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Shura
ShuraPhotography Hollie Fernando

Shura on her new album Forevher, a celebration of queer love

The UK pop star talks about her obsession with Sister Act, flipping the pronouns in her records to 'she' and the importance of good SEO

When Shura first put out her breakthrough banger, “Touch”, back in 2014, there were less openly queer pop stars than you could count on one hand. The video, which now has 31 million plays, featured lots of gay couples snogging, and Shura was outspoken about the fact that she was a gay woman. Her first album, 2016’s dancey electro-pop record Nothing’s Real, became anthemic for queer people who felt like outsiders. At the time of its release, she told The Guardian: “Maybe someone will watch my video and think ‘I can come out’.” Given how the record blew up, it seems likely that at least a few people did.

Today, Shura releases her second album, forevher, into a very different world – one with more gay pop stars than ever before. It’s another unabashed record about queer desire, but it’s also about the longing in a long term relationship, rediscovering herself after moving to New York at a time when America gets a bad rep, and the joys of sex in general. Collaborators include Orlando from T.E.E.D, Jona Ma from Jagwar Ma, and Will from Whitney. True to its subject matter, the album sounds like the blossoming of a romance: hopeful and mischievous, and at times verges on tongue-in-cheek. Take the lyrics and video for “religion (u can lay your hands on me)”, in which Shura can be seen chilling in a garden full of lesbian nuns.

For the release of forevher, the now-New York-based artist popped back over to the UK, where she caught up with Dazed between battling jet lag, recording, and, she says, ever down to earth, doing the washing up.

Let’s start with the title, forevher. I see what you did there! But you could explain a little more about how you landed on it?

Shura: I began circling around that name three quarters of the way through making the record. I wrote a song called “Forever”, spelled the standard way, and I felt it encapsulated a lot of the themes of the album: the joy of love; the absurdity of love; the absurdity of the notion of loving someone forever. I like forever, but I was thinking how the Spice Girls had a record called Forever, so maybe I should avoid doing something with exactly the same name. I started thinking about how forevher encapsulates a few different things: ‘for her’, ‘forever’ and also ‘forever her’ – which summed up what I’m trying to get across, but also the long distance relationship that I was writing about. 

Also, in many ways, this is a queerer record than my first, certainly in the fact that I’m using gendered pronouns. But at the same time, you could listen to the record and if you blinked you could miss the fact that it says “her” or “she”, that it’s a woman singing about another woman. If you are scanning, you could also miss that forevher is spelled differently. I guess I wanted to write this record about love that was very explicitly queer and somehow absolutely not queer at the same time, if you didn’t pay attention.

You mentioned a lot of the songs are about a long-distance relationship. Are you still with the person?

Shura: Yeah, for PR reasons only! I’m kidding. We are still together. I keep joking that the day of the record (release), she’s going to dump me and I’m going to be like “Alright then, this going to be an interesting album tour.” I moved to New York in January, and there is something really exciting about a long-distance relationship in that there is so much longing and waiting. There’s this constant deferred gratification which can be emotionally and physically exciting. But there was this worry, for me, that when we finally did decide to move in together, would it still work? Luckily it was absolutely fine and it was so nice to not have to always be waiting.

“There’s a lot more people like me around... could probably name two or three (queer artists in my scene) when I put out my first record, whereas now I could name 10 or 15” – Shura

If you had to give someone advice for a long distance relationship, what would be your pearl of wisdom?

Shura: We made the decision to speak everyday. To always say good morning and always say goodnight, even if when I say good morning to her it’s my afternoon. So I think that’s important. Also, we would plan dates even though we weren’t physically in the same place, which would obviously be quite restrictive! So we would pick a film on Netflix or Amazon and go “OK, let’s watch this together.” We would time it and literally go, “3,2,1, play.” Maybe once or twice a week we would have a date. Whether it be a movie night or a wine and Skype as if you were at a restaurant. It’s very lesbian.

And then of course your other piece of advice would be to write an album about them in order to trap them?

Shura: Yes, trap them forever! I would definitely not recommend doing that because that’s a really creepy thing to do. 

More pressure than potentially moving to their country….

Shura: Definitely. But I didn’t set out to write an album about the relationship, it was just when I got to the end of it that I realised there were a lot of songs about it. Musicians are weird – writing songs about other people is quite weird, and how the other person reacts to that is entirely dependent on how much they fancy you, really. If I wrote a song about someone who didn’t fancy me they’d be like, “This person is creepy,” whereas if I write a song for someone who fancies me then they’d be like, “Oh my god, this is the sweetest thing anyone’s ever done.”

You have said that the sound is less glitzy than your first album. How do you think you’ve evolved since Nothing’s Real

Shura: I think musically it’s more mature. The way I approach writing is stripping everything back just to write with a piano and vocal and see how it’s going to sound. That’s the best way of telling whether or not a song is a good song. It’s very easy to make anything sound cool when you’ve got a Juno-106 and some beats you’ve got going on a loop. I really wanted the songwriting on this record to be very classic, very strong, and build up from there. I was listening to more music from the 70s when writing, rediscovering a lot of 70s soul records and re-falling in love with Joni Mitchell as an adult rather than as a teenager. I was listening to all these classic songs and wanted to borrow from this pallette, but do it in such a way that it couldn’t have been made at any other moment except now. Take the piano, take some strings, but have some Auto-Tune...

“religion” is a banger. Could you talk me through the writing of that?

Shura: The banger! Well, that started as joke with Luke (Saunders), my guitarist. We’d just done a tour and we should have gone home, but we decided to spend an extra week in Minneapolis drinking White Russians and making music. Obviously all the music that we were making was pretty shit. To cleanse our pallettes in between writing a not very good song, we decided to make a song that sounded like the soundtrack to a 70s French porno. That was the start of “religion”. When I got back to London I was playing it to Joel (Potts), a long time collaborator of mine, and of course he said it was the best thing I had done. We said, “Fuck it, let’s try and make this into a song as opposed to a joke!”

I’d obviously just started to talk with my girlfriend – who wasn’t my girlfriend yet – and ended up writing this sexy song about wanting to have sex with someone who I’d never met. I find it quite funny that it’s probably my most sexually explicit or bold song, and it was written about a time when I wasn’t able to have sex because she was on the other side of the planet. It’s all very well and good saying “you can lay your hands on me”, but she physically couldn’t. I probably felt emboldened by that.

How do you know what a 70s porno sounds like? Have you ever seen one?

Shura: I don’t know if I have. I think it was just what I thought it would sound like in my head. I was thinking of a moustached man in the 70s. It probably doesn’t sound anything like it. Can’t speak from experience.

“I was listening to all these classic songs and wanted to borrow from this pallette, but do it in such a way that it couldn’t have been made at any other moment except now” – Shura

In the video, you took a bit of a different direction with it… There are a lot of gay nuns. Were you worried about a Catholic backlash?

Shura: I have had a long term fascination with nuns having fun, partly inspired by Sister Act, but I’m also just fascinated with religion and religion’s relationship with women and gay people. I had watched a few episodes of The Young Pope with Jude Law and I fell in love with his costume. I thought he looked incredible. I wanted to wear this outfit and needed to make a video where I’m a Pope. I decided I was going to be a nun gardening who’s daydreaming that she’s the Pope surrounded by lesbian nuns. I remember talking to Chloe (Wallace), the director, and saying I had an idea for a music video. She said it was brilliant, but why the fuck do you have to be nun dreaming of being a Pope? You can just be the fucking Pope!

Sister Act obviously had a big impact on you. But which do you prefer, 1 or 2?

Shura: It’s really hard. I think I have to go with 1 out of loyalty but Sister Act 2 is one of those sequels that probably is better than the first. Lauryn Hill is incredible. 

The record is mainly about love but what else do you write about?

Shura: Well “tommy” is about a stranger I met in a Texas Dairy Queen. “princess leia” and “tommy” are prime examples of things that I think about when I’m not being happy, like the fact that I’m going to die or someone I love is going to die. I think I do a lot of grieving before I need to grieve. I grieve my own death because I won’t be able to grieve it when I’m dead! I guess I just write about existential crises.

What are you enjoying musically at the moment?

Shura: I’m listening to a lot. I’m literally obsessed with Clairo. I listen to “Bags” about 20 times a day most days. Charlotte Day Wilson, Whitney, and a load of old records, too.

Old Whitney or new Whitney?

Shura: Both! What a nightmare it must be to be called Whitney and have to Google yourself when you’re the band. Well, I guess Whitney Houston can’t Google herself. It’s like being a band called ‘Jungle’. How do you find yourself on the internet?

“King Princess has come out and been the gayest thing I have ever seen on planet earth and it’s wonderful” – Shura

So the goal as an artist is really to achieve good SEO? 

Shura: Well, there’s a Russian Shura already. I mean, I’m a Russian Shura too, but there’s a more Russian Shura, who’s a man. There’s also an anime called Shura, so I’m fucked, basically. But I’m trying to be the first Shura you get when you Google Shura. 

When you were emerging, around 2015 and 16, a lot of the conversation always started with, “As a gay person, who’s a woman, who makes music…” How do you think the landscape has changed?

Shura: The way that the landscape has changed is that there’s a lot more people like me around. It’s a particular sphere – the pop world that’s slightly indie – but we’re seeing so many more queer artists in it. I could probably name two or three when I put out my first record, whereas now I could name 10 or 15. Marika Hackman is putting out a very explicitly queer and erotic – oh my god, only dads use the word “erotic” – record. King Princess has come out and been the gayest thing I have ever seen on planet earth and it’s wonderful! I’m so glad that we live at a time where a King Princess can exist and (her being queer) is not a big talking point. Obviously my friends and I talk about it because we’re like, “Fuck, there’s a song called ‘Pussy is God’, this is amazing,” but in the grand scheme of things it’s less of a big deal than it would have been five years ago. And it’s not just that there are more of us but that those of us that exist are being bolder than we ever have been before. Maybe that is because there are more of us or maybe it’s just where we’re at culturally. Whatever it is, it’s really great to see.