Band To Watch

Artist To Watch: Shura

With just three singles this year — the misty-lens ballads “Touch” and “Just Once” and the umtempo dance-pop track “Indecision” — Shura established a compelling, unmistakable artistic imprint. The London native, born to a British father and a Russian mother, had been honing her craft in her city’s pubs and the recesses of YouTube. By way of solo acoustic works and collaborations with London DJ/producer Hiatus, she experimented her way toward a hybrid strain of early ’90s pop, blending R&B, synthpop, and new wave with ghostly overtones of Madonna, Janet Jackson, and “Time After Time” Cyndi Lauper.

Shura’s songs lately have all channeled heartache and longing with a graceful assurance that belies their fragile essence. She’s exceptionally good at both writing songs and building a compelling atmosphere around them, and Polydor Records has noticed; they signed Shura this fall and will release her debut next year. The past month also saw her first run of live shows, a number of European club and festival dates that represent a massive shift from her old days playing acoustic open mic nights. I caught up with her over Skype earlier this month while she was waiting for a pizza in Broadway Market during a stint writing and recording back home in East London.

STEREOGUM: So I heard you’re in the studio this week?

SHURA: Yeah, so this week I’m writing. A nice little break from touring in Europe, which I’ve been doing. I love being in the studio. It’s pretty much my favorite place to be because you can wear pajamas and still kick ass.

STEREOGUM: Are you writing for an album or an EP?

SHURA: In my mind I’m writing for an album. When you release stuff and you’re with a label they probably have other plans. I’m not writing an EP, I’m writing an album, but if parts of it get released as an EP, then that’s that. But yeah, I’m writing a body of work that’s hopefully going to span 10 to 12 really awesome songs. I think it’s weird to think of it an as EP if that makes sense.

STEREOGUM: About how far along are you?

SHURA: I’m about halfway. In terms of songs that I’d happily put on an album, I’m halfway. But I would also like to write another album’s worth in a way so that when it comes to deciding, if there are four awesome songs that don’t fit on my record, then that will make me really happy. The best thing you can do is having to say no to putting out something that’s good because everything else is better. At the same time, I don’t want to write 30 songs because if you write 200 songs for one album I don’t know how you know if anything is good at that point. Because you’ve written with 20 different people or whatever, and nothing feels cohesive. So I definitely don’t wanna do that as well.

STEREOGUM: Are you working with anybody in particular right now, or are you in there on your own?

SHURA: I mainly work with a guy named Joel Laslett Pott. I try and keep everything that I do from making a film or a music video to writing an album to as few people as possible. I think collaboration is great, but when you have too many brains, too many opinions, that’s super dangerous. So it’s just about finding a connection with someone. As long as you have a chemistry, it’s important to keep it small and simple. There are obviously people out there in the world who I’d love to write with and collaborate with and produce for or have produce stuff as well, but at the moment it’s really important for me to get “me” out there, and the best way to do that is to keep it as small as possible and basically do as much as I can in my room or other rooms that people let me borrow.

STEREOGUM: I want to fill in some backstory on you. I always read about you being Russian, but then I read another interview where you said you lived in the UK your whole life.

SHURA: Yeah, my whole life. I think people try and often exoticize you, especially if you’re a woman. It’s like you can’t just go out and be 23 and make a record, you have to be this interesting creature from a far-away land. It’s quite interesting. You can’t just be like Shu who lives in Shepherd’s Bush. I’m half Russian, and that is an important part of my upbringing, you know? My mom is fully Russian, and in many ways I do feel out of place in England, but then if you pop me in Moscow I’m like, “Holy hell, I’m definitely not from here either.” So you just kind of have this feeling of never quite fitting in wherever you are. But it’s quite funny meeting and doing interviews with people and them expecting me to have an incredibly thick Soviet accent and then being confronted with me and being a bit disappointed. You can see them thinking, “Wow I wish you kind of sounded like a spy.”

STEREOGUM: Have you been to Moscow?

SHURA: Yeah, I’ve been to Russia several times. It’s not somewhere that I would feel comfortable going to right now because it’s being a bit naughty in the eyes of the world. But I love Moscow, I love St. Petersburg. I think it’s a beautiful country with such an interesting history. There’s something very sad going to literally your motherland and feeling some kind of connection but at the same time feeling a stranger. I just remember being in Red Square and walking as a kid, maybe 15 years old, and just crying because it felt like home but it wasn’t. It was very strange.

STEREOGUM: When did you become a musician?

SHURA: I guess properly I picked up a guitar when I was 13 years old. I had always kind of done stuff like bashing pots in the kitchen and stuff like that. My dad was a guitarist, and I just wanted — I often get jealous of people — I wanted to be able to make a noise with a guitar. So I encouraged him to teach me a few basic chords and then just locked myself in my room for the next few years and taught myself. I did a few lessons, but I really don’t like told being what to do. It doesn’t suit my character. So I ended up making my own style of playing. That’s kind of how I approach all of my production and playing keys as well. I’m not trained, I can’t read music, I just press things and hope for the best.

STEREOGUM: At what point did you start recording?

SHURA: Like really soon after. My dad used to do a lot of music when he was young, so he had an 8-track MiniDisc recorder, and when he realized that I was getting on with it, he brought it upstairs to my room and showed me how to record and how once you finished eight tracks you can cut it down to two and have another six tracks to play with. From about 16 I was making demos of stuff on MiniDisc and playing them out to my MP3 player and getting them onto my computer at the time and sending them to people via MSN Messenger, being like, “What do you think of this?!” So I had two or three years of playing and writing and jamming around, and I was already kind of recording. I mean not well; they were awful. I wish I had one now to listen back and just laugh. It was early on, though, that I was just recording stuff.

STEREOGUM: I was looking for some old stuff by you. Most of the music I was able to do find was the work you did with Hiatus.

SHURA: I mean he kind of found me from the acoustic stuff that I was doing. And in fact the first track that we ever did together called “River” was actually just a remix of a song that I had done, and I liked it so much. It was in a sphere of music that I wanted to learn about and get into, electronic music, so I asked him if he’d be up for doing more stuff. And so we did, really. So that was a huge learning curve for me. I wouldn’t be walking around in Broadway Market waiting for a pizza talking to you if it wasn’t for that collaboration. Yeah, that was a big moment in my life, in my musical life.

STEREOGUM: It seems like with this run of singles this year you’ve really settled into your own aesthetic.

SHURA: Yeah, it was the first time I had been really hands-on with what I was doing. I had full control. Like I said earlier, I’m not very good at doing what people tell me to do. And I really love other people’s opinions, and it’s great to not be crazy on your own in a room wondering if the hi-hat is too loud or too quiet, but I think I thrive off doing things exactly how I hear them in my head. Obviously I’m not hearing them, but I make them as I hear them in my brain. And this year is the first time I’ve really had that opportunity to pour myself into doing exactly how I would do it. Which is maybe why it resonates so much, because it’s as honest as I can be in a way. From collaborating with other people you make concessions, and those concessions are great because sometimes you are definitely wrong. I also think for that reason it’s probably flawed, but flawed in a way that I like, I guess. Production-wise I listen to it and I go, “Fuck me, it doesn’t sound like everything else. It doesn’t sound good enough or well produced enough.” But I guess other people think it’s alright, so I’ll just be like, “OK, keep on keepin’ on.”

STEREOGUM: Are all your singles this year new songs, or have they been kicking around for a while?

SHURA: Yeah they’re all definitely fairly new. “Touch” is the oldest one in terms of having been written. “Indecision” is probably the second oldest one. It was just the kind of track that I just didn’t want to put out straight away because it’s really poppy. For me it feels shamelessly poppy, and I wanted to hold that back a bit. My writing style has changed a lot because when you’re young you’re always trying to be super profound and you’re always trying to find a way to sound like a grownup — “I have to sound like a grownup who’s gone through shit and had experiences and love and relationships.” And then once you have gone through all that shit, you’re just like “Ugh, I just wanna be fun and enjoy myself and not care about trying to sound like a parrot. Just get on with it and say what it is. Say what’s going on.”

STEREOGUM: The first couple of songs, “Touch” and “Just Once,” definitely sound like somebody who’s lived life and had a broken heart and all that.

SHURA: I have. I just think back when I was 16, I would have tried to turn it into a metaphor about wandering through the forest and seeing a monster with no arms or no legs, but now sometimes the saddest thing you can just say to someone is, “Fuck, I miss you.” It’s not poetic, but you just go “AAHHH!” and it’s all you’re feeling — feeling liberated by being able to say what’s what.

STEREOGUM: The line “Have you ever been lost? I wanna get lost, we could get lost” — it’s very straightforward, but that is one of my favorite lyrics of the year.

SHURA: Thank you! That’s cool, that’s super cool to hear. When you say it in words you’re like, “Oh shit, that sounds so simple.” It’s one that live has resonated with people, which is interesting because you live a life when it’s just SoundCloud comments and blog posts and tweets, but then performing stuff live and realizing parts of songs that you thought were emotional aren’t necessarily the parts that will resonate with an audience in front of you — it’s just really fun learning about how people physically respond to that kind of stuff.

STEREOGUM: Were these your first shows?

SHURA: Yeah — I mean, not ever. I’ve gigged in a bar with a guitar and done open mic and stuff, but it was my first set of shows in this guise with these songs and playing with these two guys Ally and Luke who are so fun and make me feel like I’m in a band. I just really wanted to be in a band, and now I can be in one, which is awesome. I have my guitar, and I can pretend I’m in some grubby messy garage rocking out, but it just happens to be pop music that’s going out, which is a bit weird, but…

STEREOGUM: Obviously there’s been a lot of artists reclaiming the pop sounds from when we were growing up, but a lot of people have gone for a feel or a sound without writing songs to back up the aesthetic. That’s the thing that I’ve appreciated about listening to your singles: There’s really strong songwriting. It’s not just relying on some kind of nostalgia gimmick.

SHURA: I think there’s a lot of music out there that’s just all vibe, and some of it is really good vibe, and I really like it. But for me, when writing, it’s really important that — in 10 years’ times, who knows what’s cool? It’s important if I sit down at a piano or pick up a guitar in a bar — because that’s where I started, playing open mic nights in Manchester — that the song’s good enough to just stand up and sing and not have cool production or a sick beat or reverse piano. It’s really important to me that the songs are good because in 20 years’ time when people are looking back at the early 2000s, that’s what people will remember. They’ll remember the songs that were good. I was reading a list of the top 20 albums from the 1970s, and there were some amazing albums in there. In 50 years’ time, I want people to look back and be like, “One of her albums is in the top 20 or top 10.” That’s where I want to be. Even if I don’t sell any — I could sell five records, but I want people to look back and go, “That was good.” It doesn’t matter what I sell, how many millions of fans I have on Facebook. I just want people to look back and go, “That was good.” That’s what I care about I guess.

STEREOGUM: We were just talking about how the songs have to stand on their own. What’s your songwriting process like? Do you usually start with a musical idea or a lyrical idea?

SHURA: It’s really a combination of the two and it depends entirely on why I’m writing. If I feel really great about my life, I’ll tend to just start playing on the synth as opposed to guitar these days, and I’ll record vocal hooks and melodies with made up lyrics and just let them sit and brew as memos on my iPhone until I have something to say. But if I’m incredibly emotional, then it’s normally like “Bam!” at the same time. I try to keep a notebook and write down things little things I think. So if I’m playing a computer game and there’s a girl with a dance hat trying to figure shit out, then I’m like “OK, trying to figure shit out, girl with a dance hat. Maybe I can turn that into a lyric one day.” You know, observations like that. I guess since now I’m effectively a professional musician, I try to be a bit more organized about it because now I have a record deal, so I have to make an album. It’s not like being 16 and just writing about whoever broke your heart. It’s like, “OK, I can do that, but I can’t break my heart 11 times this year or I will literally die, so let’s try and think of some other stuff to write about.” So that’s gonna be an interesting part of this year: harnessing emotions, trying to navigate through things I’ve felt before and things I’ve yet to feel and turning them into songs that hopefully really affect people.

STEREOGUM: Before you go, what’s on your pizza?

SHURA: It’s chorizo, mozzarella, and tomato, but I got butt-loads of chili because there’s no point in food unless it’s really spicy. You just gotta add some spice to your life.

Tags: Shura