Unless you are cold and dead inside, chances are you’ve had a huge crush on someone at least once in your life. You know the feeling: that fluttering lurch in your stomach when their eyes swivel in your direction, your sudden inability to form coherent sentences that don’t sound like something your nan would say, how choosing what to wear in the morning becomes so long it’s actually painful, the flailing hopelessness when you realise they will never, ever have sex with you. Or, if you’re lucky, the dizzying elation when you realise that they will, and then they inevitably do, and then you live happily ever after. Or, at least, until one of you starts finding the other one unbearably annoying, hooks up with the hot one from work, and gradually starts ghosting out of each other's lives forever, shitting all over any hopes and dreams of reaching the pure relationship perfection of the Beckhams.
These stages are so universal, so utterly unanimous among the human race, that it’s hard to capture them in a way that we haven’t heard a million times before, whether in The Notebook, one of Drake’s albums, or the endless works of Shakespeare. Saying that, there are some hits in a world of misses, and if there’s one artist who does it right, it’s Shura, the 25-year-old musician whose debut album Nothing’s Real takes all the awkward, uncomfortable and blissful moments of having a huge crush on someone, and turns it into glittering pop music that tickles your brain.
“I turn up with my cap on back to front, trying to be someone,” her voice wavers on “2shy”, a Janet Jackson-style slow jam about wanting to tell someone you’re into them, but somehow fucking it up. In “White Light”, she sounds both euphoric and restrained, her words directed towards a girl whose very existence seems to illuminate the room (“You're from another planet, huh? I'd like you to take me there.”) Elsewhere on the album, she sings about wishing her crush would fancy her back. “I don’t wanna give you up, I don’t wanna let you love somebody else but me,” her voice shimmers over sparkling synth lines, taking all the fluttering excitement of “what if?” and bottling it into a pure shot of 80s-style pop. She’s kind of like a Madonna for millennials – if Madonna was a geeky 20-something from Manchester – breathing much-needed self-awareness and awkwardness into the pop’s classic love song formula.
“I don’t have crushes on a lot of people, I just have really intense crushes,” she begins when I ask her if she would call herself a chronic romantic. “Sometimes, I feel like it would be really useful to not crush this hard.” We meet in a small coffee shop in East London, taking shelter from the thunder, lightning and continuous torrents of rain that are free-falling from the dark grey clouds outside. Shura is drinking from a huge mug of peppermint tea (“I don’t have caffeine at all anymore – it makes me anxious”) and she’s dressed down in ripped jeans, faded vans and a baggy grey beanie.
“Crushes are so awkward, and I’m really interested in writing about awkward situations,” she continues. “I’m not saying that what I’m doing is new, because it’s not, but a lot of songs are like: ‘Let’s get together,’ or ‘You’re so amazing,’ or ‘Aren’t we so great?’ I’d rather be like: ‘Oh my god, I just tried to have a conversation with you and I just totally freaked out because I quit smoking and I’m wearing this new outfit that I’m not totally sure about.’ That’s how it actually goes, so why not write about it like that?”
I ask her if she’s ever played her tracks to the people they’re about, and if so, has it ever helped her pull? “Sometimes!” she laughs loudly, leaning towards me as if she’s letting me in on a secret that isn’t about to be published online and read by the eyes of strangers. “In the past, I’ve been like, ‘Heeey listen to this song.’ But I haven’t said it’s about them even though they definitely know. Sometimes it works, but then it goes wrong later down the line. I dunno... maybe I’m impossible to date.”
While crushes are something we all experience, we still live in an era of fame where who you want to sleep with is considered political – or, at least, other people’s business. Shura, who describes herself jokingly as a “rabid lesbian”, has recently started having to adjust to an added interest in her private life, with her words and actions being looked at under a magnifying glass, and occasionally twisted. “I was asked about my sexuality during an interview ahead of this gig in Manchester and the headline was like ‘Shura comes out before Manchester!’ and I’m like, I didn’t come out! You just asked me if I was gay and I said yes. If anyone had asked me before I would have said yes to them too. It’s like that wonderful thing Kristen Stewert said: ‘Google me, I’m not hiding!’.”
However, while having to answer questions about sexuality in 2016 might sound tedious, she says, the visibility of gay women in the public sphere is still relatively thin on the ground. Sure, we have the likes of Ellen Page, Cara Delevingne and St Vincent holding it down for the gay girls, but we have a long way to go, and misogyny and homophobia is still alive and well in both the gay community and beyond. “If I have to talk about my sexuality for the next few years in regards to my record, that’s just the price I have to pay for being out and making music right now,” she continues. “Maybe if I was doing this in 20 years time, it wouldn’t be an issue. But I wasn’t born 20 years later, so this is my reality, and if that’s what I need to do in order for it to not be part of the conversation, and in order to make it easier for the next generation, then that’s fine – great.”
Our discussion on being an openly LGBTQ woman in the public sphere swiftly evolves into a discussion about Jessie J, who famously came out as bisexual, before saying she was actually straight a few years later. “Yeah, I mean maybe she is straight, maybe she isn’t, in the end who the fuck gives a shit,” Shura says, shrugging. “But say she’s straight and she had to go through discovering her sexuality in a public way, and is now being slagged off for pretending to be bi – that sucks. But say she isn’t straight, and had to hide it to crack America in order to keep up the charade – that sucks too. Whatever scenario it is, it sucks to be Jessie J.” Shura pauses, as if she’s thinking carefully about what she’s about to say next. “For me, I was never, ever interested in hiding my sexuality. I don’t feel like I’m being political just by being myself. It’s like, I am a lesbian, and I also happen to be a pop star. People can deal with it.”
While most pop stars have always wanted to be pop stars, it was only when Shura reached her mid-teens that she realised she wanted to make music. “I didn’t really think about why I was doing it,” she tells me. “And I never felt like a ‘singer’. I just wanted to write songs because there were a few guitars lying around at home, and then I had to sing them because nobody else would... I loved Britney Spears growing up, but it wasn’t like I ever wanted to be a popstar.” According to Shura, her earliest efforts were nothing like the Madonna-meets-Janet Jackson alt-pop she makes now. Instead, she wrote “super folk-y songs” on an acoustic guitar, which she performed at open mics around the city.
“My dad used to chaperone me to open mics because I wasn’t old enough to be in pubs, and then he’d drive me home to go to school the next day,” she remembers. “Every now and then I’d record a handful of songs in my dad’s friend’s studio. Then I’d maybe give the recordings to my friends or someone I fancy, but it wasn’t a big deal. I didn’t really think about the future, or where it would take me.”
And then, in 2014, she put the self-produced track “Touch” online and something shifted. Overnight, the Soundcloud plays exploded, and as of right now, it has been listened to over 3 million times. The accompanying video, a hazy, lilac-tinged visual that shows a bunch of her mates making out with each other, has racked up over 26 million views worldwide. Following that, she was swiftly picked up by Universal’s Polydor, and from then on, she says, the pressure and expectation to produce an album became very real.
In the two years since “Touch”, Shura has slowly transformed from an online bedroom pop sensation, to the kind of artist who attracts a sizeable crowd at Glastonbury and gets recognised on the street and hassled for selfies. Has she noticed this gradual shift? “I get recognised in a way that I didn’t before,” she says thoughtfully. “You’ll be with your friends and someone will ask you for a selfie as if the person you’re hanging out with doesn’t exist and you’ll be like, ‘Yeah but have you met Alice though? Can we talk about Alice? She’s really funny and way cooler than me! You should have a selfie with her!’ So yeah – it still feels a bit weird.”
Speaking to her now, she seems secure in the music she’s now making, and where she is artistically. “I think pop music is all about finding that fine line between being cheesy, but not quite,” she explains. “Can you make singing about sipping lemonade in a song sexy? And if you can, that’s great. Can you put those weird lyrics in about wearing your cap back to front because you saw someone do it on television and you thought they were cool? Can you put that in and make it work? If you can, I reckon you’re doing something right.”
As our conversation draws to a close, the relentless, heavy raindrops become slower and thinner until they eventually dry up completely. And by the time we’re paying the bill, the sun has peeked its head around the clouds, and is streaming through the window. I ask Shura what she’s going to do next, now that her album has been written, recorded, mastered, and finally unleashed into the world. How is she going to spend the next year or two? “I’ll just blindly fumble along,” she shrugs. “So far the world has been kind to me, and I’ll just keep my fingers crossed that it still is.” There’s a pause. “That’s a really boring answer, isn’t it?” she cackles, “What’s a better answer? Partying! Drugs! Sex! Rock n Roll! Yeah, write that down instead! I’m sure someone will believe it.”
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