Quickly being hailed as one of the break-out new talents of the year, SHURA is an artist with so many strings to her bow that it’s hard to pin down what her best suit is. A singer, producer, re-mixer and video editor, Shura was born Aleksandra Lilah Yakunina-Denton in Moscow to a Russian actress and an English documentary filmmaker. Keen to impress her DJ brother, Shura began building her own songs when she was 16, immersing herself in the textured sounds of Janet Jackson, Blood Orange and early Madonna. A few years later she headed off to the Amazon rainforest on a gap year, in a bid to fully immerse herself in her songwriting.
Her trademark soft, retro pop filtered through 90s RnB is supremely modern and in keeping with a lot of today’s forward-thinking pop music. Shura’s first two tracks, Touch and Just Once, have racked up Radio 1 playlists, over a million online hits and praise from the likes of Dev Hynes and Jessie Ware. She stands poised to release her debut album Nothing’s Real on Polydor in July this year, with a whole clutch of people eager to find out which direction this remarkable artist will go next.
Ahead of her Sound City performance on 29th May, we caught up with Shura in the middle of her busy schedule as she was putting the finishing touches to her debut record.
Bido Lito!: How’s work progressing with your album? It’s been quite a slow burn since you released your first single Touch in 2014 (and even longer back to River): is this a reflection of your process of writing and making songs?
Shura: The album is nearly there. Just the finishing touches. I’m really proud of it, so pretty freakin’ stoked to share it with the world this year. Joel [Pott, Athlete] and I have been working on it for the last few years so it’s been a real labour of love.
Everyone’s different when it comes to writing songs. Some people write five in one week and maybe one of them is good, whereas I’ll probably write one and spend two to three weeks working on it until I’m happy that it’s a fair representation sonically of what was in my brain at the start. River was a song that I wrote that was remixed by Hiatus and started a collaboration project between the two of us, which naturally sounds very different to my work as a solo artist. Touch was my first ever release as just me so, whilst the work I did with Hiatus is very much a part of my development as a songwriter, it doesn’t really feel like I started or launched as a solo artist until Touch. I’m definitely a perfectionist, the good thing is once you learn to let go of a song you begin to love it for its flaws as well as its strengths.
BL!: What kind of world did being on the BBC’s Sound Of 2015 list open up to you?
S: It’s hard to imagine what opened up for me because I was fortunate enough to be on that list, and so in order to fully understand what it gave me I’d have to imagine what would have happened without it, which is a very difficult thing to do. It obviously meant that my songs were being played on the radio more and that people discovered me as a result of getting more airplay. Maybe people who hadn’t clicked on a SoundCloud link before suddenly felt compelled to – I dunno! It was definitely nice to have that nod of approval, that recognition, but so many artists who don’t make that list are also brilliant. I think that it’s important to take both criticism and praise with a pinch of salt. Believing your own hype is probably the worst thing that can happen to you as an artist.
BL!: I love the way Touch has elements of trip hop and glassy, more conventional pop. They’re obviously big influences to you – did you find any challenges in creating something that brought these important influences together?
S: The pop that I love is always slightly left-of-centre – be it Dev Hynes or Grimes – so I think that’s what influences the poppier side of my music. I’m also a huge fan of Madonna, Janet Jackson and Fleetwood Mac, so I guess that influences my style a lot. I grew up listening to a lot of trip hop, so when it came to making my own music it’s only natural to pull [out] elements from the stuff you love and try and make it work. Sometimes it doesn’t, but that’s the fun part – trying.
BL!: It sometimes feels pointless trying to describe music made today in terms of certain established genres. Do you think we’re moving towards a genre-less world?
S: I think it’s hard to imagine truly new genres emerging. For instance, can you imagine what it would have been like to have listened to The Beach Boys back in ‘66? It must have blown people’s minds. No one had heard anything like that before. I don’t know if that’ll ever happen in the same way. I guess the new genres that are emerging now are an amalgamation of genres that haven’t ever been put together before. It’s normally technology or new instruments that start huge shifts in the way popular music sounds. Just look at the synthesiser, which was initially created to replace organic sounds. Now it’s an instrument in its own right.
BL!: Do you find any catharsis in being so raw and vulnerable in your lyrics?
S: I definitely find it easier to talk about how I feel in a song than I do with humans. I think that stems from being socially awkward, so of course there is a kind of catharsis. The good thing is that, once you release a song, that emotion or thought that sparked it no longer belongs only to you. It’s embraced and interpreted by your fans – ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’ in action.
BL!: An outsider might presume that there would be a more conservative approach to making music (and indeed art) in Russia – would that be true, in your experience? Did your mother being an actress encourage you to be more adventurous with your creative output?
S: I haven’t spent enough time in Russia to have even the slightest clue if there’s a difference in approaching making music, whether it’s more or less conservative. There are lots of incredible electronic music producers in Russia, so I’m not sure it’s necessarily that different. I’m sure there are differences in what’s popular between the UK and Russia but that’s true of a lot of countries and cultures. What’s popular here may not be in Italy, what’s huge in the US might not go down so well here.
It’s strange being half Russian and half English because, in a way, you don’t quite fit in anywhere. I feel very Russian in England in that I’m very proud of my heritage, but then when I get to Russia I think, “Nope, I’m definitely English”. Ha!
BL!: Do you still enjoy having a hand in your videos as well? Three Years seems to show that you’ve got a lot more ambition for this side of your identity.
S: I love being involved in making music videos. That’s one of the great things about being a musician, that you can dip your toe into so many worlds. I always try to be involved as much as I can, mainly because it’s really fucking fun, but also because I think that, if you’re making the music, you’re in kind of the best position to know what’s appropriate visually. It’s all connected.
Shura plays Liverpool Sound City on 29th May, appearing on the Atlantic Stage. Her debut album Nothing’s Real comes out on 8th July on Polydor.