English singer-songwriter Shura (née Alexandra Lilah Denton) is an open-book when it comes to talking about her life. She is candid, affable, and self-aware, just like the music she makes. Writing autobiographically is nothing new for her. As soon as she picked up a guitar at 13, she started writing about her day-to-day — teen angst, included. Well, since her last record and in the past three years, Shura has fallen in love in America (and with America, politics aside). That is the basis for her new record out today on Secretly Canadian. Her sophomore album, “forevher”, explores the intimacy of the budding relationship between her and her now-girlfriend. She is not afraid to confront the heaviest of topics, either: religion, sex, and death crop up on the album. She is not your average dinner party conversation, nor do we want her to be.
Shura is admittedly “allergic” to musicals, but the album feels like it could be the start of one. She told us that at one point, she wanted to soundtrack a lesbian musical that she would never end up making. But, maybe that is exactly the musical we need. Her music video for “religion” is easily saucier than the nuns in The Sound of Music, and songs off of this album could effortlessly embody that decisive moment when characters break into song. To compare “forevher” to a musical is not to say that it is melodramatic, however. Shura situates people in that giddiness of new love. She makes people feel like they are there with her: in the highs of love and in the lows of what could be lost at any given time.
KALTBLUT sat down with Shura to find out more about what inspired “forevher”. In our interview below, she talks about why she moved to America, what her first date was like, her fear of flying, the cowboy she met in Texas, and so much more.
KALTBLUT: What prompted you to move to the US?
Shura: Literally just the fact that the person I was dating lived there. I feel like I moved to America at a time when most people I know would be like, “I don’t want to move to America”, or “I want to move out of America”. So, it was really strange: falling in love in a country that a lot of people were falling out of love with. But then, at the same time, I was sort of falling in love with America, not the shit parts obviously. But kind of discovering how much else there was to it — meeting all these characters. I had only experienced America on the surface level, for a week or so. Meeting my girlfriend. Doing long-distance and managing a long-distance relationship for a year and a half.
KALTBLUT: That’s a long time.
Shura: Yeah, it’s a long time! If it had been LA to London, that would have been impossible just because of the time difference. At least, the time difference between New York and London is five hours. So you kind of have half the day when you can speak. It’s also funny, because she always says goodnight to me when I’m in London. Then I’d get really sad that she would have the rest of the day, go to bed on her own, and have no one to say goodnight. I would be there to tell her good morning, but I would be alone in the morning. By virtue of where we are on the planet, we have very different experiences of that same relationship. Anyways, that wasn’t really an answer to your question.
KALTBLUT: Well, it was, it was – it was for love.
Shura: I moved for love, not for Trump… and having front row seats to that. I mean it’s fucked up in the UK as well.
KALTBLUT: And is this record about your relationship with your girlfriend?
Shura: I guess I started writing it right as we began to speak. So the first song that I wrote was “religion”, which I just released. It started in Minneapolis, home of Prince, which is why I think it has that kind of flavour and that kind of playfulness lyrically. It was basically written about the four months before we met — before we went on a date. Which is funny because it’s probably my most overtly sexual song. But it was at a time when we were not able to have sex. It was physically impossible, because we were on the other side of the planet. I wonder, sometimes, if I felt emboldened to be that explicit. Because it wasn’t happening. It’s all part of that playfulness. Me playing around on the fact that sex is a religion for some people. Playing around with different religious imagery, which is entertaining on multiple levels, especially being queer. Talking about hands and putting them on me… Well, she’s on the other side of the Atlantic, babe. So those hands are going nowhere near you.
KALTBLUT: Did you meet over an app?
Shura: Yes, yes. We met online, which I feel like a lot of people do nowadays. But, certainly, growing up queer, it’s much more common because I never knew that many gay people, so it’s the only way that you could sort of meet. A lot of my friends, I’ve met through dating apps, but I never dated them. That’s just how we met and how we became friends. It never felt weird. I guess meeting on an app, then going on a date to New York was quite weird. I guess we spent four months talking and at that point were having seven-hour long telephone conversations and we had skype’d. I checked that she wasn’t a totally different human being, like a fake person, and all that stuff.
KALTBLUT: No cat-fishing…
Shura: Well, at one point, I think one of my friends joked about the potential of the cat-fishing thing, and I was like “oh fuck”. It hadn’t even occurred to me… “My friend said that you’re a cat-fish”, and we joked. A few months later, we skype’d anyway. But, I didn’t actually think. It was funny for a second… I never even thought about that.
KALTBLUT: It’s interesting too, because we all have these digital presences, so it’s almost weird to imagine dating someone without the ability to find out who they are.
Shura: But I think actually, what the great thing about how this happened was… Yeah, we met on an app, but it wasn’t that thing where you open up Tinder, and it’s like, here are the nearest 18-30 year-olds who identify as gay within a five-mile radius. When it’s all geo-located like that, then the first thing that you’re going to do, after you exchange a few messages, is go on a date… Because you’re around the corner. Since, there was this distance, I wasn’t going to suggest a date. We had to talk, and that’s all we did. It wasn’t even flirtatious to begin with. Then we started talking about deeper things. There was an amazing intellectual connection that we were afforded. By the time we went on a date, I knew I was intellectually attracted to this human being. So it was, am I going to fancy them when I see them in 3D? And more scarily so, are they still going to fancy me? Normally with apps, you’d think it would be harmful to meaningful human connections. But just by virtue of us being separated by such a distance, actually in this respect, there was already a bond there. It was a really intense date in a really lovely way. In a safe way. We had already shared so much of our lives with each other.
KALTBLUT: What was your first date?
Shura: I obviously booked a hotel, because I didn’t assume I was going to be staying at her place, and so, we met. We decided to meet in the lobby of my hotel. It was quite funny, I had to go downstairs, and now looking back on it, I was like, why did I do that? It was such a weird, exposed place to meet. But then again, I felt really weird being like, “come up to my hotel room”. It felt a bit creepy being like, “come up to floor 21” — that’s sleazy. Anyways, so I poked my head around to corridor outside the elevator. I am like, fuck that’s this person that I’ve been speaking to for months.
So it was “Hi, this is funny. Come up”. We got into the elevator, and there were like two strangers in the elevator. I couldn’t be like “this is hilarious meeting for the first time!” I could acknowledge it. If I feel awkward, I always try to diffuse something with humour. But I couldn’t do it. I was staying on the 21st floor, so there was 21 floors of silence. Then, we had a drink and went to see MUNA. I know the girls from MUNA, so I DM’d them being like, “please can you get me guestlist, I’m going on a first date, and I want to impress her”. I remember that one of the girls was like, “we all love the concept of a first date at a MUNA gig”, so 100% yes we’re putting you on the guestlist.
KALTBLUT: So is that what you wrote “the stage” about?
Shura: “the stage” is about our first date there. My girlfriend spent most of the gig — she not that much taller than me — trying to find a place where I could also see. And I was like “babe, I’m five-three and a half, I gave up on seeing the people on the stage many years ago. I’m happy just to listen, that’s how I experience gigs”. It’s always the tallest dude standing in front of me. At one point, I wanted to ask MUNA if they wanted to sing on that record. It would’ve been really funny if they were the backing vocals on a song about their own gig.
KALTBLUT: With that song, you can really feel the butterflies of being on a first date.
Shura: Yeah, it’s a theatrical song in a way. It feels like the opener of a lesbian musical that I decided to write. Even though I hate musicals, but it has that romantic giddiness. It’s also absurd, it’s a fucking weird song, but I love it.
KALTBLUT: I like that you said musical, because the album feels cohesive from the title to the artwork. It really feels like the beginning of a relationship, which usually comes up in musicals or stories.
Shura: It has a lot that goes wrong three-fourths of the way through and then goes right at the end. But maybe that’s my next record. I am slightly allergic to a lot of musical theatre, which is funny because my twin brother studied it, and maybe that’s why I’m partly allergic to it. I love Sondheim. Lyrically and musically, he’s brilliant. There was a point musically when I wanted to write the soundtrack to a lesbian musical that I’m never going to make. Because it’s just funny, it was entertaining to me to dabble in a theatrical world where I would normally be quite allergic to it.
I think there is a lot of that on this record. It’s me playing with things that I’m slightly allergic to. So there is a lot of piano on this record, where there was very little on the first record. I was obsessed with synths, and now, there are still synths, but I wanted to play around with more organic, stripped back stuff. The start of the record is me playing piano really badly and me singing slightly out of tune. So it’s pushing myself to be vulnerable in that way, and not hide behind three thousand layers of vocals. There are also those moments. But I wanted to push myself to be open and vulnerable, in that way that you are at the beginning of a relationship. You want to hold hands and skip down the road and sing out loud, and you don’t give a fuck if someone thinks you’re a loser. Well, I don’t care because I really fancy her and she’s coming home with me.
KALTBLUT: Show it off to the world…
Shura: Well, it’s almost like you’re not even aware of the world. You’re not aware of the world being aware of you. You’re just so in this bubble of joy or not afraid of being embarrassed, or what you might find cringe.
KALTBLUT: Your twin brother is also involved in music. So, is your family musical? When did you start songwriting?
Shura: I started writing when I was… I picked up a guitar when I was 13. Straight away started writing. I was never really interested in learning other people’s songs. Which I now kind of regret, because I feel like if I learnt other people’s songs, I would find it easier to write my own. I didn’t think about that. So, I just started writing almost immediately and autobiographically. Obviously, as a teenager, songs probably called like I’m really bored, or I fucking hate you, or my life sucks. But, I wouldn’t say we come from a musical family. Everyone in my family loves music. Nick, my twin, obviously studied musical theatre. He’s very accomplished and a much better singer than I am. He’s trained, and I’ve never had a singing lesson in my life. My dad does play guitar and taught me quite a few chords. I got interested in guitar, because we had guitars around. I guess we’re probably more musical than the average family. But no one reads music. No one is a concert pianist or chellist or anything. Even my mom tried writing a song once and recording it on a four track in our house. She thinks it’s brilliant. It’s a style.
KALTBLUT: I wanted to bring this up earlier. I find that across the whole record you talk not only about religion and sexuality but also the fear of death, where did that inspiration come?
Shura: I think it’s something about when you love someone or something. It makes me more afraid of death, because you have something to lose in that regard. It’s “princess leia” that deals with the idea of my own death. And there was just a really weird moment that I had while flying to Australia. Again, I think this was before I met my girlfriend, and we were still talking. Just after Christmas, and Carrie Fisher had just been taken to hospital. I’m really afraid of flying.
KALTBLUT: That was one of my questions.
Shura: That’s the important thing to know, first. So, I hate flying, and one of my heroes had gone to hospital having some sort of medical emergency on a plane. When I landed in Dubai on the way to Australia, one of the first texts that I got was from my now-girlfriend was “Carrie Fischer died”, and I was like, fuck. I grew up with Star Wars. My older brother was obsessed, so I grew up being obsessed, because he was and I wanted to impress him. And she’s a hero. An incredible woman in her own right. An incredible character. She had just been in this new Star Wars film. We had just seen her for the first time on screen as Leia. I sat down, and I had this slightly surreal idea that maybe I died when she died, and I’m in this alternate universe. When your heroes die, someone like Carrie Fischer, there is this part of you that sort of dies with them.
KALTBLUT: That lyric really stood out to me too. And in hearing you explain it, it’s relatable. Especially when heroes die, you get texts or you send them… these situations, in which people we don’t know, but have influenced us, die.
Shura: That whole song is about fucked up things that have happened in planes or at airports. The second verse is me landing in Marfa, Texas. Where I actually met the cowboy that I wrote “tommy” about. When we landed, the pilot was like, “we’ve been carrying the body of a fallen soldier”. I wondered why there were so many men in uniform. It’s a Delta airlines flight. This is weird. So my luggage is in there, and there is this man who died. They brought out his body, and we all had to wait. All the service men stood up on the plane, so we all stood up. I was looking out the tiny porthole, and I could see this casket being brought out with the American flag on it.
I remember suddenly just crying, and I don’t know this man. But there was a brass band playing and this weird flag… Such an amazing country that is going through such a strange time. It was a blanket over a human who is coming home, but he is not. I mean that’s why I ended up asking Will [Miller] from Whitney to do a brass, horn arrangement on it, because that’s what was physically happening.
Shura: It’s a very special song for me, as is “tommy”… that whole 10 minute section when you have a break from drums. It’s my weird moment of things about death.
KALTBLUT: So you recorded this conversation with this man Tommy, did you ask him?
Shura: So I actually didn’t record it. But my girlfriend did. The weird thing is, I was like, “that conversation was so fucking amazing”, and she was like, “I recorded it”. I listened to it and thought, “this is incredible”. I obviously checked the legality of what we had done, but the craziest thing was that I would have never put it on the record without asking him. I had to find a way to contact a 90-year-old man I met in Marfa, Texas, that I met that day at Dairy Queen. And we did it.
We found out he had a job for the council and found out his name. Was eventually given his number and just called him and was like “hi I don’t know if you remember me, but I want to send you this song that’s about you, and I’ve used some of your voice, and I want to check that you’re happy with it”. He said, “well you can send me an email, but I don’t know where it will go to, though. I don’t know where my email is”. I was like, fuck this is going to be hard.
KALTBLUT: Just have to go to Marfa. Drive a couple hours.
Shura: Well, I just rang Marfa Public Radio, and was like “guys, I’m going to send you an .mp3. You cannot play it on the radio. That’s not why I’m sending it to you, but this guy is going to come in and listen to it. And can you let me know whether or not he’s happy.” And I got this email that said, I’m here with him, he loves it, can you please send the lyrics so we can print them out for him. And that was it. I think that was one of the biggest achievements. I somehow found this guy again. It would have been a beautiful song without him. But there is something really nice about putting people physically in a place. I really tried to explore that in this record. That’s why there is a sax at the end of BKLNLDN. I wanted it to sound like you were on a subway platform. I wanted to people to really feel that I was in America for a large portion of this love story. Which is weird. Why do I want people to feel like they’re in America at a time when people are like America is a weird place. So, I’m conflicted about America.