Lydia Jenkin is an entertainment feature writer for the New Zealand Herald.

Shamir: Don't pin me down

It's the music that matters, says flamboyant artist.
Shamir Bailey aka Shamir is set to perform at this year's Laneway festival.
Shamir Bailey aka Shamir is set to perform at this year's Laneway festival.

Charming, youthful, subtly subversive, 21-year-old dance-pop prodigy Shamir Bailey is just the kind of artist millennial kids are looking for. Making music that's sweet and tough, confident and vulnerable, weird and familiar, Shamir eschews easy categorisation.

"To those who keep asking, I have no gender, no sexuality and no f***s to give," he tweeted in March last year after his single On The Regular garnered him international attention.

From his colourful fashion to his unusually high-pitched voice (his speaking tone is the same as his singing tone), you might say Shamir is following the flamboyant androgynous footsteps of artists like Prince or Bowie or Gaga, but really Shamir is far less self-conscious of the idea, and seems to wear his genderlessness with a kind of "why should it matter" shrug.

And so he should, because that's just a small footnote to his musical talents. Based in Philadelphia, he was born and bred in Las Vegas - though not the bright lights and hedonistic 24-hour party of the strip - he grew up in a northern suburb, which is about as suburban as it gets, says Shamir.

He lived with his mother and aunt, both big music lovers, who introduced him to a wide array of genres.

"I guess I always wanted to make music. My aunt is a poet and a lyricist - she didn't really write music, but she would have a bunch of musicians over, and they would make music together, and I think I always wanted to be part of that. I got my first guitar at 9 - I begged my mum for one - and I started playing and writing music.

"I just think it seemed like a natural thing to do. I guess I was sort of copying my mum and my aunt and their friends. I just thought, 'Oh I should do that'."

He didn't start out making the electro-infused soul disco pop he's now releasing though.

He was initially drawn to punk music (he still is), and started a punk band at high school. "I always enjoyed punk music, and the punk sensibility. That was probably one of the main reasons why I wanted to play guitar really. You know, I loved The Ramones and The Who and David Bowie.

"And then I got into The X-Ray Set, and discovered my now favourite band ever in the world, the Vivian Girls. Literally straight after discovering them, I was like 'I have to start a band'."

One of his bandmates got terrible stage fright, so the group didn't go very far, but Shamir continued to write songs for them anyway. And then he changed tack, almost on a whim, to try his hand as a solo artist.

"I had this drum machine that I wasn't really using because I was in a band, and I was like, 'Hmm, let's just see what I can do with it', and I think because I always had a strong love of pop music, I already had an ear for it, so I just wanted to see what I could do.

"It was kind of an experiment, you know, to see if I was able to make music on my own, and whether I could back myself. I'm glad that I did."

Shamir's mother encouraged him to send demos to a record label after he finished school - Shamir thought he might just move to a small town somewhere in the southern states and become a farmer. Fortunately, he decided to flick some tracks to Nick Sylvester, head of New York indie label Godmode. And in something of a modern day pop artist dream tale, Sylvester asked Shamir to come to New York to do some recording.

They recorded two tracks together, sent them out into the world, and then Shamir went back to Las Vegas, thinking that might be the end of it.

But then Pitchfork posted one of the songs, If It Wasn't True, in its Best New Tracks section, and the buzz started. So he made some more music (his EP Northtown) and ended up being signed to XL (home of FKA Twigs, the xx and Adele) shortly after. His debut album Ratchet came out in May last year, and things just keep tracking upwards.

It seems Shamir's distinctive vocal qualities have grabbed attention, even if it wasn't a quality he recognised as positive when he was younger.

"I didn't realise it could be an asset until, probably about two years ago, when I released my first song as a songwriter and people actually liked it. Because pretty much before that, I'd never thought of it as a strength, you know I used to get picked on about it for sure.

"I think teens are always looking for differences to bring people down about, that's just life I guess, but it's really cool that people appreciate it now."

Who: Shamir Bailey
Where and when: Performing on the Hey Seuss stage at 3.55pm, at Laneway Festival on Monday February 1.
Listen to: Ratchet (2015), Northtown (2014), People Change (2009)

- TimeOut

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter

SIGN UP NOW

© Copyright 2016, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf03 at 11 Dec 2016 02:05:17 Processing Time: 920ms