“This is a song about loving somebody who doesn’t love you anymore,” Shura says as the introduction to more than a few of her tracks during her set at Good Vibes Festival ‘17. In just one sentence, the twenty-six-year-old sums up the emotion at the core of her music, which transforms ‘80s and ‘90s pop and r’n’b sounds into a genre fit for the current day and age. Her debut album, Nothing’s Real, is curated around Shura, born Aleksandra Lilah Denton, and her own personal experiences, from bearing the pressure of living up to the success of her single ‘Touch’ (which went viral with its music video in 2014) and falling in and out of love with people who continue to live on in the lyrics penned down on her record.
With her hipster sk8er-girl style and vocals that have been compared to the likes of Madonna and Kylie Minogue, Shura is on her way to crafting infectious synthesised tunes that showcase the best of what the soundscape of alt-pop has to offer today. Ahead of her set at Good Vibes Festival this year, JUICE sat down with the musician backstage to discuss high school fashion, The Breakfast Club, and the story behind labelling her music as ‘awkward pop’.
I’m a really big fan of your sense of style, and one of my favourite elements of the music video for ‘What’s It Gonna Be?’ is the fashion and clothes that each of the characters wear.
Oh my god, the styling was amazing. There were three stylists working on it and they were Spanish; we shot the video in Spain because it was the only place that we could get an American-looking high school within Europe. [The stylists] worked so hard and we had so many costume changes, like half the time me and my twin brother were like “Arrgggh!” trying to get through all the clothes. I love Converse except when you have to untie high-tops every time you change trousers. Me and [my brother] Nick were filming each other failing to tie up our Converse and it became this joke that we were just really shit at tying shoelaces.
How would you describe your own personal style when you were in high school?
I went through a few different phases. When I was a teenager, music was a bit more tribal. Everyone had just started having MySpace and the internet wasn’t really like how it is now where everyone can just listen to any genre of music. As a kid growing up, people either listened to emo, pop, or indie music, and you dressed according to what you listened to. It still happens but less so especially with the rise of hipsterdom. In London, pretty much everyone just dresses like hipsters.
“I’ve always had a strong sense of style, it’s not always been what’s fashionable for other people.”
When I was a kid, I remember wearing really big, really baggy skater trousers, chunky trainers, and hoodies, kind of like an emo indie kid. Then, there was this phase where everyone had Miss Sixty jeans with flares and I couldn’t afford the real ones, they were really expensive. So I bought a copy and I wore them to school on the day where you could wear your own clothes because normally we had to wear uniforms. I remember all these girls teasing me because my jeans weren’t ‘official’ Miss Sixty and I was so sad. We had two or three days a year where you get to wear your own clothes to school and you’d plan your outfit for them months in advance. I’ve always had a strong sense of style, it’s not always been what’s fashionable for other people.
Do you go thrifting a lot?
Most of the clothes I love are secondhand, from charity shops, or picked up at vintage stores where I’ve been on tour. It’s great because we were in America for two months in the middle of buttfuck nowhere and there’d be some amazing vintage stores. You’d find t-shirts and you wouldn’t even know where it was made, and it’d be $1.50. There are some labels that I do love like Vans and Levi’s, but I hate clothes that you have to take to the dry-cleaner’s, so I try to have a rule where I only buy clothes that I can put in the washing machine.
It also feels really satisfying when you find something at the thrift store and you’re like, “I searched for this!”
Yeah! It’s a victory. And you know that no one else is going to have it.
“As soon as you use synthesisers, people are immediately transported to the ’80s because they were so popular then. There’s still going to be elements of that in the next record, but I also hope it’ll be an evolution to something different, more mature, more experimental, and more diverse.”
Speaking of teenage style, what were some of the songs you had on your playlist to get you through school and growing up?
I remember when Kings of Leon came out with their first few albums and I really loved them. I thought I was really alternative and cool for listening to them, not really realising that they were a huge rock band marketed to millions of people, but because other kids at school weren’t listening to them, I was like “Oh, I’m really cool, I’m listening to these kids from somewhere in America that I’ve never heard of.” When I started working in a record store, I started listening to more electronic music, The Smiths, Portishead, and some trip hop like Massive Attack. I guess that’s when my music taste started broadening, so it wasn’t limited to just guitar music. I wanted to be in a rock band as a kid. I picked up guitar because I wanted to be a rock god and then it just sort of never happened. Now I listen to absolutely everything as long as it’s good.
The album Nothing’s Real is a very articulate and relevant reworking of ‘80s pop music. What sort of sounds do you see yourself adopting for your future projects?
I’m still very much in a love affair with synthesisers, it’s something that I discovered quite late in life in terms of recording because my first instrument [that I learned how to play] was a guitar. As soon as you use synthesisers, people are immediately transported to the ‘80s because they were so popular then. There’s still going to be elements of that in the next record, but I also hope it’ll be an evolution to something different, more mature, more experimental, and more diverse. Like a family where you have a brother and a sister, they’re not identical but they’re related and it’s going to be the same for my record; it’s going to sound genetically related to my first record but I also want it to be braver and more exciting.
“I very much wanted my record to sound like a John Hughes soundtrack and the listening experience for my album to feel like [watching] a movie.”
Besides music, what are some of your other favourite pop culture relics from the ‘80s/’90s?
Anything that Fleetwood Mac ever did is incredible and has been hugely inspirational for me. It’s music that I discovered a lot later in life because it wasn’t a band that my parents listened to. My parents listened to Madonna and Elton John, who are some of the best examples we have of songwriting from that era. Janet Jackson, Madonna, and Fleetwood Mac are my three favourites, [Bruce] Springsteen as well just to throw a boy in there. John Hughes’ films were also a massive inspiration for me, the soundtracks for his movies are incredible. I very much wanted my record to sound like a John Hughes soundtrack and the listening experience for my album to feel like [watching] a movie. Stylistically as well, if you think of The Breakfast Club, that’s in line with the video for ‘What’s It Gonna Be?’, we even referenced Shermer High School at the end.
You once described your musical style as ‘awkward pop’. Was the ‘awkward’ element something that was fully intentional or was it more of a happy accident?
I’m an anxious person, so a lot of [Nothing’s Real] deals with anxiousness, whether it’s about how you look before you’re going on a date, or whether this person still likes you or not, or having a panic attack. It deals with awkwardness and the less glamorous situations that you’ll go through in relationships when they go wrong. If I made rock or hip hop music, it would always be awkward because that’s my personality. I’m probably ascribing a style to my music that’s really a personality trait.
“If I made rock or hip hop music, it would always be awkward because that’s my personality. I’m probably ascribing a style to my music that’s really a personality trait.”
I have huge love for pop music but there’s also a lot of pop music that I don’t like. It’s such a broad term, there are so many different kinds of pop music that the whole time I was wrestling with thoughts like, “Is that melody good enough? Is it too cheesy? Can I get away with it?” The music I made as a kid wasn’t very pop-py, I was constantly pushing the boundaries of what I felt I could pull off or be comfortable doing, which creates this slight tension between stuff like Disney-style commercial pop and stuff from someone like Grimes. It sits in the middle of it, it’s pop that’s almost not comfortable being fully [itself].
You were an English Literature major in university. Did you ever aspire to be anything different before you started doing music professionally?
Absolutely, I wanted to be so many different things in my life. I wanted to be a vet when I was a kid, and then I wanted to be an astronaut. Then I realised that I was really bad at math and physics so I knew that probably wasn’t going to happen. I also wanted to be an English teacher. For me, music was always something I did as a hobby, I never imagined or dreamed that I would do it as a job. I wanted to be a Disney animator, and then when I was eleven my dad told me that one day it’ll all be computer-generated and you shouldn’t learn to be an animator. He crushed my dreams but at the same time I look back at it thinking, “No, you’re right.” From Toy Story onwards, we haven’t really had many animated films in the same way. I wanted to be a million and one things, I still do. I love to write, I love to direct films, nothing feature-length but stuff like music videos. I’m kind of a nerd for anything except physics, sadly, which is why I’m not currently on the International Space Station right now.
“I wanted to be a million and one things, I still do. I love to write, I love to direct films, nothing feature-length but stuff like music videos. I’m kind of a nerd for anything except physics, sadly, which is why I’m not currently on the International Space Station right now.”
With all the chaos and hecticness that comes with being on tour, what do you do to keep yourself grounded and in the right headspace?
I meditate. It’s funny that you said ‘headspace’ because I have an app called Headspace, and it’s guided meditation. I try and find a tiny bit of time everyday to meditate and exercise. Also when you’re jet-lagged, the best thing you can do to make yourself tired and go to sleep is to run. Just run the fuck out of it. Of course, it doesn’t always happen. You go here and you drink this and you smoke that, and before you know it you’re too drunk to run and too tired to meditate. It’s a constant struggle, you just need to have good intentions.
Shura’s set at Good Vibes Festival ’17 happened on Saturday 12 August ’17.