“I sound like a fuckin’ douche,” Shura interrupted herself more than once to blurt out over the course of our interview, unwilling to allow either of us to take this thing too seriously.
For that reason and more, the 25-year-old British singer-songwriter and producer (full name Aleksandra Denton; Shura is a nickname) didn’t sound like a douche at all; douchebags aren’t typically prone to self-reflection, for one thing. Shura, whose music (“disco-soul-R&B-pop-rock-indie,” she decided, after some hesitation) has consistently landed her on best-of lists since her first single “Touch” debuted in 2014, sounded instead like an extremely normal, very polite, slightly cooler-than-average person still coming to terms with the bizarre life she’s stepped into since being signed by Universal last year.
In life, Shura relentlessly describes herself as “fucking awkward” and “shy,” but during our meeting, that didn’t totally square with reality; she’s such an easy talker, so wryly funny, that I left wondering whether I’d made a good impression. And while she might be self-deprecating about her personal life, when it comes to making music, she truly does not seem to care what anyone thinks. The Manchester, UK native (her father is British, her mother is Russian) is self-taught and never learned to read music, and she seems genuinely entertained, even delighted, by criticism.
Shura’s debut album Nothing’s Real, out Friday, jolts into a slightly livelier headspace, with more pronounced ‘80s-era influences. The overriding sense of effortlessness that marks her work remains, however, translated in part through soft, understated vocals and overtly direct, almost Swiftian lyrics (from the track “Kidz n Stuff”: “I never thought that we’d break up / Thought we’d get married and have kids and stuff”).
“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,’” Shura told Stereogum in 2014.
Right now there is a surplus of spare, nostalgic, vaguely Scandinavian-sounding electronic pop music, flattening into one indistinguishable mass of artists and producers with vowel-less monikers. Shura’s fuzzy, addictive pastel sound—from her early days working with producer Hiatus, to more recent singles “2Shy” and “Indecision,” to the newly released 9-minute ambient dreamland “The Space Tapes”—fits within this landscape, but also transcends it by sheer force of the quiet, open emotion that zings through every hook. In Shura’s world, everything is felt and everything is fleeting, no matter how fucking awkward it is.
(This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.)
Was it always the plan to be a full-time musician?
No, never. Never the plan. I always knew that I was gonna make music in some way, but I just did it on weekends and evenings. I worked in post-production in a film/television facility, so I’d have to do a lot of assistant editing, digitizing footage. Quite a nerdy job, I guess. That’s how I ended up editing my first music video, [for “Touch”], because I knew how to do that. I basically went mental, it took me like 4 months.
Did you like your job?
Yeah, I loved it. I love learning, I think that’s one of the reasons why I ended up learning to produce my own music and edit. I’m just a curious person, whatever it is that I’m doing I like exploring every avenue.
At what point did you realize you could quit and focus on music?
Once I signed a publishing deal it gave me just enough money to survive, pay my rent, and eat while doing music full-time. Before, I’d have to use holidays to make music, so I never had a holiday—I still haven’t for like, three years.
The thing is, I never thought I worked hard at music, it’s just fun. But at the end of making my record, [I was like] I don’t want to make any music for like six months at least. And then like, three days later, I was like, guys, can you send me stems, I’ve got this idea…
I read in an interview you did with Stereogum that you got into music out of a sense of jealousy. I’m fascinated by that because I get jealous, too, but I find it kind of paralyzing—how does that work for you?
I think it’s a combination of being jealous and also finding that inspiring. I worked with a producer called Hiatus, and he got to touch all these buttons and do all this cool shit— it’s almost like you feel illiterate, it’s like watching someone speak a language you don’t understand. I wanted to learn the language of production, and I wanted to be able to have a conversation with someone about how to cultivate and shape and make music. But sometimes I get annoyed at people, too, just for being so good at everything; like come on, give us a chance.
Women in the music industry tend to get a lot of unsolicited advice from men. Did you ever experience that?
Definitely! I did a remix of Jessie Ware, and some guy sent me this message being like, “Yo, your remix was really good, but if you cut off the first minute, it would actually be perfect.” On the YouTube video for “2Shy,” some guy was like—
Oh no, you read YouTube comments?
Oh I fucking love it, it’s so funny. I’ve had a lot of very nice things said about me, and sometimes when you have a lot of nice things said about you you can start to think you’re brilliant. It’s good to read some troll saying stuff as well, just to keep you grounded.
Anyway, some guy said, “She’s got a lovely voice but the real star is whoever’s making those beats.” And I’m like, I made the beats! I have worked with a guy on every song, and there’ll be some people who assume that because of that, I’ve done nothing, and you know what? I don’t care.
I think one of the reasons I learned production the way that I did is, you know, growing up there were no examples for me of women making music in that way. I knew of lots of singers and songwriters, but when I was doing music classes at school, there was no one there going, “you could be a producer.”
Is “Touch” about someone in particular?
Yeah, I just couldn’t write any other way—I have to write about what I’m going through. It could be something I experienced a while ago, but yeah, it has to be something from me, otherwise I would feel really fraudulent. I don’t think I would be able to connect emotionally. It’s why I’m really shit at karaoke—it’s someone else’s song.
As an internet writer, I always kind of have the implicit opportunity to write about personal things, which although tempting sometimes seems like a good way to get lost. When you write about relationships in a specific and identifiable way, does that make you feel vulnerable? Or powerful?
It doesn’t make me feel vulnerable. I do like to check in with whoever the song is about to be like, “Are you cool with this?” Because I’m a songwriter, and I’m going to write about my experiences. But there’s nothing on [the record] where the person it’s about doesn’t know. Everyone I’ve dated, or wanted to date, or had an argument with or whatever—they’re all cool with it.
Have you ever had to perform a song about an ex in front of an ex?
Yeah! It’s not weird at all. It might be really weird for them, I don’t know. But once you’ve written about it and made it into a song, it doesn’t belong to you anymore. You can hear fans singing along, and it’s about their experiences. It’s like that expression, a problem shared is a problem halved. I guess songwriting is a kind of manifestation of that. It’s no longer just between you and your ex, it’s no longer actually connected to you at all, it has a life of its own.
But it’s not like I wrote “Touch” and was like, ah, I feel great now! Or like, ah, I’m so happy I’m in the friend-zone, great! You don’t really have that resolution in a way that maybe some people imagine, but yeah, once you put it into the world, it’s totally different.
There’s this line I love in “Touch”—“All I wanna do is go home with you / but I know I’m out of my mind.” There’s something about being in your twenties where your emotions still have such a strong influence over your actions, but there’s a lot of new hesitation and self-loathing, too; you’re acting like an idiot but you’re acutely aware of it. “2Shy” is also kind of about not being able to do the thing you want to do—would you say that’s a theme of the album?
Yeah, self-awareness and self-consciousness is a massive thread. it’s about being incredibly self-conscious, being shy, being fucking awkward. Which is I think something that everyone goes through, even if they don’t verbalize it.
I sometimes go into a shop and feel awkward about ordering a sandwich for myself. I’m not even joking. I have gone into [a shop] and said, “My friend wants this,” and you know—there’s no friend! I just felt self-conscious asking for it for myself! You think you’re going to get more confident as you get older, right? And that really hasn’t been the case for me so far. I find the experience of growing older just more awkward.
Yeah, you’re more aware of everything.
Yeah, and every day you’re closer to death, so you’re like, oh, shit. Yeah, enjoy your miso soup, sorry!
It’s always interesting to me when a very shy person is also a performer—and it actually seems to happen quite often.
It’s strange, and it probably harks back to when I was more confident. I started playing in front of people when I was about 13 in Manchester; I wasn’t self-conscious then, I didn’t give a fuck what people thought.
I was so nervous at the first few shows I had to do after “Touch.” Really horrible, just like shaking nerves. Now I can actually enjoy being onstage. It just happens so quickly, it’s like going to sleep.
When you were first freaking out about performing, did you figure out a ritual to get yourself calm?
Not really, I just did it. You just gotta fucking do it. There’s no choice, I can’t turn around and be like, oh, sorry everyone that’s paid for a ticket, I feel really nervous, can we just go home?
In the early days, we made mistakes onstage, and I was like, you know what? You don’t die. Literally, you’re fine. Yeah, it sucks, it may be embarrassing for two seconds, but you’re not going to die from making a mistake onstage, so that realization was quite helpful in terms of enjoying playing.
I was reading that the title track on Nothing’s Real was inspired by a panic attack. Can you tell me a little more about that?
I think it was about six months after I put “Touch” out, and I was speaking to record labels for the first time, and I wasn’t really prepared for that amount of attention and that level of expectation. I thought I’d put out a song and maybe like 30,000 people would play it in a year, best case scenario. I wasn’t expecting like a million views on YouTube. I had a panic attack, and had never really understood what that felt like. I’d always thought that if you’re having a panic attack you’re panicking about something specific—not that it feels like you’re having a heart attack, which is what it felt like.
It made me realize that I was not dealing with stress in a healthy way. I had a few after that, and since that happened I guess I was better to myself and more forgiving to myself, [able] to say like, I need to relax, or I need to go for a run. It gave me the concept for the record, it was nice to finally write about something that wasn’t an awkward relationship, it was just about me and a really bizarre experience. I guess I’m grateful for that experience, even though it was fuckin’ horrible.
I wanted to do this like rock ‘n roll scream [on one] track, but I can’t do that, so I sampled this video of me having a tantrum as a child, screaming “I wanna go.” And that’s sort of how I felt in the hospital being checked up. It was like, I’m 24, why am I in the hospital, why are they telling me I’m fine but I feel like I’m dying?
You’ve told Stereogum that the media often tries to “exoticize” women, that “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.”
Yeah, they always say I’m born in Moscow and I’m not.
Why do you think that is?
Well I guess whatever way you look at it, we are products, and we are being marketed to people, and one way of making something attractive is to make it seem rare. Probably more than in any genre of music, in pop music that is true, we have a history of manufactured bands. I’m guilty of it too, like with Haim, I’ll occasionally go like, oh yeah, they’re a girl band. Well, they’re not, it’s just a band-band.
Do you feel a sense of disconnection from how writers are describing you, as opposed to how you actually are?
It’s not my job to tell people how to respond to me. If someone says something that I disagree with, it’s like, all right, it sounds like we have a difference of opinion.
It sounds like you’re really good at shaking off the dumber aspects of your job.
There’s just no point in worrying about stuff you can’t control. You can’t control people’s perception of you—some people are going to be like, oh she’s cool, some people are going to be like, she’s really lame. And if I were like, I’m not lame, I’m cool! They’d just think I was lamer. There’s no point!
Do you find the experience of being “sold” strange?
You have this person at the record label called the product manager, and at the beginning, I was like, you’re the guys we’re going to talk about vinyl packaging [with], honestly I thought they were going to help me design merch. And then it was like, oh, no, I’m the product. The terminology is stranger than the reality, though. You want people to discover you, as long as it feels natural and organic.
Are you afraid of being famous?
Definitely. I feel like being famous is the worst thing ever. I’d love to be successful, I’d love for people to think that what I do is good—I’d quite like for some people to hate it as well, because I find that really funny. But it would be horrible to not be able to buy a pint of milk from the corner shop.
There are probably people who desire fame, but I think if they thought about it for one minute, about what it really means to be famous, they probably wouldn’t. You can’t undo fame. Once you’re really famous, you can’t go back and be like, you know what? I really liked when I was a little bit famous, can I go back to when I was just a little bit famous?
It’s not going to happen, I’m not worried about it, but it is a strange thing—it’s never not nice to have someone come up and say “I love your music.” Do I look at footage of Britney Spears getting out of a car to 300 flashes and shouting and paparazzi and go, that’s fucking terrifying? Absolutely. But having people say things to you that are nice, that’s not going to get old.
Shura’s debut EP, Nothing’s Real, is out July 8 via Interscope.
Update: An earlier version of this post listed Shura’s age as 24; she recently turned 25.
Image by Andrew Whitton.