SHURA IN LONDON, JULY 2016. PHOTOS: JASON HETHERINGTON/SERLIN ASSOCIATES. STYLING: CYNTHIA LAWRENCE-JOHN. HAIR: CLAIRE GRECH USING BUMBLE AND BUMBLE. MAKEUP: KIM BROWN/PREMIER USING M.A.C COSMETICS.
Shura’s brand of pop is personal. She weaves her life into each track lyrically and sonically; her recent debut LP Nothing’s Real (Interscope Records) consists of tales of her day-to-day fused with samples from VHS tapes of her childhood. Her father’s voice (speaking to her as a kid) even introduces the album on its first track by asking, “Where are you, Shura?”
While this intimate touch seems at odds with some mainstream pop music, for Shura (born Alexandra Lilah Denton), making music is a “private experience.” The 25-year-old British musician has been writing songs since she was 16, and when it came to creating her debut album, she was self-assured.
“With this record, I was so sure of what I wanted to do and what order it had to be in,” she tells us. “I didn’t want to ask anyone else. It felt so personal to me that I thought, ‘I need to finish my journey and then when it’s ready I will share it and people will either like it or they won’t,'” she continues. “For me, one song is not enough to be in a person’s world. I need to be in their world for 40 minutes; I want to fully experience it and immerse myself. I wanted it to be the same with this record for other people, even if what they actually end up doing is listening to ‘Tongue Tied’ on repeat.”
Yesterday, Shura began an American tour, during which she will headline three shows and open for Tegan and Sara and M83. Before she left London, we spoke over the phone about panic attacks, music’s reach, and studying English literature.
HALEY WEISS: How did you come up with the title Nothing’s Real? Does the song “Nothing’s Real” predate it?
SHURA: It was very much that I wrote that song and it felt like that song was a very important shift for me, a change in the subject matter of what I was writing about, which was generally relationships, and a shift in my experience of life, actually. It’s about a panic attack and it just felt right. I don’t think I even really thought about the fact that I was writing a record. At that moment in time, I was just writing songs, and when I finished that it felt like a light had switched on in my brain, like, “Ah, I’m onto something.”
I felt like it summed up so many different things. It was obviously about feeling like I’m dying, and being told by doctors that I wasn’t, so that that feeling wasn’t real. It summed up my kind of stoner approach—I’m not a stoner at all, but I have a stoner philosophy to a degree. [laughs] Where I just felt like, “Oh, the past isn’t real because it’s history, and the future isn’t because it hasn’t happened yet.” In my weird science fiction obsessed world, I liked it—it hints at virtual reality, which I think is how we sort of feel about life sometimes. Sometimes we feel like we’re only interacting with what’s already happening; we don’t actually affect anything—sometimes I feel like that, anyway.
WEISS: The panic attack happened after you released “Touch,” right?
SHURA: Yeah. It was also after I got a cat, so there’s a part of me that thinks maybe I just got really freaked out that I was responsible for two living creatures. [both laugh] I think it was a mixture of lots of things, to be honest.
WEISS: When you had that first panic attack, what did you feel? Had you experienced anything like it before?
SHURA: No, I had never had one before in my life, so I genuinely was convinced that I was dying, which I can laugh about now of course but at the time it was really frightening. I went from being a person who—maybe I was anxious before, but I didn’t realize that I was anxious because that was just my reality, and it wasn’t until I had a panic attack that I thought, “Oh, maybe I have a problem with anxiety,” rather than just getting stressed out occasionally with things.
WEISS: When you wrote “Nothing’s Real,” did it help you get through having panic attacks? Did it make it easier to deal with?
SHURA: I don’t think it made it easier. As soon as I learned what panic attacks were, and that they were what I was having, that definitely helped me come to terms with it and deal with it the best that I can. The reason I wrote about it is that I always write about things that I experience, and that was the first time where I felt a real strength of emotion that was something physical rather than an emotional problem, like I fancy someone and they don’t fancy me back, or someone broke up with me and I’m really sad about it. For me, it was a really strange thing and actually quite liberating as well, because it enabled me to write and have a topic that was something that I had never done before, almost in the way that a musician is a documentary maker but of their own life with music.
WEISS: “Touch” became very popular online. Was that something that surprised you when you released it?
SHURA: It definitely surprised me, and it was very obvious very quickly that something was different. I had put songs online before and maybe had 15,000 people listen to it in a year, which at that point, I thought, “That’s fucking brilliant.” Then I think in the first few days [“Touch”] had 100,000 plays on SoundCloud. I hadn’t put it on iTunes, I hadn’t put it on Spotify, because it was essentially a demo. I remember I was still working full-time when I put that song up, and I had to work at a computer and every ten minutes I would go on SoundCloud—which I wasn’t supposed to be doing obviously, but I did—and just refresh the page. I would see that it would go up 1,000 plays every time I refreshed and thought, “What’s going on? Who is listening? It can’t just be my mum anymore; it has to be other people. And where are these other people?” You could see they’re in California, New York, Mexico, or they’re in Poland. I thought, “How has this song of mine traveled further than I can afford to get a plane ticket?” I can’t even afford to go to America, but my songs are being played there. That’s really bizarre.
WEISS: Where were you working?
SHURA: I worked in a post-production facility for television, but in the machine room, so I was one of the nerds essentially—making sure everyone had their footage in and all of that stuff.
WEISS: Do you think editing visuals has helped you in terms of producing your own tracks and editing sound?
SHURA: Definitely—I knew how to edit really before I knew how to produce in a way, because you’re working with layers and rhythm is hugely important with editing. How something flows and the narrative is the same with a song. It’s different obviously with a song when you’re talking about narrative, you’re talking about the verse leading into the chorus or whatever it is, but you have to have a sensibility of how something would flow either way.
WEISS: I know that you included samples of your voice from childhood on the album. How early on did you make that choice?
SHURA: It was around the time that I wrote “2Shy,” which is the third single that I put out. I was using a lot of found sounds anyway; in “Touch” there’s almost spoken word samples in the background, where it sounds like people talking, and the same in “Indecision,” you can hear the streets of Stockholm where I was recording some stuff. So I had been doing that anyway, recording real life around me and using non-musical samples in a musical context, and then suddenly in “2Shy” when I talk about walking down the Uxbridge Road, which is the road I walk down to go home, I sampled a man trying to sell soccer team scarves on Uxbridge Road. I got really intrigued by the idea of… That’s a recording of a moment in time, where I was physically there, and it’s now in a song for all eternity, in a way. It’s really weird. I had written the song, but I’m also physically there in a way—I’m physically inside the song—because I’ve recorded something that’s in there. That sounds really—again, this is my stoner philosophy coming out—but I got really excited by that idea.
There’s a line in “2Shy” where I say, “Let’s go find a corner we can sit in / And talk about that film instead of us,” and that film that I’m referring to is the film Interstellar, which really fucked me up at that time, essentially. I got really obsessed with death and aging, and family, and spent a month going through all of my old family videos. Whilst I was doing that, looking at three-year-old me having a tantrum or whatever it was I was doing, I was like, “I really want to continue what I’ve already started with found sounds, but start borrowing from my past as well, so that it really spans me growing up.” I guess your debut record, in terms of lyrical content, can be about the last couple of years of your life obviously, but your first record into the world is also about everything else that you’ve ever experienced in your life until that moment. It would feel unnatural for me not to put everything in. So it is a really personal record for me, even if lyrically I’m not talking about eating Bolognese when I was four. I’m not singing about that, but everything is sort of in there somehow.
WEISS: You’ve said that pop music is something that you didn’t think was made for you, or it was something you couldn’t really relate to. What was it that you felt like you couldn’t connect to?
SHURA: It’s strange, I love pop music and I really can enjoy it, but I didn’t feel like the characters within pop music—like when Madonna sings “Crazy For You” for instance, I don’t feel like I would ever be the character she takes on in that song. I would never feel… I don’t have that confidence in me. I can enjoy it, and I really like it, and if anything it can sometimes make me feel empowered and more confident than I am, but I also think it’s important to represent myself. There are going to be other people like me who think, “You know what, I actually just want to write a song about how I’m wearing my cap this way because I’ve been watching Romeo + Juliet and Leonardo DiCaprio looks really fucking cool, so I’m going to try and look a bit like him even though I’m a girl and see if that works.” Then you get there and think, “Shit, maybe I shouldn’t have worn this outfit because I definitely look like I’m trying too hard.” Writing about those things in life, that’s what I was interested in. I’ve said I don’t feel like pop music represents the kind of personality that I am, and it doesn’t, and it’s not supposed to in a way. One of the amazing things about pop is that it’s there to make people feel confident and empowered. It was more that I wanted to try flipping it, and I wanted to try going, “Well, okay, this is what pop music traditionally does, well why don’t I fuck with it and see what happens, and see if it still works?” It was almost a challenge. Can you still write a pop song and write about being awkward as fuck? [laughs] Does it still work?
WEISS: Did you study music while you were at University College London?
SHURA: No, I studied English literature, so I learned how to read and write.
WEISS: Was there a favorite author or book that you read while you were there?
SHURA: Yes, I did my dissertation on a South African writer called [J.M.] Coetzee, who I fell in love with. It’s funny, because I did English literature, but I really fell in love with foreign literature essentially. I fell in love with magic realism, South American literature, South African literature, post-colonial literature. I think one of the reasons I went to South America for six months is that I became obsessed with [Gabriel García] Márquez, [Salvador] Allende, and Pablo Neruda. Reading about those adventures is what made me want to go on them in real life. I have spent six months in South America, and I think that’s something that’s made me quite—I don’t want to say brave in a complimentary sense—but I’m not afraid to go to South America, not speak Spanish, not know where anything is, and find out. Like I’m not afraid to make a record without asking too many people what their opinion is of it. I guess it gave me confidence. It’s weird because my whole record is about not being confident as well. I’m creatively confident but socially really awkward.
WEISS: When you returned from being out of the country, did you treat your music any differently?
SHURA: I’d love to be able to say yes, because I think it would be a really interesting answer to that question, but it was very much the same. I went back to having a job. You have to understand that for me, making music wasn’t a career choice. It was just what I did. … I would’ve made music until I died even if no one listened to it, because that’s just what I did on a Saturday. [laughs]
SHURA IS ON TOUR IN THE UNITED STATES. FOR MORE ON SHURA, VISIT HER WEBSITE.