Entertainment & Arts

Shura interview: 'Pop music doesn't represent me'

Shura Image copyright Polydor
Image caption Shura: "Anxiety is a definite theme of my record".

Anxiety, indecision, missed opportunities, regret. Not themes you commonly associate with pop music.

The omission struck singer-songwriter Shura as odd, so she set about redressing the balance.

"You have so many songs that are like, 'I'm so into you' or 'Let's get it on'," says the 25-year-old. "I don't recognise that swagger, I'm never going to feel like that."

"I felt that pop music didn't represent me. And that's why I made my own."

The results are written across her debut album, Nothing's Real, a catalogue of calamitous crushes and creeping anxiety, set to slow-burning synth-pop.

"We could be more than friends - but maybe I'm just too shy to say it," she sings on 2Shy, an expert dissection of awkward relationships; while the breakthrough single, Touch, finds the singer pining: "I wanna touch you but I'm too late".

Deeply autobiographical, the album even samples home videos of the singer and her family, shot by her documentary-maker father as she grew up.

One of them finds the singer, aged three, declaring a deep-seated hatred for her twin brother. "I don't like Nicky very much," she says. "I'm really cross with him a little bit."

They've patched things up subsequently - Nicky (now Nicholas) shares a flat with his pop star sister in London, and appears in several of her music videos, including the John Hughes-inspired clip for her current single, What's It Gonna Be?

Speaking from that very flat, Shura told BBC News the secrets behind her debut album.

Image copyright Polydor
Image caption Shura: "It's not like I wrote 200 songs for this album. I wrote 14 and four of them didn't make it."

Hello, Shura! The first time we came across you was when you made the shortlist for the BBC's Sound of 2015. If you look at the biography they published, it says: "She honed her sound by walking pumas around the Amazon." Please elaborate.

I love that someone wrote that! How does anyone hone their sound by walking with a Puma? I definitely was in the Amazon, and I'm sure it affected my outlook on life in a way that affects my songwriting, but I wouldn't say that I spent hours in the Amazon thinking about how to EQ a hi-hat. I was mostly trying to avoid being bitten.

Did you really walk a Puma, though?

Yes, I took a Puma for a walk eight hours every day! It had been rescued from a circus. where his back legs had been broken so he could fit in his cage. It was a really lovely, amazing experience. I'll never forget it.

It's 18 months since the Sound of 2015 list came out. Why did it take so long for you to put out an album?

The BBC are just too on it! You're ahead of the curve!

Even at the time I was like, "Woah, this feels a bit early. I'm definitely not going to have an album out this year." It would only have been seven songs long.

Image copyright Polydor
Image caption The singer has collaborated with artists like Greg Kurstin and Mura Masa, but the bulk of her material is self-authored

Did your label ever push you to capitalise on the momentum?

I'm actually really impressed with everyone at Polydor. Because often [record labels] are like, "We need this yesterday. And here are the dresses we think you should be wearing. And go and get your teeth done." But none of that happened. Although I do wish they'd sent me to get my teeth done.

Maybe you can demand it when the album goes to number one.

Oh, it's definitely not going to number one!

Don't be so negative. What if Adele's album suddenly goes out of stock?

It's so funny: when she put her album out, I was like, "Let's wait 'til July before I release my record." And, lo and behold, we're here and she's still number one.

Did you watch her at Glastonbury?

Of course! How could you not? I could barely speak at the end of it. I sang louder and more enthusiastically along to Adele than I have anywhere on my record!

You've discovered your inner torch singer.

Yeah - Whitney Houston, here I come!

It's funny you mention Whitney - because your music is constantly compared to '80s divas like her and Janet and Madonna. Do you mind that?

I'm massively inspired by Janet Jackson, and I adore Whitney Houston and Madonna. Production-wise, those records absolutely have been blueprints for me. I'll add a cowbell to make a song sound like Whitney; or a lovely Juno 106 [synthesizer] to make us feel we're in Live-To-Tell-era Madonna.

I'm also inspired by bands like The National and Fleetwood Mac, too, so it's not just the divas I adore. But you're constantly borrowing: borrowing thoughts, borrowing melodies, borrowing chords, but using them in a new context and giving them a different flavour. Otherwise it's just stealing!

And your vocals are more subtle than a lot of those divas.

I found my own voice slowly. I don't do big tricks like Mariah Carey, so I've found this weird way of singing that works for me. Everything's quite whispery on my album.

Image copyright Polydor
Image caption The singer was born in Russia and raised in Manchester

Your lyrics really seem to have struck a chord with fans. I don't want to generalise, but the main themes seem to be anxiety and missed opportunities.

I don't think you're generalising. I think that's accurate.

Missed opportunity, regret, nostalgia - those are a big part of the record. Looking back and wondering what would have happened if you were more confident - which is basically imagining what life would have been like if you were a completely different person.

Hopefully some people will go: "I feel like you've written about my life, and that hasn't been written about before, so thanks."

Why is the album called Nothing's Real?

It's about a panic attack I had. I thought I was dying and I was taken to hospital, then the doctors did a lot of tests and said I was fine. That was really strange - to feel like you're dying and it not be true. It was like living in a video game, where you have multiple lives.

The final track, 31.12.2015, is darker than the rest of the album. You sing about "losing yourself to the dark". What's the story behind it?

That song is mainly about fear of growing old and death. It's about being scared of losing your parents and how absurd it is that you don't choose to live, but by virtue of being alive, you have to die.

And the whole album ends with the door to my flat shutting because I'm going out to smoke a cigarette. I wanted to use that because the song is about death and, obviously, smoking a cigarette is not the best idea if you're anxious about death. Which is why I've quit.

How did you find the process of quitting?

Fine. I've never been a hardcore smoker. And now that I'm being paid to sing for a living, I should probably look after my voice.

Image copyright Polydor
Image caption The video for What's It Gonna Be is an affectionate tribute to films like Pretty In Pink, Ferris Bueller's Day Off and The Breakfast Club

On a lighter note, the video for What's It Gonna Be? looks like it was a lot of fun. What's your favourite John Hughes movie?

For me, it's The Breakfast Club. The clothes and everything. That was the main inspiration for What's It Gonna Be? We even set it in Shermer High School.

Your mum used to be an actress. Did she give you any advice before you shot the video?

I think if I'd got tips from mum I would have done a better job. It's not the best acting in the world, is it?

I noticed that one of her credits on IMDB is "Drunk female IMF agent" in the first Mission Impossible film.

I know, it's perfect, isn't it? I should really re-enact that in my next video.

Shura's album, Nothing's Real, is out now on Polydor.

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