Photo by Hollie Fernando
Shura Tells Her Modern Love Story On 'Forevher'
Shura didn't intend to fall in love with a woman an ocean away—like all love stories, it just sort of happened.
In the time after her 2016 debut, Nothing's Real, the British pop performer began to realize that having a traditional Tinder account was no longer an option, with her own show attendees screencapping her profile and posting it to Twitter, among other embarrassments. So she signed up for the considerably more private dating app, Raya, which heavily vets its users and posits itself as "an exclusive platform for people in creative industries."
During a phone call to talk about her upcoming sophomore album, forevher (out Aug. 16 via Secretly Canadian), Shura, whose real name is Aleksandra Denton, emits a sniff of laughter at the idea of being one of the dating elite ("I'm on it and my girlfriend's on it, and she's not famous," she says). But her experiment would prove successful: Once she began swiping on Raya, Shura met her now-partner, who was and is currently based in New York. After months of chatting, Shura flew to the city for a first date. Now, two years later, she's a permanent resident of the Big Apple, and her relationship informs much of her softly soulful sophomore album, which is home to the synth-splashed, Janet Jackson-esque single "religion (u can lay your hands on me)."
In many ways, forevher also represents a victory lap for Shura, who, even as recently as a few years ago, wouldn't have felt comfortable using same-sex pronouns in her songs. But the "her" in "forevher" is quite purposeful, as is its Rodin-inspired blue imagery of two women embracing. "I remember when I put out Nothing's Real... In the pop sphere there really wasn't a queer woman that I could think of, other than people who had also already been around for a while," Shura tells the Recording Academy. "So, Tegan and Sara, maybe you have Hayley Kiyoko as well. But now we have King Princess, we have lots of non-binary artists. The indie-pop world, it's just so much queerer than it was when I first put out a record. I don't feel like the only gay in the village anymore."
On the cusp of releasing forevher, Shura sat down with the Recording Academy to delve further into the story behind her latest effort—which is co-produced with Joel Pott and features collaborations with Jagwar Ma's Jona Ma, Whitney's Will Miller and more—and why this feels like her "first record as an adult woman."
When did you begin to write forevher in earnest?
I began as soon as I finished touring. I wasn't seriously planning anything. It was just about getting back into the groove of writing. No pressure to think about anything in terms of an entire record.
Then, I guess about summer of, maybe spring, summer of last year, I'd written enough songs to really go, "Okay, there's a body of work here, a story that I feel like I can get a handle on what the story is that I want to tell." And I began in the summer of last year, the recording. Kind of approached it, actually, in a very different way than the first record.
[The first record] was done like, I would write a song and finish producing it, and then move on to the next song. Whereas this was much more like, write a bunch of things, and then go, "Okay, what do I have here?" And then go in.
Did you primarily record in the States, or were you in London?
No, because earlier, I made it primarily in London. It was just about me going to the States.
I did some writing in L.A., actually, with Orlando Higginbottom, whose artist name is Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs. But that was the only writing that I did in the States for this record. I bizarrely made more of this record in the U.K. than the last one.
Forevher is about your forming a long-distance relationship with your current partner. When did you guys originally connect?
Yeah, so we met on a dating app when I was physically in Minneapolis, and my partner was in New York at the time. So we weren't close to one another, even then. And we met because she had said, "If you're swinging by New York on your way back to London, then maybe we should hang out."
But you know, I wasn't really swinging by anywhere. I'd just wrapped up finished touring. I was like, "I need to go home. See my parents and my cat, and my twin, but sure." So we began talking. It wasn't like an every day sort of thing. We would just occasionally share funny things that had happened.
And I guess gradually, we were just talking more and more frequently. For four months it slowly developed to this quite intense relationship. It wasn't sexual, of course. It was an intellectual one. That's the funny thing about it. Because it wasn't Tinder. It was an app called Raya.
Yeah, I just learned about that one. My coworker was telling me how she spotted like, Owen Wilson and Ben Affleck on there! Isn’t it where all the celebs hang?
Well, apparently. Except I'm on it and my girlfriend's on it, and she's not famous.
You have to give your Instagram handle. You go through an approval thing. It's based on whether or not you're verified, or verified people follow you. You know, it's kind of ridiculous.
I think everyone can get on it. If her and I can get on it, it can't be that bad. But I only got on it because I was at my own gig in Boston, and I hadn't even opened my Tinder. Because I wouldn't, at a gig, that would be weird.
But because I was physically in the vicinity, people found my Tinder profile and screen-shotted it, and shared it on Twitter and being like, "I hope we're going to meet." Or like, "I hope we're going to match." And I was like, "Oh my God, I need to get off this."
And I was like, "Okay, I've got to get off of this." And I told a friend, and they told me about Raya, which I found it so hilarious. I was like, well, I have to apply. It's just so funny.
Like a week or two later, after I'd applied, I was accepted. I was like, "Holy sh*t. This is what I'm going to spend the next hour in the tour van, looking at. This going to be so fun!"
So the point that I was getting across is, because it's for wildly famous or successful people, in theory. They don't show you people who are necessarily physically close to you. Because I'm guessing the assumption is that you're so successful that you can afford to fly to L.A. You could go anywhere on your private jet, or whatever it is. I wasn't wealthy enough or successful enough to be able to fly on a private jet to go on a first date. So it meant that we just had to talk, in a way that I guess you wouldn't on Tinder, because it shows you people that are close.
So you have to, after a couple of weeks go, "Should we go on a date?" We just slowly developed this relationship. I think once we got to the stage where we were talking on the phone more or less every day, and three, four, five hours at a time, I was like, "We should probably see if this is gonna work in real life, because it's taking up a lot of my emotional energy, and obviously, just a lot of my time."
So I just invented a reason to go to New York. I thought, maybe I can take a couple of meetings, and hit up some of my friends, just in case. And I flew to New York, for this date and arranged lots of other things just in case it went really badly. But it went really well. And here I am, two years later with a record about meeting someone on a dating app and then moving to a different country.
Wow. So have you officially moved to the States?
Yeah, yeah. I moved to New York in November of last year.
How are you liking it?
I love it. Which is really weird, because I hated it when I first went. I hated New York and I loved L.A., because L.A. is immediately appealing. There are palm trees, and the weather's great. And New York was kind of weird, because it was either too hot or too cold, and everyone was cross at you. In England, if someone's cross at you, they're going to apologize. You bump into someone, they'll be like, "Sorry." Even though you bumped into them. Whereas in America, if you bump into someone, they'd be like, "What the f**k are you doing, you f**king asshole?" And I'm like, "I'm sorry! I didn't see you!"
But once you sort of peel away the layers of New York, it has this real energy that's like no other city I've ever been in. I mean, for Christ's sake, it also of course helps that I fell in love there. You can't not fall in love with the place in which you're falling in love. Which is kind of weird to be that person that's being like, "Oh, America's really great!" at a time where everyone else was like, "F**k the Americans!" It's mad! So yeah, it's been quite a weird backdrop to a queer love story.
Well, in looking at your description of the album and its lead single, “religion (u can lay your hands on me),” I’d love it if you could elaborate a bit on how you’re approaching the concept of religion and Christianity here.
I think there's a few things going on. Frankly, there's this rich history, in general, with pop music playing around with religion that I enjoy. Whether it's the iconography or toying around with it lyrically. So it's just fun to me to explore that and be, "This is my contribution to that tradition," shall we say.
Especially, if you think of me being a devotee of, to use a religious phrase, Madonna. And I think it's sort of my way of honoring that tradition. But also, the language that we use around love is very close to the language we use around religion.
Whether it's "I believe in love" in the same way that you believe in God. It's a type of faith and the act of devotion. Something that we say, we devote ourselves to someone that we love, and the physical act of laying your hands on someone. It's something that you would do during sex.
But also it could be in religion. It's something you might do to bless someone or to heal someone. So there's me, just having fun a little bit with that and other factors.
I've always been really interested in religion. I very nearly studied theology instead of English literature, because I just found it fascinating that in every culture there is a kind of religion. Which is kind of hilarious, because I'm an atheist and always have been. But you know, to be fascinated in that and especially being a woman and being queer, two things that don't often get treated well. Like women, since the dawn of time have gotten a bit f**ked over because you know, in Christianity, the prime example of a woman is a mother and a virgin. Which is kind of a physical impossibility. From that point on, we're a bit f**ked.
Yeah, there's not a lot of gray area where women are concerned in the Bible.
Yeah. So I think just something that I'm interested in. I think love is kind of absurd if you think about it. Like the idea of being with one person forever, is kind of absurd. But that's how I love. That's how I do it. If I am to be with someone, it's because I think I'm going to be with them forever, even though all the evidence points to the contrary.
And I think there's something about religion that's also absurd, and that we believe that most every culture has a belief system, where we go, there's someone bigger than us that does everything and knows everything. And I think it's just playing around with the absurdity of humans and being human and love and faith is a big part of that.
Hopefully I want it to be kind of done in a fun way and also a funny way. I really, on this record more than the last one, I wanted to make people cry, but I also wanted to make people laugh, and feel joy. There was a lot of me in that first record, but I feel like in general, my personality gets across better in this record, in the fact that I am a deep thinker, but also a bit of a joker. And a bit, I like to kind of play around with things and have fun.
Yeah, forevher has a soulful quality that I think was missing on your debut. When you mention how you are with someone, specifically the way you enter a relationship believing in the concept of forever—even though all the evidence points to the contrary—is that where the title of the record comes from?
Yes, well, it's a combination of things. Firstly, the idea that we love forever, in a sense. Or the idea of the ultimate love, or the one true love, is someone you would love forever. But you know, it stemmed, or the reason I started thinking about that as a title, was because of the song "Forever," which isn't spelled with an "H." I rhymed "together" and "forever." Which is like the biggest no-no in songwriting history. Because it's so obvious that the point in doing that, I think, was to point out the absurdity of it.
And I think in the middle of it, I start talking about the sun crashing into the sea, and leaving us in the dark forever. When I'm saying "I'm gonna love you forever," I don't want it to be just this saccharin, cheesy thing. I want it to be like, "Oh, there's an absurdity to it, or a sense of humor to it." But forevher, the title, and the way that I spell it with the pronoun, arose because it was a mix of, well, her. My partner.
So much of it has to do with that. But then also it's a mix of, "for-her, forever, and forever-her." I think because I really made a conscious choice on this record to use pronouns in a way that I hadn't done before. It felt important to specify that in the title.
My first record was queer. If you watch the music videos and it's queer as f**k. But this record, lyrically, is more explicitly queer.
Yeah, I think that’s been in the conversation more recently. That artists, if they do identify as queer, they’re more likely to use the pronouns of their choice. And that probably would not have been the case, say, 10 years ago.
Even five years ago! I remember when I put out Nothing's Real... In the pop sphere there really wasn't a queer woman that I could think of, other than people who had also already been around for a while. So, Tegan and Sara, maybe you have Hayley Kiyoko as well. But now we have King Princess, we have lots of non-binary artists. The indie-pop world, it's just so much queerer than it was when I first put out a record. I don't feel like the only gay in the village anymore.
Absolutely. And as far as the album cover goes, that feels like it adheres much more closely to your identity as well. Would you say that’s true?
Yeah. I felt that this record was a more certainly musically mature record. And I think I felt like I wanted that to be visible just from the artwork and stuff. I always joke that my first record was kind of like the soundtrack to a John Hughes movie that was never made.
[For this record] I wanted to use photography and illustration to have that childish, teenage vibe. And this felt like my first record as an adult woman. And so yeah, I knew from the beginning that I wanted it to be, to feel vastly different.
I remember talking with a friend of mine, he's a brilliant photographer, Hollie Fernando, about wanting to recreate a classic image of love with women. And we were talking about the Rodin sculpture, "The Kiss," which is one of the most classic examples of erotic love in art.
I remember saying, "Well, how would you feel about recreating that and doing a photograph?" It was very important to me, even at that stage, of it not being just a straight photograph. I wanted to go through another process. I really want to print it as an aristograph, which is the the style of printing that just feels sort of nostalgic and almost going to make something look like an oil painting, rather than just a photograph.
What I didn't know was that the image that we used for the cover, I didn't know that that was what it was going to be. I'd thought it would be very obvious, and it would be a wide shot where you can really clearly see what we were doing. And now, actually, the cover is kind of quite mysterious. You wouldn't necessarily know it was two women until you open it up, and it's unveiled to be two women.
I felt like that was a really nice representation, aesthetically, of the music. Because it's a very queer record that you could completely miss with queer, somehow. Especially if you don't listen to the lyrics. That's the first thing I listen to, is lyrics. But a lot of people are all about melody and the music.
I'm just so struck by [the cover], how blue is such a promiscuous color. And I don't mean that it sleeps with a lot of people. It means so many different things to different people, to different cultures. For some people it symbolizes depression or loneliness. For others it's love or royalty or holiness. And I just really loved how blue that blue made me feel. It kind of feels like longing and maybe it's something to do with the ocean and the distance between us. I look at it, and it feels like there's this halo around her head. We might see Mary and religious imagery, which tied in with some of the religious themes.
But it's this kind of desire for the eternal that I really got from that color in that dimension. And I think that's what we strive for and when we are in love, it's this weird desire for things to last forever. There's a song on forevher called "tommy," which very explicitly deals with the notion of forever, and foreverness, and the desire for the eternal, and death.
Yeah, you mentioned working with Hollie Fernando... Speaking of collaborators, you also have so many on this record Orlando from T-E-E-D, Jona Ma from Jaguar Ma. How did you connect with everyone?
So Joel Pott, I wrote a lot of this record with him. We co-produced it together, which is why I still made it in London. So that was fairly easy because we'd worked together before.
With Whitney, I had just worked with Will, who plays trumpet for Whitney. I just fell in love with that record. When I was writing "princess leia," decided I wanted to have a brass arrangement, because there's a moment where I'm talking about, I was on a plane and a dead soldier was taken off the plane, and I saw that, and there was a brass band. Whitney's [also] signed to Secretly Canadian. So they just introduced us and I sent him the track and I said I'd really love for you to just do your thing on it. I didn't give him too much direction. As a fan, I trusted him. And when I got it back, I just remember crying and just thinking it was so wonderful. And why hadn't I ever learned to play the horn?
With Orlando [from Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs], he'd just put out a song, I think, on SoundCloud called "Leave A Light On," that I couldn't stop listening to. And it's very rare for me to reach out to people, like just slide into the DMs. But I did. I just DMed him and was like, "Hi, this song is so beautiful, I can't stop listening to it. If I were to ever be in L.A. for writing, would you like to try some things?" And we spent three days together and wrote four or five songs, two of which made the record. So that was just very exciting.
And then, there's a chorus of incredible women: Rosie Lowe, Kerry Leatham and Reva from NIMMO. They're friends of mine too. They just happen to be really brilliant vocalists.
And I mean, I've obviously been a big fan of Jaguar Ma. I'm so lucky to have, like, slid into the DMs of people who I'm a big fan of and have them be receptive. Some DMs, you don't get a response. So these are the ones that came off.
Well, it never hurts to ask.
I have this thing, "Don't ask, don't get." The worst thing that someone can say is no, and the world's not gonna end if that happens.