INTERVIEW

WITHIN TOUCHING DISTANCE: James F. Thompson meets Russian-British future RnB star Shura to discuss her unlikely influences, confessional lyrics and not being pushed around

shura

It’s a miserably overcast Tuesday in West London and I’m sat alongside Shura in an artsy café. She’s sifting through holiday snaps on her iPhone and making me feel enormously jealous. Glistening seas and pristine beaches whizz past as the diminutive 23 year-old gleefully parades the evidence of a sunny sojourn in the Mediterranean. “It was so fucking beautiful, some of it, honestly, it was like the Caribbean,” she exclaims in a cut-glass accent, clearly still in awe of the whole experience. “Why does nobody talk about Crete?”

If Shura has misgivings about the marketing efforts of the Greece Tourism Board, she needn’t worry about her own exposure. The half-British, half-Russian singer has already ratcheted up more than a million SoundCloud plays and almost as many YouTube streams, despite having released her breakthrough song barely six months ago, and still not having a record label. You won’t find her on Spotify and you can’t buy her records in the shops, but you will see her plastered all over the buzz blogs and topping the Hype Machine charts.

All this attention is for good reason. Shura’s two solo releases to date, ‘Touch’ and ‘Just Once’, are a deftly produced pair of retro-futuristic synth pop ruminations on the transience of love. If some of the contemporary touch points are clear (“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t listening to a lot of Blood Orange and Solange”) the real difference here is Shura’s voice: a delicate, breathy sing-whisper that lends believable vulnerability to what are already emotionally raw lyrics.

It really does seem as though Shura has come from nowhere, too. I explain that I had a hard time finding much of her older stuff online in preparation for meeting up. She bristles slightly at the suggestion she’s some kind of overnight success story. “I feel like I’ve done a lot, though,” she argues. “I’ve been doing stuff since I was 16, so for me it feels like I haven’t come from nowhere, it was just exposure. So one day – I think maybe the first week after ‘Touch’ – it was like, ‘Okay this is a bit silly.’ It just shifted my goalposts. 100,000 listened to the song, which was more than the rest of my entire SoundCloud account put together.”

Born Aleksandra Denton in Moscow, Shura’s mother is a Russian actress and her father an English documentary filmmaker. She began playing music at a young age. “I started on a guitar and my dad taught me to play that,” she remembers. “He would listen to people like John Martyn, Simon and Garfunkel and Bert Jansch and so that was how I initially ‘computed’ guitar music.”

Despite the synth-heavy sound of her recent output, it’s not entirely surprising to hear that Shura’s music has such folkish origins. In previous interviews she’s name-checked KT Tunstall as an important influence; a fairly incongruous reference alongside the more obvious likes of Janet Jackson, Madonna and Prince. In fact, it turns out the Scottish singer-songwriter probably had a more profound impact than just about anybody else on the way Shura creates music.

“I remember seeing her use a loop pedal and thinking what the fuck is that thing she’s stomping on? I want one. I want to stamp on something too! So I bought one and taught myself how to use it,” she laughs. “I was listening to a lot of trip-hop at the time, so I thought, ‘Fuck, I can do weird multi-layered guitar loops and then beat box too and all of a sudden I could make stuff that wasn’t like anything else I was listening to. It wasn’t folk, it wasn’t trip-hop; it was like this weird amalgamation of everything.”

Having begun to find her voice, Shura started playing shows in unfashionable areas of London like Archway and Camden when she was spotted by London-based Iranian producer Hiatus. The pair collaborated on a couple of well-received songs, of which the moodily beguiling ‘Iran Air’ isn’t too distant a cousin to her latest output. The experience was formative, if not entirely satisfying. “Eventually he would start writing top lines and lyrics and being like, ‘Can you sing it?’ and I think the reason I stopped doing it was that I thought, if you want to do the lyrics and the melody, you should sing it! Like…” She catches her breath. “I’m not a Whitney Houston and like I’m not a Jess Glynne; you wouldn’t pick me because my voice is amazing. I wanted to do stuff that was 100% me and what I would choose to do.”

Clearly Shura’s time with Hiatus didn’t put her off collaboration altogether. Last year, she got together with another producer, Athlete front man Joel Laslett Pott, in what’s apparently a more even-sided arrangement. Shura credits Pott with piquing an already nascent interest in synthesisers and electronic music as part of a second musical epiphany. “Until I wrote ‘Touch’ I don’t think I really understood synths,” she admits. “I don’t think I ever really listened out for them or appreciated them. It’s just because there were some synths lying around in Joel’s studio and I was like, ‘That is a great sound. Why hasn’t that been in my life?’ I suppose all of my life I had been making music just with my guitar and my mouth.”

Synth-laden or otherwise, none of her music would be half as interesting to listen to without Shura’s emotionally tumultuous lyrics. Sifting through the comments left online in response to ‘Touch,’ you sense that people understand that her writing comes from the heart. Complete strangers offer up advice on coping with break-ups and moving on, as though the song was some sort of anguished cry for help. “Yeah which is weird because it absolutely is from my personal life but I’m surprised…” She trails off. “Maybe it’s because I’ve always been a confessional songwriter. Not to the extent you’ve got my whole life story, I hope, but I think I would find it really hard to make up something like that.”

Oftentimes love songs seem geared towards anodyne universality but there are pointed, specific references peppered throughout ‘Touch’ that betray something closer to home. Couplets like: “I want to touch you but there’s history / I can’t believe that it’s been three years.” I ask whether Shura feels comfortable discussing the song’s origins. She hesitates a moment. “I guess it is what it is,” she sighs. “It was a break-up I went through. I actually think the video was very much part of the process [of getting over it]. That was a huge part – going from having a relationship, through to breaking up, through to three years later writing a song about being friends again and making a video too – it was part of the timeline of the relationship and something I had to do.”

Ah. Yes. The video. Three-and-a-half minutes of doe-eyed trendy types locking lips, caressing each other’s faces and otherwise getting intimately acquainted in slow motion. On paper, the whole thing sounds like a nightmarishly cynical marketing ploy, as though dreamt up by some thigh-rubbing studio executive. In reality, the clip is anything but erotic, instead mirroring the song itself as a sensitive portrait of love lost and found. As if to prove the point, at the time of writing the video is also lagging behind SoundCloud in the streaming stakes (although it’s catching up fast).

Besides, it was Shura herself who came up with the idea. “From the moment I’d written the song I was like, ‘I have to make this.’ I could have had a director pitch something but I just felt like I had to make this video.” So where did the kissers come from? “They’re all my friends! My twin brother is in the video actually. He’s the boy in the cap who snogs another boy…” Presumably he’s gay? “Yes. You know it’s funny, there are some comments on the video about there not being enough gay kisses in the video, or there being more lesbians, or whatever, so I was just like, in my head going, ‘It’s really hard to represent everyone!’”

We reach the end of our time together as Shura adjusts her woolly hat and steels herself for a shoot with the Loud And Quiet photographer, lamenting the fact that she didn’t head down the well-trodden path of the masked producer. For all the playful bashfulness in front of the camera, there’s no shortage of confidence when it comes to the studio. An album’s on the way next year and expectations are high. “I was on a blog – not reading about myself – and I saw these lists with the top 10 albums of the 1970s and 1980s. I was looking at them thinking, ‘That’s doable!’ Then I remember thinking shut up you mentalist, do you remember who’s in this list?!”

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