Shamir shares how their mental health journey coincides with creativity
As with everything Shamir does, there’s nothing artificial to be found in Bipolar Butterfly.July 20, 2021
Counterintuitive as it may sound at first, to really earn a mononym, you have to be a polymath. If you want to be known by just one name, then you have to be known for more than just one thing. As a writer, artist, musician and designer, Shamir—at this point, it’s fair to say, less well known by their full name, Shamir Bailey—is no exception to that rule.
Having, in just seven years, successfully carved out a name for themselves over the course of seven studio albums and four EPs, as well as a live album and some impressive appearances with notably illustrious collaborators such as Rina Sawayama and Tegan And Sara, Shamir’s latest efforts find the East Coast artist with head turned firmly toward another subject entirely: streetwear.
Not one to simply dive into something that they don’t believe in—and believe in wholesale—Shamir’s approach to clothing, as with their music, is entwined with something deeper and considerably more personal. And, in this case, that root is their bipolar disorder diagnosis, the process of working through that and a chance to help other people who might be going through the same thing.
Streetwear might seem like an unlikely vessel for discussing serious mental health issues—a capsule collection designed, in part, using AI technology even more so. But, through their own experiences, Shamir draws parallels and makes connections that bring all these disparate pieces together. Bipolar Butterfly, a project in collaboration with urbancoolab—a tech/culture brand whose tagline reads, “Machine Design. Human Story.”—is the result of joining those dots.
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Emblazoned with a striking butterfly pattern—a symbol that has come to represent the bipolar community through its beauty, strength and tenderness—the collection, fittingly benefiting the good work of associated charities and organizations, is the product of an all-too-human creative, cathartic and highly personal process. Despite its origins, as with everything Shamir does, there’s nothing artificial to be found.
What’s your relationship to streetwear?
That’s difficult because I wouldn’t really say that I have a relationship to streetwear. Or, at least, I didn’t before. What I will say is that, from my perspective, looking at streetwear, there isn’t a lot of color or pattern—definitely not pattern, anyway—and you see a lot of the same silhouettes, over and over again. So, that just didn’t strike a chord with me, and I wanted to do something different.
So, if you weren’t into streetwear—and we’ve already established that’s a good thing—how did you end up working on Bipolar Butterfly?
Well, urbancoolab—Connor [Elsaesser], specifically, who’s been like my right-hand man through all this—hit me up directly. They came to me. They’re working on some amazing things, and while they’re pushing to make AI technology more accessible to everyone, they’ve been doing these capsule collections with an amazing list of people. Anyway, Connor came to me, and, you know, I was just a little wary from the start: Like I said, this wasn’t really my world, and while I’m starting to accept that people are getting to know me a little more in connection with fashion, it wasn’t something I knew so much about.
I mean, there are definitely worse things you can be known for, right?
Oh, definitely! But what really sold me in the end was just Connor’s own joy and excitement about the project—and also discovering that we had a whole bunch of mutual friends. Suddenly I thought, “OK, maybe this could be something.” After that, we just started going through ideas—through colors and everything. And I was already working with the pink-and-purple palette from my last record, so I definitely knew I wanted to do something like that.
So, you know, while they came to me in the first place, it’s all very personal. I just wanted it to be as me as possible. And, in that way, it was great to have the advocacy part to it, too—to be able to help people and to do something. To make sure that it’s not yet another vanity project. That’s the last thing I want to do or feel like I need. If I don’t approach things right and just do my own thing, then I don’t care. I’m a particular person. I’ll only approach something, especially something that’s not necessarily within my immediate wheelhouse, if I feel like it’s calling.
If it speaks to you.
Exactly. Or if it’s going to do something—create some kind of change. You know, help someone else besides me. And so, when I saw an opportunity to connect the project to my mental health journey, in a natural way and also with the charitable side of it, then I started to get a lot more excited about it and feel connected to it in a much more substantial kind of way.
It’s obviously deeply personal to you, but a lot of people won’t be aware of the meaning behind the butterfly iconography. Being able to put it out there like this—front and center—and to, hopefully, tear down some of the stigma relating to bipolar disorder feels important.
Yeah, for sure! I mean, I think everyone knows—or at least knows someone who could be—bipolar. Whether they’re aware of it or not. So, you know, we’re all affected. And not just people who have bipolar are affected by bipolar—friends and family are as well, you know what I mean?
Speaking from my experience, I know that the guilt from stigma has its own stressors. It’s just immensely triggering. I know people struggle a lot with that, and, for me, the lifting of that—of that shame, that guilt—and working through it, getting rid of it from within itself, made my mental health journey a lot smoother. Not only tolerable, either, but kind of joyful, you know? You can’t practice self-care when you feel guilt; you can’t practice self-care when you feel like a nuisance; you can’t practice self-care when you feel broken.
And there’s more to life than feeling that way, right? More to everything. More to what you do.
I remember a friend and I were recording my last—well, my next, soon to be released—record in the middle of nowhere, in the Poconos back in February. We got tested, drove up and locked ourselves away. Between takes, we’re just talking or whatever, and my friend is like, “Hey, you almost make this like fun.” And I thought, you know, I do have fun. It’s not all pain. It’s not all tragedy. You know, life is already hard enough. Why do I have to live this tragedy just because of what the media has taught us?
That is a weird expectation that’s put on people these days. Especially on social media and, as you say, through the media at large. People expect every gruesome detail of your life, like they’re owed it somehow, and they don’t want to hear about the other stuff, about the joyful stuff.
Yeah, I think that’s true. With me, it’s not that it isn’t born out of trauma, obviously. I had to go through things in order to even get this diagnosis. But, in my experience, even before this—and after this, I’m sure, probably for the rest of my life—when people think of me, they’ll think, “trauma.”
I think, at least for me, as far as trauma goes, there’s always been some kind of lesson or realization at the end of it that made me a better person, that made me a stronger person, and that, ultimately, made me work through even the worst of things that have happened to me in a more positive way.
Like with Bipolar Butterfly.
Exactly. This collection is just a reminder that I’m an optimist. I think a lot of people presume, because I so easily talk about the darker things in life, that maybe I’m a pessimist. But I always call myself a pessimistic optimist. And I think this is a perfect example: It’s not wallowing in the trauma at all. It’s showing the beauty within the trauma, you know?
The fact that my mother immediately started calling me Butterfly, without any kind of prompt, I don’t know how she started—I still don’t know. But I was freaking out, like, “I know I’m the butterfly, but what does that mean?” I find that immensely poetic and beautiful. Yes, that comes from a traumatic experience, but it doesn’t make me feel bad. It makes me feel a kind of comfort. Like I’ve picked up a new understanding of myself.
A lot of the time, people are guilty of over mythologizing the idea of traumatized artistry—of the traumatized artist—and try to extract that out of people for reasons that it shouldn’t be.
You can tell when someone actually wants to tell their story. And you can tell when they’ve been pushed to tell that story when they just weren’t willing or ready or it just doesn’t feel like it fits.
I’ve been very loud about this. I think it’s so harmful. It’s so harmful. And I feel like I want to be a shining example of something else. Like, yes, I can be an artist of trauma and pain and all of these things. But also, I hope, be a beacon of light—someone who has worked through it, hopefully, and who can show that it is possible to work through it. To live a healthy life and still be just as edgy or cool as I want to be or whatever, but on my own terms.
It can feel like people are goading that out of you; baying for blood, almost. And then they act surprised when they get what they were asking for.
For sure. I mean, around the time of a very transitional period for me—coming out with my debut record, going back to doing guitar-based music and indie rock—I remember how hard, despite everyone knowing my story, what I went through, people were on me. Just because I was doing something that was outside of the realm of what they expected from me.
Even when presented with the information, “I am literally fresh out of the hospital with a bipolar diagnosis,” that just wasn’t enough. And it’s just like, God, if I wasn’t getting literal, professional help at this time, what would have happened? Oh, my God, people are ruthless. Especially when you’re a public figure. They think that you’re not a human, basically.
People either want everything from you, or they want to project: They want you to bare your soul or to be a completely blank slate—an empty vessel for them to fill.
Exactly. And I think that’s why it’s nice for me to have other avenues where I’m able to tell more sides and details of my story that I can’t necessarily in music.
Bipolar Butterfly wasn’t something I expected to do, but it turned out to be a really great avenue for this kind of advocacy that I had already started to take seriously and to be a part of—and also advocacy for myself, you know? Something I was in complete control of.
What you do get to see is other people wearing it, and you get the joy out of that without having to go through it every day all over again.
That’s the best feeling. I love seeing other people wearing the collection—how they put the looks together, as something separate to me. How they’ve chosen to wear it, as something of their own, you know?
That’s a feeling that I didn’t ever expect to have. It’s different from merch: Maybe the people buying this, they do like my music, and maybe they do like me, but you can tell that they’re wearing it because they look good in it. They feel good in it.
You can read the full interview in issue 395, available here.