A Vision of Love
Shura hasn’t had much sleep when our interview begins. Just a few hours earlier, she’d arrived at a deserted Heathrow Airport in the early hours of the morning after her flight from Sweden – where she’d been appearing at Way Out West festival – was delayed. After landing in London, Shura and her band were delayed further when they couldn’t exit the plane.
“I had my coat packed and everything, certain we were about to go on the inflatable slide,” the singer, songwriter and producer laughs. “I’ve always wanted to use the slide but obviously the only time they use them is in an emergency which I don’t want to be in.” Her bandmates, Ally and Luke, were ready to film the Airplane!-like comedic moment with their phones. “Who needs tube posters when you’ve got footage of a pope bouncing down a slide, an inflatable staircase on a plane? It was going to be some incredible ‘hashtag’ content,” Shura playfully laughs. The door, much to Shura and her bandmates disappointment, eventually opened and they left via a (much less-fun) staircase.
Despite the long travel delays and a severe lack of sleep, nothing dampens Shura’s enthusiasm, humour and joy when we speak. The tube posters she refers to are ones to promote her latest album, Forevher; the pope outfit a nod to the fact she recently assumed the identity of a vaping-pontiff in the video for her latest release, "Religion (U Can Lay Your Hands On Me)", a Prince-inspired melody that blurs sex and religion. The reason for her happiness she tells me is simple: she’s madly in love and Forevher is an album all about that falling in love – and nobody, Shura explains, is as surprised by this turn of events as her.
“After listening to my first album, people might go, ‘Oh my God, Shura actually found a girlfriend, how is there not hope in the world now!’ They’ll listen to Forevher and think ‘my god, this really sad girl found love – hooray, there’s hope for me too!’” Her 2016 debut, Nothing’s Real, was an '80s-leaning, DIY synth-pop creation drenched in heartbreak, rejection and longing. After meeting her current girlfriend on a dating app, Shura travelled 3500 miles to New York for their first date proper at a Muna gig: the two began a long-distance, transatlantic relationship soon after. Earlier this year, Shura left the flat she shared with her twin-brother in Shepherds Bush, London for the last 7 years and moved to Brooklyn to live with her girlfriend permanently. Writing from a polar-opposite place of blissful happiness was initially, the 28-year-old half-Russian says, a little bit strange.
“I was one of those people who absolutely subscribed to the idea that great art only really comes from a place of sadness and pain. I believed that you could only really write when you were sad because I’d never made a record where at the time, I was happy or satisfied emotionally. And yet, there was never any point with this record where I was like, ‘oh shit, what do I write about if I’m happy?’ It just happened and it was very natural and very easy to do.”
By the end of the recording process when album sequencing came around, Shura worried the record would be perceived as “overly saccharine”; she soon found herself “sense-checking” to make sure it wasn’t. “I think I was conscious, especially at the end, not to bore people. We’ve all been in love but we’ve also all been around people who are in love and it can be quite annoying. I guess I wanted to make sure that I was exploring not only the positive emotions and the falling in love but also the longing, the anxieties around long-distance and just the absurdity of love and the notion of forever. It’s ridiculous, the idea that you would love someone forever and yet that’s what we do when we fall in love, we feel that.”
Whilst the narrative thread of Forevher is a world away from Nothing’s Real, they both share the same candid, heart-on-sleeve songwriting which Shura’s fans adore. “The first record was also incredibly autobiographical,” Shura says. “I think back to ‘Nothing’s Real’, for example, a song I wrote about my first ever panic attack. But here, it’s different because the emotions that spurred the songwriting were positive, effusive and joyful and there is something about when you’re in that place where you want to tell everyone: there’s a natural compulsion to maybe give more detail or more depth. I think that’s sort of the thread between the two records because sonically they’re quite different but there’s this person at the centre of it, me, who has this strange desire to share things with people she’s never meet in excruciating detail.”
Forevher does indeed sound very different to her debut, sitting between the traditional and the modern, between tight, traditional songwriting and braver, low-fi experimentation. There’s clear references to 70’s soul and a more expansive, sophisticated sound thanks to the addition of a piano, horns and some grandiloquent strings. The album, Shura says, has drawn on “classic songwriting” and she lists her influences as Prince, Minnie Riperton, Joni Mitchell, The Beach Boys, Carole King, Elton John; more modern influences, she says, have been The Internet, Bon Iver and Frank Ocean. Shura was fascinated by the classic chord progressions of the former and the loose experimentation of the latter and wanted Forevher to exist in a hinterland between the two. “I wanted to create something that felt very classic and very modern simultaneously which is an interesting concept to navigate but the subject matter of this love story necessitated it.”
Shura’s emergence in 2014 was one of the defining moments in the current queer-pop movement. Whilst many LGBTQ+ artists reference her debut as being pivotal in helping them to express their own identities in today’s increasingly diverse landscape, Shura struggles to see herself in those terms. “I would never make that assumption that someone has listened to my album and thought, ‘oh this has empowered me’ because I’m still surprised that anyone listens to my music at all in a way. I think it is important though to look back and to appreciate yourself which people don’t do enough. I did a lot of work when I was in therapy on being kind to yourself. Maybe I should spend some time going ‘well done for what you did because it opened doors even if you didn’t know that it did.’”
“It’s the circumstances too. Maybe there was something just going on around the time of me releasing my first record that meant I could be one of the first people to talk about things that way. Causation is a difficult thing to know: is it the person or was it the time which meant that [work] could exist?” For Shura, googling Tegan and Sara aged 15 in the attic of her parent’s home inspired her to start writing songs. “If I hadn’t have googled them, would I have made music or ever thought of it as a career? Maybe I wouldn’t because I would have just gone ‘oh, there’s no lesbians making music – or none making the kind of music that I would want to listen to and make. I’m sure when they did it, they didn’t necessarily feel like trail-blazers but now looking back, they were.”
At the time of her debut, it was evident from interviews that Shura was uncomfortable when her work was interpreted in terms of her lesbian identity, despite its often overt, autobiographical exploration in songs like "Touch" and its accompanying video, which went viral thanks to its portrayal of fluid sexualities. Yet speaking to The Guardian in 2016, Shura said: “I feel like my album’s just about me. I am a gay woman, and I live in London…it’s not about being a gay woman in London.” Now, Shura finds she can embrace the latter more – something she think has gotten easier thanks to there being a more inclusive pop landscape now than in 2014.
"There are so many more queer artists of all the queer persuasions than there were when I released my first record. I really was one of the only ones in that sphere, in that genre at the time"
“I think the fact that this record is queerer is partly about me being in a different place emotionally and being more confident and having matured as a human, but partly also because I’m not the only one any more: there’s strength in numbers now. It’s inspiring and it pushes you to be bolder and braver. There are so many more queer artists of all the queer persuasions than there were when I released my first record. I really was one of the only ones in that sphere, in that genre [of queer-pop] at the time. Muna was a little bit later than me, Hayley Kiyoko is another.”
“…I feel like there are more now and it feels like there are more queer female artists who could go on to be as big as the Sam Smiths or Troye Sivans of this world. Look at King Princess who has come out of nowhere: it’s really exciting to see her being so kind of explicitly queer…It’s an exciting time and it’s nice not to feel like the only person anymore.”
Shura thinks her greater confidence has also affected the language and imagery she’s used in her songwriting too. She can use language to define her sexuality more – the title is a pun of ‘for her,’ ‘forever’ and ‘forever her’ – whilst the album’s central image of two women embracing – a filtered spin on Rodin’s The Kiss – comes close to what Shura ultimately desires: for people to look at her love story as a human one, and not exclusively a queer one: “It’s human…Two bodies, One vision,” she sings on "Religion." “It’s a very specifically queer record but it’s also just essentially a love story. It’s the oldest idea in the book, writing a song for someone you love but lyrically it’s queer. I wanted the fact it’s a woman singing about a woman to be incidental.”
The greater confidence too, has come about she thinks after a parting with her old label, Polydor. Despite having a viral hit and a record many believe pre-empted – arguably even started – the current wave of queer-pop, Shura was unceremoniously dropped from her label. She uses an unhappier relationship analogy to explain. “Of course, it’s never nice to be dumped but I would sort of describe it as being in a relationship that you know isn’t working. It still stings to be the person being dumped but you’re still quite glad the relationship is over.”
Was it a relief to leave? “In a way,” Shura says laughing, “I was quite thrilled. Having had a viral song completely on its own terms meant I had a lot of power going into that deal and I think I was more or less allowed to make the record that I wanted to make…I wasn’t surprised [when it happened] and was slightly relieved. It’s very simple: it’s just a case of did we spend more money on you than they made: if they did, they’re not going to carry on working with you. If they had continued working with me, maybe they’d have said ‘you’ve got to do it this way’,” Shura says, matter-of-factedly. “I don’t think I’d have had that [same] power to make the record that I wanted to make. It’s very important for me as an artist to have agency, for me to be able to make exactly what I want.”
Working now with Secretly Canadian, a label who wanted to sign her originally, Shura says she has been given all the time she’s needed to develop and create. “There is a maturity and a cohesion on this record that I feel like I didn’t manage to achieve in quit the same way. I’m really proud of my first record but I feel like I managed something here that’s different and was more creatively satisfying.”
Religion underscores Forevher throughout; like Years & Years’ Palo Santo or Madonna’s Like A Prayer, religious symbolism is used to explore desire whilst subverting feelings of guilt and shame by turning them into a cathartic armour. Why has religion played such an important part on her latest? The answer, says Shura (who is a fierce atheist) isn’t straightforward. She has an anthropological desire to explore religion culturally, a need to understand religions obsession with subjugating female and queer identities, a fascination with religion in general (she once considered studying theology at university) and a hunch that it all goes back to growing up with Madonna’s music.
" It didn’t matter if you were a gay man or lesbian woman, queer or whatever, Madonna was a huge source of inspiration and so I think Forevher is partly homage to an ally.”
“I’m an atheist but I’ve always been interested in religion in the sense that I find the human need for it fascinating,” Shura explains. “Every culture has music and religion. There is clearly something about believing in something greater than ourselves that’s a guiding force for many. From an anthropological level I find religion fascinating, I find sexuality fascinating and I find music fascinating and it’s something that I wanted to play with.”
“Also, it’s just interesting because in Christianity, there’s a very difficult history with sexuality – whether it’s a queer identity or sex in general and the treatment of women, the misogyny in its religion. It’s a battle when you have a story about a perfect woman being both a mother and a virgin and all of human kind basically being fucked because Eve, a woman, took an apple and munched on it.” Shura is both angry and fascinated as she explores the mother-virgin figure and Christianity’s treatment of women and homosexuality. It takes her to Madonna’s own exploration of the issue and her influence on the current queer pop moment.
“There’s a great history in pop music of playing around with religion. It’s best demonstrated by Madonna and as a huge queer ally and I wonder whether one of the reasons – certainly in queer pop music now – that there is this trend of exploring religion and sex is because a lot of us grew up listening to Madonna who was a hero for a lot of us. It didn’t matter if you were a gay man or lesbian woman, queer or whatever, she was a huge source of inspiration and so I think it’s partly homage to an ally.”
Falling in love with a woman in Trump’s America has played heavily on the album’s themes too. Shura toured with Tegan and Sara in 2016, the same year a gunman killed 49 individuals in a gay nightclub in Orlando. Whilst Shura says it’s still a “scary time” to be gay in America, she wants people to find hope in Forevher and its narrative. “The world is going to shit and here I was, falling in love with a woman in America. It’s a really dark place right now but I couldn’t help falling in love here and I found myself still falling in love with parts of America too. This is a very traditional love story, but also a very queer love story with a backdrop of one of the scariest countries in the world right now – and yet there is still hope here.”
Being in a “liberal bubble” of New York has helped but Shura says it’s still a “conflicting” place to be right now. “The past couple of weeks here has been really tough,” Shura says. “Two mass shootings within 24 hours and ICE raids and it’s scary. Trump is a very, very scary man because he’s just so incompetent and unfit for office…but I am looking forward to being in America during the elections. I am firm believer in the act of peaceful protest and expressing discontent…people from all different communities are coming together to speak out and that’s humbling and encouraging to see.”
For the future, Shura has hope and she’s planning new projects too. Working with Jagwar Ma’s Jono Ma and Stella Mozgawa from Warpaint – amongst many others – on her latest, has given Shura a taste for more collaborations. “I love being a twin and always being connected to another person in my life. I think I naturally thrive when I’m in situations where I work and interact with other people. When you’re a professional musician, you get to go on tour and meet all these artists that you’re afforded to collaborate and work with. I want to continue that approach and I’d love to do more collaborations, more side projects. It’s important for your own creative instincts and for my desire to always be making something.”
As our conversation closes, it circles back to travel, distance and love. “I’m pleased with how it’s all worked out,” Shura says, beaming and clearly smitten with her lover. Her happiness is infectious. “I wanted to make something that was specific to my experience of being a queer woman that anyone of any gender or sexuality could look at think ‘yeah, I understand’ or ‘that’s beautiful,” Shura said recently. For anyone who has ever been in love, Forevher will hold universal appeal; its message will resonate across distances, circumstance and sexualities. “Because that’s all love is,” as Shura says.