Interview by Parisa Eshrati
“This record is my present, future, and past sounds all kind of coming into one.” Though indie singer-songwriter Shamir has seen a prolific career with dozens of releases, his new 2020 self-titled album serves as a re-introduction. After many tumultuous years battling expectations from the music industry, Shamir presents a rebirth of his identity through sonic exploration, personal expression, and reclamation of his youth. In this detailed interview, we discuss the journey of his self-evolution, aligning with Scorpio signs, and the love for his teddy bears.
I want to start off discussing the aesthetics of your new albums. In your videos, we see styles from glam to thrifted vintage to neon colors. These stylistic choices seem to reflect all the various musical styles you explored in the latest album. Could you discuss the intention behind the visual elements that went into the new videos and artwork, and how they reflect on your simultaneous sonic explorations?
I think I've always walked a fine line between glam and grunge aesthetics, even at the very beginning of my career and during the Ratchet era when I was doing more electronic/bass music. I've just refined my style more over the years. As for the visuals, it was mostly me doing what I can in the middle of a pandemic. But I'm kinda glad it worked out this way, because I never would have fully taken visuals into my own hands like that otherwise.
In a weird way, the silver lining of this pandemic is that the universe is pushing me to have more confidence in those artistic channels. I do stuff like that for artists on my own label all the time, but I always feel weird when it comes to my own personal style. I can't get outside my own head and position myself in a public way...like in a very organized, aesthetically pleasing way, y'know?
For this record, I did the artwork, I did the press photos, I did the videos, I did it all. I wanted it to be cohesive and it was the first time I ever made that type of deliberate decision. With any of my previous records, the aesthetics were just kind of by random circumstance. I had never put much emphasis on the art direction. So it was fun to play with these ideas for the first time. Plus, I like fashion, I like doing my makeup, and it was nice to incorporate that into my music. I also started learning photography for this album. I love cinematography and I’ve done videos for artists on my label in the past, but I’ve never dabbled with photography. I’m glad people have responded to the art so well because I still don’t really know what I’m doing. I’m still learning, you know, faking it ‘til I make it [laughs].
One thing I find interesting is that while you’ve said this is your most self-actualized album, it’s also the least personal album lyrically speaking. You have songs written from a fictional third-person perspective or talk about more global issues, i.e. climate change. How do you think straying away from a hyper personal lens lyrically has allowed for more personal sonic exploration and experimentation?
I think it's hard for me to picture myself from an outside perspective when I’m exploring an idea that’s really personal to me. When I'm producing for another artist, I feel like I have a skill of seeing how the artists see themselves, That skill doesn't really translate when working with myself... 'cause how can it? I'm me! I feel like that viewpoint is still distorted for me. It’s been a huge struggle in my life --- this distortion of never knowing how people view me, because realistically, being black and queer, I think it does differ from how I view myself.
So yeah, I think this zoomed out perspective allowed me to be more cohesive instrumentally and experiment more sonically. There are still personal songs on there, but I tried not having this album be so raw, like Revelations. That was such a personal record. With this self-titled release, there's really no story behind it other than I'm trying to combine all the sounds I did in the past five years in a way that's cohesive. It's still personal to me, but not too personal where I'm constantly in my head.
More than anything, I'm trying to honor my sound rather than my feelings. The last record was focused on a muse and seeking to find pure personal catharsis, but this record is actually focusing on the music.
I appreciate how you still give hints to personal stories with those short spoken interludes throughout the record. Those snippets are back from when you were 19, so while you’re presenting a confidence in this a self-actualized album, you hint back to a time where you were younger and really trying to find yourself. Can you talk about the integration of all these parts of your past selves in order to create this monumental album of self-assurance?
Exactly. This record is my present, future, and past sounds all kind of coming into one. It shows you what I've done in the past, what I'm doing now, and a peek of what I’ll potentially do in the future. I thought having those past clips was particularly important because they show an extremely specific point in my life when I’d just got signed and right before my first single "On the Regular" even dropped. I was hopeful, but not knowing what was ahead of me.
I think it's funny to hear back to that time in my life. It feels so distant that I almost don't even remember that person. It's nice to immortalize those little snippets -- it almost feels voyeuristic. Then again, the record has this kind of coming-of-age vibe as well. This is a coming-of-age record for me, musically, career-wise, and artistically. So obviously it felt right to use snippets from a time where I was truly about to come-of-age. I love hearing those interlaced throughout the album. It’s so funny to hear me with all my best friends. I still talk to them all too, and somehow they haven’t gotten on my nerves [laughs].
Your self-titled album didn’t come until well into your already prolific career, whereas many artists start off with a self-titled album to introduce themselves. It kind of feels like a re-introduction, and makes me think of the lyric from the album where you say “youth is wasted on the ones who feel immortal”. In this sense, it feels like you’re having this rebirth and celebrating this youth you didn’t get to experience while you were under so much pressure from the music industry. Can you talk about that idea of youth in terms of this re-introduction and rebirth of your music?
Exactly, yeah, I feel like I'm now in a new chapter of not only my career, but my life as well. When I released my debut album Ratchet, I knew it wouldn’t be a “coming out” for me. I chose not to make it self-titled because it didn’t feel synonymous with who I was. I didn’t think that record would be as popular as it was either...like at all. Whatsoever. And that's not me being humble. The only reason I went through with it was because I thought it would be a nice little foot-in-the-door, and then I'd do something more true to myself later. My young, naive self, however, misunderstood how important first impressions are in the music industry. I never would have guessed Ratchet would be that successful, I think no one could have predicted that.
It's funny how you point out that "youth is wasted on the ones who feel immortal" lyric. The early part of my career never felt immortal. When I finally finished touring Ratchet, I knew I wasn’t going to continue in a similar path. Everything felt temporary. Did I know how difficult it was gonna be to move on from it? Sort of, but not really. I had to go through so many death processes to get back to this point. It definitely is like a rebirth but I’m also taking light from all the lives I had before and bringing it into this new chapter where it all comes together. In a way, it does feel like a second debut.
You’ve said how you wanted this album to have a visual feel (i.e. the song “Diet” opens up with the sound of a film reel). If you had to create a visual companion to this album and were to cast people to play you and your teddy bears, Cinnamon, Neon and Blackjack, who would you audition and why?
WHAT?! Oh my God! Look at you knowing my teddy bears by name! [laughs] Well, I just know that the live action versions of my bears would have to resemble a doodlebop. I love my doodlebops and I feel like they'd have to be this weird human-type thing...one that's all pink, one that's all white, and one that wears the black-checked sweater [laughs]. Oh and who would play me? Janelle Monáe.
Yes, I would totally watch that! So going back to the album, it's interesting how you quitting smoking was a big factor into making the record because I’ve read about how Scorpio musicians, since they’re a water sign, should especially avoid fire elements to hit their best potential. Were any other ways you got more intentional into your Scorpio/water elements, and if so how did it help everything align?
First and foremost, I really agree with the fire elements and vibe with them on a deeper level. I have one fire placement, and I'm all earth, water, and air. However, I think in a lot of ways I'm a classic Scorpio, and my Gemini rising and Capricorn moon plays a lot into my personality too. I'm a real work horse, almost a work addict, but then the Scorpio side of me easily gets overwhelmed...but then also, the Gemini side is constantly scatterbrained [laughs]. That combination in me butts heads sometimes.
As a Scorpio I can get deeply involved in projects very easily. My Capricorn moon mirrors that with how I feel things very deeply, but I’m not necessarily as emotionally connected as other water signs. Like a Cancer or a Pisces will feel something super deeply and spend a whole week crying about it, y'know? But a Scorpio will introspect really deeply, then eat the pain and continue in a very militant way.
It makes things really hard, there will be times when I'm like, “I want to cry, even as a cathartic exercise, but I can't right now!” Classic Scorpio in that way, it's what allows me to go to those emotional depths, and even make my art.
I remember reading that you had recorded the album in two weeks and you learned all the production tricks yourself. Strong Scorpio energy there!
Oh yes, absolutely.
You’ve been discussing in interviews how you’ve gone from being an anti-career artist to wanting to be in the mainstream. I love that because I think in genres like indie there’s this idea of “selling out”, like you have to stay underground to be truly indie. In reality that term is often used to not give artists, especially POC/queer artists, the recognition and pay that they deserve. Can you talk about rejecting that notion and utilizing mainstream attention to garner more representation?
Exactly, well that's the only reason why I decided to go back to the mainstream. I mean, the idea of an anti-career artist is great, wonderful, especially if you're a white indie artist. Do that, live your life's fill. Don't need more representation so might as well do you. But I got frustrated because I wasn't afforded the privilege to be an anti-career artist. I'd thought that I'd be an anti-career artist, that the influence from my first era will influence the industry, and other black and queer and non-binary artists will enter the mainstream more.
Five years passed and it didn't happen. I was like, "This is ridiculous, why??" I realized that I have to be the change I want to see, I wanted to see a major popstar like myself, and I was frustrated that I didn't see it. So I basically sat down with myself and said, “Shamir, you could be that person, why do you continue to deny yourself that, you're on the path to do it anyway?” I just didn't have the privilege to be an anti-career artist. I wanted to be the artist I wanted to see.
It reminds me of that interview article you did with Pitchfork on what it's like to be a black indie artist. You talk about how modesty is a privilege, that modesty might be cute or whatever for a white artist but if you're a person of color and trying to be modest you're just going to be forgotten.
My mom has always told me that "a closed mouth never gets fed", and that's something I have to constantly tell myself because I’m a naturally modest person. I'm bold in a lot of ways, but very modest in my career. I think this is the very first time, even during the Ratchet era, where I've felt ambitious. My career literally just fell in my lap, which is maybe a small privilege of mine that I was taking for granted. Like, I've done everything that I possibly could to destroy my career and it is still like, this fucking zombie frankenstein beast of a career that I can't get rid of no matter how hard I try [laughs]. Might as well use my platform for good, right?
Furthermore, can you discuss the balance of nurturing artists on your label while also seeking your own representation? I love that idea of you caring for artists while also looking after yourself.
Yeah totally. Going back to what I mentioned earlier, I found a real knack for getting inside an artist's head and helping them position their music and image in a way that makes them feel comfortable, but also feels cohesive. Practicing that skill gave me the confidence to do what I did with this record because I never was able to do this self-care with my music before. When I worked with other artists it was so much more natural, so much quicker and just... easier. I can 1000% say working with my artists for me is ten times easier than anything I do for myself.
I don't want to sound like one of those people that's like “I'm an empath” or whatever, but I am a very, very empathetic person. I've had moments where my friends would try to pretend that they're not sad and I'm like, “Why do I feel like I'm about to cry? There's something going on with you 'cause I'm fucking feeling it? I need you to get it out so I don't harbor this!” You know what I mean? I think I've basically translated that empathic nature into a skill of working with other artists. Artists are very tender and emotional creatures, and who's better at working with artists than an artist? I think that's a problem with the industry right now, these A&Rs and people working in the industry aren't artists and don't know how artists work. Artists are very delicate creatures, and they don't understand that.
You talk a lot about comfort lately in interviews, how you’re the most comfortable and happy when you’re behind a guitar (as opposed to pop). What other things have brought you comfort and peace in these tumultuous times?
Wow, that's a TBA question if I'm being honest. Of course, just knowing the way that my life works, I would quit smoking right before pandemic hit. It's the most stressful year in recent history: pandemic, election year. This year? Dumpster fire. It's the year you'd think people would start smoking. And I stayed strong. It hasn't been easy. But I still haven't had a cigarette or anything.
So yeah, I've been finding comfort in other, not-so-healthy vices. Binge-eating, I guess, and binge-watching as well. Binge-watching is like my new cigarette now. At the beginning of the year, I was knitting like a crazy person. Now I barely have time to knit. I'm self-managing right now too so my workload has been crazy. So literally any free time I'm just trying to numb my brain, put it on ice. Especially now that you don’t have to push anything and Netflix will just autoplay the next episode...I’m comatose!
I love the honest answer. Some people would talk about re-doing their whole house or whatever, and I can’t relate to that at all.
Yeah, like I'm gonna be all, “Oh, I'm running!” [laughs]
What shows have you been binging on?
I just finished all of Girlfriends. No spoilers but it ends on a cliffhanger and oof, I was livid. I just started Emily in Paris but finished that in one night. It was funny, I relate to Emily in Paris a lot, I spent a lot of time in Paris and dated a Parisian, it was hitting a little close to home. Then last night I started that HBO series with Kid Cudi. It's good so far but I only finished the first three episodes. Chloë Sevigny is in it--so yeah it's for me.
On another note, if you had to cover a Daniel Johnston song, which one would you choose?
I did an Instagram cover once of “Walking the Cow”, but that was forever ago and it’s archived now. Now I would want to do "Spirit World Rising." I think anyone could literally hear my voice on that. It’s totally in my key. I recently did a Reddit AMA, someone asked which person, dead or alive, I'd want to be in a band with and I said a folk duo with me and Daniel Johnston. Our voices are so similar, it's funny.
Any other projects on the horizon or anything else you’d like to mention? I’ve been noticing your new line of sustainable merch if you’d like to talk about that too.
Yes, I’m really proud of the sustainable merch. I worked with a company called Don't Blink and they’re great. They’ve been very vigilant and understood my vision, and worked really hard to find sustainable manufacturers. I think that's the thing I'm really proudest about, that we were able to do a variety of different products but all sustainably made. And yeah, the vinyl release will be on sale on Nov. 2nd!