How Shura Left Heartbreak Behind, Found 'Forevher' and Became 'The F-cking Pope'

Jenny Regan 

It’s a few weeks before the release date of Shura’s sophomore album Forevher, and one might think the pressure’s on. The British singer-songwriter-producer’s debut studio album, 2016’s Nothing’s Real, was released via Polydor Records to critical acclaim, and peaked at No. 3 on Billboard's Top Dance/Electronic Albums chart. It preceded fall tours with Tegan and Sara and M83, during which she brought her uniquely infectious electropop sound to much of North America. 

But the Shura who arrives at Billboard’s New York office (a little tardy, but as she explains -- and will later tweet -- she was actually early but went to the wrong location) exudes an easy calm. She talks about Forevher enthusiastically and with unwavering humor. She alternates between peeling a clementine and puffing on a JUUL, and manages to make both look charming.

Shura, born Alexandra Lilah Denton, is hoping Forevher (out today, Aug. 16) will top expectations -- and regardless, seems at peace regarding most every aspect of her life, from romance and self-esteem to her songwriting and artistry. “I’m in love and I'm in a really brave space and feeling confident and great about myself,” she summarizes, the implication being: how could this new album be anything less than her best work yet?

Forevher, and this newfound boldness, wasn’t built in a day. As tour wrapped up with M83 in Minneapolis in October 2016, Shura and her guitarist Luke decided to stay with a friend who had a studio in his basement. She describes the pair as being “insane” by that point, due to a lack of sleep and being on tour for so long. “We were just drinking a lot of White Russians. That was funny, because I'm a white Russian, and I was like, 'Ha ha, it's me as a drink,'” she says of those feverish sessions, remembering their sleep-deprived loopiness. “I was a bit like, 'Hi, I need to go home. I need to not stay in Minneapolis for two weeks,’” she admits. “Then again, if I hadn't done that, I wouldn't have written 'Religion,' and then I wouldn't have been a lesbian pope, so.” (More on that later.)

Most of what they wrote then didn’t end up on the album, but vitally, one song from those sessions made it: the aforementioned "Religion" (subtitled "U Can Lay Your Hands On Me"), which originally started as a joke. “It was something that we would listen to in between writing all the other songs that we thought were great, to reset our ears, like a palate cleanser,” she says. “We joked about it being like a ‘70s French porn soundtrack, like, ‘This is hilarious.’”

But once Shura returned to London and played everything she’d written for her longtime collaborator Joel Pott, it was “Religion” that stood out to him. “I was like, 'Of course you fucking think the joke is like the best thing,'” she laughs. By then, Shura was further along in her texting relationship, and it became a “sexy song about having sex, even though you couldn't have sex because you and this person are on opposite sides of the planet.”

It was at this point that Shura was fully inspired to write more songs about her developing relationship, and the album’s concept followed shortly. “I like to let the album reveal itself to me naturally,” she says. “It’s a bit like sculpting in that you have this block, and you're just chipping away, and then all of a sudden you're like, 'Oh, it's this. Okay, now I can fine-tune it.’” She wrote about falling in love -- a departure from Nothing’s Real, which was about multiple people breaking her heart -- with her girlfriend, and with America.

About three-quarters of the way through her writing process, she wrote “Forever.” Immediately, Shura felt it encapsulated the themes she was attempting to explore. “That's when I was like, 'Okay, I feel like the record has to be called 'Forever,'” she says. But the word is a common enough title, so she began playing around with other ideas. Nothing else felt right. Then she started writing down variations of the word: “for her,” “forevher” and “forever her.” She settled on Forevher, partly dedicating it to her girlfriend. "There's loads of really great gay shit happening [in music], and you're kind of just emboldened as part of a group," she says. "Like, I'm going to be super gay, too, this is great." (Also on the title: “I think it looks fancy.”)

Forevher is also about space: namely, how do you fill it with something you can’t have? “There was this distance, so it was difficult -- you couldn't always cuddle or have sex,” Shura says of the early stages of her relationship, which began online. Lacking that physicality was hard, but they were able to have deep discussions. “That was the only way. You have to talk about real things, whether it's politics or shit that happened to you when you were a kid,” she says. “So by the time we met, it was strange, because I knew her so well and yet didn't know her at all -- like, I didn't know her in 3D.” Luckily, the attraction wasn’t merely intellectual. “Yeah, worked out. Somehow she found me sexy,” she laughs of their first IRL meeting in Brooklyn.

Finally, it’s a love letter to the U.S. of A. (Yes, really.) “It was quite confusing,” the Brit agrees. “I was coming to New York so often and falling in love with America at a time where no one is falling in love with America.” Touring around the country in a van opened her eyes to landscapes that Hollywood doesn't show, and she was struck by the contrast between what’s portrayed in movies, and what’s left out. One drive from Salt Lake City, Utah to Phoenix, Arizona, blew her mind.

“You start in the snow-capped mountains and you end up in this red dust bowl. I'm like, 'How the fuck is this one country?'" she says, shaking her head. "And how the fuck can you drive for 14 hours and still be in the same country?’ Because if you drive for 14 hours in England, you're in the sea." This sense of adventure is part of the reason why she made the move from London to Brooklyn this past January, the act of which later inspired Forevher’s lead single “BKLYNLDN.”

In 2017, Shura ended up in Marfa, Texas with her girlfriend, and met the 90-year-old man who inspired the track “Tommy.” Shura used soundbites from her childhood on the first record, including an exchange between her and her father, but it didn’t feel right to repeat the move -- until she had a conversation with a stranger about love and life that her girlfriend happened to record. “I immediately was like, 'I have to write a song about this man,' it's like a character from a film.”

Back in the studio, Shura used the clip in an extended beginning that brought her to tears, and presented a challenge: tracking down Tommy to get his permission to use his soundbite. Using details from their conversation, she found his full name on Google, and contacted him on Facebook. Tommy couldn’t remember how to access his email, so they had to get creative. “In the end, I rang the local radio station and was like, 'I'm going to send you a song, not to play on the radio, but so that he can walk down and have a listen,” she says, “and you can call me back and let me know if he's happy with it.'”

Shura's newfound boldness is also reflected in her fashion choices of late. For the “Religion” video, she was inspired by Jude Law in HBO's The Young Pope to sport a hat and cape, a look that she later referred to as “friendly neighbourhood lesbian vaping pope.” (She wears a similarly impressive beige hat during her Billboard interview.) Shura also thought of heroes like PJ Harvey and Madonna -- artists known for eras marked by purposeful aesthetics. She loved the idea of fans being able to identify a specific time period in her career based on the costuming.

It’s a departure from Nothing’s Real, when Shura was on a major label, and struggled to hold onto her identity. “I wanted to be as much ‘me’ as is humanly possible, because you're fighting that fear of being turned into someone else,” she says. She dressed exactly how she did in everyday life -- beanies; denim jackets. “All of a sudden, even though you're more comfortable in the clothes, you're more vulnerable in a different way because it's literally you -- so if someone says, ‘That's shit,’ well, you're shit,” she frowns.

The “Religion” shoot opened a new door. “I just felt fucking fabulous. I was like, 'I never want to dress normally ever again.’ Now it’s great, because when I'm at a gig I can put on my hat and I'm going to work, and at the end I can take off my hat and I'm not working anymore.” It was the video’s director, Chloe Wallace, who put a name to the “pope” aesthetic. “Initially I was like, 'I'm going to be a nun who's dreaming of being a pope,' and she was like, 'No, this is the Forevher era, you're just the fucking pope.' I was like, 'Oh, my God, you're so right. I am the pope.’”

Indeed, Forevher was born from that place of confidence, as well as one of happiness. Now signed with Secretly Canadian as of January 2018, Shura feels more at home. The label courted her way back when (“it’s like going back to the beginning in a really nice way”), and has some of her favorite artists, like Faye Webster and Serpentwithfeet, on its roster. Most importantly, Shura’s lyrics and melodies simply radiate like never before, and the resulting magnetism is undeniable.

“Falling in love with someone,” she muses, “makes you wanna shout about it to the point where everyone's like, 'Ok, shut the fuck up. We get it, you're happy.’” Shura seems to know that her joy might drive everyone she knows crazy. Fortunately, she doesn’t sound like she plans on shutting up anytime soon.


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