Shura interview: The music industry is obsessed with going viral

Shura reflects on releasing debut album 'Nothing's Real' during a catastrophic 2016 - ahead of a Manchester headline date in December.

Ben Smith

Last updated: 1st Dec 2016.
Originally published: 29th Nov 2016

Interview: Shura

Behind all the polished glitz and sheeny glamour of Shura’s debut offering is a relatable and salt-of-the-earth Mancunian focused on honing her deluge of creativity. 

As the daughter to a Russian actress and a documentary filmmaker, and an ex-Man City footballer, an English Literature graduate and a once Amazon rainforest dweller herself, Aleksandra Denton’s background is about as eclectic and colourful as her debut album.

July 2016 release, Nothing’s Real embraces the producer’s past, shapes her present and sets rock-solid foundations for a triumphant future.

Ahead of it exhibiting at Manchester Academy 2 on Friday 9th December, Jordan Foster caught up with Shura to discuss 2016 as a whole, the genetics of her live show and a revolutionising music industry.

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If my Twitter feed is anything to go by, there’s a general feeling that 2016 has been one of the most depressing years for a while. How has it gone for you?

The funny thing about 2016 - and I feel a lot of people have said this actually - is that personally there’s been generally quite good news for me or for my friends. But then globally [laughs]… it's been catastrophic! 

I find it quite funny in a way that 2016 has gone on record as being a really bad year, as it’s the year that my record came out. I’ll enjoy telling the grandkids: that year was really shit, everyone was really worried about Trump being the President of the United States of America – Bowie and Prince had actually left planet earth on a spaceship because they knew that was gonna happen…

You toured both the US and Canada just before the Presidential election – did you get a sense of what people were feeling, and how politically engaged people were in North America? 

I definitely got a sense that there was an air of liberal complacency – similar to the situation we had ourselves during Brexit, in that it's not gonna happen, it’ll be close but it's never gonna happen...

What was strange was the amount of people I met who weren’t voting, even in places like California - which is traditionally incredibly liberal. I sensed a great deal of apathy there and thought that was very strange in an election were we literally have a very obviously hideous candidate.

I mean, we had another not so great candidate – I get that – but Jesus Christ, Donald Trump is awful. But then, I suppose I’m not American and I’m not familiar with the intricacies and the nuances of the campaigns.

I guess that apathy says a lot about the two-party system – there are these two narrow political choices, in a nation with a sprawling and diverse range of ideology.

Yeah it’s such an enormous country; it’s hard enough in the UK having two people represent us. You really have no sense of how big that country is until you drive through it, which is what I’ve been doing for two months, and it's just vast.

And, yes, you have New York, yes, you have LA, but there’s a whole fucking big chunk in the middle made up of people that are forgotten about by politicians, essentially. People are feeling completely disengaged and miffed about the entire thing.

So how did the locals across the pond receive your shows?

It went down really well. We’ve been very lucky to get tours with Tegan & Sarah and M83 which, musically, were very complimentary to my style. 

I’ve been a Tegan & Sarah fan for, more or less, all my life and I was very aware of the kind of fans they have and how lovely and generous and dedicated they are, so it was amazing to play for them as a crowd.

Also M83 are absolutely enormous these days, people love them, and it was really fun to support a band like that every night. 

We just got two wonderful, perfect tours. I felt very, very lucky actually. At the M83 show the lights were insane, I think it was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen – it was like a set from Star Wars. Though I’m slightly biased cos I’m very into space so it seemed kind of made for me, that set.

I saw you said that you try to make the live shows a bit different to the recorded equivalent. How do you go about translating songs to the live arena?

Well me and the boys in the band said, "how are we gonna do this?" And "how’s this gonna be fun?" – that’s the main thing, it's got to be fun for you to do it.

If it's not fun for you then it's definitely not gonna be fun for the audience. So there would be things that on record would work really well, but (we would) say "oh maybe it doesn’t work so well live, maybe it feels a little bit stale and maybe we need to have a little bit more movement or go for it a bit more."

So we’ve just kind of explored different avenues really. Its not like it’s a completely different show to how it is on record, but I think it strays and veers in all the right places. That’s something that I want to explore with album two.

I personally don’t go to a gig to see someone press play with a perfect rendition of the CD. I want to see something that’s different, on edge and something that feels a bit wild. 

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Your debut was released over the summer, after what you described as an ‘incredible journey’ on Facebook – how did Shura go from an idea to the touring electro-pop machine it is now?

I feel like if you spent like a week on tour with us, you wouldn’t think it was a machine. On stage we feel like we’re two weeks in and just not really having a clue what we’re doing!

But no, we’ve played a lot of gigs – about 70 odd shows this year already. We probably did about 50 last year, without even having a record out.

I think the first [gig] I did was with like five songs. I feel like just now I’ve got to the stage where I’m happy and really proud of my live show. But it still feels like the beginning of a journey and I’m really excited about where it can go from here. I’m just on an adventure I guess.

Alongside the bonus material, the conclusive track on the record seems more experimental, with a perhaps less accessible and radio-friendly structure to the opening hits.

Yeah it’s 'White Light', definitely not what you’d call ‘radio-friendly’. In fact it’s the second single I released on Polydor, and I was like "here you go! Deal with that", and they just chopped the beginning and the end off. Though Huw Stephens did play it on Radio 1 in its full length; I was quite proud of that.

And what was the thought process behind the eerie children’s voices popping up throughout the album?

They’re recordings from my family videos. They’re actually exerts of me and Nick, my brother, during my childhood. So they tie into the theme of the past, present and the future.

It was a way of creating a time capsule that exists outside of myself and that contains everyone in my direct family – my mum, my dad, my brother and me – just kind of there forever, so to speak.

Here’s a cliché but nonetheless - If you were stranded on a desert island and could only bring one record with you, what would it be and why?

Oo that’s a tough one…you know I’d probably take a Bon Iver record. That’s quite depressing isn’t it? But the way he buries his vocals in the mix and is lyrically very obtuse means you could tune in and out of it – it’s so melody-driven and hypnotic.

I’d probably take his second record, although I really love his new one. I feel like that’s very ‘of the moment’, and if you were to ask me tomorrow I would change my mind. 

His new album is bizarre!

I think I had a similar reaction upon release of the second record, I said – "what’s this, this is awful!?" And then about 6 months later I thought, no, it's way better than his first one. I think sometimes music isn’t always easy to unpack, but actually the most rewarding albums are the ones that maybe on first listen don’t strike or grab you.

Upon release, the video for ‘Touch’ gained a massive bout of attention on YouTube – Do you think the Internet has revolutionised how bands gain recognition for the better?

I don’t think necessarily for the best – I say this acutely aware of the fact that if it wasn’t for the Internet, I don’t think I would be sat here talking about my debut album. I think it can be brilliant - brilliant if you are in control of your output, and you’re making decisions about your creativity.

The music industry is so obsessed with things going viral – if I had known that the video for ‘Touch’ had become a viral music video, I’m sure I would have planned everything incredibly differently. But you can’t plan for that, it just happens. I’m sure there are many, many record labels who looked at that video and thought – how the fuck did she do this with £900 when we’re spending £20,000 with pyrotechnics, and yet we cant get more than a million views a year?.

I think there is a sort of tyranny around it as well - it means that we’ve found a new way of measuring success but, obviously this is a very idealistic view, actually we should just be looking at art and whether or not it's good. In that, it doesn’t matter how many Facebook followers they have or how many streams on Soundcloud they have; have they made a good record? Have they done – for themselves – well?

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The music industry is changing at an unprecedented pace, and there are so many bands that seem to have only fleeting success. How will you go about establishing Shura as a mainstay in the future?

Well this goes back to the thing I was saying about the art being the most important thing. If I put out a shit second record, then yeah people will forget about me as quickly as I became a thing that people blogged about. It’s very simple, It really comes down to what you create… well it depends on what you’re striving for.

It’s never been my intention to have incredible commercial success very quickly. I mean obviously I want to survive and I want to make enough money to make a second record, but I don’t need to see my face everywhere – it's not about that for me, it's about making good records and hopefully I’ll continue to do that. And if by the time I’ve finished making my second album I have 300,000 Facebook fans, then great! But again it’s not how I measure success.

I don’t want to operate as a commodity. Of course I am one, we all are and to pretend that its not the case is naïve, but at the same time that is not at the forefront of my mind when I’m creating a song.

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