Shamir on “Heterosexuality” | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Thursday, December 7th, 2023  

Shamir on “Heterosexuality”

Queer Rage. Twitter Trolling. Karen Carpenter.

Feb 16, 2022 Photography by Marcus Maddox Web Exclusive
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It all started with a Twitter rant. Shamir was firing off Tweets late one night in October, 2020, when an image came to him: Shamir-as-Baphomet, the hooved satanic deity. “I kind of just bookmarked that in my mind,” the Philadelphia-based musician recently told me over the phone. “I was just like, okay cool, that’s the concept for another album. I wasn’t even trying to write anything.”

Shamir didn’t have to hold onto that bookmark for long. Shortly after the Baphomet concept came to him, he received a DM from a loose connection in the Philly indie scene: producer Isaac Eiger, aka Hollow Comet. Within days, the two started working on what would ultimately become Shamir’s eighth album, Heterosexuality. The final product—out now via AntiFragile Music—is Shamir’s most explicitly and unabashedly queer record to date, placing his raw songwriting and falsetto howls against a backdrop of distorted guitars, glitchy programming, and glistening synths.

Musically, Heterosexuality finds Shamir bouncing between shoegaze and alt-pop, industrial and nu-metal. Shamir delivers anti-capitalist flows in “Abomination” and offers his best Karen Carpenter impression in “Nuclear,” but lead singles “Gay Agenda” and “Cisgender” serve as natural entry points to the album. “You’re just stuck in the box that was made for me/and you’re mad I got out and I’m living free,” Shamir sings in the former before inviting folks to “free your mind, come outside” and “pledge allegiance to the gay agenda.” In “Cisgender,” Shamir reaches beyond the gender binary altogether: “I’m not cisgender, I’m not binary, trans/I don’t wanna be a girl, I don’t wanna be a man,” he screams. “I’m just existing on this god forsaken land/and you can take it or leave it or you can just stay back.”

Heterosexuality, Shamir explains, is both about freedom and the cost of freedom. It’s also about solitude and trauma and rage—specifically queer solitude and queer trauma and queer rage. “The horns stay on at all times,” says Shamir of the album’s visuals, which show him donning antlers. “[I’ve been] building a world around that—building a world around this person that’s not necessarily me. That’s not necessarily something that I’ve ever done,” he continues, “but it was something I had to do because it’s such a raw and personal record for me that I think not being myself all the way through in the visuals feels like a healthy boundary for me.”

The 27-year-old spoke to Under the Radar from his home in Philadelphia about trolling, collaborating with Hollow Comet, and finally making the “elevator-ass, Karen Carpenter-ass” song of his dreams. Read the interview below.

Matt Wallock (Under the Radar): You once described 2020’s energy as “transformative,” and you said that “transformation is hard” and “things have to die in order for things to be born.” How have you transformed since then?

Shamir: Oh god, so much. Just in the last couple of months. When I played my first two shows back in October in almost like three years, it was such a huge shock to my system. To the point where, like, it kind of put me into this depression, but not really a sad one. It definitely was a shock to the system. But, during that time, for fear of not sounding like Kylie Jenner, I realized a lot of things.

In November and December a lot of things just transformed and happened. One big thing is that I ended up working with a label. I signed with a label mid-cycle, and I never thought that was going to happen again. That happened in December. And I also have been writing a bunch of new material aside from even this record…. As horrible as these times have been, I think not only just for me but for a lot of my peers also, [there have been] these very transformational moments because we were left alone with our thoughts and re-experiencing a lot of things like going to shows again.

You also said, in the same interview, that “each record is different and sounds different; they have a life of their own.” When you started putting together Heterosexuality, what was your initial vision for it?

I think exactly what it is. It started off with a really strong concept and visual identity first, and I think that was the first time I ever started with some titles and visual aesthetics. It started off with a vision of me with horns and hoofs. The visual concept is inspired by the Baphomet. It really is like a metaphor for how I feel a lot of the times when I’m just navigating the world. A lot of times I feel like because of how I look and because of my queerness and because of a lot of other things, people look at me like I’m subhuman, like an animal in a zoo. So it kind of represents that. And I think the album really just focuses on my frustration with that.

Do you ever write from that place of frustration, or is that something you reflect on later?

I don’t write in the heat of the moment. I can’t do that. I’d rather process my feelings first before I blow on them. I talk about that a lot. I think that’s a thing that a lot of artists need to practice, because, like, I notice that it can get really toxic when artists write in the midst of their emotions as opposed to working through their emotions and then creating after.

When and where did you actually compose the songs?

It was a really quick process. To touch on the last question again, I think a lot of my songs touch on queer rage. I think queer rage has always been a thematic throughline through all of my work. And I think anyone who follows me on Twitter knows that I often go on certain rants about that. And it was just a 3 a.m. rant, and then through the midst of that 3 a.m. rant that I was going on on Twitter, that’s when I was hit with the visual concept. I kind of just bookmarked that in my mind. I was just like, okay cool, that’s the concept for another album. I wasn’t even trying to write anything.

This was October [2020], like three weeks after my last album [self-titled] came out. After I had the visual idea, like a day or two later, that’s when Hollow Comet DM’d me about working together. And I just loved his sound so much that I was instantly inspired. I want to say literally the next day I started demo-ing, and then the record was basically written by December.

What about his sound appealed to you?

I was familiar with his band Strange Ranger, but I wasn’t too familiar with his Hollow Comet stuff. The sound of his production stuff with Hollow Comet sounded like what I had been dreaming up for myself for years, but I couldn’t do it myself and couldn’t find other people to do it. I remember just freaking out because I was like, “WHAT!? Here he is, right under my nose, doing it the entire time.” We obviously knew each other, but I think we had only met once in person before he had hit me up. We didn’t even know each other [well]. It was purely just being inspired by the music and the sound.

Do you remember any of the early conversations you had about that vision?

The first demos were just like a trial. It was literally the next day. I was like, okay, I’m gonna send you the stems of guitar and bass and whatever else I had, the vocals. So I sent him those things and he built things around it. And I was like, great, this is perfect. This was still in the midst of COVID. We met up a week later socially distanced and went through it. I told him the visual aspects and the theme of the record and everything and then we just made a production plan. This was before vaccinations. I had finished [my] self-titled [album] socially distanced in the studio, and I’m like, “I don’t want to do that again.” So we ended up getting tested and Airbnb-ing a secluded house in the middle of the Poconos, and locked ourselves up for a week and recorded.

In terms of inspirations, did you have any shared lodestars or shared influences?

Yeah. I think he doesn’t like when I say this because I think in his eyes he probably thinks that it’s cheesy and in a lot of ways it is, but that’s the whole point of why I like late ’90s music. I think we both have a deep love and understanding of late ’90s music… not in an on-the-rose, we-want-to-sound-’90s type of way. We really cling to some of the things that ’90s music has and try to modernize it.

Where do you hear that in Heterosexuality?

The overall industrial vibes on the whole record, and the shoegaze vibes. We both really love shoegaze. I think [that’s] evident in a lot of my previous work and a lot of Strange Ranger’s work as well.

In the first lines of “Gay Agenda,” you sing “Days slip away, but I feel peace/broke up with the dragon, but he’s chasing me.” What’s the significance of opening the album there?

“Days slip away, but I feel peace” is a direct COVID lockdown reference. That part of the line is definitely about me finding peace in my solitude. And then the “broke up the dragon, but he’s chasing me” part—the dragon is a representation of cigarettes for me. I quit smoking cigarettes like three months before lockdown. I was like, perfect fucking timing. Of course I stop smoking cigarettes right before the most stressful time in recent history! I still think about the irony of that time. I feel fully cured of nicotine and haven’t smoked since—it’s been two, almost three years, and I don’t ever think I will smoke again—but I still long for that relief during stressful times. That’s why I say I broke up with the dragon but sometimes he still chases me. The dragon is not even just cigarettes, but vices.

That song also touches on the theme of freedom. How does freedom come up in this record?

I think this record is about the price you pay for freedom. You know, I feel freedom within myself and comfort within myself to be this unapologetically queer. But that’s not going to rid me of the consequences. Not even the consequences but the trauma that comes with that, because of the world that we live in.

The other lead single, “Cisgender,” is such an epic song.

That was the hardest song to get down for us. It started off with completely different chords and it was a really weird chord progression that I still love to this day and I’ve used in another song that’s not even for me. That is how much I love it. But I guess it just didn’t work for this song. I didn’t change the melody or anything, just the chords. I think Isaac—Hollow Comet—was having trouble with the progression. It was a really weird progression. He tried his best.

It started off as a very chill, very shoegaze-y, healthy dance-y type of situation. But for some reason it just wasn’t working and he just wasn’t getting it. So I was just like, let’s just scrap it and let’s just start from scratch. I don’t really miss that because I feel like we already covered that sound in other things. I was like, what is the sound that’s missing from this record that we don’t have already that we’ve been inspired by? And one of them was metal. It’s the only metal song on the record. As soon as we both agreed with that, I rewrote the chords and recorded the guitar and the vocals and sent that to him and then he built what is “Cisgender” around it. And I was like great, perfect, we got it.

It’s amazing that what you call your only metal song on the record goes into “Abomination,” which is one of your more flow-y songs to date.

You know, I haven’t rapped for the girls in a while! So I was like, I think it’s about time.

Another different register is “Marriage,” which I hear as this groovy self-love anthem. How do you regard that song?

I would say that it’s a self-love anthem but in a self-aware way, right? It’s in a way that’s like, “Yeah, I’m fine, yes, I’m comfortable with myself, but also very well-aware that I am definitely a little bit more of a hermit because of certain traumas.” It’s basically talking to someone who’s prospectively trying to court me, like, you’re gonna have to try a little bit harder because I’m not eager to hop into something because I’ve been burned so many times.

Were you surprised by how any of these tracks turned out?

No, everything was pretty much how I envisioned it, which is also just a testament to how in-sync Hollow Comet and I were. ‘Cause literally most of these—with the exception of a few final production tweaks—are the first draft arrangements that he sent me. I don’t know how long he worked on that shit before he sent it to me, but I didn’t send much of it back after the initial arrangements. And I’ve never experienced that in my life. That was a big thing. Like I said, “Cisgender” was probably the only one that went through the most rigorous changing and I think that was the one that I was most surprised by at the end because it definitely did not start out sounding like that. It was way more chill. I was not screaming at the end of the first [version].

Can you tell us about where the album ends, with “Nuclear?”

I said, “I am Karen Carpenter.” I said, “What would Karen Carpenter do?” and that’s what I did…. I’d been wanting to do an elevator-ass, Karen Carpenter-ass song for the fucking longest [time], and that’s what I did.

I totally agree. You are Karen Carpenter.

Thank you.

You’ve said previously that you want to make paths for more queer and POC voices in pop music. Were you surprised by the mainstream success of Lil Nas X’s album last year?

No, of course not. I think Lil Nas X is someone who kicked the door down. I think the door wasn’t open, and it still isn’t open, but I think he kicked it down. It’s clear that he has not had a warm welcome. Yes, he’s highly successful, but again, not without BS. And I think it goes back to what I said earlier about the freedom thing. Yes, you see that he’s living in freedom and truth within himself, but look how much he has to pay.

You said you had some concepts and titles before the record took shape. How did you land on Heterosexuality?

‘Cause I’m a troll! I just think it’s funny. And, you know, it’s not lost on me that despite being a very openly queer artist my entire career…this is my most queer album. And I think that is because there is so much trauma around me being very explicit about my queerness in my music. When I first came out during my first album cycle, I felt like nobody wanted to talk about the music and only wanted to talk about my queerness, and that record wasn’t even specifically about my queerness! So, yeah, there’s a lot of trauma around me being too explicitly queer in my music for fear that that was all that people wanted to talk about. So I think also me calling it Heterosexuality was just like extra measure to make sure that I’m not just talking about my queerness. Plus I think it’s funny. I’m a troll, what can I say?

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