"I was literally tied to the puma, with a harness and a rope," Shura tells me, as we sip tea in the halls of Central St Martins in London.
“You don’t so much walk the puma, it walks you. Because if the puma doesn’t want to walk and it wants to have a nap, you’re just stuck in the jungle waiting for it to decide to wake up, and hoping it does before it gets dark. Even in the light the jungle is scary, because everything wants to kill you…”
The walking of big cats in the jungle may seem an incongruous topic of conversation for an interview that’s ostensibly about music, but given the mystery that’s surrounded pint–sized newcomer Shura (aka Alexandra Denton – Shura is a Russian nickname) since the drop of her first, heartbreaking track “Touch”, I felt the need to get to the bottom of some of the internet rumours about her. Not least the claims that she started writing music in the Amazon, whilst working with pumas. For one thing, aren’t pumas quite dangerous?
She laughs. “I’m sure in the wild they are, but these are pumas that have been rescued, from the circus and stuff. Mine was called Gato, which means ‘cat’ in Spanish,” she tells me eagerly, “and he was quite old, and he’d had his back legs broken when he was younger.”
“I mean, he was still much more mobile than me in the jungle!” she reassures me.
“He was fine! He was dragging me down the mountainside one time on my bum, and I was just putting my arms out trying to stop myself and I got caught on a spiky tree. But you couldn’t release him into the wild, so you’d give him an eight hour walk every day.”
It’s odd to realise that a story that seems so far–fetched is actually almost entirely true. But then Shura comes from a less than conventional background, hailing from a family of performers. Her twin brother Nick is an actor, her elder brother was a drum and bass DJ and is now a journalist for Japanese TV, and her mother once got offered a part in a Bond film (“her character was going to die, so she was like – ‘nah, I’m not going to do that!’ I’m informed. “Plus Bond is very anti–Russia!”).
It’s not surprising then, that Shura seems to be set on doing things her way. She tells me that she hates being told what to do, yet remains both astonished and grateful for the success she seems to have happened upon, and refreshingly immune to the expectations of her rapidly growing cohort of followers.
“I think to everyone else it feels like I popped out of a pastel cloud,” she admits, when I ask her how it feels to have become the toast of the blogosphere literally overnight.
“To me – and I know this is going to sound weird – I’ve been in me since I was born. I’ve just been here doing stuff, but I never really ever released anything as just myself, and because I’m such a massive perfectionist don’t think I could have done until “Touch”, because I wasn’t truly happy with anything until that point.”
As a first track it certainly had the desired effect – garnering 100,000 plays in its first week and attracting a slew of famous fans, not least London soul maven Jessie Ware, whose support Shura humbly admits came as a total shock.
“Honestly, I thought some people would like it,” she says, her voice still betraying her astonishment.
“I thought it might get 30,000 plays in a year or something, that’s what my most successful track before that had done. I didn’t think it was going to get 100,000 in a week, then get played on Radio One and then that Jessie Ware would be like – ‘oi you, I like you!’ It was just siiiick,” she smiles. “You know, it’s cool when people that you like and look up to know you exist. That’s a weird moment. They know I’m a human too, doing the kind of shit that they’re doing. “
Listening back to her songs it’s hard to imagine anyone responding to Shura’s work less than positively. They’re candy hued throwbacks – all shimmering cascades of synths, peppered with handclaps and eighties–esque drum samples, with the kind of modern production (which Shura does herself) that stops them from becoming pastiche. Early write–ups have already compared her to a young Madonna, while her live show sees her open with the as yet unreleased track “Kids n’ Stuff”, a raw edged slow jam that’s reminiscent of the majesty of Prince’s “Purple Rain”. Is it safe to assume she was raised on a diet of the era’s greats?
“Yeah I’d say so. Madonna was definitely played a lot in the house when I was younger. My mum used to sit us in front of the Immaculate Collection VHS, so she was definitely a presence in the Denton household!” she laughs.
“I only came to Prince a few years ago. It was early Prince that really hooked me. So he’s a big part of my musical landscape now, but wasn’t really growing up. I’ve also got really into what I’d describe as Dad rock, but my Dad didn’t introduce me to it. He’s really into middle of the road pop music and the Beatles. But recently I’ve been listening to loads of Led Zeppelin, and it’s been so much fun going back through time the wrong way round!”
It’s clear that Shura doesn’t harbour any of the musical snobbery that can be prevalent amongst certain artists, with her sonic exploration taking her into the depths of classic pop, mentioning Elton John, Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins as influences in the same breath as Dev Hynes. “There’s been a real shift in thought to being okay with popular music and the re–appropriation of all that stuff you listened to as a teenager but were too cool to admit you liked,” she says with a grin. “It’s now okay to say that you like Mariah Carey alongside The War On Drugs.”
The return of pop to a place of critical appreciation is certainly on Shura’s side. But unlike most popstars her sound is far from the beating heart of her appeal, with that particular accolade going to her lyrics: at once simple and painfully honest, often dealing with the aftermath of a breakup. It's a theme which she’s explored to superb effect in “Touch “ and “Just Once”, employing a deft ability to describe complex emotions all in the course of a three minute song. It’s the kind of understanding that can only be earned from experience and, curiosity peaked, I carefully ask whether her lyrics are all about one person.
She smiles, “‘Touch’ is 100% specific. He definitely knows, but I don’t think it’s a bad thing. We’re friends now so it’s kind of fine. Maybe if we get to 5 million views we’ll see how he feels! But I think anyone that I date will have to deal with some of that.”
I ask about her other releases, and she admits that despite the apparent emotional depth in her lyrics, some of them come from a more practical place. “I’d say ‘Indecision’ was in the end a song about choosing which record label to sign to,” she informs me, bursting the bubble slightly.
“I was like ‘this is so true to my life right now’. My friends are so unsympathetic,” she laughs, acknowledging the absurdity of the problem. “I understand the lack of sympathy, but being slightly neurotic it was quite a difficult decision to make. At one point I thought of just going ‘eenie meenie minee mo’. It’s a weird moment because you spend your whole life from the age of thirteen thinking about it and then it happens, and you have a bit of a panic attack about it.” She mulls this over for a second, before taking the analogy in an unexpected direction.
“It’s like the first time you snog someone! Beforehand you’re like, ‘OMG I might snog tonight, it’s my first ever kiss and it’s going to be this amazing moment!’ and then the next morning you wake up and you’re like ‘oh, I’m exactly the same’.” She pauses dramatically to sip her tea and mull over this pronouncement for a second, before continuing, philosophically. “Just the years get shorter, and it’s weird to think that every year you ever have will be the shortest year you’ll ever have.”
Apparently my face betrays my confusion, because she’s quick to explain herself. “I’m sorry, I went to see Interstellar and the timeline really freaked me out,” she tells me. “So I’ve started writing about it. I don’t know if that song will ever see the light of day because it’s incredibly depressing, but I’m really fascinated by time and space and family. I find writing about that depressing stuff cathartic I guess.”
The total opposite to the morose nature of her songs, Shura is bright, upbeat and very, very funny. She describes herself as “just the most awkward human being in the world,” and announces that “if there’s a way of making a situation more awkward – I will!”, all the while regaling me with anecdotes drawn from the bizarre situations she’s found herself in, such as her experience interviewing for a place at Oxford University.
“They did that intimidation tactic where there were three tutors in one room and there was a chaise longue, and they were like, where are you going to sit? So I lay down on it as a joke, and just went ‘analyse me!’ That did not go down well with a lot of Oxford dons...”
It’s an awkwardness that thankfully hasn’t yet made itself known at any of her live shows, the first of which was a not inconsiderably prestigious slot at Pitchfork Paris. “Looking back, it was a massive baptism of fire, but sometimes that’s the best way to do it,’ she says. Of course, Shura being Shura, it didn’t go entirely without a hitch.
“At Pitchfork the chords for ‘Touch’ didn’t trigger to begin with, and I was like, ‘maybe it’s just my in–ears’ and then I realised, ‘no no, it’s just not playing!’ But I didn’t die. If anything I think the audience are more on your side. Humans generally like to know that there are other humans in the room performing.”
“Although at the same time, I don’t want to continually mess up so people know I’m human! But people are more forgiving than you think they’re going to be, especially at Pitchfork Paris, it was nice to discover you won’t die.”
It’s been a steep learning curve, one in which she only had three weeks to practice with her band before heading out on a mini tour across Europe, culminating in her debut London show a few weeks ago, which was, all nerves aside, a total triumph. Quite aside from giving her fans their first glimpse of her, the gig was also the first time she’d performed for her label, and acted as a perfect chance to showcase her as–yet unreleased songs, an opportunity she relishes.
“What’s been amazing about the live shows is approaching the performances as what I call a ‘stand up musician’ as opposed to a ‘sit down musician’,” she explains. “Songs like ‘Touch’ and ‘Indecision’ and ‘Just Once’ are already out there, so you have to recreate what’s on record. With the new songs that no one’s heard, we just stood up and listened to them, and were like ‘we’re all musicians here - how would we go about playing stuff, without having to faithfully recreate it?’”
“It made me realise, because I’m a producer and I spend so much time wondering how to chop this beat up and throw this in there, that it’s important for me to approach my music as a stand up musician as well, and not forget that that’s what I started as. It brings something really human to it.”
With several shows lined up and half an album’s worth of songs written, Shura seems to have the future somewhat planned out for her. Totally in control of her output, she’s planning on producing the album herself, but tells me she’s keen to spend the next few months writing without having to worry about production.
“I’m not prolific, I’m more of a monogamous songwriter. What I’d like to do for now is just write, write, write. Hopefully then I can look at the songs and be like ‘which of these remaining twenty songs do I want on the album?’ and finish those.” She sighs, “I think that would be really liberating because right now I’m like ‘is this shaker too loud?’ and it’s just like ‘no!’ I need to write this album, and the shaker is only ever going to be too loud or too quiet, there’s no right answer!”
Production problems aside, 2015 looks set to be one hell of a year for Shu. Before leaving, I quickly ask if we’ll be seeing a video to follow up to the stunning clip for “Touch”: a slow motion pseudo-dream sequence of artfully tousled couples kissing in clouds of colourful smoke (all friends of the artist, of course).
“In an ideal world there’d be a video for ‘Indecision’ by now, but I haven’t worked out what I’d want the video to be,” she tells me.
“With ‘Touch’ I knew before I’d even finished the song what I wanted the video to be. It was part of the cathartic process of getting over the relationship. The problem is I have lots of crazy ideas that aren’t doable, because they involve being in space,” she informs me, with an entirely straight face, and a gleam in her eye.
“I’m going to try and get to a certain level of success where I can justify weightlessness. I just really want to be in a sci–fi movie, basically.”
Indecision is out on Polydor on December 15. Shura headlines London's Village Underground next year. Shura was photographed for Best Fit by Wunmi Onibudo.