Photo by Hollie Fernando
Shura only began officially performing live last year, but already she’s set foot on some of the biggest stages in the business, including festivals like South by Southwest, Latitude, and Field Day.
Despite the hot lights and epic speaker systems, though, the London-based artist conducts herself in much the same way she did early on in her career — when she was an open mic participant in the pubs of Manchester — freely offering up her heart and soul to anyone who dares take a peek into such a complex abyss.
Decades may separate these two phases of her life, but Shura’s identity as a songwriter has always been guided by uninhibited honesty and a desire to stay true to her instincts and sense of fluidity.
Born Aleksandra Denton to a British father and Russian mother, Shura learned at a young age that she wasn’t very good at taking orders from others, nor was she content to fall in line and adhere to the norm. Instead of enrolling in music classes, she taught herself, as well as surrounded herself with budding local musicians. It was among these creatives that she began to find her voice.
For some time, she worked closely with an Iranian beatsmith, Cyrus Shahrad aka Hiatus. More than just mere collaborators, according to Shura, he helped introduce her to the world of electronic music and instilled in her a diligent songwriting process.
“Hiatus was absolutely instrumental in getting me into production, because it was the first time I worked so closely with a producer,” she looks back with a sense of awe. “[He] has an incredible attention to detail — he is an absolute perfectionist. And I think that once I started working on my own material that it really rubbed off on me in a positive way — a desire to get it as right as humanly possible — even if it is only to your ears.”
They pieced together countless compositions, including a song called “Iran Air”, which Shura considers one of the most pivotal moments in her development as an artist. Today, her ability to be so personal on singles like “Touch” and “Indecision” can likely be traced back to that period of her life.
“I think that now I’ve become a far more honest songwriter, lyrically,” she explains. “I try to say exactly what it is that is on my mind in the way that my mind thinks it instead of consciously trying to turn it into something that sounds profound like a song lyric.”
After her stint with Hiatus, Shura continued to play around with arrangements built on synthesizers and drum machines. It’s not difficult to pinpoint the icons from which she draws inspiration: Her wistful, R&B-tinged synthpop often sounds akin to the ‘80s and ‘90s hits of Madonna and Janet Jackson, confident enough to show heart as well as dance floor flair.
“I think both Jackson and Madonna share a fearlessness, sonically,” Shura says, adding, “They’re not afraid to explore or be influenced by music that is traditionally more left field.” She counts “Live to Tell” as one of her favorite Madonna tracks because “it’s so laid-back, it doesn’t try very hard, it just is.” Meanwhile, J Dilla’s production prowess makes “Got ’til It’s Gone” a top-notch Jackson joint.
Shura knows how hard it can be to follow the aesthetic lead of “Live to Tell” — letting things simply be — especially given her background as a student of English Literature. However, she’s adamant about allowing her intuitions play a major role in her songwriting.
“Sometimes it’s important to forget your ‘academic’ brain,” says the 23-year-old. “I think that with any art form sometimes the best thing you can do is think less and act more.
“That’s why children are often the greatest actors. They just respond to their natural and imagined environments and don’t think about what they look or sound like. That kind of innocence is important to hold onto. I try to think less sometimes,” Shura quietly admits.
When discussing more modern-day artists, she’s quick to gush about Tame Impala and The War on Drugs (Lost in a Dream was her pick for 2014’s best album) and the way in which they’re able to take listeners on a journey, lyrically and musically.
Shura also acknowledges that The National are a “huge inspiration” in terms of her lyrics, which isn’t all that surprising considering both she and the Dessner brothers are so keen when it comes to conveying the lingering sting of a breakup or disappointment.
Her devastating songs “2Shy” and “Just Once” are a result of her openness and willingness to experiment with various synthesized sounds, but Shura’s gung-ho attitude isn’t just reserved for music.
Like a traveler on a mission to traverse uncertain terrain, the singer spent her gap year in South America, where she watched over pumas and lived a jungle lifestyle deep in the Amazon. She thought about new songs, but mostly “got to be Lara Croft for a month — except without the boobs, tombs, and crocodiles,” she says of the adventurous experience.
Mosquitos hunted for her blood day and night, and “even the trees wanted to kill” her, but she survived and came out a better, stronger person. “It was physically really tough but also something that I will remember for the rest of my life. I think it’s important to go to places where you don’t speak the language, don’t know where anything is and try to learn it and get by.”
And, while her forthcoming full-length will chronicle the “before, during, and after scenarios” of broken relationships, she’s not restricting herself to just matters of the heart, she says. “I wrote a song I love after spending two hours crying in the cinema whilst watching Interstellar — so there’s at least one that isn’t about love!”