Singer-songwriter Shura on desire, faith and falling in love in New York City
BY DANIELLE MUSTARDE
It’s been three years since indie electro-pop favourite Shura released debut album and all-around top bop, Nothing’s Real. Now that little bit older, bolder and based out of Brooklyn, “Shu”, aka 28-year-old Aleksandra Lilah Denton, is back with new album Forevher, a sonic love letter to faith, lust and falling in love.
When we meet on the set of our cover shoot, Shu – dressed comfortably in slacks and DMs – is fresh off the stage from her performance at this year’s Glastonbury Festival, and it’s clear that she’s still on a high.“I went with my twin brother, Nick, and his boyfriend,” – yes, Shura has a gay twin-come-bff and yes, we are jealous – “And my girlfriend. Just the four of us. Nick’s boyfriend and my girlfriend had never been before and were terrified after all of the mud that we’d warned them about, but luckily the weather was incredible. No lost wellington boots, no flooded tents, none of that. They were both pleasantly surprised.”
As well as taking to the fabled Glasto stage alongside a troupe of much celebrated “Pride nuns” (tinyurl.com/DIVAshuglasto), this year also saw one of Shura’s biggest musical influences perform – none other than Ms. Janet Jackson. How was seeing one of her idols up close and personal? “Janet was the first show I went to see after I played. It was a bit of a mad dash but it was so lovely to see her. I honestly felt like I was on drugs… Dad dancing on a natural high basically describes my Glastonbury this year.”
In fact, the whole experience left Shu feeling “really emotional” – a side effect she hadn’t been expecting. “After I played, I had this really lovely day. I was high for a lot of it, not on drugs – just on life. I was dancing around, having a lovely old time and then on the Monday, I had this moment where I realised what had happened and I just felt really grateful. Me and my brother made a spaghetti bolognese together and talked about how great life was and how lovely it was to spend those four days together. I felt really moved by the whole experience.”
Born in London and raised in Manchester by an English father and Russian mother, Shura first made waves on music scene with 2016’s Nothing’s Real, which she’s described as an amalgamation of “missed opportunities, regret and nostalgia”. The album, which sampled old recordings of herself and her family’s voices throughout, has taken on the guise of “time capsule” for Shura.
Three years later, as the highly anticipated Forevher drops, how does it feel looking back on her debut? “Whenever I’m writing, I always have a full album in mind. That’s how I’ve always written. Looking back on Nothing’s Real, I feel like the intention that I had for it then still stands. After I finished Forevher, I did listen back to Nothing’s Real again, just to touch base with that version of me and, I actually found it really moving. There’s this naivety to it, certainly… It was the first time I’d ever been signed, made a record or worked with a label.”
It’s in this first record that Shura sees a version of herself really “trying their best”. “I’m proud and moved by ‘mini me,’” she smiles. “I can literally hear the amount of effort and love that went into that record. It’s almost like looking back at pictures of yourself when you’re a kid. It has that kind of grumpy, teenage vibe. I feel like a ‘grown up’ making music now. When I look back at [Nothing’s Real], that was a kid making music.”
Has her artistic process changed as she has, does she think? “It definitely feels like musically it was such a different approach. I mean, I’m still a perfectionist now, but in a different way. Nothing’s Real was very to the grid and polished and perfect but then still a bit shit in that way that I really wanted it to be, like, it’s someone trying to make big, pop songs but without all of the tools. I wanted it to have that feel that it absolutely could have been made in my bedroom and, of course, a lot of it was.”
THE LESBIAN POPE
Sophomore album Forevher is a different beast altogether. Her so-far released singles – the smouldering, sun-soaked BKLYNLDN and upbeat, tongue-in-cheek bop religion (u can lay your hands on me), the video to which sees Shura don her “lesbian Pope” garbs – dropped on eager ears earlier this summer. In both, themes of lust, love and faith abound. But from where did the “friendly, neighbourhood lesbian Pope” alter ego emerge?
“When I’m writing a song, I’m already thinking of a video to go with it. It helps me be excited about it! It happened with Touch [her wildly successful 2016 single and queer anthem] and it was the same with religion. [The lesbian Pope] happened for a really ridiculous reason… I’d been watching The Young Pope with Jude Law and basically, he just looked so fucking cool. I was like, ‘I need to dress like this all the time.’”
And the video? “Initially the idea was that I’m a nun, and I’m gardening and having this daydream where I’m the Pope and there are lots of other sexy nuns and they’re dancing but they can’t touch me. I remember speaking about it with a friend and she looked at me and said, ‘This idea is great but… why do you need to dream of being the Pope? Why don’t you just be the fucking Pope?’
“It’s an alternate universe with a female leader surrounded by nuns who are actually encouraged to love, rather than it being naughty. By playing around with religious imagery, I’m having fun with the idea that, generally speaking, religion has done a lot to fuck up attitudes towards sex and women and sexuality. [In Christianity], the ‘perfect woman’ is a virgin and a mother which is just physiologically impossible – we can’t be both.
“It’s funny that religion has so fucked up our relationship to sex and yet, sex for all humans is a driving force of nature. We need sex – not everyone, of course – but it is a form of religion, and love is a form of faith. It drives us and it drives the way things are. Love is much like faith in that we have this belief in it. We believe that love exists even though our experience of life might tell us otherwise. It doesn’t always work out, maybe it’s not happily ever after – but we still believe in it.”
KEEP THE FAITH
Growing up, Shura – a childhood nickname that stuck, by the way – was always interested in religion and, though she wasn’t raised in a religious home, her dad would often read her and brother stories from the bible.“He thought they were important. There’s so much good in those stories, you know? They’re eternal truths – they’re human. My dad also made a lot of documentaries about religion. In fact, he was the first person ever to have a television interview with a Pope so, it’s very much been a part of my life.”
Shu tells me she very nearly studied theology at university. “I only didn’t because I went to an open day where I met a lot of people who were all there studying to become priests and I was like, ‘Well, as an atheist and a lesbian… where do I fit into this space?’” she laughs. “I just felt like if I was hanging out with a bunch of people who wanted to become priests, I’d be getting into a lot of heated arguments.”
In one song on the album, Flying, she’s overtly playing around with the idea of both love, but also the intersections between faith and sexuality and the “idea that some people literally hate you because you’re gay”. She goes on: “It’s absurd that someone might feel that way because they’ve read a book and interpreted it a certain way, yet also in this book there’s a woman who has a baby and is also a virgin – it’s almost funny.”
Love “as a form of faith” also plays a huge part in her new music. Listen to the album and you’ll hearit – the sounds bolder, freer and more adventurous than her debut. “Actually, and it’s strange to say this when with Nothing’s Real, I literally used recordings of me as a baby in it and my dad and mum’s voices, but I somehow feel as if there’s more of me in this record. Nothing’s Real was very introspective, but sometimes the most vulnerable thing you can say to another human being is ‘I love you’, isn’t it? Falling in love leaves you literally standing on the top of a mountain with a megaphone being like, ‘I hope this other person doesn’t find this incredibly cheesy…’” she laughs.“Even though this record’s about falling in love with someone else, there’s somehow more of me in it.”
It’s true that falling in love seems to have brought Shura out of herself – the album, and certainly some of the tracks on there feel extremely intimate. BKLYNLDN captures perfectly in its first half the initial euphoric lust of a new relationship and in its second, flips the narrative as lust becomes love.“That was 100% my intention with BKLYNLDN. It starts off as quite a dramatic, slinky moody sex jam, basically,” laughs Shura. “Sounding like the way you want to feel at the beginning of a relationship; like the other person finds you sexy. It’s quite cool and restrained for the first half and then, suddenly, it explodes into this joyful… sillyness. The first half is sex and the second half is love, and love in that way that when you are in love, you will skip down the street holding hands without giving a fuck what anyone thinks because fuck what anyone thinks.”
Love, as on the album, is a theme that comes up frequently throughout our conversation. So just who is this mystery woman she’s so madly fallen for? “We met online”. Don’t we all? “Yeah, I mean, that’s something that happens with gay people a lot,” she jokes. “I mean, the straights are definitely catching up but, you know, there weren’t that many out queer people around when I was growing up in Manchester. The only way that you could meet other people was by going to the Gay Village – underage and sneaking into bars – or by using Gaydar Girls, so I feel like we’re used to meeting others that way. This [relationship] happened after we met online, but unlike Tinder where maybe you set a 10 mile radius, we weren’t physically near each other and actually, that’s what was really lovely. We couldn’t just meet up straight away because she lived in New York and I was living in London.”
In the beginning, Shura explains, she and her long distance beau texted each other occasionally. Then it became phone calls, and then the phone calls became Skyping and then, after a few months, she thought: “Well. I guess we should probably go on a date! I basically invented a reason for me to be in New York and… we haven’t looked back since,” she smiles, tellingly.
TALES OF THE CITY
But it wasn’t only a new love interest that captured Shu’s heart, but America itself. Has it been conflicting falling in love with a nation at a time when many are falling out of love with it? “It’s a weird emotion to feel at a time when everyone else is like, ‘Fuck’, she admits. “It is conflicting, but when you’re falling in love in a place it’s very difficult not to fall in love with that place because it’s the backdrop, the scene in which you’re falling in love with.
“America is so fucked in so many ways – in the same way that the world is kind of fucked right now – but New York is a bit of a bubble which is nice. It has been strange to discover that there are so many wonderful things about America at a time when I’m not a fan of the politics or the president… But thank god I’ve managed to find some joy, otherwise I’d be miserable over there. It’s like a protective barrier, but then being in love is like that, isn’t it?”
Has she always had a soft spot for New York? “No,” she replies, shaking her head. “The first time I came to New York I bloody hated it. It was loud, everyone was angry at me for no reason and someone stole my phone from under my pillow at the hostel I was staying in. I was like, ‘New York fucking sucks’. It was only once I started experiencing it with my girlfriend that it began to look like a completely different city.”
Shura now lives full-time in the Big Apple – “That’s where I pay rent” – but is often in the UK or on the road, never settling for too long in one place. But is settling something she’d like to do one day? “I think I’ll always feel a bit like a nomad. Musicians often are. But then I wonder whether growing up bicultural meant that I was always going to be a bit of a nomad? I’ve always had that spirit of wanting to do things that are new or different. The idea of being in the same place forever sounds horrible to me. I always want to push myself, but at the same time, sometimes you just need to sit down, pay your rent and like, chop an onion. Make some spaghetti bolognese, you know?”
This article first appeared in the September 2019 issue of DIVA – grab your digital copy right here!
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