“I’m in El Paso Texas. I’m on a break right now,” says Shamir in his distinctive high-pitched, breathy voice. “Well, I guess what I call a musician’s break. I’m still doing a bunch of interviews.”
The androgynous Las Vegan may be more used to surprising than being surprised, but even he admits to being amazed at the speed with which his career has taken off and now sees him in Australia for the Laneway Festival.
“I can’t really pinpoint any point,” he says of its swooping trajectory, “but everything all came at once. It almost feels unnaturally fast, but it’s just how everything worked out.”
Shamir is known as much for his dance-pop hooks as his glorious embracing of colourful outfits and refusal to ascribe to a genre or gender. The release of his EP Northtown mid-2014 saw him embark on a series of concerts, photo shoots and interviews with a brief return to the studio to craft his latest album, Ratchet.
Once New York label Godnoes heard Northtown, and signed him, it was mere months before Pitchfork was nominating Shamir’s song On the Regular as a Best New Track, an accolade credited with providing a formative moment for many bands populating the line-up of Australian summer festivals.
Despite the instant appeal of the song for which he is best known, Shamir insists it was never meant to be a single.
“I actually wrote On the Regular because I thought that no one would like it and I wouldn’t put the song out,” he says, laughing at the suggestion that it sounded like a hit.
“I make the music myself in my room or whatever, then I upload everything to the server to my T&L boss Nick Sylvester, ” he explains. “We have a back and forth working relationship.”
In the case of On the Regular and Ratchet, little changed from the way Shamir had put together Northtown. “I recorded Ratchet in an official studio quote, unquote. It was recorded in Nick’s basement studio. We upgraded a lot of gear and everything, and the album was mastered, but we just vibe you know?”
‘Vibe’ is a word Shamir uses regularly, both as an honest descriptor and, perhaps unintentionally, as a means of obfuscating the process by which he creates his art. Insistent that he and Sylvester were simply “vibing in a small room” when making Ratchet, he is disdainful of the idea that he would seek to impress an audience or his label boss.
“That would be horrible!” he laughs. “Why would I do that? We’re not trying to impress each other. We just want to make good art. I never plan . . . rigidly,” he says searching for the word.
“I just don’t like to put my music in a box. I worked with Nick the whole album because I wanted it to have its own production styling and keep the whole sound cohesive, because I get influenced and pick from a bunch of different styles and genres. A lot of the songs are influenced by hip-hop and RnB, pop, even some country and punk. I get inspiration from everywhere and Nick makes it all cohesive for me.”
Ratchet’s free form approach is far from accidental, moving from the molasses-slick hometown welcome of Vegas, via the dance-floor bounce of Call it Off, to the sparse symphonic post-punk of Darker and plaintive acoustic closing track KC. At 13, Shamir read a Lily Allen interview in which she cited all-female British post-punk band The Slits as icons, the first of many boundary-pushing musical acts to capture his imagination.
A playful “who me?” attitude and total lack of cynicism sets Shamir apart from so many other artists and his openness and non-judgmental approach is uncommon among popular hip-hop and RnB.
Typically, American dance and hip-hop pioneers have typically been beefy men exploiting their street smarts and conquests to get attention. Shamir’s throwdowns come in the form of flirtatious come-ons, wry challenges, open admissions and dares.
While he has deep affection for his Las Vegas roots, his film clips are full of bright colours, fantastic journeys and explore suburban escapism rather that the thug life of Los Angeles or New York. As Posdnuos from De La Soul once pointed out: “That may be the life they knew, but for us we grew up in the suburbs and it was different.”
One thing De La Soul and other pop or psych-pop hip-hop acts never explored, and occasionally ridiculed, was gender fluidity. While Shamir dresses in a masculine way, he takes issue with the concept of cross-dressing.
“[Talk like] that defeats the purpose of cross-dressing,” he says after a long, reproving pause. “Being non-binary, there’s no such thing as cross-dressing. I mean, I do definitely have more feminine items or do different things with my style, like paint my nails and stuff, but I just dress how it makes me comfortable.”
Right now that’s black converse and white dungarees. Though he commonly gives makeovers to friends, he says he dresses down a lot more these days.
“Being non-binary, there’s no such thing as cross-dressing. I mean, I do definitely have more feminine items or do different things with my style, like paint my nails and stuff, but I just dress how it makes me comfortable.”
“I used to dress way more crazier,” he laughs. “I’ve toned down quite a lot.”
As artists gain a higher profile, tour internationally, work in bigger studios and accept new opportunities, there often comes a trade-off of control. In Shamir’s case, he managed to do a lot with a small crew largely provided via his label, Godnoes. One point on which he acquiesced with music director Mikey Joy was to tour with a backing band.
“At first I was really bummed,” he admits. “I was like ‘I don’t want to play with professional musicians’. I went into the first rehearsal ready to be like ‘I hate everything’, but I love everyone in my band now! From the first rehearsal it was so good, everyone was so chill. We vibe really well, even off-stage.
“I love playing live even more than being in a studio. The great thing about performing is vibing off the audience energy which gives me fuel. Being in a studio, it’s just you and a producer and you have to find that energy within yourself and bring it to the booth. It’s easier to vibe off other people’s energy in the crowd when you’re performing live.”
His good friend and smoking buddy Mac DeMarco, with whom he hopes one day to collaborate, has told him Australian audiences have a reputation for bringing this energy. Shamir is also excited to hit some clothing stores while in Australia. “I hear they’re really good. I can’t wait.”
► Shamir Tour dates
Feb 5Laneway FestivalAdelaide
Feb 6Laneway FestivalBrisbane
Feb 7Laneway FestivalSydney
Feb 11Oxford Arts FactoryDarlinghurst
Feb 13 Laneway Festival Melbourne
Feb 14Laneway Festival Fremantle