While Whit Stillman’s Last Days of Disco ends on the sprightly note of Chloe Sevigny grooving to the O’Jays classic “Love Train” on a crowded subway car, one of the film’s more serious scenes sees a club hopper eloquently decrying disco’s death. “It's got to come back someday,” he pines, “I just hope it will be in our own lifetimes.” On first listen to Shamir Bailey’s debut EP Northtown, which dropped last week via Brooklyn imprint GODMODE, you could say his wish has come true.
Pairing slightly sinister early house inspired loops with soaring, full bodied vocals, the Las Vegas native kicks some dust off the dormant genre. But don’t expect Northtown to deliver a plain and simple throwback to white polyester suits and platform shoes - Shamir’s sound is so much more complex than that. The 19-year-old brings his insatiable appetite for all musical flavors to his five track debut, shaking up the boogy down by mashing it with the punk, soul, and country sensibilities he’s honed so masterfully. It’s as if Nina Simone were reincarnated as bedroom dreaming Topshop employee with a Dr. Groove drum machine and a skitzophrenic iPod shuffle stuffed full of Larry Levan, Scratch Acid, and Lana del Rey.
I spoke with the Shamir about the evolution of his sound, his Orange is the New Black boo, and the importance of being fearless
Your most recent EP Northtown definitely lives in a Chicago house, disco sort of space, but those sounds are pretty recent for you; your other projects had a more soul, country, folk, and eventually punk focus. Can you speak more to how your music has evolved over time?
It's evolved so much, but it hasn't been a gradual evolution. I'm really easily inspired, so when I listen to music, I think "Oh, I want to try that." There's so much different music out there and so much I want to experiment with. So it's almost kind of random how I ended up with this sound. Guided by the universe, I think.
Do you see yourself staying on the electronic path for a while or trying out some new genres?
I put a little bit of everything in all different types of music that I do. Even though I'm doing dance, house, and electronic music now, you're still going to find traces of punk, country, folk, and R&B in it. I try to stick to an aesthetic and experiment with it by mixing in other different types of genres. Maybe for another album I'll try out a different aesthetic, but there will still be elements of house and electronic music and country somewhere in there.
Do you think this kind of musical diversity is something that’s common among artists of our generation or do you feel young artists should more fully embrace this flexibility?
While I think it's definitely seen and embraced, and there are definitely dance and electronic artists who listen to country music, people don't always take those risks. I think it's more of a fear thing. They don't know exactly how it's going to turn out, so they're more reluctant. Since I'm so new and so young, I don't have much to lose--actually, I don't have anything to lose! I feel more fearless when it comes to how I approach things.
Who are some other artists you think are fearless?
I definitely feel Lana del Rey is that way. Her new stuff - "West Coast" in particular - is a different direction than people are used to seeing. Tegan and Sara are fearless as well. I feel like they've done everything, they've done it all! Since they've been in music for so long, I feel like they've been able to work with so many different types of sounds and accomplish so much.
Your performance at GodMode’s showcase at last week’s Northside Festival was your first live performance in New York, right?
It was my first live performance as Shamir, period!
Oh wow! How did it go?
It went amazingly well. To have - at your first show ever as a new project--people singing along to your songs is just incredible. I think that was the craziest thing about it all. I don't think that happens at everyone's first shows.
Now that you’re not playing any instruments, what sort of approach do you take to communicating through performance?
One of the major reasons why I think it went so well is because I was just having fun. I didn't have to worry about playing instruments - well, it was instrument optional because I did play the piano - but I felt more in control having that choice. I was able to have fun, be myself, and make a stronger connection with the audience.
If you were road tripping from Nevada to New York and could only bring five albums (no stopping at gas stations to pick up a copy of Mandy Moore’s So Real allowed), what would they be?
Usually, I'm not driving so I'll just sleep and when I wake up we're already there! But I'd bring my favorite album ever in the world, The Slits' first LP, Cut. I'd also have to bring the album with my favorite song ever in the world on it, which is Japanther's "Dump the Body in Rikki Lake," the album's title track. I'd bring an album from my favorite band in the world, which is The Vivian Girls, so I guess I'd take their first LP. And I would definitely bring some Courtney Barnett, I really like her right now. And for the last one, I'd bring Marina and the Diamonds' Electra Heart.
Which Lytchfield inmate from Orange is the New Black would be your prison wife?
Definitely Brook, I love her so much!
She reminds me so much of myself! Well okay, I hope I'm not that annoying. But I am a person that likes to talk about stuff that no one cares about, so a lot of times my friends will give me the same "okay, shut up" that Brook gets. She's also a little bit of a hippie and my mom was a super hippie so I can see where she's coming from. It might seem weird, but she's someone I can really relate to.