Shura doesn’t look exactly like the greatest new pop act around as she ambles along the street to meet me outside a Brighton cafe. Pint-sized in baggy denim, with sunglasses, a high beanie hat and giant headphones perched facing forwards above her ears, continually lighting and relighting a roll-up, it’s unlikely there are any stylists gaining employment from the 24-year-old’s rise.
“I couldn’t be a Taylor Swift. I would really suck at being Taylor Swift,” she tells me. “One of the strengths of my project is that I absolutely don’t look like I would be making this kind of music.” That this half-Russian, gay, former youth footballer for Manchester City should be making bedroom electropop that sounds like classic Madonna, is one of the stranger truths in music right now. Yet her debut album, coming in July, sounds like the sound of the summer to me. With Eighties synths, New Order guitar and an unshowy voice that’s still full of emotion, it’s a treat all the way through.
“My manager likes to hover around my gigs to see what people’s reactions are. He once overheard a girl saying: ‘It’s strange. She looks like Kurt Cobain and sings like Kylie Minogue.’ For me, that’s brilliant.”
At the moment, she’s a star on the internet, less known in the real world. Her song Touch, a gorgeous, featherlight slowie that was the first thing she ever wrote in her current style, has never reached the charts. However, its simple video, filmed two years ago featuring friends of hers of various sexualities snogging in slow motion, has now been watched over 26 million times.
Ellie Goulding, too, began her career as a bloggers’ favourite covering hip bands such as Bon Iver and Midlake – and look what happened to her. Shura, which is a Russian pet name for the girl born Aleksandra Denton (her friends call her “Shoo”) seems to find it harder to believe that she’s encroaching on the glittery world of real pop stardom. Yet she’s signed to the same major label as Goulding, Polydor, and among her co-writers is Greg Kurstin, the Californian songsmith who has worked with virtually every major pop act of the moment, from Goulding to Taylor Swift, Pink and Katy Perry. Together they made Shura’s sunny new single, What’s It Gonna Be?, and a slinky disco groove called Tongue Tied.
“It was just after Adele’s Hello came out, which he wrote, and I’d hear that song three times on the way to his house. It was very strange,” she says. “I just felt like a fraud, waiting for people to realise that I’m shit. I suffer from imposter syndrome all the time. Even if I’m just at a party I’m thinking that people are going to find out that I’m really boring.”
Most of her songs, including Touch, were written with Joel Pott – perhaps a more unlikely connection given that he is the singer in indie band Athlete and has most recently worked on guitar-based songs for James Bay’s and George Ezra’s albums. Yet they’re a perfect match. “I remember him saying: ‘If someone can tell that I’ve written something, I’ve failed.’ He wants you to sound the way you want to sound. I’ve made a really wonderful friend and I’ve learned so much.”
Touch was the first thing they made together – a natural end-point, she says, from playing guitar at open mic nights with a loop pedal like KT Tunstall, to experimenting on Apple’s basic production software Garageband, to singing trip hop/chillout-style songs with Iranian producer Hiatus. She has found it hard to adjust to the song’s success. One of her other tracks, Indecision, is about struggling to choose which record label to sign with. Another, Nothing’s Real, is about having her first panic attack last April.
“There wasn’t any one thing that happened [to prompt it]. It must have been a series of things and feeling pressure,” she says. “To go from someone who would put something on Soundcloud and maybe get 15,000 plays in a year, to getting 100,000 plays in one day, felt very weird. I thought I was dying. I spent the night in hospital.”
After calling an ambulance, she was told to leave her door open in case she passed out. She didn’t want to wake her twin brother, with whom she shares a flat in Shepherd’s Bush, so she sat in the corridor on her own, freezing at 2am. “It was strange that I didn’t call anyone, when I thought I was having a heart attack. I didn’t want to bother them, or want them to worry.”
Yet she’s close to her family, who are all over her album in sampled snippets from childhood home videos. Her father, BAFTA-nominated documentary maker Richard Denton, probably filmed his children more than most dads before the advent of smartphones. Her twin, Nick, is in the Touch video. Her mother, Valentina Yakunina, is an actress who appeared with the prestigious Moscow Art Theatre company before coming to England. She was in Tom Cruise’s first Mission: Impossible film and someone told me that she was Mikhail Gorbachev’s favourite actress. “I don’t know if that’s true. I think he bought her flowers once,” says Shura.
Her background meant that she was always an outsider, first at primary school up to age seven in London, then later at a girls’ grammar school in Manchester. She decided to embrace her differences. “There are two ways of dealing with being odd. One is to really try and conform and the other is to do the opposite and really make a thing out of it. At school it wasn’t that I was bullied, but everyone was very aware that I was different. I was kind of the token weird person that people accepted into their group, almost like an accessory.”
She loves sci-fi, though football has been relegated to the touchlines since her music career has taken off. She doesn’t mind, as it coincided with the team she supports, Manchester United, not being as good. She came out at 16, and wants to show the full range of humankind in her videos. As well as all the kissing in Touch, the video for Indecision shows a man dressing as a woman to go to a nightclub.
She still has the odd panic attack. She had one last summer when Sam Smith tweeted that he was “obsessed” with her. “Soundtrack to my life,” he said.
“Of course he liked Indecision because it sounds a bit like Whitney Houston,” she muses more calmly today. But she’s gradually learning how to operate in this world, whether she fits in or not. “It’s about mystery, isn’t it? People like Prince or Madonna, they’re kind of superhuman. You can’t imagine them burning their toast and there’s something really exciting about that. Maybe in 10 years’ time, if things go well, people will have forgotten that I ever came from the bedroom.” I can see things going very well indeed.
June 1, Koko, NW1 (0870 432 5527, koko.uk.com)
Shura’s new single What’s It Gonna Be? is available now. The album Nothing’s Real is released on Polydor on July 8.