“Four minutes ago I didn’t think you existed. I didn’t think I’d have fans so far away from home,” Shura, short for Aleksandra (Denton), told the crowd at the beginning of her first show in Bangkok last month.
A performer’s shyness and self-effacement was something I’ve being chewing over since hearing of Shura, a self-proclaimed “boisterous” “queen of awkward”, and then some as we met in real life. While I haven’t come to grips with the seeming oxymoron, I wouldn’t say it’s a bad combination. Not at all.
That’s partly owing to her debut album Nothing’s Real (2016). The album is a lyrical culmination of all her timid traits coated in sophisticated pop syrup. It is, as she would later tell me, “your whole life, everything that happened to you until then.” Beyond the personal, it’s a record that plays for Team Insecure, a universal soundtrack for imminent unrequited love and other romantic muddles.
And the other part? Shura was genial and actually talkative. She’s one of those artists you can chat about their art and life in general with over a cup of tea (or three espressos, as with this case, to beat a major jet lag). With us the half-Russian London-based singer-songwriter talked her footballing past, “physical” first album, and how a sophomore album should be like a Pokémon.
How are you doing?
I’m kind of confused by what time of day it is, but other than that I’m really good! I’m really surprised that I have fans here. I’m amazed that they exist because I wouldn’t ever think that I would ever come to Thailand or Asia on anything other than a holiday.
You first performed in Asia last year (Clockenflap and Neon Lights festivals). What do you remember about the trip?
All I remember is the crowd was very wet because we were playing in Singapore and it was like a tropical storm. Everyone was really happy to be outside but they were completely drenched and wearing this see-through plastic coat. I felt really bad but I guess they’re just sort of used to the weather. My drummer was sick so he was feeling really cold but it was so hot. He was back stage, wearing this big puffer jacket with a hood and fur and shivering. I was like, “How are you wearing so much? It’s like a million degrees!”. What was really nice about playing in Hong Kong and Singapore is the people. I didn’t really know that I had any fans in Southeast Asia. It’s just not a place I expect my music to reach. You know, you’re just walking around the festival and fans find you and they’re so excited that you’ve come to play. That’s really nice to see because it’s not something that I ever expected. I’m really grateful.
How did a Manchester City Women’s club player who spent her gap year in the Amazon go into pop music?
When I was about fifteen or sixteen I realised that if I did music instead of football, I didn’t have to go outside in shorts and a T-shirt for an hour an a half when it was cold and raining. I realised I could just stay in my room and played the guitar, and maybe as a result people would think I was cool, because they definitely didn’t think playing football was cool. Meanwhile, if I was a guitarist in a rock band people would be like, “Oh yeah she’s really cool!” So I just switched (laughs).
Not to form a rock band, though, in the end.
No, life just happens, doesn’t it? When you’re a kid you want this thing for yourself or you expect this thing and go, “I’m gonna make rock music! I’m gonna be wearing all black and have crazy hair and loads of tattoos.” But then you go to university because you have to or you’re expected to, and you read a book about the Amazon and you’re like, “Holy crap, I wanna go here!” I never wanted to go South America before I was twenty. That was a big surprise for me as well. So you go, come back and then you’re just making music in your bedroom. You don’t have a band, no drummer, no guitarist, no bassist. So your music is constrained and limited by what you have. The music I started to make became more and more electronic and I was like, “Guess I’m making this now.”
You sing a lot about love and relationships –
I know! I need help.
Especially through a nostalgic, coming-of-age lens. The “What’s It Gonna Be?” video shows that. But at the same time the lyrics are so universal, adults can relate to these lyrics. Has that always been your goal, closing down the gap?
I think the notion of being an adult is almost like a misnomer. My dad just had his 70th birthday so I asked him how old he felt and he said, “I feel like I’m 21. Just that everything [physically] hurts more. Obviously at 21 you’ve matured and become more experienced and make, hopefully, less stupid decisions, but at the core of it I don’t think how we feel about love changes. We still want love and companionship. So I think it’s relatable to grownups because they aren’t really “grown up”. The things that we felt haven’t really changed.
I remember my dad saying something to me when I was around 15 and experiencing a heartbreak. He said, “Shura, these are the worst and the best years of your life. You’ll never be as sad as this again in your life, but you’ll never be as happy as this.” It’s such an extreme. Basically, the older you get, the two extreme ends sort of close. He also said, “This will happen to you at least five or six more times in your life,” and I was like, ‘Thanks, that’s comforting. Not.’” But he was right, things do get less extreme. And I think as an adult you’re constantly pushing to recapture that. It’s like getting on a rollercoaster – you’re constantly looking for that adrenaline rush.
While you sing so much about the heart, your album is named after the one song that’s not about love at all. Why Nothing’s Real?
Partly to distract people from the fact that basically the whole album is about one breakup (laughs). No, well, the song is about when I had a panic attack. I never had a panic attack before but it suddenly happened half way through making the album. It kind of became this cloud that overshadowed this experience that marked a new period of my life, where there was more pressure than there was before. I liked “Nothing’s Real” as an umbrella term. I remember one of my exes’ saying, when we were talking about the past and reminiscing about our relationship, “Yeah, but it’s the past. It doesn’t exist anymore.” I remember thinking, “Fuck, that’s so weird. You’re kind of right. It doesn’t matter anymore.” So the song relates to relationships because that’s how we experience life? It’s gone. It happens to us and it goes. It almost feels like that. We’re almost not really interacting with it. It just happens and we’re just trying and traveling through. I just like it as a metaphor for existence, and also for this very particular experience [of panic attack] where I felt disassociated from my body or like I was in a video game.
I remember when I wrote the song I knew it’d be the title of the album. I even thought it’s a bit cheesy if you think about it. Like, nothing’s real! What a stoner philosophy. But I knew that the people who dug around what it meant or the meaning behind the song will relate to it. It may be a bit cheesy but I’m not afraid of that. It’s like a metaphor for how I approach music. I’m making pop music and it could be cheesy but I’m not afraid of going there.
In your songs you use recordings of people talking on the street and from your home videos. Why is it important to sneak in these bits and pieces of human interactions, of life?
I’m really obsessed with the concept of time. Going back to what I just said about life happening to you, the past not existing, the future not having happened yet. I felt that by putting in recordings of places I’ve been, the space I occupied, whether it’s the beginning of “White Light” which is a recording of Luke (Saunders, the band’s guitarist) playing the guitar whilst I’m outside a recording studio having a cigarette, I could hear the sound bleeding out into Greenwich, this part of London where I record. Or whether it’s me walking down Shepherd’s Bush with my mum going, “Shhh” whilst I’m trying to get a sample. I’m inserting a moment in time and a physical space so this makes the album – sounds really weird when it’s called Nothing’s Real – more real and more 3D. And when people are listening to it, they’re transported to a physical location that might be something that they recognise or totally alien and exciting to them. I wanted it to be like a film. I set the scene in every single possible way, not just the melody. There’s space. People would be listening in their headphones whilst walking down the street in Bangkok but they’re actually walking down the street in Shepherd’s Bush in London because that’s what they’re hearing.
They’re walking into your childhood as well, with “(i)”, (ii)” and “311215” (part of “White Light” in the album version).
Yeah, into literally those really personal moments in my life. Your first album is always your whole life. It’s everything that happened to you until then. Your second album may be about something else but you put everything into your first album. It’s important that I physically put everything in there.
Your twin brother Nick tweeted that your new music was “euphoric, dreamy and summer ready,” prompting everyone to go ballistic. What more can you tell us about your new music?
(Laughs) I kept telling him to stop tweeting because I have notification set for his tweets. Basically he was on a trip, really stoned and listening to the song that I was working on, and then I just got a ping and saw the tweet. I’m working on a cover actually. It’s not for my album, but I’m not gonna post about that because I’m on a Twitter break. He kept tweeting and my notification kept going ding, ding, ding. So I told him, “Nick, stop tweeting! You’re gonna make everyone really excited! They’re excited but it’s not what they think it is.” But I love that he does that. It’s part of the fun of having a twin. The fact that he’s been in the music videos (“Touch”, “What’s It Gonna Be?”, “White Light”) has made the fans follow him, and he’s like a source I can leak stuff to. Legitimately, of course. He’s like a hype cheerleader and I love that. I’m really excited about what he was talking about but it’s not my next single.
Literally when people find out they’re going to be like, “Oh, this is nice but I want the next single.”
So… when will we get to hear your next single?
I don’t think it’s going to happen this year. I think it’s important to take time and take a step back. You want people to miss you. We live in an age where we’re bombarded with content and I want people to be excited when I release a new song. I don’t want people to be like, “Wait, but didn’t she just release something? I’m tired of listening to Shura. She needs to go away.” Plus, I need time to discover what it is I want to make next.
Will the 80’s still be part of your future sound?
I think there’ll be hints of it, definitely. I keep referring to the second album as an evolution, a bit like a Pokémon – you should be able to tell that it’s related to the first one. You should be able to tell that Raichu is related to Pikachu but it’s a completely different creature in its own right. I think that’s how my second record will be. There will be genetic elements of it. Genetically related to that first record, but also brave and different. Otherwise what’s the point? I don’t want to make the first album a second time.
You studied English Literature at university. Do you find yourself drawing inspiration from what you read? How do those years influence your songwriting?
What’s amazing about English Literature is that you can also go down those routes of theology or philosophy or history. It’s not limiting so it’s not necessarily everything I’ve studied inspired me directly. It’s more indicative of the kind of personality I am, which is that if you tell me about anything in detail, I’m gonna get excited. I’m attracted to enthusiasm and passion. Someone could tell me how they make bread from start to finish and if they did it passionately, I’d be like, “Fuck, I wanna make bread!” This is what I want to do now. This is a really weird analogy. It just means that I’m curious.