“It’s like nothing to some people,” says 19-year-old singer-songwriter Shamir Bailey, who’s trekking home through North Las Vegas from a full day of work, followed by a photo shoot. “But I’m used to doing nothing, so it’s a lot for me. I’m lazy.” This may not be entirely accurate—not many people manage to write, record, and release an EP on a label across the country from their hometown within a year of graduating high school—but it’s typical humility from Bailey, whose attitude often comes across as both innocent and preternaturally wise.
Bailey’s new EP Northtown, which is being released on Brooklyn-based label Godmode, is a fresh-sounding mix of seemingly antithetical concepts—mutant disco sharing space with unadorned country balladry, whirring synths and siren noises underscoring complex meditations on faith and identity. And then there’s his voice, an unaffected, almost childlike instrument that plays with typical delineations of age and gender.
Northtown is named after the neighborhood where Bailey grew up—a suburban community dotted with farms and Mormon churches, it couldn’t be further from the archetypal image of a brightly lit Vegas strip and its glut of hedonism-seeking tourists. “Vegas is a very cultureless place,” Bailey tells me, citing the fact that the government pours money into the tourism business but pays little attention to the locals. “We have to struggle to do stuff for ourselves.”
The Northtown project began when he emailed Godmode label head Nick Sylvester with a rough demo of the soulful ballad “I’ll Never Be Able to Love.” Soon after, the label flew him out to New York, where he and Sylvester re-recorded it, and produced the first single, the house-indebted “If It Wasn’t True,” in a single weekend (they later rounded out the EP when Bailey visited again in April.) “We just vibed,” says Bailey of the process. “Like you can’t get Shamir Bailey and Nick Sylvester in a room and not get a song.”
Bailey and Sylvester are already collaborating on a follow-up LP, which will include such diverse offerings as a track that features Shamir rapping, and a ballad that includes a sample from noise band Scratch Acid. Bailey tentatively plans to title the album Ratchet, a choice that seems to embody his mix of confidence and self- deprecating humor.
“He’s a very approachable, very humble person,” says Sylvester. “That’s what people are responding to. He’s creating a communion.”
Tell me about how you decided to get in touch with Godmode.
Bailey: After I graduated, I was just working, and I was in my band Anorexia, and we were kind of on hiatus. It was just two of us, and the other member, Christina, was doing a side project. So I decided to experiment with pop music because we were kind of a punk band then. I had this drum machine and I was just making these demos by myself. Eventually I put up one song, which was “I’ve Never Been Able to Love”, and all my friends kind of freaked, so I was like, maybe I’ll send it to a few labels. I was just trying to move to Arkansas really, and live kind of low key, and release a little low-key tape. I had already heard of YVETTE, and I had rediscovered them last year around October on Pitchfork, and I saw under the label, it said Godmode.
So I just kind of emailed them to see what they’re about, and make a contact. I never even thought they would consider working with me, because first off, I thought they were just kind of strictly a punk label. Literally the next day after I emailed them, Nick was like “This is amazing, come out to New York, and let’s do this, let’s make a proper record,” and the rest is history, I’m here on the phone talking to you.
What was it like growing up in North Las Vegas?
It’s probably the most diverse part of Vegas. Just everybody is here. It’s very chill, and everybody is friends with everybody. It’s not as divided.
There’s like four different Mormon churches literally within like a two-mile radius walking distance. The school that I went to had a Mormon mass or prayer or whatever it was, in the library. There’s a huge Mormon presence here.
Do you find that you go to the strip a lot? Your video for “If It Wasn’t True” seems to be set in a hotel.
No, just for work. That’s usually what people our age do, we rent out a hotel and we have a little hotel party or something, and then we got The LINQ, which I think has the biggest Ferris wheel in the world now, so that’s new and cool. That’s pretty much all we do on the strip.
When you went into that first recording session, did you have a specific idea in your mind about the kind of music that you wanted to make, or were you open to experimenting?
I was definitely really open, because I was just in a punk band, so me doing all this pop and dance-related stuff was really new to me. I didn’t even know what House was before I started working with Nick. I played him some of the demos and he was like “Oh, you must listen to a lot of house,” and I’m like, “What is house?”
If you listen to the demo version of “If It Wasn’t True,” it’s pretty much identical. Nick just embellished on it. It turned out that Nick naturally had a knack for house music, and naturally loved it, and I was just kind of naturally doing it without even knowing. It was really just like a cosmic thing how it all happened.
What was the writing process like, did you have lyrics for these songs before you went in there?
Yea I pretty much had the whole songs done for “If It Wasn’t True” and “I’ll Never Be Able to Love”.
Was that the case with the other two original tracks as well?
No, those tracks were our first songs that we worked on together from scratch. I already had some lyrics for “Sometimes a Man”, and kind of worked it around there.
The lyrics are really interesting on that song. The line “We’re slaves trapped inside our own fears”, was that about something specific?
That line was specifically about religion. When you think about Jesus, he’s seen as this big thing, but Jesus was just a man too. That line “sometimes a man is just a man”—you know, we’re all capable of all the same things. There’s a part where I was like “everyone’s the same, God doesn’t play favorites, right?” Everyone is pretty much the same. We can do everything that the next person can. So it’s kind of talking about how we shouldn’t put limitations on ourselves.
It’s funny, even when people talk about me, it’s like “Oh, a 19 year old prodigy,” and I’m like, I’m not necessarily different from the next person, and you can do it too. I’m not doing anything that spectacular, it’s just hype. It’s just how people are presented, you have to kind of look past that and take everything for full value, and not be blinded by the glitter.
You could extend that to about expectations related to your age, definitely, and also gendered expectations. Do you feel like you’re running up against that already?
Oh yea, like pretty much my whole existence. I mean obviously my voice, the way I look, and even the way I dress. Even before I started experimenting with androgyny, people would mistake me for a girl, and I’m like “What?” You know, I’m in jeans and a t-shirt, how are you mistaking me for a girl? It used to really, really, really annoy me. But really strong androgynous people, like Erika Linder and Andrej Pejic, inspired me, and now I kind of try to embrace it, because I was born this way, you know? Can’t change it, can’t change that I have very soft features or a very high- pitched voice.
Do you have any favorite vocalists that you want to emulate?
I love Marina and the Diamonds. Her voice is very unusual, very different, but she still does very pop-oriented music.
One of my major influences, I always talk about her, is CocknBullKid. She’s a British singer, and she’s what really made me want to go the pop route. I actually have her song tattooed on my ribs, called “Hold On To Your Misery”. And I also love Lana del Rey. Love, love, love Lana Del Rey.
Are you more attracted to female voices?
Yea, just because I identify with them, and most female artists wear their hearts on their sleeves. I kind of want to be like that.
You were talking a little bit about how you are dealing with hype, and the fact that people have expectations of you. Some people who enter the music industry at a young age get taken advantage of. Do you worry about that?
No, not at all, because I think a lot of those people, they’re kind of going in by themselves. But I’m already in really great hands with Nick and Talya, who’s also on Godmode. They’re like Mom and Dad, like it’s ridiculous. I know that I don’t have to worry because they have already been really good about that. They shelter me very much, but in a good way.
I actually saw that you recently tweeted something to the effect of you’re actually to the point in life where you’ll have to start giving some fucks.
Normally, Twitter would kind of be my gateway to say whatever the fuck I want. People are paying attention now, so I have to be mindful of what I say. I can’t just talk out of my ass anymore.
How does your family feel about the EP, and the fact that you’re traveling so much?
My mom’s a very spiritual, hippie person, she feels like she can see the future. She kind of hit it on the nail with this, like she normally does. It’s more of a shock to me, than it is to them. I remember towards the end of high school I’m like “Maybe I should go to college,” and she’s like “You know, college will always be there. Try to take a year for your music, just a year, and if it doesn’t work out, then you go to college, do whatever you want, you know, chill, calm down.” And literally within a year after graduation, I’m here. She’s very nonchalant about it, because she’s like, “I already saw it.”
Did you know from an early age that you wanted to get into music?
Oh yea. I just can’t picture myself really doing anything else. I mean, I’m into a lot of stuff, I’m into filmmaking and I’m really into screenwriting and fashion and comedy and stuff like that, but I always knew that everything would kind of start off with music, and music would kind of be my gateway into other things. I’m pretty sure that’s how it happened, because I honestly can’t imagine it any other way.
Do you think that you’ll do any more country covers in the future?
Oh, yea. I started off singing country and writing country songs, so it’s just a part of me. It can’t go away. It just kind of feels like home.
I do like doing the dance stuff more. It’s really taking me out of my comfort zone, because I’m such a moody person, and it’s great to just make happy music. Doing the more moody stuff, I feel like a little angsty teenager.
Looking at your twitter today, I noticed you said that Dylan Sprouse is the better Sprouse twin.
He IS! He’s honestly the most attractive one, and I follow him on Tumblr, and some of the stuff he posts is really great. He seems like a very intuitive person, and I was very shocked about that. Dylan for the win!
Shamir's Northtown EP is out now on Godmode.