Late one night in the summer of 2014, Shura woke up with a stabbing pain in her chest. It was about six months after her angst-ridden disco song “Touch” had hit the internet like a virus, racking up 3.1 million Soundcloud plays to date, and landing her meetings with major labels she had previously only dreamed of. But in this pitch-black moment, in a poky flat on a leafy street of the west London borough of Shepherd’s Bush, she was totally alone, and she thought she was dying.
“I went to bed with a chest pain,” Shura remembers, sitting on the low, white-sheeted bed where it happened, as she tells the story on a crisp March morning in 2016. “And I woke up at 2 a.m., like, ‘Fuck, I’m having a heart attack.’” She called the hospital, who told her to leave her front door open in case she slipped into unconsciousness before paramedics could get to her. Scared of letting her cats out, Shura instead locked her flat and sat in the hallway of her apartment building with the front door open, shivering until an ambulance arrived. Concerned about her heart rate, they ran tests on the spot, but found no cause; then they took her to hospital, where doctors ran lung scans and blood tests. By 5 a.m. she had a diagnosis: “Everything’s normal.”
“I’d heard of people having panic attacks before, and I’d just be like, ‘Oh, fucking pull yourself together,’” she reflects on the experience now. It’s an unseasonably bright spring morning, and the singer, producer, and multi-instrumentalist is burning scented candles in the bedroom studio where she composes many of her initial song ideas, tucked away up four flights of stairs. She's usually quick to burst into laughter, and she shifts around her bed and tugs at her beanie restlessly as she speaks, but when she talks about the night of the panic attack, she gets quiet and still. “I was scared—I was genuinely scared. I had an insight into how I might react if I was actually on my way out, and it was super, super lonely.”
“The world is so interested in presenting the idea of perfection to other people as a commodity, as something to aspire to. But it’s like, I’m an annoying human being. Life is imperfect.”—Shura
18 months on since that night, Shura has turned the traumatic experience into the basis of the title track of her debut album, Nothing’s Real—and it’s the most unlikely of pop anthems. The album is named for the experience of being told that your perception of life doesn’t matter; that it’s not based in reality. “It’s meant to be comforting, but it’s not,” she says of the title. “Like, ‘So I feel like I’m dying, but I’m fine?’ It’s antagonistic—like how I used to say ‘pull yourself together’ to my friends who were struggling.” And in case that’s not clear, the song makes it explicit. I’m a dead girl walking/ I need medicine, she coos on the bridge, before launching into a pulsating disco chorus full of squelchy synths and soft vocals that layer over one another like dry ice pouring onto the dancefloor: They’re telling me that I’m fine/ They’re telling me there’s nothing wrong/ Game over, nothing’s real. The blissed-out haze is occasionally, jarringly punctuated by a sample of her three-year-old self screaming.
Nothing’s Real is a coming-of-age album that’s as frank and jarring in its lyrical content as it is a funk-driven, carefree record made for long summer drives. “The world is so interested in presenting the idea of perfection to other people as a commodity, as something to aspire to,” she says. “But it’s like, I'm an annoying human being. Life is imperfect.” The ambitious record—which includes two strutting synth jams co-written with Greg Kurstin, a major pop producer who has worked with Sia and Adele—lets loose all the instability and insecurity one might recognize from their early 20s. One minute she’s bringing to life her cloying panic attack on the title track; the next, she’s dwelling on her inability to quit smoking (on floating love song “2Shy,” Shura sings I got a cigarette rolled/ I know I shouldn’t light it). I ask her if she’s quit. “Yeah. I have. Sort of. Ish. I might have one later.”
Elsewhere on the record, there’s the desperation you feel after your first raw break-up (on the extremely vulnerable slow jam “Kidz N Stuff”), a fear of aging (I’m no child but I’m not grown up, she insists on the soaring, sunny chorus of “What Happened To Us”), and the hysterical realization that your parents aren’t going to be around forever. I’m so scared I’ll lose you, Shura intones on the spaced-out, eerily peaceful album closer “New Year 311215,” interspersed with samples of her mother’s voice.
Shura's full name is Aleksandra Lilah Denton, but everyone, including her Russian mother and English father, has always called her by this nickname; it's a Russian abbreviation of her first name. Nothing’s Real opens with a ghostly interlude that samples a home video of the artist as a toddler, giggling as she strains to feed an elephant at the zoo, while her dad calls out, “Where is Shura?” In the making of her album, the singer-producer delved into a mountain of footage from her childhood, shot by her documentary filmmaker father. These clips play out throughout the album, charting different phases of her life: from tantrums as a toddler and fall-outs with her twin brother as a stubborn child, to the tense New Year’s Eve conversation with her mother that closes the record.
Growing up in Manchester with her dad and two brothers—her parents divorced when she was three—Shura describes herself as “the weird kid who brought a guitar to school and sang about how shit their life was,” citing the fact she was a tomboy, a twin, and fluent in Russian as traits that marked her out as odd to her peers. As a teenager with a weekend job in a record store, absorbing the influence of the Pixies and PJ Harvey, she wrote songs and recorded them on her dad’s Minidisc recorder. Though today you might compare her pop leanings to the likes of True Blue-era Madonna or Velvet Rope-era Janet Jackson, she says she turned her nose up at such music when she was a rock purist kid. It wasn’t until slightly later, when her drum’n’bass DJ elder brother introduced her to Massive Attack, Portishead, and Burial, that she realized electronic music could be emotionally resonant too.
In 2009, she moved to London to study English Literature, and began gigging at open mic nights around the city. At one of them, she met a producer named Hiatus, who expressed an interest in remixing some of her tracks. “We started working on stuff more collaboratively,” Shura says today. “Working with him really inspired me to learn to [produce] myself. Because you just get jealous. It’s like, ‘You’re touching all the buttons. I want to touch the buttons.’ Which is, I guess, how we end up with a corner of a room like this—” she gestures to the corner of her bedroom, where vintage synths, computers, and sound equipment now take up half the floorspace—”with shitloads of buttons.”
“I want people to just be like, ‘I have no idea what’s coming next. It could be Taylor Swift pop, or it could be like the newest thing you heard on Warp.'"—Shura
After Shura self-produced and put out “Touch" in 2014, “[people were] like, ‘Okay then, there's gonna be an album around the corner right?’” she says. “[I was] like, ‘I've got four songs, and two of those are shit!” In our accelerated age—a climate where an artist like Jai Paul is considered missing in action if they don’t deliver an album as soon as the internet wants it—the sudden impetus to sign and quickly deliver a record was real. It’s only been two years since “Touch” came out; but in another way, it’s been a whole two years since “Touch” came out. For Shura, the pressure was momentarily overwhelming; it was amid the madness of trying to choose a label that she found herself hyperventilating in an ambulance. But ultimately, she learnt to take it as she does most things: with humor. She created the website HasShuraFinishedHerAlbumYet.com last year to have something to clap back with when people bothered her online. “It's been really fun to tease people, ‘cause it is silly,” she grins. “We live in this age where we’re like, ‘Where is Ben Khan?’ Because he hasn't released something in four months. I'm guilty of it. I'm like, ‘Is he dead?’”
At this point, she pauses to yell “Bye! Love you!” to her twin brother Nick, who she shares her flat with (and who appeared in her video for “Touch”). While the pressure of online hype is transient and can be laughed off, Shura’s true concerns are ones that plague many 20-somethings: loneliness, getting older, and learning to take responsibility for yourself as well as the people around you. She keeps her family close both in real life, and on Nothing’s Real, where their sampled voices weave in and out of her sparkling, stream-of-consciousness pop.
“I want people, at the end of this [album], to just be like, ‘I have no idea what’s coming next,’” says Shura. “Like, it could be Taylor Swift pop, or it could be like the newest thing you heard on Warp. I want people to still be going ‘what the fuck’ at the end of it.” But right now, the vinyl obsessive is just proud she has a record of her very own to drop a needle on. It sits here among the precious relics you might expect to find hoarded in a young adult’s rented bedroom: a Victorian diagram of the solar system, a horn her dad gave her for Christmas, vintage gear she bought on eBay. “In a billion years, the sun will be extinguished, so it doesn’t really matter,” Shura shrugs. “But there is this thing, this body of work, that exists independently of me, and independently of [my family], that has all of us in it.” Whatever happens next, this is a time capsule: it says Shura was here, and everything she felt was real.