Shura: 'Maybe someone will watch my video and think "I can come out"'

Alongside artists like Christine And The Queens and Years & Years, electropop singer Shura is challenging stereotypes and helping to ‘queer the mainstream’

When it comes to making bold statements, few do it with the unapologetic charm of electropop singer Shura. In the John Hughes-inspired video for her last single What’s It Gonna Be? – a sweetly earnest ode to romantic insecurity, wrapped up in effervescent synthpop – Shura and her real-life twin Nick play timid high-school students. He gazes lovingly at the posters of a girl running for class president, she exchanges anxious, flirty glances with a boy in her science class. Together they scheme out how to win their crushes’ attentions. Gradually, though, bubbling up in the fizz of teenage angst and confusion is the realisation that they’ve got their objects of affection muddled. It’s the girl who Shura wants to kiss.

The video struck a chord for putting a playful, queer spin on the high-school romance cliche. “I was really impressed with how that was received,” says Shura. “People were like: ‘Look at this awesome fucking high-school video… and it’s got a twist.’ It wasn’t: ‘Oh my God, Shura kisses a girl’, or, ‘Oh my God, Shura’s gay’ – in which case, what planet have you been living on because it’s, like, kind of obvious.”

That may be so, but the 25-year-old Shura is among a handful of artists, including her heroes, Canadian pop twins Tegan & Sara, Years & Years and Christine And The Queens, who are blurring gender and sexuality in pop music. They are, to borrow the former duo’s words, “queering the mainstream” and offering an alternative to the conventional pop star aesthetic. In other words, the monolithic image of a pop star – glossy, hypersexualised and, invariably, heterosexual – is no longer the only option. Shura, a punk Madonna with green-tipped hair and a nose ring, for example, looks as if she could be cranking out lo-fi grunge instead of polished-to-perfection beats.

Shura very nearly didn’t go into music at all. Born Aleksandra Denton, but known by the Russian abbreviation since she can remember, she was spotted scoring a winning goal at primary school and swiftly signed up to the local Manchester City women’s football club youth team. Music, she says, came later, and even then it was something she just did for herself.

At 16, however, she got fed up with training in the mud and music began to take the lead. While studying English lit at University College London, she taught herself to produce by watching YouTube tutorials. At first, she collaborated with trip-hop producer Hiatus on a number of his tracks but, as a solo artist, she has formed an unlikely partnership with songwriter Joel Pott (formerly of early-2000s indie band Athlete) with whom she’s developed her slinky, synthy sound. They co-wrote her debut track, Touch, in 2014, a song about trying and failing to stay friends with an ex-girlfriend, for which Shura directed the music video. In it, a bunch of her mates of all genders, sexualities and ethnicities make out; it’s had over 26 million YouTube views and has been rereleased with a guest vocal from Talib Kweli.

Two more buzzy singles followed, ensuring a place on the taste-making BBC Sound Of 2015 list. Such a sudden burst of publicity often leads to rush-releases, but Shura stuck to her own pace. She spent so long working on her debut album, Nothing’s Real – largely with Pott but also with svengalis such as Greg Kurstin (co-writer of Adele’s Hello) – that its release date was finally revealed on a website titled HasShuraFinishedHerAlbumYet.

With rising interest in Shura the pop star, though, came rising interest in Shura the person. Her sexuality, never something she had deemed particularly relevant to her music, became a subject of fascination. The first time she mentioned it casually in an interview, it eclipsed the rest. “‘I’m a lesbian’: Electropop star Shura comes out as gay”, shouted the website Mancunian Matters, the revelatory phrasing at odds with the fact she’d never attempted to suggest otherwise.

“Suddenly, this one question where I’m asked directly about my sexuality, and give an honest answer, becomes the headline,” she recalls, still a little perplexed. “If you’re purporting to be supporting gay rights and gay people, then by taking this one answer and sensationalising it, and making it clickbait, you’re doing the exact opposite of what it is you say you’re trying to do. You’re making it a tabloid story.”

Though she’s aware her visibility is important, she draws the line when it starts to overshadow her music – at least on terms that aren’t her own. “Someone will say: ‘Shura’s album is about being a gay woman in London.’ Umm. I feel like my album’s just about me. I am a gay woman, and I live in London… It’s not about being a gay woman in London.”

Nothing Real is simply about being a young person in 2016 and all the neuroses that come with it. Its themes are relatable but specific. It’s about existential angst, indecision, panic attacks, burgeoning love and paralysing shyness – though the music itself often belies this. In the early days, her music was dubbed “bedroom pop” for its DIY production, but here her feelings are in widescreen, expansive at the same time as being intimate. The twitchy, funk-laced Tongue Tied, for example, would sit comfortably on the 1975’s current record, while the title track has more than a whiff of high-gloss Kylie in its lavish disco instrumentation. Yet the latter, she says, is about “ending up in hospital because you had a panic attack”.

These are themes that you rarely hear in mainstream pop music, but Shura is unafraid to dissect her vulnerabilities. “It’s definitely underexplored,” she says of how her shyness shows itself in her songs. “I’m massively inspired by True Blue-era Madonna but she is absolutely confident and in control of the situation. If you think about [Into The Groove’s] lyrics like, ‘You’ve got to prove your love to me’ – I would never feel entitled to say that. I would never feel confident in that way. So it’s the only way I know how to write, because I’m just writing about myself and I have anxiety, and I am shy and awkward.”

That shyness peeks through occasionally but mostly Shura is chatty and open, the person you’d want to be scheming with in school over how to bagsy your crush, too. She darts between insightful observations about her album (“I don’t see it as like a full stop, it’s the template for my emotional expression for the next two years”) and yearning to talk about something other than herself. Though she understands that’s not always possible.

In particular, she hopes her sexuality will be so insignificant that people will become bored of talking about it. But for now, she feels like it’s important in order to – as with her What’s It Gonna Be? video – normalise queerness in the music industry, and outside of it, too. “Perhaps a young boy or girl, after watching my video, can go: ‘Maybe I don’t have to be embarrassed. Maybe I can come out at school, maybe I can tell my best friend… and maybe I don’t have to be afraid any more.’ It is important that you’re out, and it is important that you’re visible.” ■

Nothing Real is out now on Bsessi Limited/Polydor


Alexandra Pollard

The GuardianTramp

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