INTERVIEW: Shura on her Debut Record, Popular Culture & Talib Kweli

When English-Russian singer, songwriter and producer Shura uploaded her song Touch to SoundCloud in 2014, she was under the impression that a few people would listen to it and see it for what she did: a demo. When the video followed and started to get hundreds of thousands of views per day, things really started to take off. The video was simple in theory: a bunch of people kissing under soft blue and purple lights, but immensely effective and earned the now twenty-three year-0ld a lot of praise for diversifying romantic tropes in music videos. It’s been two years since Touch was released and in that time, Shura (real name Aleksandra Lilah Denton) has been taking her penchant for creating emotionally charged, glittering electro-infused pop and crafting it lovingly into a full-length debut album. We spoke to her about her latest single What’s It Gonna Be, her love for both film and hip-hop and how it shouldn’t be so hard to find non-heteronormative representation in pop music in 2016.

You were just in Spain for Primavera, how was that?

It was absolutely insane. I think it was my favourite festival that I’ve ever been to. The lineup itself was just obscene – it was probably the best festival lineup I’ve ever seen in my life. I didn’t really wanna go home!

I got there last year a week after it finished I was so upset with myself.  So, the video for What’s It Gonna Be dropped a few days ago – I know it was the intention, but I really felt like I was watching a movie.

Loads of people have said to petition to make it a full length feature film, which is so funny. I wouldn’t be able to to act in it because I can’t act – I’d get someone else to play me.

Would you ever go in to filmmaking?

I love cinema but I’m quite happy to be an outsider… Just watch it and enjoy it. I don’t feel the need to be in it.

I ask that. because whenever I think of your music, it always seems to be quite visual. Videos aside, there’s always sort of a visual story to tell. Has that always been the case for you?

I think so, yeah. I am very visual and film does inspire me in the way I write and so does colour. I’m not a  synesthete but I do think a lot about that I’m a visual person and a creative person and that’s one of that ways in which I connect to the world – through things that I like the look of. Sometimes when I’m writing a song I’ll be halfway through the process and I’l be like “I really want to do this for the video” because I really think it fits the spirit of the song… It doesn’t always happen!

Would you consider doing something like what you did with Three Years again? 

Yes! I would love, love to do something like that again. There are so many videos of bands performing that I see and aren’t really interesting. Unless it’s an acoustic thing and it’s quite different to how it sounds on the record. so for me it’s really interesting to do something in a way that is visually exciting and just a bit abstract.

You’ve got your debut album coming out exactly a month today actually!

Yeah, I think it is a month today! I haven’t got a count down or anything.

It seems like it’s been a while coming…

It has!

Did you feel a lot of pressure following the success that Touch had when it first came out, to sign to a label and get a full length release out?

You know what, I didn’t feel any at all in the beginning. For a year and a half I was just writing a record. When I released that song, everyone was like ‘where’s the album?’ or ‘ there must be an album around the corner’ because it was so fully formed but for me, I was just putting a demo out online. So when they, – the world, the collective ‘they’,  I was like ‘well, I’ve got to write it, so see ya later.’

Once it got to the stage when I kind of knew what was on it but I just had to finish it, finish the mixes, record the final vocals or whatever it was –that became really stressful. Because you can see the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s tantalisingly close but you’ve just got all this shit to do. So the last six months were tough, but at the same time, this is my debut record – of course it’s going to be tough. If it was just easy all the way through, then it just wouldn’t be good. Your first album shouldn’t just be plain sailing. You should be there having late nights, you should be agonising over the mix of the high hat or the shaker. That’s how it should be.

So I was always comforted actually, because before that it seemed so easy that I was like, ‘am I doing this wrong? I’m not stressed out, this is really fun, it’s really easy – what’s going on?’ And then towards the end I felt pressure to finish it. Not from anyone else, just from myself. My own sanity. I just wanted to finish this body of work. I want to put a full stop at the end of the sentence.

What do you think it was about the song and the video that resonated so much with people?

It’s really tough to pin down and to know why. If I did I would be doing it constantly, but I think it’s a combination of things. I think one, it’s very non-invasive as a sound. It just permeates the atmosphere, it doesn’t demand your attention and you can just have it there as background noise in a away. You can put it on and repeat it for four hours, and it wouldn’t really bother you in the way that something quite aggressive or upbeat might. So there’s that element to it where you can just put it on repeat and so people did. Two, I think it’s emotionally incredibly direct. It’s something that people can relate to. Three, even though the lyrics are really sad, it sound really happy. So it is a breakup song but it isn’t necessarily depressing.

I also think that also having a video full of attractive people kissing in slow motion is not going to do any harm. It was this moment where people were sharing it, watching people of different sexualities, different races, different backgrounds, and I think it just connected with people. I don’t know why really, I’m just glad that it did.

You’ve talked before about how that there isn’t a lot of representation outside of the hetero-normative in pop music. Some people made a big deal out of the video for Touch in that it did have couples of varying sexualities in it and now you have What’s It Gonna Be? – is addressing and filling that void something you’re particularly concerned with doing yourself?

The thing for me that was so funny about it was that it wasn’t like I cast it. That I asked actors to be involved. They’re all my friends. It’s so normal to see that. I didn’t even think that by making this video it would be divisive. As soon as I put it up and people started commenting on it, I was like ‘of course,’ and afterwards I was quite proud that I’d done something that wasn’t hetero-normative and that meant some people felt they had representation in popular culture – I was really proud. It was an accident.

It’s the same thing with my new video – it’s just based on a true story that happened. So to me it was just a normal story, but again, people have been like, ‘oh man, where was this movie when I needed it ten years ago?’ The gay high school movie that people felt like they never really had. It’s really great that we did that in three and a half minutes but also, isn’t it sad that there isn’t a really great high school gay movie? I mean, there’s But I A Cheerleader or silly stuff like that but even that’s ages ago, that’s quite an old film.

I did want to ask about the Talib Kweli feature on the version of touch that he’s on. How did that come about? Are you a big hip-hop fan?

Massive hip-hop fan and a massive Talib Kweli fan. We just thought, we’ve got this song, we’re re-releasing it. It’s gonna be new for a lot of people, but for a lot of people it’s gonna be old. I didn’t want to replace it but just this fun thing, so we thought we would get someone to rap over it because it does have a slightly hip-hop groove and R&B element to it.

I wanted to ask someone super classic from that era where it was all about love, because it’s such a soft song. The first person we asked was Talib. He was at the top of the list. We just emailed him and we got a response back that he’d like to do it. We just thought we’d never get a reply back. When does that ever happen? Just email a rapper! And I remember getting the version of the song back with his verse on it and I just couldn’t believe it. Here is this incredibly recognisable voice, and you can tell he’s really thought about the song and what I’m singing about, and he’s created something to go along with that and I think it’s really beautiful.

Some people have been like ‘I don’t like rap’ or whatever, but I love it, so it’s really exciting.

Is that the version that we’re getting on the album?

No, that was just something a little extra. It also gave us the excuse to make another video! We got to animate it, and I had really wanted to animate some stuff for a while. I’m really into illustration which you can probably tell from the album artwork.

Shura’s debut album Nothing’s Real is out July 8th. Pre-order here.