By Shannon Carlin
“School was nothing to me,” Shamir Bailey said. “I hate to say that, but I was not a good student.”
Shamir never made the honor roll, he barely got by, but he managed to walk away from high school with a few notable superlatives such as “Best Dressed,” “Most Likely to Appear on the Cover of Vogue” and Prom King.
“I didn’t even go to the prom,” the 19-year-old says, giggling.
You can’t really blame the kid for being apathetic towards his education because by the tender age of eight, he already knew he wanted to be a singer. Shamir had never sang in front of anyone before, but asked his second grade teacher if he could get up on stage during the class talent show and give it a try. At first his teacher was surprised and asked if he really wanted to go through with it, but after he finished, she was in awe “She came up to me and said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me you could sing?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, I can sing?'” he told Radio.com.
Nearly ten years later, Shamir’s about to put out his debut EP Northtown on June 11 on Godmode records, which is a confident first look at a young singer who often feels like a 50-year-old man. “I may be young, but I’m an old soul,” Shamir explained. “I’m not new, I’ve been making music all my life. I feel like a veteran. That’s where the confidence comes from. I’m past the stage where I’m unsure or still finding my voice. I feel confident in who I am.”
His upcoming release is named in honor of his hometown, a little suburb outside of Las Vegas that the young singer says is “pretty much just dirt and barren land.” Shamir grew up across the street from a pig farm, which he says was not always ideal. “There would be some days when it would really smell, like really bad. And it would stink up the whole neighborhood,” Shamir said. “It was also a little bit scary. It looked like Texas Chainsaw Massacre. We didn’t try to sneak in because it looked like if you went in, you would never come out.”
(Photo by Dale W. Eisinger)
Shamir started writing his own songs at around five years old, inspired in part by his songwriting aunt. She opted for stability instead of pop stardom and now writes with Shamir in her free time. “She got caught up in the corporate world. She’s a paralegal now,” he said laughing. Every time he tells a reporter that his aunt is the one who got him interested in music, Shamir says his mom gets a little upset. His parents weren’t musicians—Shamir taught himself how to play guitar using that yellow, how-to book Guitar For Dummies—but they were music fans who introduced their young son to hip-hop, R&B, jazz divas like Billie Holiday and Nina Simone and ’70s rockers like Janis Joplin, who Shamir says just blew his mind. “I had never heard a voice like that,” he said. “And I wanted to hear more.”
Shamir’s singing voice, like Joplin’s, stops you in your tracks. In the two months since he dropped his first single, “If It Wasn’t True,” his voice has been described as “perfectly imperfect” and “androgynous,” a description he doesn’t mind, though he does point out that the accurate term is really “countertenor.”
“It’s not feminine, it’s not masculine. It’s a happy medium,” Shamir said of his singing voice. “I feel like if the world was more like that, our problems would be gone.”
While Northtown probably won’t help bring peace to the Middle East, it does offer an alternative to the more aggressive EDM music being played on the radio today. Shamir makes sensitive dance music that is at once minimal in its production, but theatrical in its delivery. On the big heartbreaking ballad, “I’ll Never Be Able To Love,” he sings, “I’ll never be able to find that missing piece to make up for what I lack,” drawing out each word. This delivery is something he learned from Lana Del Rey, whose well-crafted personality is a big part of her music’s charm. “Me and Lana are kindred souls trying to take it back to a different generation,” he explained. “Her music is so calming that when I feel like I’m going to hyperventilate I put on Lana and I feel fine.”
Shamir went to the Taylor Swift school of songwriting and has no problem laying it all on the line for the sake of the song. On his five-track EP, he divulges his religious views on “Sometimes A Man” and on “If It Wasn’t True” he speaks openly about his desire to be alone. Four of the songs on the EP were actually written in a Taylor Swift notebook. “I think she’s one of the best songwriters of like the century,” Shamir gushed like the teenager he is.
Country music also played a prominent role in his musical career. Though he prefers to stay away from the current crop of country stars—he’s partial to Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn and George Jones—he does have a soft spot for Lindi Ortega. He covers the Canadian country singer’s song, “Lived and Died Alone,” off her 2013 album, Tin Star. Shamir sees it as the sequel to his own song, “I’ll Never Be Able to Love.” “She’s not that known, which makes me sad,” Shamir said. “But by me doing a cover, a whole new crowd of people will hear her music who might never have heard it otherwise.”
It’s bold for a young singer just starting out to assume he can help an artist like Ortega—who has recorded five studio albums over the last 12 years—become a household name with just one cover. But, Shamir has big plans for his career, starting with his biggest show to date, set for June 15 during Brooklyn’s Northside Festival.
“I feel like older people think kids my age do nothing with their life but sit around and smoke weed and party all the time, but they’re wrong,” he explained. “There’s a lot of us really trying to do something, that are really dedicated. I’ve been waiting my whole life for this. I’m more than ready. I’m a kid in a candy store.”