Q&A: Shamir On His Surprise New Album Hope, Discovering Blake Babies, & More
Shamir Bailey, the 22-year-old Philly-via-Vegas polymath who goes only by his first name, made one of 2015’s best and brightest albums — and possibly its best debut — with the electro-disco revelation Ratchet. It was released via XL, home to Adele and Radiohead among others, and from his country covers and hip-house rapping, we always knew that the album was merely the tip of the iceberg for Shamir’s considerable talent and wide-ranging taste. That prophecy came true this morning as Shamir self-released a surprise follow-up, Hope, all on his own via SoundCloud.
The hissing, home-recorded exuberance and melancholy of Hope couldn’t sound more different from the groomed and layered Ratchet; true to the Philly digs Shamir recorded it in, the alternately scratchy and soulful alt-rock album that the artist played and recorded entirely himself over this past weekend has more in common with Speedy Ortiz. It features a Blake Babies cover (“Rain”) and came affixed with a note on SoundCloud stating: “I made this album this past weekend stuck in my room with just a 4 track feeling hopeless about my love for music” and “I love pop music, i love outsider music, and i love lofi music, this is my way of combining all 3.”
We spoke to Shamir over the phone about Hope, which even the singer-songwriter’s management didn’t know existed until today, and his disillusionment with the current environment that inspired this surprise album.
STEREOGUM: So was Hope a great load on your shoulders that was brewing for a bit and you just decided to say “fuck it?”
SHAMIR: You know what? I’ve always been honestly very queer. I never really came out, I never had to; I’ve always been so open about everything. So I thought this [album] was my coming-out story.
STEREOGUM: Why does it feel like that, specifically?
SHAMIR: It’s me, 100% me. Me playing everything, me doing everything, me-all-me, it’s just me.
STEREOGUM: What percent of you would you say Ratchet was?
SHAMIR: Umm, I would say 50%. Because it was a 50% type thing: me on lyrics and melodies, Nick [Sylvester] on production. And that worked in that moment, I think it’s a great record, and I literally had to make this record so that I didn’t start to hate that record. Because it was getting to that point and I didn’t want to start hating that record, because it is a beautiful record and because I put everything I had into it. And I don’t want Nick — who I still work with closely, who’s still my manager — I don’t want to resent something that we made together that he loves and he put his heart and soul into. I always wanted a handout production. It was mostly because I’ve never had a computer my whole life; I don’t know how to use any production software tools or anything. Literally all I know how to do is just make a bomb-ass four-track record. Which is hard to do with a pop artist.
STEREOGUM: You’ve never used FruityLoops?
SHAMIR: I got FruityLoops Mobile for my tablet, and I’ve used that for like…a few songs before. But literally just the drums and I was recording it into my four-track.
STEREOGUM: Is this definitely your “next album,” or something you feel you had to get out while working on longer-brewing material at the same time?
SHAMIR: This definitely feels like my second record. It’s recharged for me as an artist as opposed to me as a singer. I didn’t have a childhood per se because I decided at a very young age to try to sit down and teach myself all these damn instruments. Collaboration is very hard for me because I’ve trained for much of my life to be proficient at music and not even be able to use all of my skills, you know?
STEREOGUM: What’s the oldest song on Hope?
SHAMIR: The oldest song on there I would say is “Bleed It Out,” I wrote that maybe when I was 16. But half of the album…six of the tracks were ideas I had but weren’t finished. Then I spent the weekend learning the [Blake Babies] cover [“Rain”] and writing this whole new song, the title tune. I finished the whole track in half an hour, and literally wrote it about trying to write songs for this record. All in the same weekend, writing beginning to end, production and everything was “Hope,” “One More Time Won’t Kill You,” “I Fucking Hate You,” and “Easier.” Everything else already had some kind of skeleton.
STEREOGUM: So your manager didn’t even know that this album was dropping today?
SHAMIR: Yeah, no one knew, actually. [Laughs] I’m feeling better now because I was just waiting for everyone to scream at me.
STEREOGUM: What did people know before this weekend, just that you were working on a record?
SHAMIR: No one knew anything! The idea for this record came to me on Friday after talking to my mom, who’s honestly kind of like a witch. And she’s psychic pretty much, she just called me one night and told me my whole life and said, “You’re really struggling this week.” I said retrograde was kicking my ass, and she said, “Well, you have to find a way to work with the retrograde.” I just decided I’m not gonna leave the house and spend the fucking weekend inside, so I have nothing to do…so I’ll just make a fucking record. This was my therapy.
STEREOGUM: Do you want to talk about the state you were in?
SHAMIR: I guess like…getting my collaborators to, like, go weird with me. People are just scared of that. It’s just like, a fuck-you to naysayers all around, not even just the industry but even some of my music friends. No one actually talks about how the music makes you feel, the actual song or the art of it. Just like, this bass line was EQ’d and tuned well. And I’m just like, “Who cares?” I call them SoundCloud hoes. [Laughs] People are so obsessed with like, how nice we recorded it. It just made me frustrated, you know?
STEREOGUM: I find it super-refreshing that you can hear the hum of amp noise on Hope, which is the kind of thing most musicians would try to make go away.
SHAMIR: That’s, like, the metaphor for working with the retrograde. I was working on literally stereo headphones, using my minimal tools that I have around me. If you go into my house, you’d never think it was occupied by a professional full-time musician. I work better with less, I’m like the musical MacGyver sometimes.
STEREOGUM: So are you a huge Blake Babies fan, or was the cover [“Rain”] something you were planning to do for a while?
SHAMIR: No, I actually discovered them this weekend. I’ve been listening to a lot of ’90s [music] all weekend, trying to find related artists to Velocity Girl. The [Blake Babies] singer, I think her name’s Julie…Juliana… [Hatfield], I think we kind of sound the same! Which is kind of crazy to me, I heard so much of myself in her. This is my first, full, fleshed-out cover I think! Because even my Lindi Ortega cover [“Lived And Died Alone” from my first EP [2014’s Northtown] was just stripped down and kind of a look into my soul coming out.
STEREOGUM: I know you’re getting blown up all day but has any particular reaction to Hope stuck out to you today so far?
SHAMIR: Just the fact that the guitarist and songwriter of “Rain,” from Blake Babies [John Strohm] tweeted at me today and I got to thank him, and he was so sweet. It’s only been a few hours! And he heard it already somehow! The internet is crazy!
STEREOGUM: Yeah! When I first messaged you, you didn’t know it was up on Pitchfork yet.
SHAMIR: I didn’t, I was like, what? Last night I just finished mastering it with my bass player who just happened to have an internship with Milkboy [Studios] in Philadelphia. A normal person would be like, do not drop a fucking record with no publicist and no label after Coachella weekend and after Kendrick drops this thing. And it was definitely buried, the possibility, in my head, that this could end my career. That people wouldn’t accept me as the artist I am playing what I actually enjoy. I’m glad that people are actually hungry to hear something different, because that’s what I was. I made this record to be the change that I wanted to see in the world.
STEREOGUM: You self-released Hope. What’s your current label situation?
SHAMIR: There is no situation, I’m completely without a label. Honestly, a lot of those [XL] people are still my closest friends and I talk to them all the time and they actually helped me through a lot of the process. There’s no hard feelings at all, they’re still a fucking amazing label and there’s still great people there.
STEREOGUM: What are your plans for the more long-term music you’ve been working on?
SHAMIR: Well, obviously everyone around me is kinda shook right now. [Laughs.] So I have to make sure they’re not pissed off at me.
STEREOGUM: Well, I hope you’re feeling better after getting this out of your system.
SHAMIR: Yeah, I mean, it’s great! I feel like I took a massive shit.