It’s just a few weeks into his first tour since opening for Sleater-Kinney in 2019, and Shamir Bailey is feeling cautiously optimistic.
“I’m honestly pretty wary with how well it’s been going considering all of the COVID restrictions and everything,” he says with a nervous chuckle, telling Billboard about opening for indie rock darling Courtney Barnett. “At first, the idea of doing a quarantine tour was kind of sh-tty to me. And then, once I was on it, I was like, ‘Oh, I love this, because I’m an introvert, so this is actually my dream tour.'”
Sadly, like many tours lately, Shamir’s stint on Barnett’s Things Take Time, Take Time tour came to an abrupt end just a few days later on Feb. 4, when the indie rocker announced that she would be postponing the remainder of the U.S. tour due to a positive COVID test on her team.
But Shamir doesn’t have time to worry about a few canceled tour dates. Over the past year, the singer-songwriter has been hard at work, running his own indie label, managing a clothing line and even releasing a book of essays and original paintings — all before reaching age 27 in November. “I’m not gonna lie, it’s been really great,” he says.
His latest accomplishment, though, stands to be one of his greatest thus far. His eighth studio album Heterosexuality, out today (Feb. 11) via AntiFragile Music, stands alone amongst Bailey’s discography, as the artist digs deep into his own psyche, picking apart questions of identity, sexuality, race and upbringing, and bringing them into full view where he can openly work through his trauma.
It was not an easy task — and according to Shamir, it was one that nearly didn’t happen. After the release of his critically-beloved self-titled album in 2020, the singer says that he hadn’t been writing new music, and had no plans for upcoming releases. “Since my self-titled was going really well, there was a bit of worry, where I was thinking, ‘Oh, I have to top this,'” he admits. “I decided not to entertain that thought at all, whatsoever. I thought, ‘I am (at the time) 25 years old, and currently in the album cycle for my seventh album. Honestly, if I don’t write anything for the next two years, I will be forgiven.'”
Then, Hollow Comet messaged him. Established as the solo project of indie rock trio Strange Ranger‘s Isaac Eider, Hollow Comet’s music walks the line between whispering, acoustic melodies and distorted, rocked-out symphonies. It was that beautiful blurring-of-lines that immediately caught Shamir’s attention when the producer sent him a few clips of his work. “I was just absolutely blown away by his production,” Shamir says. “We immediately started writing, like, the next day.”
Working with Hollow Comet turned out to be an eye-opening experience for Shamir — after spending most of his career either self-producing his music, or working with producers “that I didn’t particularly like,” he was suddenly in a situation where he never felt worried about the quality of the songs that were coming out of their collaboration. “I had this producer that I fully, 1,000 percent trusted to the point where I did not have to think about what he was going to do next — I just knew whatever he was going to do to these songs, they were going to be perfect,” he says. “Not having to worry about production allowed me to really dive into songwriting, in a way that I had never been able to do before.”
With each song on Heterosexuality, Shamir breaks down a different psychological bruise, be it his own perception of himself (“Cold Brew”), his interpersonal dynamics with friends (“Caught Up”), his relationship with his parents (“Father”) or any number of other traumas.
It’s on album standout “Abomination,” though, where Shamir lets all of his pent-up frustration out. On this seething rap track, Shamir takes aim at Jeff Bezos, Vice President Kamala Harris, corporate culture, racist cops, late capitalism, homophobic detractors and just about everyone else who ever doubted him. “I’m just a f—ot who lives like a maggot/ Because I’m always with the s–ts/ I’ll keep my foot on your neck and don’t you forget/ Can’t trust the government to change sh-t,” he spits on the blistering cypher.
It’s an exercise in pure rage, and one that Shamir struggled with from the moment he conceived the song. “Making [‘Abomination’] was very scary,” he says, taking a breath. “First and foremost, I’m rapping — there is so much trauma behind that for me, because I had not rapped basically since ‘On the Regular.'” It’s understandable why revisiting the genre that introduced him to the world was troubling — shortly after releasing “On the Regular” and his debut album Ratchet, Shamir was dropped by his then-label XL Recordings in 2017 for choosing to not stay on the pop-rap path that they’d laid out for him.
“I talked to Hollow Comet, saying, ‘Listen, I feel like I should rap on this song. And that’s gonna be incredibly hard for me. And if I feel like I can’t muster up the strength to do this, then please don’t hate me,'” he says. “Obviously, he was so sweet and told me to do whatever I was comfortable with. I think that comfort he provided allowed me to work through my trauma. And then I just unleashed. Whatever poured out of me, poured out of me.”
That also meant being more explicit than he’s ever been about his sexuality and gender identity. On singles “Gay Agenda” and “Cisgender,” Shamir sets the record straight (or rather, not straight), singing “I’m not cisgender, I’m not binary, trans/ I don’t wanna be a girl, I don’t wanna be a man/ I’m just existing on this godforsaken land.”
Despite being open and honest throughout his career about his identity as a queer and non-binary person, Heterosexuality marks the first time in his music where he directly addresses those identifiers. “I did, maybe unintentionally or intentionally, stray away from [talking about] that before for the possibility of it not being taken how I wanted it to be,” he says. “Concentrating this into one project like this felt like a mission statement of sorts to me.”
Even in the album’s artwork, Shamir explores his own status as a person defining himself outside of traditional labels. Wearing a set of horns on his head, with a pair of hooves replacing his feet, the singer intentionally evokes the image of Baphomet, an ancient pagan deity often considered a symbol of pluralism and deviance from societal norms.
“It’s kind of a symbol of non-conformity — but because of it being a symbol to non-conformity, it’s often demonized, literally,” Shamir says, referring to the fact that the image of Baphomet has been widely adopted as a symbol of the Satanic Temple, and decried by Christian groups as heretical. “I feel like that; I feel like, to a lot of people, I am this figure of non-conformity, and that makes a lot of people feel uncomfortable. And then I’m immediately demonized, when I didn’t do anything to anyone. That’s another one of the traumas I tackled in making this, that I often get so demonized for no reason, for simply existing.”
“Also,” he adds, chuckling to himself, “I think I look really cute with horns.”
Unlike his last four releases, Heterosexuality comes via a new label for Shamir. Joining the lineup at AntiFragile, Shamir says, was not part of the plan for this album cycle. In fact, when he started his promotion with lead single “Cisgender,” he was still unsigned. “AntiFragile signed me in the middle of it all, because Tom [Sarig], who runs the label — and mind you, he is a cis-het, 6-foot-god-knows-how-tall white male — heard ‘Cisgender’ and was so moved. He sent me the most beautiful email, just like, ‘Can I please sign you?’ I was like, ‘That is powerful!’ It felt like he got it.”
Being discovered by someone who fundamentally understood his mission was something that Shamir knew was the right move for his career, especially considering that he’d grown tired of doing all of the work himself. “Honestly, I was a little frustrated that I had to do the self-release thing again with this, but I told myself, ‘I know it’s a strong record, it’ll be fine,'” he says. “It’s just the fact that Tom’s email was so thoughtful, and he clearly understood the music to the point where I was like, ‘Okay, yes, this is the move.'”
It’s evident in speaking with him that Shamir recognizes Heterosexuality as a turning point for his musical career — he just needed time to get there. “It’s not lost on me that I’m now finally getting this real on album number eight,” he says, “I think I’m just older and wiser now. I finally figured out a way to do this that works.”