Shamir Gets Personal On Police Brutality, Panic Attacks, and Homoerotic Photography

The queer singer-songwriter reflects on his under-the-radar 2018 album and launching an indie record label.

For Shamir, it was time to call it off.

After making a name for himself with the infectious, electro-poppy 2015 album Ratchet and singles “On The Regular” and “Call It Off”—the latter’s video saw him transform into a Jim Henson Studios muppet—the openly queer singer-songwriter (full name Shamir Bailey) split with record label XL Recordings, his management team, and unleashed an achingly personal, guitar-driven album, Resolution.

Initially self-released with no publicity on Bandcamp in March and now widely available via Spotify, iTunes, and other platforms, it represents a cycle of eight urgent, deeply personal 1990s alt-rock inspired guitar-driven songs. It comes in the wake of a 2017 psychotic episode that resulted in hospitalization and a bipolar disorder diagnosis.

Songs like “Panic” and “Float” directly address the episode (the latter was specifically inspired by a hallucination); “I Can’t Breathe” recounts the police brutality and racism-related deaths of Tamir Rice and Eric Garner (“then he opened his eyes gasping for air and the last thing he said on the scene/ is I cant breathe”); and “Larry Clark” pays homage to the photographer known for remarkably homoerotic photographs and films about youth skateboard subculture.

Via telephone, the Las Vegas-raised, Philadelphia-based Shamir discussed the album, his radical change in sound (which started with 2017’s Hope and Revelations), and the recent launch of his own indie label, Accidental Popstar Records.

You’ve completely shaken off the slick underground disco sound for a 4AD and shoegaze-influenced guitar sound. How did that evolution come about?

Ideally, this is what I thought I would be doing. I stumbled into pop music, and I grew tired of it. I wanted to do music that came naturally to me. I don’t do electronic music. I love pop music, don’t get me wrong, but I had to collaborate with producers who knew how to do that stuff. I wanted a different sound for each of my records and finding the right producers is really like dating. I decided to go back to my roots and make music I can play and produce myself.

Why did you release Resolution so discreetly in March?

It was a quick turnaround. That’s really it. I recorded it pretty much all January and February and it represents a specific point in my life. I wanted to throw it out there. Not that it felt like a throwaway album, but it didn’t feel planned so it didn’t feel right to plan its release, you know?

What were you listening to when making it?

I made it so fast I probably was just listening to myself. It was so urgent, written and recorded so fast, it was inspired just by my emotions. The sound is very 1990s alternative, and I think I’m always influenced by shoegaze stuff like My Bloody Valentine and Lush, and a band called Unwound from the Pacific Northwest.

Ryan Zarra

I love the tracks “Panic” and “Sanity.” What can you share about them?

“Panic” is about having an anxiety attack and “Sanity” is about my whole outlook on everything in life. It changed after I was hospitalized with mental health issues and with a lot of my stuff now I like to put under a microscope. I think I’m lucky as a songwriter to have a really healthy outlet that’s creative and that also I get to call my job.

What is your coping mechanism now when you feel another panic episode coming on?

I like to read. It can instantly calm me down.

How have things changed as far as incidents of police using unnecessary deadly force against black people since you wrote “I Can’t Breathe,” if at all?

I don’t know. You tell me. I think we’re making strides now. But it was not a direct response song to the situations it alludes to, because they happened years ago. (Tamir Rice and Eric Garner were both killed in 2014). But it’s a song that just came when it had to come. Just because we’re making strides, it’s still happening. It’s the overall anxiety and trauma of having already experienced it—it’s not going away, it’ll never go away.

Jason MacDonald

Has Larry Clark heard “Larry Clark?”

I assume he has because he recently followed me on Twitter, which was really cool. I know it’s very face-value, but the song itself is very specific to how he’s able to depict bittersweet in a very real way. Larry’s art and films make you feel something.

If Larry Clark offered you a role in one his movies would you do it?

Yeah, hands down.

Do you want to make a space for queer artists of color on Accidental Popstar Records?

The first two artists aren’t artists of color, Southwick aka Paige Pfleger and Grant Pavol, but one is queer. I’ve been working, writing, and developing artists of color, and I definitely will release in the future. I’m really excited.

Will we ever see you turn into a muppet again?

I would be very down for that. I was babysitting some friends’ kids and I show them the video all the time and they asked, ‘can you turn into a muppet right now?’ and I was like, ‘no, it’s a secret.’

Lawrence is a New York-based travel and entertainment writer whose work has appeared in National Geographic Traveler, Time Out New York and The New York Post.