An Interview with Shura.
When her first single “Touch” was released last year, singer/producer Shura suddenly became one to watch. Her music combines an ’80s pop sound with emotionally charged lyrics, and has been labelled ‘awkward pop’ by the musician herself.
After a few moments considering where to sit, Shura places herself between Imogen Clyde-Smith and Jessica Hawkins of Ellipsis on a moth-eaten sofa in the attic of the Arts Club, where she’s preparing for her upcoming gig. Now comfortable, we begin an interesting interview touching on topics from toy Koala Bears to ideas of gender equality.
Imogen: How are you enjoying Liverpool?
We literally just got here an hour and a half ago so I haven’t seen much of it really. The traffic was so bad we had to go down loads of side roads to get here.
I: It’s a cool venue! Are you looking forward to tonight?
Definitely, it’s always really nice playing in cities that you haven’t played before.
I: Whereabouts have you played before?
I’ve played London three times. I’ve played the festivals, like Latitude and Bestival and I’ve played in Ireland and Wales. I’ve done a lot in the US and Europe as well, so sort of been all over the place.
I: What’s been your favourite gig?
My favourite place that I’ve been to is probably Copenhagen, it was a really good gig.
I: I bet it’s amazing there but really expensive.
Not as expensive as Norway, Norway was ridiculous. I bought a bottle of beer in Norway and it cost, like, £20. I handed the money over and was like, wait, that’s all the money I have. Then it’s too late and you feel really awkward because for them that’s just what beer costs.
I: Do you prefer festivals?
It depends. At festivals it’s so different because it changes from what time you’re playing. You might be playing at twelve or you might be playing at eight and that massively changes the crowd and atmosphere. Or you could be playing in London or you could be playing in Ireland and that has a massive effect because the crowd are totally different in London to how they would be the further out you go, or the further north you go where they tend to have a little bit more fun.
I: Really? Do you think?
I’m not even talking about experience of my own gigs but when I’ve gone to gigs as well, (in London) we’re more of a chin-strokey crowd.
I: Do you have any crazy fans yet?
Not any absolute nutters, there are some really lovely people who bring hilarious things to gigs. I had a girl bring a koala bear once because I’m really into koala bears. Not an actual one, a little toy, I called him Murph.
Jessica: Have you found that social media is good platform for interacting with fans?
Yeah, it’s great! It’s like free access to humans. I can imagine if you’re like Rihanna it could get a bit hectic, but in the beginning I can read my replies and actually respond to them and they make sense. It’s not just full of people going ‘I love you so much’. I do get that occasionally and it’s really nice, but there comes a tipping point where you probably can’t read that anymore.
I: Would you say that for new musicians social media is, initially, the best way to go?
It depends, there are so many ways up the same mountain now. I think for some people building a following on social media is great and it affords you a kind of exposure that you wouldn’t be able to get if you can’t afford a PR to send your demos to people who might write about it. Sometimes I think it’s really fucking awesome for bands to record an album before anyone has fucking heard it and just go ‘here it is’. No one really knows the right way anymore. There is definitely a formula, like, you put a song on Sound Cloud, get it on a few blogs, then maybe there’ll be a label and it’ll get on Hype-Machine, blah blah blah. We’ve had really good stuff on Hype-Machine, that was a massive help in the beginning. If it weren’t for me putting a song onto a blog and it doing well on Hype-Machine I wouldn’t be sitting here.
J: The video for “Touch” accumulated quite a lot of views, which must have been good for you.
Yeah definitely, music videos are a bit weird, aren’t they? There’s so many of them and when you have that many of anything it’s hard to have a good idea anymore. With [“Touch”] it was just a really really simple idea which worked, and it cost 900 quid to make myself with all of my friends.
J: Where did you come up with the idea for it?
When I was writing the song I wanted to make something which, if you’re going through a break up, you could watch it and cry and think all of these people have now broken up. Or if you’re falling in love with someone and in a really good place you could watch it and be really happy because the music is quite happy, and look at all these people in the video as being people who’ve just got together. It could be whatever you wanted it to be really.
I: So it’s quite ambiguous in that sense then. Is that what you intended, to leave it quite open?
Definitely. I think my favourite music is the kind that, depending on what your mood is, it makes that emotion stronger. So, you know, Bon Iver is a classic example. If you feel good you listen to Bon Iver and it’s just the best thing ever, and if you feel shit you’re like ‘ahh my life is over!’ in a really cathartic way. I love that kind of music!
I: Would you say your writing process is quite cathartic then, an emotional outlet for you?
Definitely. I find it quite difficult to talk to people about my emotions one on one. You can tell your friends that you fancy someone, but you can’t tell the person you fancy. That’s just life. So songs, in a way, are a really easy way to explore your emotions without telling someone.
I: Would you say some of your songs are thinly veiled?
I don’t even think they’re remotely veiled (laughs). I don’t know any other way to write. I think if I did I would feel like a fraud. Sometimes you need to write songs and you don’t have anything to say and you start to write these lyrics and they don’t even mean anything and you’re like ‘well this sucks, that’s going in the bin’. So I have tried.
I: They do come across quite emotionally raw definitely!
J: … and then your music is quite upbeat.
I love happy-sad music. Whitney Houston was like happy-sad and Solange is like happy-sad. Whatever mood you’re in it just clicks!
I: How do you want people to react to your music then, just to feel a certain connection?
I hope that some people feel about my music the way I feel about other people’s music. It was a huge part of me growing up, and going through puberty and whenever I felt misunderstood or alone it spoke to me and made me feel less lonely.
I: How would you describe your sound to someone who hasn’t heard it before? I’ve read somewhere that it’s like futuristic pop.
I think it’s like shoe gaze pop or indie pop. I mean indie in the broadest sense, so whether it’s a bit of grunge or just the fact I do it myself, there’s so much in it. There’s hints of R&B , there’s hints of disco. Like when you mix all the colours together and it goes brown, the genre is brown (laughs).
J: Do you think a lot of people tend to look down on pop music or the term ‘pop’?
Less so now, I think now people are more accepting. When I was at school you had your ‘moshers’ and your indie kids and those that listened to hip hop. It was super tribal. But now you could put on Mariah Carey or you could put on the Pixies or Dr. Dre. It’s much less tribal. As long as it’s good it doesn’t matter what genre it is.
I: Do you think that’s got something to do with the digital age?
Yeah, I think it’s because we love consuming. Plus ‘pop’ doesn’t really mean anything other than popular music. It’s not really a genre, it’s just good music that people enjoy listening to.
I: You’ve been compared to Janet Jackson and Madonna, a lot of ’80s pop…
Madonna and Janet Jackson were massive influences. I grew up listening to a lot of Madonna, but I also listen to Warpaint and War on Drugs or the Smashing Pumpkins which wouldn’t necessarily come across in a song like “Touch”.
J: Do you have any strong female inspirations?
I guess Madonna and Janet Jackson are pretty much up there in being strong female influences. Patrice Russian is amazing. She produced her own records and stuff, so she’s a massive inspiration definitely.
J: Do you still have a big involvement in the production side of your songs and videos?
Yeah definitely, I did the video for “Touch” and I’m still involved with the other ones but I haven’t ever edited one since. It takes too long.
I: Do you think through songs visually as well as thinking about how they’re going to sound?
Sometimes. With “Touch” I had an idea for the video before it even got to the stage of making one, and sometimes I don’t have a clue. That’s why it’s important to work with brilliant directors and people who have great ideas.
I: Is there a sub text to your songs? Any underlying themes that people might not immediately catch on to?
Well “Indecision” was about picking a label, so it’s not actually about a relationship. It was about having to decide what label to choose and being really confused. I was really upset actually. It’s weird to think of someone being upset because they had a choice of labels, which is such a luxury, but until then that was the biggest choice I had to make in my life. It feels massive when you’re making it. You make it and you realise it’s not scary at all, and actually that’s when the hard work begins. You can have good and bad experiences wherever you are. As long as what you’re doing is good then whatever else happens is sort of not in your control.
I: Would you say it’s difficult for female artists now breaking into the industry? I know often they feel obligated to follow a certain image or go under a certain label.
I sometimes find it quite funny when I read articles where they call me the next Madonna or the next La Roux or whatever. With Madonna I guess I’m influenced by her so that makes sense. You do get lazy comparisons but I’m sure boys do as well. To be honest I’m such a massive tomboy that I don’t feel like I fit into this standard girl pop star mould anyway, so I feel like the rules don’t really apply to me. I’m not going to sit and have my hair and make-up done and wear a dress and dance around in a music video. That’s not the kind of character I am. I mean, you don’t wake up thinking ‘I’m a girl going through the world experiencing life as a woman’. You just experience it however you are, and until you come across discrimination you don’t really notice it.
I: Would you call yourself a feminist in that sense?
I feel like everyone should be, anyone who isn’t a feminist is a bit of a douche. Am I at the forefront of a demonstration with a picket? No, I’m not. I think there are some people who are really good at being role models in that way. I don’t feel like a role model or an activist, but yes, of course I’m a feminist and I think everyone should be, or they’re a douche (laughs).
I: The video for “Touch” was seen as quite controversial.
It was controversial once it had been seen by that many people. It’s funny, obviously it was always going to be [controversial] as soon as it hit anyone who’s incredibly religious or whatever. It was always going to piss that type of person off and they were always going to complain that there were any homosexuals in it whatsoever. I was kind of prepared for that. I was really surprised with one of the gay couples – we let off smoke but theirs happened to be blue and a bit darker, and some people complained that you couldn’t really see the gay male kiss. We didn’t know what the colour was going to be! I tried to be as inclusive as possible within my friendship group.
I: What was the message you were trying to portray?
It wasn’t at all political. I kind of wanted people to watch the video and not even notice. I feel like it was genderless.
I: Was it your intention for it to be completely gender equal?
It’s hard to say it was an intention as it didn’t even occur to me because it doesn’t bother me. I just asked my friends and those were the ones who wanted to do it. Maybe it was intentional but it didn’t feel like it. Now I’m like, yeah, it was intentional because I want to feel like I’ve done something good! (laughs)
J: Were you surprised by the response to it?
No, I fully expected it to have 20 million views (laughs). No, I thought it would get, like, 10,000 views in the first six months, 250,000 by the end of the year if I was lucky. Then it hit one million and it went mental, and now it just goes up by about 100,000 a day.
I: Was that a breakthrough moment in your career do you think?
Just putting the song on Sound Cloud caused a bit of a stir. When the video started doing really well people started to think ‘oh maybe there is something here’, but I guess all the craziness stemmed from that one song. What we’ve done is just constantly put out a song every few moths while desperately trying to write an album. When I’d put out that song I’d only written three songs. I didn’t have an album, I didn’t expect it to get that big.
I: Have you written the album now?
It’s nearly finished, it’s not there yet though. About 80% done.
I: What would you say inspires your songs?
All to do with nostalgia really, going back to childhood, which is why I guess sonically it has that Madonna vibe because that’s what I grew up to. It’s about relationships, whether that’s the relationship you have with your twin brother, or the relationship you have with an ex, or someone that you fancy, or your parents. It’s relationships but absolutely a snapshot of my ones as opposed to any else’s. Hopefully it will translate but yeah, it’s super personal. I’ve tried to not to write too specifically like ‘Dear Nick, you really pissed me off that day because you threw that remote control at my head’.
I: Who’s Nick?
My twin brother (laughs).
I: Does your family like your music?
My mum, when we put out “Touch”, about three weeks after she said, ‘Shura, it gets better with every listen’. I think she wasn’t sure at first. My twin brother really likes it. I think my dad is really proud but sometimes he probably doesn’t get it.
J: It might be a generational thing.
I don’t know, I think it’s also a bit poppier than what I made when I was in my bedroom, because now my main instrument is a synthesizer and he never really saw me play that. I was always on an acoustic guitar so he’s a bit like ‘hmm, this is different’.
I: Why did you go in that direction, was it just following the times or…?
No, I tried a synth and was like ‘oh my holy God!’ I didn’t really get on with the piano. I was really shit but you can sort of play the synth badly and it still sounds really good. You don’t have to have all that lightness of touch and be insane on the foot pedals. I got a Juno and it’s just like, everything sounds good on it, so I wanted the instrument that everything sounds good on, because hopefully after adding other things it’ll sound even better.