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writer / Olivia Inkster

photographer / Spencer Kohn

Oh, the age of 20—a time when many of us were  struggling between our dwindling adolescence and the reality that adulthood was looming. We didn’t know who were and we definitely had no idea “where our lives were going,” much less where we were going that night. Well, for me that’s true, but I suspect I wasn’t alone in this,  considering I had plethora of hoodlum friends who  allowed me to stay a “teenager” for a few (too many)  additional years, whether due to confusion, fear, insecurity, or plain apathy.

Shamir Bailey, known simply as Shamir, would not have been a part of that lost tribe on in-betweeners that so many of us held membership cards to. The twenty-year-old artist, singer, performer, and songwriter seems to have always known who he is and what his image and sound should be—are, actually are—which is simply, purely, and unapologetically “Shamir.” Never one to bend to critics, teachers, or record label executives, through his career has retained his sense of self, which is fluid and encompasses many things.

That’s his authentic truth: refusing to be labeled. Shamir shuns a boxed life and prefers to inhabit a free-form existence that’s evident in everything from his voice, to his actions, to the way he dresses, to finally, his music. Speaking powerfully for himself and as himself on his debut LP Ratchet, the artist’s own openness has brought doors swinging wide open with him. Here, the mature and very busy young artist talks candidly about his upbringing, his tour, and one dangerous encounter with an African bird. One thing’s for sure, though—Shamir will continue to “do him,” and like him for it. All of him.

I see you’re from a suburb of Vegas. I feel like I need to say that with emphasis. What was it like growing up there?

No one does that who lives there! It was normal, we’re from the suburbs. It wasn’t crazy or anything. It wasn’t a “crazy Vegas” upbringing. We just happened to be near it.

Did that influence your interest to enter the entertainment or music business? That’s certainly a hub for many types of show business.

Not too much, really. The thing about Vegas is it’s all about entertainment. Not too much unique art or artists come to Vegas. It’s not really like that. I mean, it’s easy to get a gig being a lounge singer or something like that, no offense. But not too many artists, especially ones from here, go that route.

Holy shit—you’re only 20! You’ll be 21 in November?

[Laughs] Yeah, but it’s actually useful, because  everyone is older. I’ve learned a lot, but I don’t feel that young, because I’ve always done this. I don’t feel like I’m doing anything crazy. It lets me surprise people. It sort of catches people off guard.

Any big plans for that milestone birthday? I mean, you are from Vegas.

I’m performing, unfortunately. But I’ll be in Austin, so I’m totally going to eat a bunch of tacos and drink a bunch of margaritas. You have to do that when in Austin.

Are you a Netflix junkie?

I’m totally a Netflix junkie. I love Orange is the New Black. I was on tour when [the latest season] came back on, so I finished that in two days. Netflix on tour is a life saver.

Most artists, musicians, etc. have worked some other odd job or day job—like a waitress or something—while they’re on the way up, you know. Have you ever?

Yeah, I mean, I started doing music as Shamir when I was 18. Actually, I’ve worked two real jobs. I worked at Ross, the department store. And then I worked at Topshop. I love Topshop. It was great and so much fun. But then my music picked up, and I tried to hold on and still work there until it just became impossible. That’s how much I liked it. Before that, though, I volunteered for a summer at a bird sanctuary. It was mostly birds like ostriches and chickens and actually, even goats. It was really fun. But one day, I was trying to feed this one bird, an African Macaw, and it tried to bite me! I was like, “What?! Why?! I’m giving you food! You’re literally biting the hand that feeds you!”

Who works at a bird sanctuary?! That’s so cool, and I’m sorry, but that’s also hilarious.

Yes, it was crazy! I didn’t stay there too long after that. It’s a good story to tell, though.

If you could tour with anyone, who would it be?

Um, I’m already going to be touring with them soon—Marina and the Diamonds! I’m so stoked.

That’s amazing. Good for you! How did that come about?

Yeah, it’s super cool and a dream come true for me. I’ve always loved the music and I’ve always wanted to play with Marina, and it happened naturally, weirdly enough. We met up, and it just ended up so chill. We ordered the same drinks and bonded over that. That led to now. It was so simple and happened just naturally, so I was ecstatic.

Stylistically, who are some of your major influences?

I’d say that I pull from every genre. We listened to all kinds in my household. Growing up, it went from punk to disco to pop to hip hop, but it also included classic, timeless singers like Nina Simone and Billie Holiday.

Northtown, your first EP, was released summer of 2014 to a lot of great feedback, and it seems you haven’t slowed down at all.

It has gone by so fast—a whirlwind. My first song was released just January of last year. It is crazy to think that in the last year, I got signed and recorded an album, and gone on tour. I love writing and wanted to make a project. It all happened really, really fast. also included you in its “New Music To Know: Best of 2014, So Far” profile, noting that you “combines the honest songwriting of Taylor Swift with the theatrics of Lana Del Rey to make something that sounds far wiser than [your] 19 years.” Those are two pretty big names. How did that feel?

[Sighs, then laughs] Yeah, those are two huge names, like you said. Just…wow. I’m lucky and excited to continue on performing and writing and even be associated with such major, influential artists.

You signed to XL Records right after that. And in May this year, your first LP, Ratchet, came out.

It doesn’t feel like a long time coming though. I thought it would feel like that. But suddenly it was just here. So before the EP, I had good material at hand—maybe three or four of the songs, I’d written a year or two in advance. I write really fast. I don’t spend more than an hour or two on a song. I’m always writing. Always. I just have to get it out. I just let it go and do it. It comes to me automatically.

Is it comforting to have that level of support now that you have major backing with XL Records?

It’s all been very natural. As a team, it’s a very small one. They’re all my friends, not this huge machine. It’s going well. That’s why it is going well, because we’re having fun, making music, and want to put out a good product.

You seem to enjoy mixing genres of music, and I know you probably hate this now, but your voice has also been called androgynous. You’re a

Yeah, I’m in the middle. People use the word “androgynous” a lot. I prefer the term “counter-tenor,” which is all very true in regards to my voice. It’s weird to see and hear people talk about it so much, though. When it comes to my singing, my singing isn’t thought about. It isn’t “supposed” to be anything or one thing. That’s what comes out, you know? I didn’t try to sing in a specific type of way. I never did, I don’t. If anything, I try to sing straightforward.

Is your family incredibly supportive and proud? What is their reaction to all of this?

My mom was always supportive from the beginning.

She loved all kinds of music, so she was all for it when I got more involved with it in high school. I was in this punk band… We went to SXSW and everything. I still thought of music as a hobby then though, a sort of “Plan B.” My mom is the one who told me to take a break and work and focus on my own music. It wasn’t even supposed to be a thing on my own… I was supposed to be with my band, but we had free time in between things. So I was just working on my own stuff in between, and it began taking over. So, my family has always encouraged me to explore. My aunt was in the music business when I was growing up, so there were always musicians around. They’re proud, but this was always normal for me, you know? Music was always important.

I was going to ask you if you visited New York often, but I just saw that you were bartending on Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen on Bravo. Um, hello?! Tell me about that.

That was just so crazy. I love Laverne Cox. She is super nice and like, she said, “I love you!” She’d read one of my articles. I didn’t expect that. She was just so articulate. I was so surprised that I was asked [to bartend], because that’s a completely different vibe for me. I know someone at the show, so it was super cool. And then I went out after that with some of my friends. It was a great night.

What’s your drink of choice?

Vodka soda. Yeah, I keep it simple.

What do your friends think about all of this recent press?

They still think of me a crusty punk rocker. Throughout all of high school, I was in my band, I played, and that’s what they knew me as. I’m still friends with those people. Whenever I come back to Vegas, I hang out with two of my best friends. I’ve known them since 8th grade. Those same five people I was always close with, those are the same. They’re happy, of course, but they know me. I’ve always been this way.

What’s next for you?

For now, I’m opening for Marina. After that, it’s the European tour and then my North American tour. That’s in the fall—October and November. I’m coming to New York City to headline this fall, maybe in November or so? It’ll probably be at Bowery or something. And well, after that? Just years and years of making music. That’s the goal.

OK, now, you can’t ask me this question back. Just warning you, Shamir. What are you wearing right now?

I’m wearing all black! A black t-shirt and black jeans. It’s not very “California,” I guess. I wear a lot of black though. That’s just me.


Shamir plays EL REY THEATRE 9/26. Win tickets here.


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