Shamir on Intersectionality, Independence, and Returning to Pop

Interviews
06/24/2020
Jasmine Albertson
photo by Shamir

In 2015, a 20-year-old musician from suburban North Las Vegas by the name of Shamir was catapulted into the pop world with the release of his debut record Ratchet. Helmed by the infectiously catchy lead single "On the Regular," the album is a diverse exploration of dance-pop that saw Shamir flex a variety of skills and ideas. The excitement over the record made it seem inevitable that he was going to be a massive pop star.

Instead, Shamir went another direction. For the past three years, he's been churning out a near-constant stream of raw, lo-fi indie rock that nixes the bubbly dance of Ratchet for stripped-down articulations of emotion that defy genre. While some critics and label-heads have been harsh on the music Shamir's unveiled since his adored debut, a mighty force of fans have found solace and representation in the queer Black artist's introspective and captivating lyrical expressions of tenderness, anguish, loneliness, joy, and everything in between.

March saw the release of Cataclysm, his sixth record in five years. Isolation is the main theme surrounding the fuzzy nine tracks, making it an oddly perfect companion for quarantine. The Bandcamp description for Cataclysm reads: "Constant regeneration of the soul is incredibly painful, but transformation is equally beautiful." This forces one to wonder whether Shamir also somehow saw the current global social evolution and political upheaval through Black Lives Matter ahead of time as well. He is always three steps ahead of the game. "I've always wanted to soundtrack the end because I've seen it so many times," closes the Bandcamp description.

Yet again, Shamir has regenerated with the release of "On My Own" in early June. Touted as his return to pop, the song is an exuberant guitar-heavy breakup anthem that, once again, somehow accidentally is a perfect thematic fit for quarantine. Co-produced by Kyle Sulley (Hop Along, Diet Cig, Adult Mom), its release has brought a surge of excitement and anticipation for what's next for the constantly transforming creative.

The answer is his "most accessible album since Ratchet." Currently untitled, the record is slated for release this fall and sees Shamir use the tools he's acquired over his six-year career to craft an exuberant set of indie-pop songs that incorporate the many sounds and genres he's explored to make something completely new and fresh. While it's a return to pop, it's not a return to Ratchet. Like the butterfly he uses as his insignia, Shamir has metamorphosized into the artist he was always meant to be.

KEXP spoke with Shamir about the forthcoming record, his unending work ethic, and his experiences in the music industry as a queer Black artist. Read below.

 


KEXP: You dropped the first single off your upcoming record, "On My Own" a couple weeks ago and it's completely blowing up right now, even surpassing "On the Regular" on the iTunes charts. What do you think about everyone's excitement over the track?

Shamir: I mean, I knew it was good. I really liked it and I knew that people would be very excited with the accessibility but it's definitely exceeded all of my expectations. You know, I self-released it, I'm self-managing right now. It's all a very DIY, on my own, affair. So it's not only been insane that it's been blowing up like this, but also just very humbling, you know.

Right, it's got to feel especially good knowing that you did do it all on your own.

Yeah, I mean, that's just a bonus.

You've said that this new record is your most accessible record since Ratchet. I've only heard the unmastered version, but I can agree with that and absolutely love it. I think fans are gonna be really delighted with it. What made you want to return to pop and what's the story behind the record?

Well, kind of two things. The first thing was that it felt right to return now because it was a new challenge for me. I found like I basically was able to find a formula to kind of like merge my old pop stuff with what I've been currently doing as far as the indie rock stuff. And I thought of it like a new fun musical challenge for me to make a pop record in the normal kind of indie rock way that I've been performing the last like five years.

And then secondly was kind of just...you know, after I kind of went away and took a break from pop, I was really frustrated with the lack of queer, black, nonbinary representation in pop after I left and I was like, "What the heck?" Because realistically, one of the main reasons why I was happy to step away is because it seemed like, "Okay, I kind of helped blaze this trailway. There's going to be way more black, queer, nonbinary pop stars to come out the woodwork." And there just really wasn't! Not to say that there aren't, but not many were given a platform that I had. And so that was really frustrating for me. You know, like this is messed up and we all know why. And so I thought that it was really important for me to basically use my platform that I definitely have been underusing.

 

 

You had indie producer Kyle Pulley helped produce "On My Own." Did he work on other parts of the album and are there any other collaborators?

Yes, this was the first album that I've had multiple producers on which is a huge new thing for me. Which I thought was gonna be a headache, but everything worked out so well. Kyle is on, I think, five of the songs and then "I Wonder" was by another producer. I self-produced "Paranoia" and then another friend and artist of mine Donny Electric produced "Pretty When I'm Sad."

 

 

But yeah, Kyle was really great. He actually reached out to me. And, you know, I've worked with so many producers and I felt like word got around that I'm a little difficult to work with mostly, and not because I'm like mean or anything, but mostly just because I like to do very unorthodox things. And he was just so cool and so open and really, really got the vision of what I wanted to do and he's so talented and so, so great at what he does. And on top of that, it was really cool, as both of us being very indie rock dudes to push each other to make something very accessible and pop, which I think was great for both of us.

Well, the result is fantastic. What is the significance of the mini skits sprinkled throughout the album?

[laughs] Yeah, you know, one of the main things I wanted to do with this record was kind of making an experience, like I want it to feel kind of like a movie. And that's why with "Diet" there's like a film rolling in the beginning. I want it to be a very visual album, especially in a year where a lot of visual things aren't being greenlit right now. So, yeah, a lot of those skits are just from videos of me and my friends, just being ourselves. Like the first kid is my bass player and our old roommate and that was like fairly older. We were like maybe 20 years old, like a bit ago when we were living together. No, actually, we were 19. I was 19. Yeah. This is like literally right after I recorded it "On the Regular." And so that's why we're making jungle juice, because I'm too grown to be drinking jungle juice!

I'd hope so!

[laughs] Yeah. So it's just like us making jungle juice, being ridiculous and everything. And yeah, I thought that it was like very cinematic because a lot of these songs just feel very youthful for me, even though I'm older, because I've kind of worked on my health over the years, like I just stopped smoking, it's been maybe a year since I had a cigarette, so I've just been feeling a lot more youthful lately.

Yeah, it does have a youthful feel to it absolutely. You only just released the album Cataclysm in March. How far apart were the two albums actually recorded and how do the stories told and your headspace for each album differ?

So the thing with Cataclysm is that I spent a long time on it. I spent almost two years on Cataclysm. And the story goes that it was shopped last year and almost every label that it was shopped to passed on it. So, that was an eye-opener for me. That was like kind of just like, "Okay, Shamir you're on your own. You've got to do this because people don't believe in you anymore. People see you as a has-been. People don't get the vision." And people realistically don't want to invest in black queer artists because they don't know how to market it, you know?

And so I thought that the music itself – kind of the whole idea that I have behind Cataclysm – in dealing a lot with isolation and everything, kind of feels like a headspace that I think a lot of people are in right now in the pandemic. And it was so crazy because it was just very ahead of his time. I didn't even think that we'd be in this situation beforehand! But I weirdly, oddly was like already in tune with the record and that's why the record sounds like that. I wanted it to sound like a tape that you found, like in the gravel. And I think that concept to people a year ago was just like "What?" You know?

 

 

Right. Yeah, it does feel very timely. So when you do release the new record this fall, and obviously it's going to blow up, are you going to want to continue to stay independent, maybe as kind of like a "F- you" to the labels that turned you down, or do you think you would consider releasing music on labels in the future?

Yeah we'll consider it if it makes sense. You know, if it feels right. I'm not opposed to it. And I think if anything, whatever label that I work with, even if it's one of the ones that passed on me, I want them to realize the type of artist that I am and how sometimes things may not make sense at the time being, but like, I swear that it's gonna make sense. Because it's really hard for me to explain or like put into words something that I just know or I just feel and that might not make sense now or might be a little ahead of its time. I'm a very empathetic person. And I feel like in that way it's been very easy for me to tap into things even before everyone is kind of ready to tap into certain things.

I think even during the Ratchet era, when I had all these country covers and closed out my EP with the country cover of Lindi Ortega or like the bonus track on Ratchet was a country song and all that stuff and then like flash forward like four years later and we have the yee haw movement, you know. So I think, over the years, I've kind of learned to give my art time to breathe, cause a lot of times it's taken the world a while to catch up with it. And I think that's why this new record kind of makes more sense and it's gonna work a little bit better because I kind of gave these songs a year and a half to breathe and develop and, you know, let the world catch up with it.

 

 

Well, I don't want to sound like I'm, like, buttering you up or freaking you out, but I do think it's gonna be really big. And I think it is a perfect encapsulation of everything you've been doing up until now and bringing it to a new level. So I'm really excited for it to come out.

Thank you. I'm really excited for it to come out too. It just feels really like me. This kind of feels like a new coming out.

Absolutely. A new phase. You're an incredibly busy person, you've released like five records in just the past two years, plus touring, modeling, voice acting, writing a TV column and so much more. How do you balance all that? And have you kept the momentum up during quarantine?

Yeah, I've worked all quarantine, especially since I'm not managed right now. So I've kind of had to let go of a few things like my TV column, which is frustrating. I definitely haven't been writing as much as I want to. So, you know, compartmentalizing things has been the biggest challenge and the way that I've been able to do a lot of things. 

I think when you're someone like me...my drummer Fiona, she put it in the best way. She's like, "You're cursed with talent." You know? Because that's what it feels like a lot of times, like not always a blessing. It's like I'm cursed in the way that there's so many things that I want to do and know that I can do. And the hardest thing is compartmentalizing them and giving each thing its due diligence. And sometimes that means just like put them off to the side for a second depending on wherever I am in my life and in my career.

So, yeah, I think that's just why it's just like when the time makes sense then I go full force into each of those things instead of trying to juggle all of them.

Yeah, absolutely. You've been really open over the years about your struggles with mental health and being diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Do you think that plays a role in the reason you're constantly working? Is it a coping method to keep busy?

Oh, for sure, yeah that definitely plays a huge part. Not even so much that's like coping but in a way of me really...because when I make music, when I create, art is a way for me to dig into my subconscious. And a lot of times, I'll write a song and kind of just be like very gone and not really know what's coming out of me and then come back and listen to it and it's just like, "Oh, this is what my subconscious was saying." And so, yes, it's kind of a form of therapy. At least for me. It was really cool because my last therapist was definitely cognizant of that. And sometimes I'll go through lyrics and stuff and really kind of pinpoint those exact little things for myself.

Absolutely. I know a lot of people have been struggling during quarantine with mental health. How have you been doing?

You know what, surprisingly good! I think it's because I am such an introvert and I think a lot of my anxieties are kind of just me going out into the world as a black queer person. And I think not having to constantly think about that now like I used to has kind of been in an odd way good for my mental health.

Interesting. Let's talk a little bit about that, because it's Pride month but there are some people that wonder whether focusing on Pride rather than the current Black Lives Matter protests might be inappropriate or distracting. How are you feeling about that as both a queer and a black person?

Yeah. I mean, intersectionality is great. Never hurt anyone! [laughs] You know, like, why do I have to choose between those two things? Like that's ridiculous. And that's how a lot of queer black people feel too and it's so messed up. And it's not even just queer black people, I think black women as well.

You know, it's great that these conversations and these protests and these things are happening but why do these things happen when it's a cis black male when trans women die at an even higher rate? When black women are some of the most vulnerable people in this world? It's frustrating. I think it's frustrating when you are black and still a part of these other very vulnerable communities as well, because it's almost like the world can't handle doing two things at once. Like, I swear, we can. I swear it's possible.

Yeah, absolutely. In the piece you wrote for your TV column in 2019, that's been recently resurfaced, about Chelsea Handler's show about white privilege. You make the point of white people just needing to give over the mic to people of color.

Exactly. Yeah and it's so funny because I wrote that article back in October and I think that's what's really happening right now which is so funny. Is that white people are like, "Oh, it's not enough just not be racist. It's not enough to just listen. Like we have to give up our platform and share it."

 

 

Yeah, absolutely. It's something we've talking about a lot at KEXP, different ways that we can just pass over the mic. It's so interesting and amazing how all these companies are talking about things they've never talked about before. I'm curious about your specific experience within the music industry as a queer black person and the ways you might have experienced racism and homophobia if you're willing to share any stories.

I mean, how long do you have? There's so many like obvious stories that I can go through, but I think the most frustrating thing at the time was when I had my first management team in the Ratchet era. And I wore the shirt that was really popular at the time, back in 2015, and it's still a really popular organization, it's called Gender Is Over - If You Want It. And I remember I was photographed in the shirt and my management were kind of monitoring that. Just like, "You know, we don't want you to appear like too radical."

And then I would be very vocal about Black Lives Matter stuff way back when. And that's why I think a lot of people like myself, who was always vocal and didn't care about seeming nicely put in this box and everything, it's just like we've been saying this. We've been screaming this. Like I said, the Chelsea Handler piece came out in October. Like I've always been screaming this at the top of my lungs. And I think the fact that for so long the music industry basically was like artists can't be political or it's not a good look for artists to be political is realistically, as we see now, harmful. It is. It's simply harmful.

It goes back to like Taylor Swift. Like it's so great that Taylor Swift is talking out and speaking out or doing what she's doing, like, kudos to her. But it's like, she also put her career before political things a few years ago, Donald Trump era, and people were yelling at her to say something. And she didn't. And while I don't think that it's positive and good to chastise her now for something four years ago, that still would have made such a huge difference four years ago. And I think the world is waking up now that it's like it takes everyone. It takes all of us, you know.

Oh, yeah. It's definitely an eye-opening moment – for white people especially. How have the protests been in Philly? I heard they took down the statue of Columbus?

Did they take it? I thought they were trying to, but people had been protecting it. But the Roosevelt statue is down!

Oh, nice! That's great. Good riddance.

Yeah. Bye bye! You know, when they first started to break, it was scary and police were being forceful. But I had no doubt that Philly would show out because Philly, especially over the last few years, is becoming increasingly progressive, which is really great. I remember after Trump was elected, we were marching and that really great to see. So, yeah Philly is always great. I love Philly, it's my favorite city period. That's why I moved here. Philly is really the only place geographically that I've always felt at home. Since the first time that I stepped foot here.

Have you been out protesting?

Unfortunately, I haven't been out protesting because, like I said, I don't have management and I live alone. It was really tough for me to make that decision because I really, really wanted to. But it was like, "Shamir, you're on your own. You don't have management. If something happens to you, you're done for. And I have this single coming out." So that was really, really frustrating. I remember I was just like stress baking flan the whole week because it's just so frustrating. Because I've marched so much in the past and to not really be able to participate in the way that I wanted to, I've done the charity fund and donated a lot and all that stuff but I always love being out on the front lines and it was really frustrating to not be able to this time around.

Absolutely. It's completely understandable and really you can't feel bad about it.

Yeah, I mean, I think any black person that's been on the front lines during this time, like that's amazing. Like you're going above and beyond, regardless, because that this is not our fight. We've been fighting for how long? So it was less about wanting to be there as a black person and more about just me identifying as an activist, you know.

 

 

Yeah, absolutely. So the new record doesn't come out until the fall, but I imagine we can expect more singles and videos dropping before then?

Yes, I think the next single is next month. Super excited. Getting a video together for that as well. I'm doing that one myself as well. So I'm super excited for it.

Busy, busy! Are you booking tour dates at all or just waiting to see what happens with COVID?

Yeah, there's definitely talks for stuff and I've been talking to my agent, but I think everything's just kind of contingent on how the world will be looking. But, ya know, 2021 I hope?

Yeah, that's what it's looking like. I saw a COVID report that doesn't see shows happening until spring or summer 2021. It's like, "Okay, great. That's depressing."

Yeah. Which is another reason why when people are like, "Why are you waiting so long to roll out this record?" And I'm like, "Because I probably won't be able to tour until like spring next year." So, you know, I'm gonna release it in October. [laughs]

Since we're the station where the music matters, why does music matter to you?

I think it's because it's always been there for me. You know, when external things happen or when I feel not in control of things that are out of my control, I always have music. And me creating music is something that I can control and it's something that always comforts me.

And for me specifically, as an artist, it's something that even if music was taken away, like even if we were in an even more fascist state than we are now and like all streaming sites were banned and there would be no more music and blah blah blah, at least I could create it myself, you know? Which is why I create music. I create music to find solace. So, yeah, it's so important to me, just in my being.

 

 

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