It is March 2014 when ‘Touch’ arrives, as if from nowhere: the first finished track that Shura has written and produced, landing on the internet with a DIY video in which she convinced her cross-section of friends to kiss on camera. Built around a pillow-soft beat, languid bassline and a slowly unfurling melody, its snapshot of that awkward friend-zone period post-break-up results in one of the most enduring blog crossovers in recent years: over thirty million plays, sell-out worldwide shows, and fans in the least probable of places (first, the likes of Dev Hynes, Jungle and Kylie Minogue: later, the guest verse from Talib Kweli, a remix from Four Tet, and a Live Lounge cover from Mumford & Sons). Cut to summer 2014, however, and Shura wakes at 2AM with pains in her chest: an ambulance is called, doctors run emergency tests, and she is convinced that “this is it, I’m dying. And then they turned around and said I was fine. I found it really bizarre - and it made me quite angry - that somebody could tell you that what you were feeling wasn’t actually real at all.”
Shura’s experience of what transpired to be her first panic attack may have in part titled her debut album - ‘Nothing’s Real’ - but the phrase goes further than that. It describes, she says, this acceptance “that the past doesn’t exist anymore, and your future hasn’t happened yet”, on a record which mixes the personal (siblings, parents, exes) with the seemingly impossible (sci-fi, virtual reality, what could’ve been). “It's like someone's taken something really shiny and rubbed it with sandpaper,” Shura says of her instantly-recognisable sound, which she has spent two surreal, sometimes-overwhelming years unhurriedly pushing, and pushing.
The first voice on ‘Nothing’s Real’ is Shura, but not as you know it: ‘i’ – code for “twin one” – introduces a sample from the mountain of home movies which are knotted through the album, charting different phrases of Shura’s life (here, trying to feed an elephant at the zoo: on ‘ii’, berating twin brother Nick). They paint a melancholic, faintly otherworldly portrait of a family raised largely in Manchester, steered by an English documentary filmmaker father – who naturally captured much of their childhood – and a Russian actress mother. As a child, Shura describes herself as “the weird tomboy kid who brought a guitar to school, and dressed like Kurt Cobain.” She was, she says, “the bossy twin”, who steadfastly took herself round Manchester’s thriving music scene as a teenager, intent on performing her own folk-inspired material. Her first scouting, though, came from an altogether different source: Shura spent her teenage weekends playing for Manchester City Girls, even though “my Dad spent years trying to convince his two sons not to be into football. Eventually, there was only so much freezing cold and muddy matches I could take: I wanted to be indoors making music.”
Then, two things happened. Firstly, Shura’s older brother – who DJ’d drum n bass at the weekend – introduced her to electronic music, and the emotionally-resonant records of Massive Attack, Portishead and Burial. Then came “my Lara Croft moment”. Having studied English Literature at University, Shura travelled alone to South America immediately after her studies, spending time largely tied to a rehabilitated puma, who she’d walk round The Amazon. It proved to be a trip which not only broadened her personal horizons – “in the jungle, everything wants to kill you” – but also gave Shura time to articulate a messy break-up into emotional, heartfelt Pop. Shura returned determined to throw herself into songwriting, found a co-producer in Joel Pott, and eventually decided that she was happy enough with one track – ‘Touch’ – to chuck it online.
Whilst what happened next may have stunned Shura, but in many ways not much has changed since ‘Nothing’s Real’: the album was written in the same Shepherds Bush bedroom, with only the occasional outside-venture too good to miss (see two co-writes with heavyweight producer Greg Kurstin). Everything, though, comes back to the unlikely friendship of Shura and Joel, which shapes the album overarching cohesiveness. “It’s always been just us two, and I think that’s unusual for a record like this. Also as an artist, you naturally want to touch all the buttons, because that’s the fun part. So writing these songs really inspired me to learn how to produce and remix stuff myself.”
Musically, ‘Nothing’s Real’ mixes much of what Shura loves, teasing it into unusual shapes: part infectious 80s pop (early-Madonna, Janet Jackson), part brooding, bedroom-R&B (Dev Hynes), via the alternative rock textures of War on Drugs or Fleetwood Mac. Lyrically, too, ‘Nothing’s Real’ assimilates a number of timelines. The break-up introduced on ‘Touch’ is traced back to the writing’s-on-the-wall of ‘Indecision’; played out through the desperately raw slow-jam, ‘Kidz & Stuff’; then climaxes on ‘Make It Up’, a literal parting of ways (it was written about the day Shura and her ex split, and went in separate directions on the train home for the first time). The soaring, anthemic ‘What Happened To Us’ describes that frustration of meeting someone at the wrong point in your life (its “I’m no child, but I don’t feel grown up” lyric reflecting the big theme of Time - and timing - on this record). “When I was a teenager and broke up with someone for the first time, I remember my Dad saying ‘don’t worry Shu, this will happen on at least five more occasions before you meet the right person.’ I was consumed by the relationship at the heart of these songs, which is what made it amazing but also what made it self-combust.”
Exploding the personal into fantasy – where in a different dimension, you and that person might end up together, or maybe never even have met – is captured vividly elsewhere on ‘Nothing’s Real’. And it’s Shura’s love of Sci-fi (the album’s artwork is even a shot of the world ending outside her window) which gives the album its multiverse feel. “Science Fiction is really just about alternative realities, and things are which are plausible within that specific universe, however improbable.” The glorious uplift of ‘What’s It Gonna Be’, then, depicts a relationship that never was, or the missed opportunities to tell someone how you feel (‘Tongue Tied’). ‘White Light – all 7 unpredictable minutes of it – is “a call-to-arms for weirdos”, equally inspired by the telepathic connection between twins as the ‘Mass Effect’ game. Slower and more sensual is ‘2Shy’, blooming from its social awkwardness (“let’s go find a corner we can sit in / and talk about that film instead of us”) into a world where you could be a little bit braver. Retreating to her safe-haven bedroom and binging on video games, comics and science fiction during the making of this album, Shura became – she says – “obsessed with something like ‘Interstellar’, which at its core is really all about time, death and family. The fact it’s set in space is almost irrelevant, and that’s the kind of fantasy I can emotionally invest in.”
So whilst the scope of ‘Nothing’s Real’ may be widescreen, Shura’s ultimate concerns are far closer to home: loneliness, coming of age, and the wellbeing of those you love. The album’s hidden track – ‘31.12.15’ – is an affectingly spaced-out vision of growing older, and making peace (“I’m so scared I’ll lose you” she sings, over a sample of her mother recorded last New Year’s Eve). It’s a fitting note of To-be-Continued, on an album which maps Shura’s journey through to adulthood, and also mirrors her development as a songwriter. “I think part of the reason why I started having panic attacks and still struggle with anxiety was that I’m so protective over what I love: whether that’s a partner, my twin brother, or my music. And now there’s this body of work, almost like a time capsule, which exists independently of me and my family, but it has all of us in it. Now it’s finished, it’s like it never happened.” ‘Nothing’s Real’ may in part refer to releasing yourself from your past, but it’s ultimately about all those loves we take with us into the future, and further into the unknown.
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