Life & Culture

The Indie Pop Star Fighting the Stigma Around Mental Health

As his new album Revelations is released, Another Man meets Shamir, the Las Vegas musician demonstrating a fearless honesty about his mental health struggles

  • TextJamie Milton

Shamir Bailey first came to our attention as a disco-stamped, dancefloor-glued sensation. But he didn’t want it to be that way. The Las Vegas musician, who is just out of his teens, started out by playing the occasional open mic night at a local crepe café and was rarely seen without a guitar – save for a one-off punk project where he played the drum machine with his toes. This all changed with the release of 2014 EP Northtown and 2015 debut album Ratchet, a fun, accomplished hybrid of old school disco and LCD Soundsystem, minus the cowbell. But this wasn’t the real Shamir and it wasn’t something he could live with.

Speaking just after midday from his home in Vegas – “I very rarely wake up before noon,” he admits – he’s very open about how the glitzy worlds of disco and electronic music felt uncomfortable to him from the start. His former manager, Nick Sylvester, helped produce the majority of songs on Ratchet but working with anyone else was an ordeal. “I don’t use a computer to record. I don’t even own a computer,” he laughs, looking back. Shamir is always softly-spoken. His high-pitched voice sounds like it never broke. In fact at school, a choir teacher once told him they thought he was faking the way he sang. Sometimes it wavers and shakes in conversation.

After Ratchet, Shamir soon found himself alienated by disco, a genre he barely knew. His label XL Recordings saw differently, encouraging a follow-up record of the same style. He also felt uncomfortable being portrayed as a “queer artist”, as if that was some kind of novelty. He’s never not been open with fans (scrolling through his Twitter, it sometimes looks like you’ve stumbled on someone’s DMs) and yet he didn’t want his sexuality to become a bigger talking point than the music itself. “It was really frustrating a lot of times, I wanted to talk about the music and people wanted to talk about my identity and my sexuality and make me the face of genderqueer people, because at the time there wasn't nearly as much exposure for non-binary and trans artists,” he told i-D October.

Two rollercoaster weeks in April shaped the rest of his year and arguably his career. He was dropped by XL and, over the course of the next two days, made an entire album – appropriately titled Hope. This album is the real Shamir. It’s a brutally raw, often difficult listen which drew a positive response, not least for its bravery. But within a week of Hope’s release, he found himself hospitalised after a psychotic episode. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and returned home to Vegas to the care of his family. Short of anything to do, and with a strange sense of closure in receiving his diagnosis, Shamir pressed on and made what would become Revelations, which is out today. “Through boredom and coping, these songs came out,” he says. “Whether it was going to be released or not, it was gonna be made. Music is a form of therapy for me,” he says.

His openness in discussing mental health is refreshing. He says being honest about his situation is a way of “dealing with it.” Despite countless musicians breaking a stigma around the subject, it remains difficult to talk about – something that Shamir is proactive about changing. Each sale of Revelations will see a dollar donated to the MHAPA (Mental Health Association in Pennsylvania). “I just want to bring awareness and help when it comes to mental health. Especially during these times, with everything that’s going on in the world – it’s very damaging and hard on people.”

In truth, Shamir has never struggled to be open. Even when fronting a disco project, he put his feelings centre stage. “Everyone has similar problems,” he says. “As long as I’m really honest, it’s gonna be relatable. My more personal songs address things that I know other people go through but might not be reflected in art or pop culture.” The difference now is that he finally has a platform where he can be himself.

Revelations is out today.