ON MAKING MUSIC FOR GRUNGY QUEERS
Shamir Bailey is one of the most essential queer voices of our time. After striking success with his 2015 debut Ratchet, Shamir decided to focus on only making the kind of music he felt passionate about. I met up with Shamir in the green room of The Empty Bottle to talk about his journey, his inspiration, and his new music.
You’re playing new songs on your tour dates in the new year and I’ve seen you describe your last album as the end of a chapter. What can you tell us about the new songs and what’s been inspiring you lately? Are there any new themes you’ve been exploring in your songwriting?
Nothing too different, still guitar-based stuff but more hooks. The songs are maybe a little poppier, but the way we play them is more grunge. One of the new songs we’re gonna play tonight is about something I watched on one of those iD network reenactments about a student that stalked his teacher and drove his car through her house. And her daughter normally sleeps under the kitchen table but specifically that night the teacher told her daughter to go upstairs and that’s the night he drove through the house and crashed right through the table. So it’s kinda about mother’s intuition.
You’ve worked with big labels, you’ve been on your own, and now you’re signed with an independent label (Father/Daughter Records), so you must have a wide view of how the industry works at every level. What would you change about the music business if you could wave a magic wand?
Capitalism? (laughs) I mean, it’s the way the industry has always worked but now it’s so overly saturated because its so easy to get your music out there. I feel like labels are constantly only looking for what will make money, which affects the art in a negative way. Maybe something like grants. You know, giving artists money outside the industry.
I saw you were planning on starting your own label?
Yes! The first single comes out on the 22nd of next month for my artist Southwick. I’ve been working my ass off and everything’s going so smoothly so I’m just excited for all my artists.
What qualities are you drawn to in other artists that makes you want to work with them?
People I know who aren’t trash? (laughs) I’ve known Southwick since 2015. She was working at NPR when I did my Tiny Desk Concert and that’s where we first met. Then when she moved to Philly we ended up at brunch with mutual friends and she was like “Hey, we’ve actually met before” and she literally pulled up the video to show where she was sitting next to me. So we were both living in Philly and we became friends. I didn’t even know she sang until last year when we started writing together. I heard her sing and I was like “Girl! We should do something here!”
What is the queer DIY scene like in Philly?
Philly is a pretty queer city but like with most DIY scenes, it’s a lot of straight dudes taking up space. But if you look closely there are a lot of artists doing dope shit.
Are there any new artists you’re excited about recently?
I’m playing with this band called Peaer and we toured with them not too long ago. They’re releasing their second album this year and I’m on that. They’re amazing, they’ve been one of my favorite bands for a few years. I know Yowler is killing it right now. I’m trying to think who’s all releasing this year…I mean if Rihanna is releasing that would be great, but she’s not new.
One of my favorite songs of yours is Room. Can you tell me about writing that song?
I wrote that song back in 2016 with Big Taste when I was doing all these sessions to follow up with my next big pop record after Ratchet. And it wasn’t working and the only producer I was working with that I enjoyed was Big Taste, but we weren’t making pop music. We were making “Room” and “Caballero” and just weird punk country shit. So I put that on the back burner for a bit until I got signed to Father/Daughter and I was like, “I wanna release these songs”. But yeah, for “Room” it started with the chord progression. Usually when I work with producers we get the mood of what the song is gonna sound like, and then I go chain-smoke and write the lyrics. So it was during a dark time for me because I was doing all those pop sessions in L.A. and nothing was coming out how I wanted to. I realized it was because I didn’t want to do pop music anymore. So it felt like I was trapped in this room and the door’s right there and I can walk out…but it’s scary. And it also deals with depression and how hard it is to get out of your bed and out of your room.
I’ve seen you joke about all the gays that abandoned you after you stopped making dance music. Do you have anything to say to someone who may have been a fan before but hasn’t given your new stuff a chance?
I mean, they have every right not to like it…it was a 180. I’m not expecting everyone to like it as much as the old shit. The biggest thing for me is that electronic and pop music seems to always be pandering to gay people and queer people and it’s unfortunate because you get forced into a box, like “Gay people like this type of music”.
Like dance and pop are for gay people and guitar music is for…
Straight people, right. And with the music I’m doing now I was kind of expecting not all but mostly straight people at my shows. But queer people have been coming out because the queers that do enjoy this type of music don’t always have the representation. So they’ve been showing up and standing up front and are louder and it’s been cool to rock out with my fellow grungier queers.
I like your pants and your clip…what inspires your fashion and how you present yourself?
I like butterflies, obviously. It’s been a new thing for me - butterflies were a huge symbol of strength for me when I started breaking out and doing the music I wanted to do, so I wear a butterfly clip every day. I’m also always really inspired by Solange. When it comes to style it’s like, “What would Solange do?”
I think she’d like your butterflies.
I hope so. She follows me on Twitter…I’ve been too scared to DM her!
Do you have a favorite song you’ve written or a song where you feel like you best expressed what you were feeling when you wrote it?
I think “Straight Boy”. That song always shakes people, especially straight boys. It feels like a very powerful song and every time I play it I feel like it’s making a difference. I feel like all my songs have a deeper meaning but I think that one is the most in your face while still being a simple and catchy melody. I mean, the song is called “Straight Boy” so people are kind of forced to pay attention to the lyrics. Or they might just be bopping along and then they hear the lyrics…I don’t think people always know how to enjoy music and also think. When I listen to music, I don’t get thrown off if there’s a deeper message to lyrics. I think I like it even more.
Since everyone seems to have a hot take about it - what did you think of “7 Rings” by Ariana Grande?
First of all, l I just want it to be known that I am a 1000% Ariana Grande stan and I think the song is great. When I first saw the video it was a little much for me because I know everyone has been talking about her blackfishing or darkening her skin. When that conversation first started I was kind of “whatever” about it but then in this video when she’s in the pink trap house and twerking…it was just a little much for me. What is frustrating about this conversation is that I don’t want to feel like a hater or like I’m policing anyone but at the same time it does feel like someone is wearing my race as a costume. I don’t know, maybe as the time passes we’ll have a more nuanced take on this kind of thing. But it’s a good song. I wish Cardi B cut it, that would have been amazing. Because it’s mostly rap, it just didn’t feel sincere for Ariana. I just hope she opens her eyes a little more, you know? Like, do music that feels good to you and sounds good and is within your range, but just be more mindful. And I think a lot of artists on every level are not mindful about the music they put out in the world.
by Stevie Logan
Photos by Shea Petersen for Bops & Flops