Stef Chura’s Sweet, Sweet Midnight
The Detroit rocker talks working with Will Toledo and shares a video for "Scream"
“Method Man,” the lead single of Detroit-based rock musician Stef Chura’s new album, Midnight, paints a picture of a dude whose condescension is dreadfully magnetic. Driven by an fervor and fixation similar to that that fuels the type of relationship it describes, Chura’s vocals and the accompanying instrumentals speed up and intensify as the song progresses, coming to a close just as Chura is mid-scream. Many of the songs on Chura’s sophomore effort serve as character studies or concentrated accounts of how people have affected her.
The most compelling of the songs that fall into this category is perhaps “Sweet Sweet Midnight,” which is something of a duet between Chura and the album’s producer Will Toledo (Car Seat Headrest). “Sweet Sweet Midnight” is the song that most directly explores the unexpected death of a close friend, an event that motivated Chura to release her debut album, Messes, in 2017. When listened to closely, Chura’s nuanced recollection of the experience is chilling, representing the pain of something traumatic becoming routine. Compared to other tracks on the record, her voice at the outset of the song, as she sings “I wanna see you breathe in,” sounds haunting, but calm. By the end of the track Chura ends up in something of a panic, remembering the unique confusion brought about by a friend never showing up again, with speedier singing and frantic instrumentation backing her up.
The natural ease Chura and Toledo had together as collaborators made Chura feel comfortable making choices she hadn’t previously explored. Through Toledo she gained access to a plethora of instruments that she hadn’t recorded with before. With the introduction of synth, organ, and piano, Chura has new tools at her disposal to honor the individual worlds that each of her songs occupy. The access hasn’t changed her gritty sound so much as it has deepened it, allowing the instrumentation choices she makes to take on more meaning. Midnight is a record comprised of innumerable emotional peaks and valleys — it begs you to leave ‘shuffle’ behind and go along for the ride.
On Midnight, Chura publicly wrestles with the bleak experiences that brought her to making music. Never indulging in navel-gazing sadness, Chura makes it clear that she’s using the dark parts of her past to rebuild and move forward. In doing so she establishes herself as a musician who’s uniquely adept at working through the murky waters of unease, whether it comes in the form of existential fear, social insecurity, or the unusual earnestness one needs in order to perform a love song.
Read our Q&A and watch a video for “Scream” below.
STEREOGUM: We talked upon the release of Messes, and I remember you mentioning that making the album was somewhat motivated by a death of a friend which got you thinking about what you wanted to accomplish in your lifetime. How did your approach to this album differ?
STEF CHURA: I feel like making this album was more like opening a door and into like a whole different world that I didn’t expect to be there when I made Messes. As a local musician [making a record] seemed impossible to do, and when I did it, I didn’t know if there would even be anything on the other side of it. Would I be able to do a second record? Would it be not as good as my first record? I definitely had a very different approach because of that, but it’s just growth. There’s just more to learn about and discover and like, see my songs unfold in a new way. I really feel like [Midnight] sounds so different from Messes because I was much more open minded and trusting both of the person I was working with, and was able to actually allow myself to like, let go of some of the control.
STEREOGUM: Do you feel that now you’re settled into being a musician and that you don’t have that same fear as you did before Messes was released?
CHURA: Yeah, I do, I wouldn’t have put it that way but I totally feel more confident and less worried about being creatively bankrupt. I don’t know why I ever felt that way because I write so much. I actually write a lot more than I think I do because I don’t finish a lot of what I write. That’s why I like working with a producer who’s like, “Oh, hey I’ll help you finish these.” I didn’t realize you could get a person to do that. [Laughs]
STEREOGUM: Do you have much of a music community in Detroit, or in Michigan at large?
CHURA: There’s definitely a really specific rock scene here that I have been a part of and played shows in for a super long time. I started in Ypsilanti, I was there for a couple years, and then I moved to Detroit. A lot of people have moved to Detroit, so I definitely feel like there’s a music community and it spans over a couple of genres.
STEREOGUM: Do you still feel really connected to Detroit and Michigan? And do you think like you’ll continue living and working there?
CHURA: I almost moved to New York and then I fell in love. I didn’t think I would fall in love in Detroit! It’s a horrible place to try to be single in. I had one foot out the door, and then I met the person! We talked about getting a house in Detroit, but I think I want to leave for a while even if I end up coming back to Michigan. I’ve lived here my whole my whole life so I definitely feel a special kind of attachment or connection to being from here. It’s cool when you’re from here because there’s not a lot of bands, so in some ways there’s more action because you’re like the one people call when they’re in town since there’s no one else here. Even just visiting New York right now, I’m like, “Ugh, I just want to be here, at least for a time in my life.” Or LA or something. I just want to spend some time in a different place. I travel a lot because of touring, and just because of the band in general, but I would move away for sometime, I think it would be good for me.
STEREOGUM: How’d you meet Will Toledo and start working with him?
CHURA: There was like a Pitchfork article that compared us, back in early 2016. We released a music video independently and Pitchfork reviewed it and compared us to a few bands, Palehound was another one. He saw it and invited us to go on tour with him, and this was a year before Messes came out, we didn’t even really know who was going to put it out. We did some Midwest dates, like Boise to Minneapolis, really weird routing. That’s how we first met, and sometimes when we would come to Seattle he would come to our shows. I was playing Empty Bottle in Chicago, him and Adam were working on Twin Fantasy in Chicago, and I bumped into them. I was like, “What’s up? What are you doing here?” I didn’t expect them to be there, Will lives in Seattle, I was like, “What the fuck? You came all the way out here for my show?” He was like, “Yeah, we’re kind of in a slow spot you should come by and check out the record.” Me and Clancy, my drummer, went and our bass player went home because she was horny at the end of tour. That’s when we recorded the 7-inch that we ended up putting out on Saddle Creek. I really loved how that went. I remember really clearly the phone call I had with Will where I was like, “Hey, we gotta do an album together, this was so amazing.” He agreed, and I sent him a bunch of demos, and he came to Detroit. We arranged everything for a few days, tracked, Will went home, and tracked more stuff at his house. He brought it back and did more overdub. Stuff you wanted nice mics for, like the vocal overdub and stuff, like “Sweet Sweet Midnight” wasn’t done yet. Some of the stuff just needed a bit of tweaking, and we did that in Chicago.
STEREOGUM: Before you recorded the 7-inch, were you looking for a producer for your next album? Or had you not realized that you would want to collaborate so closely with someone?
CHURA: I was not looking for a producer, I did not realize I would want to collaborate like that until we did the 7-inch. I didn’t ask anybody else, I didn’t even think about it. It probably would not have occurred to me to [work with another producer].
STEREOGUM: Can you tell me about all the different instruments that you’re using on this album? And how that came about?
CHURA: Will has such a natural way with playing and arranging songs. He has in his head this natural ability to know how a song should go. The first song we did was “Degrees,” it was like a finger picking song, and he was like we should do something like Janis Joplin’s “Ball & Chain,” make it like a loud-quiet-loud song. He sat down and was doing stuff on an organ and I was just like, “Woah.” I would have never thought to do that. He was the one who brought it in, and it really fills it out. I was just listening to “Sweet Sweet Midnight” and there’s so much shit in there, like he put in a lot of auxiliary percussion, and I remember asking the engineer, “What is that?” I don’t even know what’s on my record. I was so open minded with Will, and probably for the reason you mentioned, I wasn’t even looking for a producer, this was just a special way to collaborate with someone who I admired and clicked with. It just felt like the right thing at the right time so it was easy to [trust him]. When those kinds of things came into play, I wasn’t like, “No!” I was more open minded and ready to grow in that direction. There’s a lot more even in just the realm of guitar sounds ’cause it’s two guitars versus Messes, which I did all the guitar on. There was a lot of really cool creative stuff that happened in the arranging of the record that brought out even for just guitar playing and guitar music.
STEREOGUM: Do you think that you’ll want to work with like a bigger range of musicians more for the next record?
CHURA: Yeah, I definitely want to work with a producer again, I really liked that. It was amazing working with Will since he has such a dexterity with all instruments. I definitely want to have that again, or have people playing who I can work with in that way. I really like the band I have right now. I think maybe we’ll end up fleshing some stuff out. Then maybe there’s a producer or a specific player that I’d want to have on a certain song.I really just want the songs to sound their best and with bringing people in it’s fun. It’s cool to get different voices, and opinions, and styles on stuff.
STEREOGUM: Before you met Will, did you already have like a big backlog of songs that you were about to work on or were a lot of the songs are born of knowing that you two were working together?
CHURA: I had a big backlog, a bunch of demos. A couple of the songs on the album were almost finished, like “All I Do Is Lie” and “Scream” we were playing live. Something I was resistant to at first, and I had to just surrender, but he was like, “Oh, you gave me this one demo, and I’m going to mash it with this other song.” I was like, “What?! That song means something really specific to me, how can you mash them together?!” [Laughs] But that’s how we got the ending to “All I Do Is Lie.” I never knew I did this, but I have a tendency to swing when I play, not with everything, but I’ll swing my voice. Like for instance with “Love Song” it’s very swung, that’s why it’s not played with a band, because if it is it sounds stupid. It’s too happy with a band. But he plays super straight, to me that’s a very Car Seat Headrest sound. He took that song that I kept swinging and straightened it out. It look on a totally different light, I love how the ending turned out. I had a ton of demos and I still have a ton of demos. Not even from the past, new demos.
STEREOGUM: Out of all the demos you had, how did you end up choosing what to put on this record?
CHURA: I let Will pick! I knew a couple of them were going to be in there, like finished ones that I wanted on there and that I knew he wanted on there. Like “All I Do Is Lie” and “Scream.” But I sent him some of my stuff from my old Bandcamp, too, so all together I gave him 25 things and we did 14 songs and used 12 of them, one of which is a cover, so technically 11.
STEREOGUM: Have the songs that are from Bandcamp changed a lot?
CHURA: Yeah, you can see on my Bandcamp what they were originally like. “They’ll Never” was cool to arrange because I just think it sounds so full now, but it was already a pretty complete song. “Method Man” was almost like a weird spoken word thing [on my Bandcamp] that was really short and then we played it twice, to different versions of it, back to back. That was cool song to work with Will on, he worked with my drummer and they did kind of a more hip hop drum for the first half.
STEREOGUM: I wanted to talk to you about sequencing for your album, because I find the way your sequencing really interesting. I’m wondering how you put that together and how much you consider that.
CHURA: I sequenced Messes, but with Midnight, I let Will pick the sequence. It’s funny ’cause I had picked the sequence and it was like fast song, fast song, fast song, fast song, slow song, slow song, slow song. [Laughs] It’s a subtlety. You rework it until it feels right. He put songs on the A-side that I just wouldn’t have done, like “Trumbull.” I think that was a good move because it could have been a forgotten thing, so winding it up it up like that makes you want to hear the whole record. It’s like a fucking palate cleanser.
Midnight is out 6/7 via Saddle Creek.