Shamir is in the process of rebuilding.
The Philadelphia-based, Vegas-raised singer and multi-instrumentalist has released three albums in the past two years — all of which have strayed from the delirious synthpop of his breakthrough debut Ratchet. Their titles tell their own narrative arc: Hope, Revelations and, finally, Resolution.
Amid all this, the genderqueer artist combated his own struggles with bipolar disorder — he was diagnosed last year after being hospitalized following a psychotic episode — and hopping between multiple labels and managers to emerge as a truly independent artist. He values the control and the liberation that came with being unattached from a label, dropping Resolution as a surprise release on Bandcamp.
“When you have everything in your hands, it makes it easier — at least for me — to create, ’cause there’s not too many third parties. I was like, I might as well use this time where I’m a free agent to just really have fun with my art,” he tells Billboard. “When you’re doing everything yourself, it’s a little easier to do things off-the-cuff.”
But now, Shamir can rest a little easier. In lieu of a balloons-and-presents celebration for his birthday, he tells Billboard that he plans to take the day to meditate. He’s found ways to take care of himself and his mental health, and now, he can focus on his art.
“What was great about Resolution was that it ended the chaotic time of my life and the way that it began,” he tells Billboard. “I called it Resolution because it really did come out and happened at a time where things really just resolved.”
Shamir is planning to launch a record label sometime this month, though he didn’t offer up many specifics. So far, he plans to release albums by two artists he admires, both of which he produced.
A week before his birthday, Shamir spoke to Billboard about his new label, how one restless night in Canada inspired the music video for his latest single “Larry Clark,” and finally showing his face on his album art.
Happy early birthday! It’s a week before your birthday, so here’s a bit of a corny question for you: If you had to sum up your 23rd year in a word, what word would you use?
Um, probably, like rebuilding. [Laughs] You know, getting back into the heat of things — I took a really long hiatus, which was much-needed. I did my first tour in December, I spent a lot of last year getting all of that together, because I had just gotten out of the hospital for a week, I was, um, in between labels, and finally, Father/Daughter [his label for Revelations] went through, and I didn’t have management, so I was managing myself up until spring this year, so those first few tours that I planned were by myself. It was a lot. And, like, very hectic. But, yeah, I got to work, and as the year’s closing, the ducks are finally in a row. It feels good, and all the hard work paid off. I’m just excited for smooth sailing from now on.
Can you tell me a little bit about what ran through your head when you dropped Resolution?
Lots of risk. With Hope [Shamir’s album before Resolution], I still had management, and I was just unsure, and everyone was unsure if I was even making music really. [Laughs] What was great about Resolution was that it ended the chaotic time of my life and the way that it began. I called it Resolution because it really did come out and happened at a time where things really just resolved. I finally got management, dropped Revelations and Room EP, and was touring off of that, and finally had a band, and things just started to flow, and I kind of wrote that at the end of the last tour in December, like, all the progress and everything that happened in my life. “10/11” on that record is about a friend who died, and “Sanity” and “Dead Inside” talk about mental health issues. Yeah, closing the chaotic chapter.
The video for “Larry Clark” honors the folk legend Odetta and her “Waterboy” music video. Where do you see her impact in your life in 2018?
I was in Toronto with one of my friends, Katie, and I was staying with her, and she’s such a night owl, and I’m a night owl, too. I was like, I need to get some sleep because I had a hectic day and was just feeling frazzled. She was still up, and I was having night terrors — I was feeling very uneasy, and she was very funny and very great. I’m so glad to have her as a friend because she’s like ‘I got the cure,’ she gave me a natural sleeping pill, she made me tea, and started playing all these old music videos, like Joni Mitchell, Judy Garland, and it was literally the perfect thing for what I was going through, and I was so happy that it happened.
Since we were going through this vintage nostalgia thing, it made me go back to that “Waterboy” video. She had never seen it, and I hadn’t seen it in a while, and I watched the hell out of that video. I’ve always been a huge fan of Odetta, and while we were watching it, I was like, I should just recreate this. It came naturally, and I was like, “Shit, I even look like her now.” [Laughs] It just came together very naturally, and Odetta’s always been a huge influence to me even now more so than before, because we’re black artists in a genre that’s predominantly white. I always admired her tenacity and all the things she’s gone through as a black woman in folk music.
How did it feel to find out that the Larry Clark followed you on Twitter?
Really, really, really, really cool. I’ve always been such a huge fan of him, and when I’m feeling dark, I always have done this thing where I watch Larry Clark movies when I’m feeling angsty and filled with anxiety, and in a weird way, when I watch them, I feel better. I love how raw his films are, and the record wasn’t really supposed to be a double-homage to two different people. I really didn’t want to pay homage to two people at the same time, like, kill two birds with one stone. That song seemed to fit the best out of all the songs from Resolution with the video idea. I’m kind of glad that it did work out that way. They’re both two people who were never afraid of taking chances and taking big risks with their art, and that’s something I definitely resonate with.
Is that you on the cover of the album art?
Yeah, that’s baby Sham Sham.
Aw. Little angel!
Yeah. All of my LPs…I don’t like to put my face on the cover, and even with the first EP, my face isn’t on the cover. It’s only on the digital because I didn’t think that EP was gonna do anything, anyway, but I always made the conscious decision to not have my face on the record, or if it is, it’s not really. With Ratchet, it was drawn in neon colors, and I literally covered my face for Hope, and Revelations was just all fucked up. I thought that the next natural progression would be a baby picture where I’m kind of head on, but not necessarily me as I am now.
I noticed the recurring theme of your eyes being covered, too.
I think it’s kind of, like, my own version of Sia. It’s easier for people to notice you a bit more when your face is on the record. And, it’s not like I’m in the shadows, but I think — not having my face on my records has helped me live a normal life. Like, I still get noticed and everything, but, usually from superfans who have seen my press pictures.
You talked about mental health and Maniac on The Talkhouse earlier this month, and it was a really compelling take on a show that’s a bit confusing at times to follow. How did you interpret the show’s message about mental health so clearly?
With Maniac, in a weird way, to fully get it, you kind of have to be a little bit mentally ill. [Laughs] I think, having had a psychotic episode, watching that show felt like a psychotic episode. [Laughs] So, I think I was able to…take things out of it in a way that gets past the weirdness, because it is definitely weird. Like, I’m not gonna figure it out — there were a few head-scratch moments for me, but I think I was able to metabolize it a bit more. One thing about mental illness, especially, that can cause hallucinations — such as bipolar and schizophrenia — you have to tune your brain into making sense of things that don’t make sense. It’s almost like using a different path to get by the same way.
What do you have in the works right now?
I’m not launching it until the middle of next month, but I started my own label. I’m releasing two artists that I’m really, really excited and proud of next year. I also produced both of their records, and, yeah, I’m really excited about that. I have another record in the works, too.
You’re a busy bee, Shamir!
I try to stay busy, and it all happens naturally. I don’t really try to force things or anything. You know, follow good art! I think when you follow good art, it doesn’t feel like work or it doesn’t feel daunting.