Las Vegas has a long history of providing a conflicted muse to performers and songwriters throughout the last century of pop music, and for pretty obvious reasons. It's a place where fortunes are made, lives are ruined and thousands of dollars can be spent on a night you barely remember. Elvis Presley famously described the city as a place that could “turn day into nighttime” and “night into daytime,” while the Cocteau Twins described the sight of the strip as “brighter than the sun” in “Heaven or Las Vegas,” likening the glowing sight of the strip with an ethereal vision of the afterlife. But the dark side of Vegas has provided just as much inspiration, if not more so, like when Gram Parsons lamented that “Las Vegas ain't no place for a poor boy like me.”
Pop artist and Las Vegas native Shamir Bailey has penned his own paean to his home city, “Vegas” but it's one that comes with the authority of someone who spent his formative years coming up in its less grossly capitalist parts. He uses clever alliteration and internal rhymes to convey the feeling of being hypnotized by neon, in lines such as “Energies, ignite like kerosene/Electric means, guaranteed to reach a peak.”
Vivid and poetic as the 20-year-old Bailey's take on Vegas is, musically, he's quick to explain in a phone interview that it's not necessarily reflective of his own experience— and part of that has to do with his age.
“It's very normal,” he says of his home city. “I mostly know Vegas from living in the suburbs. You're in the desert, and it's not as industrial as the strip—it's a very normal lifestyle.
“You can't do anything on the strip until you're 21, and I'm still not 21,” he adds.
Bailey's youth might be prohibitive in terms of what kind of activities he can participate in on the strip, but it hasn't held him back in terms of artistry. His new album Ratchet, released in May via XL Recordings, is an impressive and fully realized electronic pop statement that shows sophistication beyond his years. Recorded in collaboration with producer Nick Sylvester—a former music journalist—Ratchet is an album that serves as both infectious dance-floor fodder and singing-to-yourself-in-the-shower catharsis.
Bailey says that it was important for him to maintain that balance between fun, catchy songs and something that's ultimately more meaningful. It's a balance he maintains well, turning damaged relationships into sing-along therapy on the impossibly catchy “Call It Off,” while “Youth” finds him both celebrating and lamenting the process of figuring your life out, and making mistakes along the way—set to an unstoppable disco stomp, no less. There is no shortage of earworms on Ratchet, but none fall into the trap of vapid, mainstream fluff.
“With upbeat, bubbly music, and with electronic production, I think sometimes that the lyrics kind of get overlooked,” he says. “I just wanted to kind of, like, make sure I was saying something with my music. I feel like some pop music on the radio, and stuff, is like, not necessarily great pop music. The lyrics are primarily about dancing, love, blah blah blah. But then I discovered artists like Marina and the Diamonds, and Clerkenwell Kid and Robyn, who make pop music but actually have meaningful lyrics. So I was like ‘I wanna do something like that.'”
Impressive as it is to hear an artist as young as Shamir delivering a record as cohesive as Ratchet, it actually follows the similarly strong Northtown EP from last year, released when he was 19, and the single “On the Regular,” which he also included on the album. That song—a high-energy series of clever boasts—even narrates his own upbringing as a budding musician: “Wanted a guitar before I wanted a bike/Had an Epiphone, fuck a Fisher Price.”
And Bailey confirms that his life as a songwriter began early on in his grade school years.
“I've been writing little ditties to myself...as long as I can remember,” he says. “I felt like I was actually writing music, seriously, when I first got a guitar, and started to get a little bit better a few years later. I've done so many different projects—before writing as Shamir, I was in a punk band.
And before that I did country music.So, definitely I've been writing, but I don't think that changed too much, just the style of music that I've been doing. So Shamir is a little more pop, and maybe a little more serious.”
Shamir plays Sept. 22 at The Irenic
With his 21st birthday just a couple months away, Shamir Bailey is still in the early stages of what has the potential to be a fruitful career. Yet, in some ways, this has been a long time coming. Not everyone finds their calling before getting their driver's license, but Bailey says that being onstage is where he belongs.
“It's the most comfortable I feel,” he says. “It's a huge rush for me. It's a whole exchange of energy between the listener and the audience and me, and we're just having fun.”