turnt, and that’s cool – I like that too – but my favorite part is coming down from all of that. It’s chilling and gaining your energy back from all of the craziness before.

I read that you wrote “Demon” when you were bored and working at Ross. How does it feel to know that sort of dead-end job is behind you?

With that specific job, it feels great, but I only worked there for six months, and then afterwards, that’s when I went to Topshop. I actually still miss Topshop to this day. That was a fun job, honestly. My discount was great and the clothes were cute. So… [Laughs]

But I’m definitely happy to have Ross behind me. I was happy about a year or two ago, when I quit or whatever. I don’t even remember. Was that a year ago? It was about a year-and-a-half ago.

I would imagine that the passage of time has sped up.

Yeah, totally. [Laughs]