Shamir has been through a lot lately. In just the last year, the 22-year-old Las Vegas singer parted ways with his label, XL Recordings, and his management team, released the purposefully rough-edged project Hope for free on SoundCloud, and wrote and recorded his new album Revelations, which is coming out in early November. He also recently told the New York Times that in between these two projects, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and completed a short stay in a psychiatric hospital.
The new work that has emerged underscores all the change Shamir has been through. Revelations — streaming early on NPR — is a lo-fi album about heartbreak, anxiety, and finding your place in the world as a queer man of color. It’s very different than the disco-laced hits of his early work, or the very blistered DIY sound from Hope.
Over the phone from Philadelphia, Shamir told The FADER about the therapeutic value of songwriting. “A lot of time when I write songs, they just kind of purge out,” he said. “Sometimes I don't even know what they're going to be about until after. A lot of the times I lose myself in the lyrics and I just feel.”
He’s already at work on his next project, which he says will be a completely new phase He also spoke about his experiences in the industry so far, how comedy helps him make it through, and why we’re all so on edge.
What do you think the most important lesson you learned from self-releasing Hope?
The biggest lesson I learned — and what I hope other people learned too — is that good and honest songwriting and emotion is enough to drive a song, and not production. We're told all the time that production guides the song and I know that's not necessarily that case. When I listen to songs, I like songs for the songs. That's how I listen to music. The production is an afterthought to me. I think about how the song makes me feel.
In your song “90's Kids,” you talk a lot about the anxiety we experience as a generation. Where do you think that anxiety come from?
I mean, the economy has played a huge part. Everyone always talks about their grandparents in the depression, but we're recession kids, too. You think we'd have a lot of advantages because of the digital age, but the economy has been hard on us. It's ridiculous that people pay a grip for college and the mental strain that it has. That song was the only song on the record that I wrote with my best friend, who is in college. We were just complaining about those things. Her picking college has taken a toll on her and her anxiety, her health, and her time, and I can relate in a whole other sense with my career. Being young in the industry and we combined all of those together into something everyone can relate to. I feel like the whole generation is filled with that same sense of anxiety.
I wanted to ask you about a lyric on “Cloudy.” You sing “But now that I'm getting older / I can't stop stressing about all that petty shit.” How did you get to that place?
What's funny is that "Cloudy" is actually the oldest song I wrote for the record. I wrote that song when I was 18. That song wasn't supposed to come out until now because it fits the context of my career and my life. It's just overall a really great, universal message. We can't stress over small things; that's always what we seem to do. That's what a lot of people do and...things can wait. It's not going to be the end of the world if you decide to take a mental health day and say I'm not going to answer emails all day, I'm gonna do me. The more I stop feeling guilty about that, the more productive I've been able to be.
You've been pretty honest in interviews and social about dealing with mental health issues. What have you been doing for self-care?
I suffer a lot from insomnia, that's been my biggest thing, because if I don't sleep that turns to mania for me. Pretty much just meditating, finding ways to relax. Reading has been helping a lot. Reading before bed has been helping me to calm down.
“Everyone always talks about their grandparents in the depression, but we’re recession kids, too.” —Shamir
Have you read anything noteworthy lately?
Phoebe Robinson's book, You Can't Touch My Hair, who I love from [the podcast] 2 Dope Queens. I read Mindy Kaling's book — I like female comedians. I am making my way through all of Chelsea Handler's books [laughs]. I love comedy and I love female comics because I can relate to them more than male comedians. With male comedians the comedy is bland to me, unless they're really good.
I feel the same way. My Netflix is always recommending comedies with strong female leads.
It's just more 3-D. With a lot of the male comics, the topics are all the same. We've heard them before. Your outlook is not going to be that unique. I don't know what else you can talk about [laughs]
With your song “Straight Boys” you sing about straight boys ruining your life. Was that song anchored in a specific instance?
I had spent some time in in-patient treatment and realized all my support was coming from female and LGBT friends and I was like, Where are my straight boy friends? Where are they at? They're not around? Oh, ok. It just opened my eyes because we've been told this so many times but you don't realize until it happens to you. You want to blame the individual but it's society as a whole. It's toxic masculinity as a whole. It's the pride behind straight boy mentality which is not inclusive and very selfish. [With the song,] I had to get that out of me. It's been said but I don't think it's definitely been said in a way that I put it. In terms of the song and in terms of the facade of "straight boy culture" and how it's not even a real thing and that most of it is toxic.
I also wanted to also ask about the clip's video. You’ve said that it was about the way queer black voices get erased and replaced with straight white people. What was it like going through that?
It was just crazy because when I first came out, me being a queer artist was a rare thing. Almost a hot topic around that time because a lot of other people gradually became more open with their sexuality and gender preferences and identities. It seemed like a hot topic in 2015, which was not really a wave I was trying to ride on — it just happened at that time. When I realized my first stuff in 2014, it wasn't really a hot topic. No one asked me about my sexuality but around the time the album came out in the next year it really was a hot topic and was being pushed out there. I'm glad that it was, for representation and everything, then I realized people in the industry started to see that as a commodity. Later on, seeing someone like the boys from One Direction be positioned as post-gender and part of the non-binary movement, I was just like, No [laughs]. I had no words, I still have no words. It's just like, No, we can't do that. It was mind-blowing to me, somehow straight white males were able to use queer and LGBTQ aesthetics for their own personal gain and be a part of the community. It was insane to see. It still boggles my mind. I don't even have words. That video was my words because I couldn't put it in words. I had to show it.
How do you like working with your new label Father/Daughter? I've seen tweets from you applauding them.
They're anti-industry. Jessi [Frick], who oversees everything, she does this from the bottom of her heart. She just hustles and wants to release good music and have a space for her artists to grow and thrive as musicians. Especially in this dying music industry, it's not like that. People are all about profit, profit, profit. Even more than a few years ago. No shade to her but Bhad Bhabie was signed because she's viral and they know that will make money. I'm not saying that she shouldn't do music and do her — props to her for getting signed — but she got signed because she's popular, not because of her actual talent. I'm not going to sit here and hate on the music — "Hi Bich?" I vibe to.
We have a complicated relationship here to that song because we enjoy it so much.
You don't want to! But I'm not the person to lie to myself. I don't believe in guilty pleasures. If I vibe with something, I vibe with it. It's whatever.
I saw you retweeted and sent support to Le1f, who had some negative things to say about working with your mutual former label XL. He said [in some since-deleted tweets] they only really wanted “Wut” and didn’t give him much creative freedom. Do you have more thoughts on that?
I don't know, it's a tricky situation because what he went through sounds like it was worse than what I went through. Honestly, it put things in perspective for me. I felt that I was being a hard-headed artist. I was like, I want to do what I want to do and if you don't want to be a part of it, then forget it. Obviously, yeah, they were capitalizing on the queer disco pop artist of color situation, which is a given with a major label on that scale, but it was sad to read his tweet and see him say he didn't ever feel appreciated. I don't think I ever felt not appreciated [at XL], which was sad to see [for Le1f]. I'm still friends with a lot of people there. I still talk to them and they've been super supportive from the outside. I think them letting me go was a favor. They were just like, We only want to continue working with you if you want to do this sound, if you don't then bye and go forth. I'm really happy I was able to do that because they could've kept me trapped in a contract and I would've had to ride it out or not be able to release music at all. It really was sad for me to see that [from Le1f] and see the hardship he went through with the label. We talked about it a little and it really put it in perspective for me because I was just being a brat and all I don't want to do this music anymore and then cut my hair [laughs].
What do you hope the world can learn about you from this project?
To stay on their toes. To realize I wasn't lying when I said every record is going to sound different and to not expect what you got from this record to be on the next record. To know that everything I do is authentic and true to the moment. Honestly, that's all — if you vibe with it, then, great! Come on this journey with me. I don't put out a project and want everybody to gobble it up. No, if you're a fan of Shamir, you're down for the journey. I'm taking all of you with me and what's in my head.