Go With Your Gut: Shamir Discusses His Unconventional New Album
At 6:53 a.m. on Monday, April 17, low-key pop icon Shamir — born Shamir Bailey — surprise-releases an album called Hope. Recorded over a weekend direct to four-track with most of the vocals completed in one take, it’s wildly unlike anything the “On the Regular” singer has released thus far. In a note posted to his SoundCloud along with the album, he elucidates that Hope was — as hope, lowercase, often is — the thing that kept him from quitting music entirely.
Life comes at you fast, I guess.
We’re living in pressurized times — from the speed and ease of wirelessly uploading new music to the cloud seconds after it’s finished to the omnipresent threat of nuclear annihilation. By 10:38 a.m., I’ve listened to Hope all the way through four times and, inspired by the very idea of a quick turnaround, am already on the phone with Shamir, trying to figure out how he made such an engrossing, complex, and moving record in less than 72 hours — from concept all the way through to mixing and mastering.
Disparate genres — ’90s girl grunge, doo-wop, DIY punk, soul — intertwine on Hope. It’s the finest, truest portrait of Shamir himself: spontaneous, brave, and intuitive; sourced and cited; and a little bit nervous in the sweetest way.
So, how're you feeling?
Shamir: So exhausted. Like, I pretty much haven't slept this weekend … I just trapped myself in my room and kind of fleshed out ideas I already had on my four-track, and then wrote four new [songs] while watching Veep, and did the Blake Babies cover. I called my bassist, who works at MilkBoy studios in Philadelphia, and was like, "Yo, can you help me master this album? Like, I just wrote an album this weekend, and would really like for you to master it. I'm probably going to drop it tomorrow, depending on how it turns out and how I feel." It was just so magical while we were mastering it in the studio — we were just dancing around really excited about it. It had a magical vibe to it, so I was like, "Yeah, I'm going to drop this!"
You did most of this completely on your own, from recording to instrumentation, right?
Shamir: Everything's my own — like, literally on my bedside. Literally mixed it on stereo speakers, don't even have monitors. Yeah, I'm sitting at my bedside where I recorded it. My mic is still here.
Does it feel like it happened, or do you still feel like it was kind of like a dream?
Shamir: It does feel like a dream ... especially having it come so fast. A lot of these songs just feel so fast. My playing was [done in] one take, pretty much, for most of these, especially for the vocals. It was just raw, it was just real, it was just, like, in the moment. That's when music's most exciting for me … that's art to me: in the moment. It can be thought-out, but I think it's best in the moment. People throw beautiful paint splatters on a canvas, and those sell for like a gajillion dollars, because they make someone feel something.
Some of this music may come as a surprise to people who know you from your more produced, pop stuff. But you do, as we know, keep the company of some strange punk types who maybe want to keep things to one take. Who were your big influences for this project?
Shamir: That's the crazy thing. Literally all week I was listening to a bunch of ’90s grunge stuff. "One More Time Won't Kill You" is my best Courtney Love impersonation, honestly. I've been listening to a lot of Velocity Girl, and how weirdly mixed their albums are. Also My Bloody Valentine. And then I was listening to Blake Babies, who I honestly just discovered pretty much this weekend. I was listening to them all weekend, and that's where that cover came from. It just felt right, you know?
What would you recommend as sort of a praxis for self-liberation, for people who hear Hope and want to try something themselves, maybe for the first time?
Shamir: When I posted it on my personal Facebook, I was like, "Yo, I made an album this weekend, and pretty much every time that I felt like I was going to give up and break down and feel sorry for myself, I [just wrote] a song." At the end of this day, I'm still alive. I'm still here, and my creative energy can't be taken from me. You can take everything away from me, but my creativity and my art is something I'm always going to be able to do, anywhere or anytime, anyhow. Like I said, I have nothing — I literally made this album with a four-track, stereo speakers, and a $150 mic.
If you think back to a time when places like Sun Records were the big recording studios, four-tracks were new technology back then.
And if people came to your music when they heard "On the Regular," then they may have heard your singing voice, and like me, said, "I want to hear Shamir do some Frankie Valli–type stuff: some very very high, very trained, mid-century falsetto,” and that's what I hear in the first half of this record, maybe for the first time.
Shamir: Yeah! I think that was what was really hard about making Ratchet for me. Like, I love [Ratchet producer] Nick Sylvester: He's the best. He obviously knows my voice better than most people and sometimes better than myself. But I think it was really hard for us when recording Ratchet, because I know that I want to do weird things with my voice, and that my voice can do weird things, so we were kind of scared of pushing people away, stylistically, with the singing. That's when I started doing the "singing in the dark" covers on Instagram, so people could kind of just hear my voice untouched, raw, in the moment. And I think those kind of built up into this moment.
Is the idea of performing in a rawer voice something that might slow down now that Hope is out and your fans have a whole album full of it, or do you think you'll still keep it up?
Shamir: The response to this has been so overwhelming to me. This is 10,000 times more than what I expected from this. I don't have to wait two years between albums anymore — now I know that people want real! People like raw, and I feel like my songwriting style — I still try to make it as pop and catchy as possible, but I feel like that leaves room to be my weird self. I don't want to hurt anyone's ears. Like, I'm not trying to make an avant-garde record. But I listen to a lot of avant-garde music, and I want to express that in my pop music!
There are other artists who would make an album in a weekend, release it, and not tell anyone about how or why they made it. Why did you feel it was important to release information about the making of the album at the same time that you released it?
Shamir: Because I was preparing to get dragged! [mutual howling laughter]
Is it insane for you that people love it so much?
Shamir: Yeah. It really is. I kind of just feel like I have the universe on my side. The crazy thing is, I was literally calling my mom on Friday, crying. My mom was just like, "Look, this retrograde is beating your ass, and I understand that, but you have to work with it." That's what this album was for me. I'm glad that people feel how I felt when I made it.
You said you’ve been working on some of these songs for a long time. Do you feel like with Hope, you’ve got some closure with those?
Shamir: The ending track, "Bleed It Out," was a song I was trying to get produced since I was 16. That's when I wrote that song. People couldn't wrap their heads around that song, and I'm glad that I was able to release it [with] just guitar, how I wrote it, keeping it raw. I always sang that song to myself, wishing that I could share it with the world, for literally the past five years of my life.
And now here it is and it seems like people really, really, really love it!
Shamir: Yeah, yeah. Like I said, it's been a crazy day to me. Obviously, no one will fucking tell someone to drop an album after Coachella weekend after fucking Kendrick dropped an album. It's so fucked up, but yeah, it's just what I had to do. It just felt right, and obviously, it was right!
What else can we keep the fans at home abreast of for the next few months? What thoughts would you like to leave them with?
Shamir: I guess my overall message is just that real overpowers everything, you know? We have to be honest with ourselves, we have to be honest with everyone around us, and we have to always work — every day, I feel — as people, to try to be 100 percent ourselves! You know? Do the things that we feel: Go with your gut instinct. Because every single time I don't go with my gut instinct, it doesn't work.