Next-big-thing songwriter nearly quits music, re-emerges with two homemade guitar-pop albums in a year
After high school, Shamir figured he would save some money and go to art school. He liked writing songs and playing music, but he didn't think music would be his career. His mother thought otherwise.
“My mom was the one who told me to take a break year,” Shamir said recently by phone from his home in Philadelphia. “I was living with her, so I would write songs to pretty much please her. She's the one who pushed me, and less than a year after graduating high school I got signed to XL.”
XL Recordings — the past or present home of Adele, Radiohead and dozens of other big names — released Shamir's buzzed-about single, “On the Regular,” in the fall of 2014, followed by his debut album, Ratchet, in 2015. The quirky, futuristic dance-pop record was a critical success, making the then-20-year-old Las Vegas native, who was also showing up in Apple commercials, a rising star.
Imagine the surprise, then, in April of this year when Shamir self-released Hope, a lo-fi, bedroom-pop album the musician recorded in a weekend and made available for free on SoundCloud.
“I tried my very best to work with the industry,” said Shamir, who was dropped from XL. “I am not a rebel child. I never rebel. I did everything they told me, and it still didn't work in my favor. … But I get it. I get the workings of the industry. Everybody gotta get theirs. But I'm not the type of person who tries to be involved with something that doesn't want me.”
Even before Hope, Shamir wrote two albums that were scrapped. He thought about quitting music entirely. “I was done with the bullshit, done with the collaborators, done with everything. I was just like, ‘I'm just gonna release an album myself,'” he said. “I thought it was gonna ruin my career. I really thought everyone was gonna hate it. I didn't think it would give my career this weird resurgence.”
Amid that resurgence, though, Shamir went through a psychotic episode. “I was completely gone mentally — completely detached from reality,” he said. “When you're coming back from it, it almost feels like you died.”
After Shamir emerged from the nightmare, doctors told him he had bipolar disorder, a diagnosis that came as a relief. “It made sense out of something that made no sense to me and was really scary at the time,” he said. “It also put a lot in perspective for me. [The psychosis] came from stress, and stress turns to insomnia. I didn't sleep for three days, and insomnia turned into a manic episode, and then that manic episode turned into a full-blown psychotic episode. Literally all this could have been avoided if I just avoided the obvious stress in my life. And so that's what I do. I have no tolerance for stress at all, whatsoever. I don't let it even look at me.”
After the episode, Shamir returned to writing songs in the way that felt most comfortable: with a guitar and a four-track recorder. That batch of raw, stripped-down songs resulted in new album Revelations, on which the singer's fluttery countertenor again takes center stage. On “Float,” one of the album's best tracks, Shamir conveys a sense of confidence and peace with himself and his art. “I'm done trying to conform/I've reached my final form/And I'll pray the Lord have mercy on/Whoever takes me on,” he sings over palm-muted power chords.
Writing and recording Hope and Revelations entirely on his own gave Shamir a way to make music on his own terms, regardless of hype or big labels or Apple commercials. The albums offered a way forward. “People don't necessarily care about polished [production] that much,” he said. “It's the songs that actually matter.”