“It's almost like this record is my falling in love with synthesizers story...” hmv.com talks to Shura
It seems like an age since Shura was marked out as one to watch by the BBC when she appeared on the longlist for their annual 'Sound Of..' poll at the end of 2014 alongside the likes of Years & Years and James Bay, but while her peers have all released debut albums since then, Shura has taken her time and this week her first album Nothing's Real finally arrives in stores (you can preview and purchase it on the right-hand side of this page).
Fresh from her set at Glastonbury, we caught up with Shura to talk about why the album took so long to emerge, overcoming her fears of co-writing by working with Athlete frontman Joel Pott, and why this is an album about nostalgia...
Nothing's Real lands on the shelves today, how are you feeling about it now release day is finally here?
“I'm really excited. I think I've sort of exhausted every emotion in the run-up to this really, I finished it in January, it's a long time for a human to have to wait in a sort of limbo land. I keep referring to it as like being a racehorse in the holding pen before a race, I know that the next year of my life is going to be really hardcore and I just want to get out there and do it now, you know? Get all the reviews out the of way, all the four stars and the one stars, get that over and done with, and then concentrate on the hard bit, which is actually the fun bit, really. So yeah, I'm pretty excited!”
So you finished the album in January, what was the last track to get finished?
“The last one would have been 'Tongue-Tied', actually. Basically I thought I'd finished the record already, but then I went out to the States for a show and I got this call saying 'do you want to work with Greg Kurstin?' I was like: 'Are you joking?!' Of course I want to work with Greg Kurstin!' Even then I wasn't expecting us to write anything crazy good, I just wanted to learn from this man and have the experience of working with him, but then these two songs came out if it that I really liked, to the point I actually ended up chucking two other songs off the record, which I also really liked. So yeah, that ended up being the last one.”
Did you feel under any pressure to put together an album quickly after your inclusion on the BBC's Sound Of.. poll in 2015?
“Well, I mean I literally, physically couldn't have done, so in a way that took any pressure off. People have asked me why I didn't put this out a year ago, and the answer is that if I'd put an album out a year ago it would have been an EP. I just didn't have the music yet.”
So they'd jumped on what you were doing pretty early on then?
“Yeah, I mean the first song that I put out was a demo, and at that time I had, like, two other sketches of songs. And you know what? If I'd have known that the reaction to that song was going to be quite as berserk as it was, I probably would have written half an album or so in preparation. But you can't plan for stuff like that, you can't control it. Lots of people would want that and they plan for it, and it still doesn't happen. So you just have to take it as it comes and roll with it. I just had to get my head down and I did have people asking 'where's the album?' I actually had to make a tongue-in-cheek website and sort of make a joke out of it, that was my way of dealing with that, because I knew it wasn't going to come any time soon and I certainly wasn't going to put anything out before it was ready.”
You've worked with Athlete frontman Joel Pott quite a bit on the record, how did he get involved?
“When I first started working with my manager, we spent the first six months just sending each other youtube links to amazing pop songs, and about halfway through this process he sent me a link saying 'listen to this song, it was co-written by Joel Pott from Athlete, I think you should work together'. I'll be honest, my initial reaction was like: 'WORK WITH SOMEONE ELSE? NO WAY!' I was so frightened of opening up that process to someone, because it's a bit like doing joint therapy or something, especially if what you're writing about is autobiographical. So I was frightened about whether or not I could really be my honest, innermost truthful self.
“Also, I was a bit confused because I love Athlete, but I certainly wasn't planning on making a record that sounds like them. But then I listened to the song and it wasn't until then that I really came to appreciate what writing with someone else really was, I just thought it meant that someone else wrote the song and you took the credit for it, haha!”
What's he like to work with?
“He's amazing, he was as passionate and committed to it as he would have been with his own music. I'd read an interview he did with the Guardian after he'd worked on George Ezra's record and he was saying that when he's writing with someone else, he's a fully committed member of a band called George Ezra, or whoever it is. I think that's maybe even more true with this record because we've ended up producing it together and there was as much love, care and attention to it as with his own records, so it was really an amazing thing to be a part of. But it was exhausting too, at the end of it both of us were like 'holy f*ck, I can't believe we've finally finished it!' It took two years and the first time I'd ever co-written something was on 'Touch' with Joel, so to go from that to making the bulk of the album together and also working with Greg, trying to get those sessions to sound, well, a little bit shittier, because he's this amazing producer and I'm absolutely not! Getting those songs to fit in with everything else on the record was quite interesting.”
In terms of the sound you've developed, you've spoken before about being influenced by your brother DJing drum 'n' bass and hip-hop, but your sound is quite different to that – what kind of thing you get inspiration from when you're writing?
“Usually when I'm writing I'm not thinking about production at all. I always think the most important thing is to ask myself if I sat down and played this song just on a piano, would it still be interesting? If you strip away anything that's current or cool, production-wise, and play a song just on a piano or a guitar, does it still work? So that's the important thing for me and I guess in that sense what I'm influenced by is a lot of classic stuff, whether it's Prince or Madonna or Fleetwood Mac, because those artists are very song-focussed. I think we've lost some of that in pop music. Not all of it, it still exists, but there's so much style over substance now and to me I was like, well, maybe I shouldn't worry about being stylish! Let's just worry about having some good songs.
“We tried a lot of stuff out and we kept going 'nah, it's too cool!' It was funny actually, fighting that urge to be cool or current, I just wanted to make something that was really classic, that'll still sound relevant in 15 or 20 years' time. Which is weird, because it does sound quite 80s, people keep saying it sounds like a lost Madonna record!”
Was there any particular song that set the direction for the rest of the album?
“Probably 'Touch' because it was the first song we wrote together and the first where I'd started to use synthesizers and stuff, before that I'd just written on a guitar. It's almost like this record is my falling in love with synthesizers story and finding a way of marrying that with what I already loved, guitars, live drums and stuff.”
What kind of album is it lyrically? 'Touch' deals with the breakdown of a relationship, is that a common theme?
“In a way. I think it deals mainly with nostalgia, and I mean that in the sense of looking back at a relationship and going 'wasn't that wonderful?', when actually it probably wasn't. Or looking back and asking how it is that I'm a grown-up now, because it doesn't feel like that. So there's all this looking back and I guess that's why sonically it's been influenced by stuff from the 70s and 80s pop music, because it felt like the record was looking back and sampling moments from my childhood."
Do you have any other guests on the album besides Talib Kweli? He features on a new version of 'Touch', how did that come about?
“No, that only came about because I was very conscious with that song that for a lot of people it wasn't new, so I wanted to do something in addition so that someone who has loved the song for two years had another version to listen to. I'm massively in love with hip-hop music and wanted someone to do a verse on it, but rather than asking someone new I felt it was right to delve into that era of hip-hop because I wanted someone who had something interesting to say, something political or more thoughtful.”
He's definitely from that school of rap...
“Yeah, in the same way that people like Q-Tip are, so I literally just found an email on his Facebook page and emailed him, not expecting anything really, but he replied saying he loved the track. It was a true example of don't ask, don't get! Even though it seemed far-fetched I thought well, actually, the worst that can happen is that I don't get a reply.”
So you just did Glastonbury last weekend, was this your first time there?
“I'd never played there before. I mean I took a guitar there once and just rocked up at one of their open mic things, but really this was my debut and it was on the second biggest stage, which is pretty hilarious. It was massive, and the funny thing is I was stood on the stage thinking 'ok, this is definitely the biggest stage I've been on', but then I went to see The 1975 there later in the day and it looked f*cking huge! I couldn't believe it, I must have looked like an ant!”
You've just announced a North American tour too, are you going to be touring UK?
“Yes, post-America we'll be touring the UK, we're still sorting out the details for that, Kentish Town Forum will be a part of it, but it will definitely be happening.”
The vinyl release for hmv includes a 7” of The Space Tapes – can you tell us a bit about that? It shows a more experimental side to what you do...
“Yeah, well I'm really interested in science fiction and after we'd finished the album I really didn't want to go back and do what I'd just done again, I just wanted to make music with freedom, not worrying about whether it was a single or not, or whether it would fit on a record. In the song I talk about going on an adventure on a spaceship, so this was almost like an audio representation of that journey. I wanted to remix these songs as if they were made on the moon, on this massive trip. We called it Space Tapes because afterwards I laid everything out on 1/4” tape and re-recorded it back in while warping it and stuff. I guess it was just a big experiment for me that I actually found really creatively satisfying. It's something I'd like to continue, whether it's remixing my own stuff or other people's, doing space tape edits. It can be like a new format, the Shura Space Tape!”
Nothing's Real is available in hmv stores and online now