Shamir on Navigating the Music Industry | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Monday, July 22nd, 2024  

Shamir on Navigating the Music Industry

Irregular Pop Star

Feb 19, 2021 Issue #67 - Phoebe Bridgers and Moses Sumney Bookmark and Share

When Shamir’s “On the Regular” was released in the fall of 2014, it seemed to announce the arrival of a new pop star. Full of earworm hooks, deliriously clever boasts, and Shamir’s otherworldly countertenor vocals, it was easy to dream about the 19-year-old becoming the sort of artist who would soon be collaborating with the hottest Los Angeles producers and setting up camp on the Top 40 pop charts. That, in fact, was more or less what XL Recordings, his label, had in mind for him. But Shamir had other plans. Shaking off the dance-pop template he had used on 2015’s Ratchet in favor of rawer, more DIY sounds, he soon found himself without a label and free to make whatever kind of music he wanted. Since then, he has done just that, releasing six more full-length albums in four years and two in 2020, Cataclysm and Shamir. His breakthrough hit remains an outlier, the unusual first chapter for an artist who decided to take control of the narrative.

Matt Fink (Under the Radar): I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about your decision to leave XL.

Shamir: First of all, I was dropped. [Laughs] I want to make that clear. But I guess in a weird way it was kind of a decision, because I knew that I did not want to continue the momentum that my first album had. I knew that I wanted to do something a little more different and more in the vein of basically what I was doing before I started working with those specific producers that I worked with on my first album. Essentially, I just wanted to approach my music in a more DIY way that I was before the record, basically.

Did you feel as if Ratchet was a representation of who you were as an artist at the time?

Not at all. It felt more like a collaboration. You know how a singer of a totally different genre will pair up with an electronic producer and they’ll do a whole album together? That’s what that was like.

When that record broke through and people liked it, what was it like to have that experience?

I think in the beginning it was fine and unexpected and I loved it. And I had fun. There were definitely some depressing parts when touring was becoming a burden, but I was happy with it, because it was a good album. On one hand, I didn’t think anyone would like it, but I knew that it was a well-produced, well-written album. I wrote everything, so the words were still for me and it was still about things that I believed in and wanted to talk about. I had that going for me, but even from the beginning when I first got signed and everything, I told everyone on my team and everyone I was working with at the label, “You’re not getting Ratchet 2. Every record I’m going to make is going to sound completely different.” And I think they thought that was a joke or they didn’t believe me. [Laughs] And I think once I stated to feel the pressure to make a similar follow-up, and it started to be pressed down on me that it became difficult.

So how did that work? Did you show them the songs that were on the Hope record and they decided that wasn’t the direction they wanted to go?

No. The Hope record was a complete manic episode over a weekend. I had essentially started on two different records, some of the same songs intertwining but a lot of different songs, also. So what had happened was I spent a lot of time working on the sessions with all the top producers in LA. Basically, [it was] the session thing in LA for six months, but I hated everything. Everything was feeling a little too radio, and then I went back to Philly fulltime and started to work on the record with a friend. But by this time, I was already dropped from XL, because they were just like, “Well, we’re not going to get him to make another house record, so we might as well let him go.” And a lot of people at the label were very mad. Eventually I found out that their version of events would eventually tell you that it was because my management was not the best and was being difficult to them at the time. But, also, I was not told anything. I found out through my management that I was dropped, and no one from the label told me anything. It would have been nice to at least get a parting letter like, “Yo, this wasn’t you. This was your management.” But I think that was a copout. It’s neither here nor there. So when trying to make a second record fell through, I was like, “Well, I’m not signed to a contract, so I might as well do what I want to do.”

Were you surprised when you found out you were dropped?

I think it was surprising to everyone. I think it was surprising to me and my management and anyone I’ve ever told the story to. You just cut one of your most successful artists at the start of their career and didn’t even give them a chance to fail, essentially. It was like “We’re not putting our money towards that.” I know they made back their bonus. It’s very weird to me.

It’s surprising to me that even indie labels are that heartless.

I’ve heard worse stories. I’m thankful for the experience, and I’m still friends with a lot of people over there [at XL]. I still realize that at the end of the day there is a lot of corporate BS with any job. But I think more than anything it’s frustrating that I wasn’t worth taking a chance on. I guess it was like “Oh, this queer, Black, nonbinary artist worked this time, because all of those things are such a huge topic of conversation, but at the end of the day it’s still a gamble.” There’s no way that I would have been mainstream-mainstream at this point in Trump’s America. Which is another thing, too. I think I would have been way more depressed playing that whole pop game during Trump’s America. And I’m kind of glad that I’m making the music that I want to do and being radical in my own way at this time.

So after you were dropped, how long did it take you to find your footing?

I have this saying where I’m really good at falling up instead of falling down. And I think I kind of just fell upwards and got lucky that, even if it was just a small group of people, there was a group of people that understood and got who I was as an artist and what I was trying to do and what I am doing now. So I did Hope, which was just a manic episode and a bunch of frustration built up that just came out in the form of Hope. And then I went to the psych ward [laughs], and when I came out Hope got 70k streams on Soundcloud in one day. And then I wrote “Dear White People.” I was still in the hospital when it came out, actually, and Father/Daughter [Records] had offered me a deal just because they were fans and wanted to see my new route. That’s when Revelations came out, and from then on I was just throwing stuff against the wall and seeing what sticks but making stuff that I’m proud of.

It seems like you’ve been creating at a fast pace.

Each album is kind of a diary, and they all sound different. Every record of mine is going to sound different, and I think every record is a snapshot of my life at the time that I was making it. Revelations was made from the corner of my aunt’s home after I got out of the hospital in Vegas, and then Resolution was also made in Vegas but after I wrote Revelations and found my footing again. And then last year Be the Yee [Here Comes the Haw] was like a joke a record, and I didn’t think anyone would actually take it seriously. And it was like I had worked on a more official record, and it was shopped around and no one wanted it, so I was like, “Well, I guess I’ll just make this joke record, because I spent two years on this official record and no one wants it, and I don’t identify with these songs.” There is a real expiration date between records for me, because if I don’t resonate with the music anymore, I’m not going to release it two years after I recorded it.

What was the decision process like to start our own label, Accidental Popstar Records? Was that about getting some creative control back?

I don’t release my records through my label. I just did that completely for working with new artists, and I think it started because I always did other things within music, even at the beginning. I was managing a band for the whole time before Ratchet came out, and I interned at Beggars when I was making Ratchet. I’ve been fascinated by the music industry, mostly just so I can learn, myself. After Hope and everything, I was isolated because I was in Philly and putting my life back together, and also touring for Revelation.

Basically, after I got done touring for Revelations and Resolution, back in the summer of 2018, I went on tour with Unknown Mortal Orchestra, and also did a European tour. I was just getting acclimated to my life in Philly and collaborating and working with artists in the scene that I hadn’t seen in a while or had just come across. Basically, I just wanted to do something different and work with new artists, and I ended up working with two artists at once. I knew I didn’t want to manage them, because I didn’t want to manage anymore. I started the label to help these artists and develop a team for them and treat it like an artist development house. That’s what it is: it’s less of a label and more artist development.

With your experience with the music industry, how has that shaped the way you work with other artists?

I work with artists a lot more now. I’ve been producing, which is something new and something I never thought would happen, especially because a lot of my production ideas were shut down when I was working with more established producers. So I like working with artists from their standpoint and not trying to make hits but trying to make something that I feel pulls from the essence of the artist.

So from your previous experience of the industry being so hit-focused, you want to push your artists to go in the direction that they naturally would go.

Exactly. Not even being hit-focused. I guess the lack of authenticity or…in a weird way I love how capitalism pushes an artist, but I also hate capitalism. I like how people are forced to be more accessible. Back then, the more obscure or avant-garde meant the most interesting, maybe, or the most worthy. I like that people push themselves now to be more accessible, while also maintaining themselves. To me, I think the best music is accessible—not necessarily pop, but accessible. But I also hate the mechanical capitalist aspects of it. I think every artist should be pushing themselves to be accessible but every artist should not be pushing themselves to make a hit, essentially. I think my production style and the way I look at music is that anyone can make a pop song. I can make a pop song with any artist, no matter the genre or what they do. Just like anyone is able to make something relatable, even if they’re not necessarily able to do it, themselves. But will it be a hit? Is that something we should be pushing for? Is that about us or about capitalism?

How difficult is it to keep going as an artist if you’re not focused on making hits or making money?

I don’t know. I’m not qualified to talk about that, because I have a hit. I live off of that. A lot of artists don’t. It’s fucked up. It’s bad. It shouldn’t be like this.

Since you’re so identified with that hit, is it difficult to defy people’s expectations when they show up to a show expecting to hear that kind of music?

Yeah. That was my whole time touring after Ratchet, when Revelations and Resolution came out. But I think I’m the kind of person who has never been defined by expectations. I went into this knowing that, so I just have to deal with it. I’m going to do what I do because I can, essentially. And I think my reputation has already been set for better or worse. At the end of the day, I sleep better at night knowing that I’m making music that’s interesting to me.

[Note: This article originally appeared as a bonus article in the digital version (for tablets and smart phones) of Issue 67 of Under the Radar’s print magazine, which is out now. The interview was also done for a larger print article examining the current state of the music industry. This is its debut online.]

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