A young pop auteur breaking all the rules.
Taken from the 10th Birthday Issue of Wonderland.
Jumper and bomber both by SAINT LAURENT BY HEDI SLIMANE
Shamir Bailey – Shamir, for short – won’t be celebrating his forthcoming 21st with a debauched night out in downtown Las Vegas. The opening track on his debut album Ratchet bears his hometown’s name, and it does a pretty good job of making Vegas’s expensive sleaze sound inviting, as its symphonies “ka- ching ka-ching” endlessly. But Bailey’s not the sort who’ll pop champagne in a bar at the Bellagio or blow his birthday money on a round of blackjack at the MGM Grand.
“The Strip or downtown area is such a small part of Vegas – only five or six miles,” he says. “People who visit often never make it out of those limits. Once you leave downtown, you realise, ‘Oh there’s nothing out here but dirt and cacti. It’s the desert!’” His affinity for this landscape helps him resist the gravitational pulls of LA or New York usually exerted upon other musicians. Raised in the city’s Northtown suburb, Shamir Bailey is one of the few pop stars you’ll hear discussing the merits of hanging out in a cave.
“It’s usually 20-30 degrees cooler in there than it is outside. We do a little bonfire, and just
chill, listen to music and drink. They call it the Rave Cave.” Bailey won’t even be spending his birthday in the Rave Cave. Instead, he’s playing at a festival in Austin, Texas, just one of the dozens of shows he’s booked around the world since becoming one of pop’s most original new voices. Ratchet is the cohesive work of a self- confessed “scatter-brained” talent. Cowbell- punctuated jams rub up against tender country ballads. At Bailey’s fizziest, on thrilling breakout single “On The Regular”, he can sound like Tom Tom Club locked in a lightsaber battle with TLC.
A couple of years ago, Bailey had graduated from high school and was working in Topshop. He’d been playing in bands since he was a teenager, but decided to contact Brooklyn indie label Godmode with some solo demos. Its founder, Nick Sylvester, who would eventually become Bailey’s manager and producer, was instantly struck by his voice. Within two months, the 18-year-old had boarded a plane (his second ever flight) to New York (his first time in the city) to record his EP “Northtown”. He’d hoped to release it on a cassette, limited to a few hundred copies. It was after Bailey’s return to Vegas, though, that things really sped up. Back in his mum’s house, he woke to discover Pitchfork had declared “If It Wasn’t True”, one of the songs he’d recorded in New York, a Best New Track. The reaction it sparked was only the beginning of what Bailey calls “this weird freak thing.”
Within hours, he was inundated with label interest, before eventually signing with XL. “It was really scary, especially as it wasn’t something I was striving for, or at least not that early on. I thought I had to drop a few releases and pay a few dues before I got to sign with the best record label in the world.”
If Bailey’s rapid success might sometimes give him a sense of imposter syndrome, when you experience his charisma, it’s clear that he could never have remained under the radar as a Topshop assistant for long. For as long as he can remember, he’s exerted his individuality. The high school corridors were his runway. “I’d come in wearing a long dashiki or put a twig in my nose. I was almost fearless. Of course, at first people were like ‘Bailey, why the hell are you wearing hammer pants?’ But they got used to it and then it was like, ‘Ohhh Shamir’s not weird, he’s just… different’.” Unsurprisingly, he made it into the yearbook as best dressed.
Interest in Bailey as an androgynous artist can often threaten to overshadow his excellent music. He refuses to let any aspects of his life be categorised – whether it’s his gender, sexuality or music. On the day we speak, a poll published in the UK revealed that one in two of British 18-24-year-olds say they are not 100% heterosexual. In rejecting these tags, does Bailey think we’re feeling a stronger sense of fluidity than ever before?
“We’ve been told and forced to put ourselves in boxes and now that’s luckily starting to be looked more down upon,” he says. “People like me, Miley Cyrus, Grimes and Angel Haze – people are being who they are. And I think it’s been like that since beginning of time. I’m glad that’s happening, that I get to be around to see it and to be part of it.”
Photography; Daisy Walker
Fashion: Jeanie Annan-Lewin
Grooming: Ruth Coutinho using M.A.C Cosmetics
Words: Paul Smith