As Shura releases her second album, she’s in a new place, in every sense. New sound, new home, new love – the 28-year-old singer-producer has lots to talk about on a brief visit to her old stomping ground in London before she returns to her current one, Brooklyn.
The title of her comeback single, BKLYNLDN, seemed like a cool way to express her change in circumstances, until she realised she was missing out on a few streams because it’s impossible to ask Alexa to play it. It’s a smouldering jam, laid-back and loved up, about the early days of her relationship with her French girlfriend, who runs an online radio station in New York. You can hear the sexual tension in another single, Religion (U Can Lay Your Hands On Me), in which they’re talking on the telephone for hours at night, separated by an ocean.
Now they’re sharing a home, “after being together for a year and a half, which in lesbian years is a long time. The joke is that lesbians move in after three months, so we’ve been quite sensible,” she tells me. And even though her tour dates mean this will soon be a long-distance relationship again, it’s one that has turned Shura’s music a new colour.
That colour is blue, to be exact. It’s all over her Instagram feed and the artwork for the new album, titled Forevher, with a cover tone a shade lighter than Joni Mitchell’s Blue and an image of a long-haired kiss that recalls both the androgynous lip-locking of Suede’s debut album, as well as Rodin’s rather more famous heterosexual smacker.
“It’s almost as if everything to do with this record feels like something classic and straightforward but then at the same time, very much not,” she explains. “I’ve been in America where it’s a really dark time for anyone who isn’t cisgender, white and straight but I’ve had this big old love story. The sound is like a soul record ripped from the Seventies but then you’ve got bits of Auto-Tune and all that stuff. And the album cover is a take on Rodin’s The Kiss but it’s two lesbians. So it feels like something completely familiar and then absolutely of the now.”
Shura is the Russian pet name for the woman who was born Aleksandra Denton in Hammersmith and grew up in Manchester, playing football for Manchester City’s youth team as a teenager. Her father is BAFTA-nominated documentary maker Richard Denton, and her mother is the Russian actress Valentina Yakunina, whose best credit is definitely “Drunken Female IMF Agent” in the first Mission: Impossible movie.
She was already singing about intimacy on the song that prompted her breakthrough. Touch, released in 2014, is a weightless, gorgeous electropop ballad whose video, featuring couples gay and straight smooching in slow-motion, has now been watched over 30 million times.
It was written and produced with her ongoing collaborator, former Athlete frontman Joel Pott, who is now probably best known as the co-writer of the George Ezra smash Shotgun. It earned her a major label record deal with Polydor, who pitched her as a leftfield pop star, making bright electronic earworms that were proudly queer while channelling the best bits of Eighties Madonna. They packed her off to LA to write with Adele’s hitmaker Greg Kurstin but didn’t get the commercial returns they desired. Her superb debut album, Nothing’s Real, spent just a week at number 13 in 2016.
“Understandably, they were just like, ‘This didn’t do what we had wanted it to. It’s not worth the investment we put in.’ I just remember being so relieved about it,” she admits. “Greg Kurstin was amazing but I can’t say I loved that experience. It felt weird to be sent to LA to write a single. That was the most I ever compromised, I guess, though I do like those songs. I think my personal ambitions were never aligned with my record company’s ambitions. I wasn’t expecting to be in a chart of any kind.”
The new album is coming out on Secretly Canadian, the home of musicians far from the mainstream such as ANOHNI and serpentwithfeet. This time she used less of her energy on synth sounds, spending more time at the piano. She recorded the songs with a live bassist and drummer rather than crafting those elements on the computer. “I wanted there to be a human grooviness that I hadn’t been going for on the first album, which was more of an obvious pop record. I was listening to lots of Seventies soul and folk, rediscovering Joni Mitchell, delving into everything Minnie Riperton recorded. I wanted this one to feel more human because it was about love.”
What hasn’t changed is her soft, unshowy singing voice, and her knack for a memorable video. In the clip for Religion (U Can Lay Your Hands On Me), this time it’s a group of nuns flirting, smoking and getting off with each other, while Shura looks on in papal white. She wasn’t worried about being hit by a thunderbolt. “I’m a card-carrying atheist. Fair enough, if you’re gonna dress as the Pope and have nuns snogging there are gonna be some upset Catholics, and they’re absolutely entitled to that. I did get some negative feedback but nothing major. Thankfully I feel like Madonna went first on the sexy religion thing.”
Poking God in the eye, moving to Trump’s America for a gay relationship – having made a debut album that spent a lot of time detailing her anxiety, she does seem emboldened as she returns. “I definitely still am an anxious person, but I feel like I’m entering a different phase of my life where I am more confident in some respects,” she says. “Or at least I’m enjoying life more because I’m living it. Before, I was living in Shepherd’s Bush with my twin brother, waking up, doing some work, sending some emails, playing some video games and going to bed again. When you go on tour a lot your friendship group slowly invites you out less and less because people assume you’re not there. My life became so solitary. I’m more social in New York.”
She even manages to sound relatively upbeat about the political climate over there. “The difference between America and the UK at the moment is that in the UK it feels like we’re on a merry-go-round and there’s a glitch in the system so no one knows how to get off. Whereas in America it’s got so shit that people have realised they need to stand up for themselves. I can see a light at the end of this long, dark tunnel that I just can’t here in the UK.”
It’s amazing what romance can do. “It has been a really strange backdrop for a love story,” she says. But this English girl with a tattoo of Russia on her arm is in love in America – in love with America – and that wide-eyed positivity is all over an album that opens a beautiful new chapter.
Forevher is released today on Secretly Canadian. Shura plays Nov 14, Roundhouse, NW1. roundhouse.org.uk