In the recent video for Shamir Bailey's squelchy, electro-tinged jamboree “Call it Off,” the realms of reality and fiction blur into one vibrant mass. Taking place mainly in a dream, we find our Las Vegas-dwelling hero folding clothes in the sort of brightly-lit store you imagine you might find on the streets of Northtown, the dustbowl suburbia he grew up in. In fact, until recently—even post-signing with never not on point label, XL Recordings, and the release of the critically lauded EP named after his home town—Shamir was indeed folding t-shirts in a generic clothing store. Making music was a spare time concern. In the video, the mundane is flipped on its head when Shamir transforms into a day-glo puppet version of himself, a caricature that mirrors the projected image starring back from just about every magazine and blog since the cowbell-tastic “On the Regular” emerged late last year. On paper and on screen Shamir—all soft expressive features, big hazelnut eyes, glinting silver nose ring—feels like a Tumblr-created cartoon character, an androgynous, gender-less blaze of hedonistic fun in beige times. The reality, however, is surprisingly different. “It's not a front but you would definitely judge me if I got super dark on you,” he warns.
Sat backstage in bleached out double denim, his jacket emblazoned with a Velvet Underground motif on the back and peppered with pins on the front, Shamir's killing time before his sold-out show in London's XOYO. Lean and wiry, limbs draped over a battered armchair, he slowly demolishes a bag of gummy bears, while two unopened packs of cookies sit on the table nearby, untouched due to a gluten allergy. Until recently he was vegan, giving it up because it didn't mesh with his touring life (“I'd probably die”). Meeting Shamir in person is a bit like chatting to Clark Kent when you were expecting Superman. He's so softly spoken and quiet that I constantly edge my dictaphone closer until it's practically under his chin. This isn't due to tiredness from his insane schedule—he's midway through his first tour of Europe promoting his newly released debut LP, Rachet—or too much partying. Nor is it some sort of too-cool-for-school standoffish power play. “I'm just naturally introverted,” he says at one point, perhaps also aware that a lean towards allusiveness is all the more fascinating. He might be the artist on everyone's lips, but every personal question causes the volume on his answers to lower to a murmur, his voice—somewhere between Jackson 5-era Michael Jackson and Minnie Mouse. It only ever rises when talk turns to Sia (“She can never do anything wrong”), or knitting (he does it to stave off boredom, used to carry yarn with him at all times, and can knock out a beanie in half an hour). He seems to be as bamboozled by his sudden rise to prominence as the people who leave comments under his videos questioning “What is his/her gender?”
“Fame is not what I wanted,” he says calmly. “I just wanted to make music and have people relate to it. It sucks that me as a person and my personality gets sucked into that too.” But that’s the thing about modern music fans: we don’t just want the tunes, we want to know everything, we want the complete package; we demand it all.
Ever since he was a kid Shamir has stood out. While he was never bullied at high school, he says he only had female friends. This is both a reflection of the very female-orientated household he grew up in—he lived with his mom, aunt, and her twin sister—but also he made guys uncomfortable. “My friends were girls mostly because a lot of guys didn't want to hang out with me.” When I ask why his eyebrows shoot up as if to say, “Duh.”
“Look at me. Lots of guys didn't want to be connected to Shamir,” he explains, referring to himself like a character. “They would talk to me but they wouldn't want their friends to know that they were talking to Shamir. When they're younger guys care about that stuff more, but now I'm getting older and my friends are older, I have more guy friends. Definitely back home I have more female friends, but on the East Coast almost all my friends are guys.”
That's not to say he wasn't popular: he was voted Best Dressed at his school's version of the Grammys and was nominated for Prom King. “That was weird for me. I got nominated but I didn't run.” In fact, he didn't go to prom at all, he went to a Paramore concert instead. He did, however, attend the award show, a night that dictated everyone show up dressed as a famous person. Shamir's choice? “Tracey Chapman,” he says, unleashing a delicious cackle. “And I sang ‘Talkin' About A Revolution.’ She's super androgynous. Maybe because I'm young people think my whole androgyny style is thought out, but it's like, no, this is who I am.”
Having previously discussed feeling a bit like an object of fascination as a kid, a sort of alien-like curio, I suggest that perhaps that's still happening now within the vacuum of the music world. “It happens all the time! Are you kidding me? The fact that I'm even here doing this interview with you is probably because of that,” he says, as loudly as he'll say anything during our time together. “Honestly, I don't think my music would be as interesting to people if it wasn't because of those qualities,” he continues, referring to everything outside of the music he makes. While it sounds jaded written down, it's delivered with the sort of matter-of-factness characteristic of most of Shamir’s answers. “I think my music and songwriting is very straightforward. I'm confident in my music and everything, but I don't know… I guess I'm just not that used to praise, honestly.”
Nevertheless, it's something he's going to have to get used to. A heady mix of the soulful dance music reminiscent of Hot Chip and LCD Soundsystem, brittle, downtempo electro and, on the somber “Darker,” strung out melancholic balladry, Ratchet builds on the promise outlined by the equally emotionally polarized Northtown EP. The latter's creation, a kind of happy accident thanks to Shamir emailing Godmode label boss Nick Sylvester a couple of rough and ready demos mainly because he was a fan of the label's roster (which includes choice releases by Motion Studies, Courtship Ritual, and Montreal Sex Machine). While waiting for a reply, Shamir, who'd previously wanted to be a farmer, organized a job as a caretaker in Arkansas, only changing his mind when Sylvester suggested he come over to New York to record.
“I thought that if everything goes to shit in New York I can say I had the experience and save up again and go back to Arkansas.” Flying over alone to meet a complete stranger might have set off alarm bells, but Shamir was comforted by a dream his mom had in which everything turned out fine due to Sylvester's star sign (Cancer) complimenting her son's (Scorpio). “I believe in the universe,” Shamir confirms. “I believe in astrology a lot and that who you are as a person when you're born and the placement of the stars and the universe is everything. That plays a big part of our life path too. Even when I emailed Nick I had no idea he had such a huge love for dance music—he was in a punk band. He was releasing all this weird electronic music when I hit him up.”
Whether it was the stars aligning or Sylvester recognizing a kindred spirit in Shamir, who himself had previously been part of a punk band called Anorexia, that email has set the 20-year-old singer on a course towards pop star nirvana. It's just not entirely clear whether or not he wants it. “Of course I'd rather not do interviews,” he says, ignoring this journalist's sudden sadface. “But then also I have in the back of my head that the thing that keeps me sane is thinking like a fan and thinking about how much I love to learn about my favorite musicians; to learn about their background, where they come from and how they got to where they are now. Whenever I do interviews I just think about that.”
As a voracious music fan himself, Ratchet is a reflection of his broad tastes, skipping through genres like all the best iTunes playlists (his current tour mix features everyone from Marina and The Diamonds to the Vivian Girls and he has “Hold on to your misery,” a lyric by UK pop singer CocknBullKid, tattooed across his ribcage). Before his brief dalliance with punk (“It helped me come out of myself a bit more”) Shamir would often perform country songs, just his voice and his guitar. “I got my first acoustic guitar and I was listening to a lot of folk and country at that time. But it was hard to do low-key stripped down acoustic music and also look like me. I wanted to make music that was simple and understated, but wear bright colors and look like me. I guess it was weird for people.”
In the broad, all-encompassing remit of pop, he seems to have finally found his place. “Music is starting to become more and more egoless and I think it's becoming more of an art that's a shared experience rather than this status thing, or this identity thing,” he says. “I think in the past, music was a way for people to find their identity but it was kind of spoon-fed to them—like if you were in all black and had eyeliner on then you were a goth or blah blah blah. But is that you? People have phases when they grow up. I've never had a phase. It's about being honest with yourself. I've always liked what I like.”