Pop’s ‘anxious lesbian pope’ on queering her once-coded lyrics, nearly retiring and her Titanic musical
Album release week has Shura, synth-pop’s “lesbian pope,” feeling like Ice Age squirrel Scrat, whose acorn keeps getting away from him. “The acorn is representative of my well-being, my sanity,” says the 30-year-old British musician. “And it’s always a hair’s breadth away.”
I am Skyping with Shura, who is calling from Rough Trade, a record store in Nottingham, England, just days after the release of her second album, Forevher, the follow-up to her 2016 debut Nothing’s Real. Named by her girlfriend, Pauline, who she met on the dating app Raya while living in London (the two were in a long-distance relationship until Shura moved to Brooklyn), the title represents “For Her,” “Forever” and “Forever Her.” And calling it simply Forever was out of the question; that name was already taken by the Spice Girls.
During our chat, and without the video feature activated because “I’m literally in a cave and look like I haven’t slept,” Shura discusses playing dress-up with her gay twin, her infatuation with fun nuns, writing a Titanic musical from the perspective of the icebergs, and being scared of Madonna.
After Nothing’s Real, did you anticipate making another breakup album?
When I finished writing Nothing’s Real, I was kind of like, “I don’t know if I can make another record again,” because it does take so much out of you emotionally. At that moment, I just didn’t feel like I felt anything at the end of that – (it) just really, really kind of sucks you dry. Not necessarily as a negative either. I was just exhausted. So I … I kind of imagined retiring.
One and done.
Bye! Exit stage left! I was finishing touring with Tegan and Sara and M83 and that’s when I started talking to my current partner and was like, “Maybe I can write some songs again.” I was attracted to someone and that was exciting, and I was writing about that. It wasn’t until maybe a year into the process of writing that I was beginning to decide what to record and I was like, “Oh, shit, this is gonna be a really different record.” I always love artists who do that, who make big leaps of faith and take risks; sometimes they pay off and sometimes they don’t, but the fun is in trying.
How did you decide to include lesbian nuns in the “religion (u can lay your hands on me)” video?
I love nuns. I had this calendar as a kid called Nuns Having Fun and it was images of nuns smoking and riding a rollercoaster. Images of women who are traditionally not meant to have any sort of worldly pleasure in that sense. It’s a life of: You make a commitment to God, and so you see these people doing naughty things and it’s something that does spark joy and makes you laugh and smile. So I’ve always loved nuns. And then I remember seeing Jude Law in The Young Pope and I thought he looked amazing, and I just went, “I want to look amazing.” I have this really great job where I can do that. And if you don’t do that as a pop star or as a musician, I think you’re missing out on one of the funnest aspects of the job.
That’s something I learned from doing Nothing’s Real, because I was at a major (label) and maybe nervous about them turning me into something that I wasn’t, which they didn’t, actually. But I was still nervous about it. I really tried to cling onto, “I’m gonna wear a denim jacket and a beanie and I’m just gonna be me.” And actually, I was like, “But I can be anyone? Why wouldn’t I choose that? That’s fun.”
I used to love dressing up as a kid. I’d dress up as Zorro and Peter Pan. I remember (my brother) Nick and I doing Beauty and the Beast with the dress and the beast costume and I cried, and then we swapped and he wore the dress and I wore the beast costume and we were like, “This is perfect.” So I’ve always loved inhabiting different personalities. After three years of silence, I was like, “I wanna come back and I wanna be the pope,” because I thought that would be hilarious. Anxious lesbian comes back and she’s the vaping, lesbian pope.
In fact, you’ve envisioned the entire album as a lesbian musical of sorts with a similar queer, religious motif.
Yeah. Oh my god, I still really wanna do it.
Have you truly given this much thought?
I want to get someone good to write the script, for sure. I was thinking that it would be absolutely hilarious if (Fleabag creator) Phoebe Waller-Bridge wrote the script for it; she’s just in my head right now because she’s sort of everywhere. I feel like she’d nail it. I started thinking about the story and was like, “Maybe it has to be someone who’s a girl growing up in a convent school.” That’s where it would start. I also just like the idea of it being a dream sequence with popes and lesbian nuns.
And maybe a cameo from Sister Mary Clarence. Let her run the convent for lesbian nuns. In fact, maybe Sister Mary Clarence has been a closeted lesbian all these years and she finally has the opportunity to come out during your musical.
I mean, that would be amazing. I feel like you’ve thought about this more than I have so maybe we should get you to write the script.
Call Phoebe. We’ll collaborate.
Yeah, perfect. Amazing. We’ll do one night on Broadway.
One night only!
Of course. It has to be one night only. If I make a musical that’s more successful than any album I’ve done, that would be amazing, especially given that I really didn’t like musicals growing up because I kept hearing my brother rehearse them and I was like, “Shut up. I don’t care about tomorrow. I do not care! Annie, leave me alone!”
Do you have serious aspirations to pursue a musical?
I’ve written a musical! I wrote one when I was at university. I can’t say it was very good. And it was very short, so I’d have to develop it. But I wrote a musical about the story of the Titanic from the point of view of the iceberg. It was this love story between two icebergs (laughs) in the Atlantic. And there was like the Greek chorus, so to speak, but they were seagulls. There was one bit where they ended up in Chile and there were penguins and there was a song called “It’s Chilly in Chile,” and the main iceberg was called Ferdinand and he ended up obviously dying because the Titanic crashes into him. So it’s a tragedy. I don’t think I’ve told anyone that before, so there you go. Exclusive.
Based on the “religion” video, I assume you may have been a bit obsessed with Madonna’s “Like a Prayer.”
You reckon? (Laughs) We had The Immaculate Collection on VHS, which I suspect was a way of keeping my twin and I occupied for large swaths of time when we were being a bit hyperactive. We would sit in front of the television and stare, and that would just be us for a couple of hours. So she’s been a huge inspiration musically and absolutely (the “religion”) video is intended as a nod and homage. I discovered the other day that I released the record on her birthday, so that feels like a nice kind of full circle. I was tempted to be like, “Happy Birthday, Madonna!” and send her a link to my album but then got too scared because I thought she’d just scream at me.
Forevher manages to be both explicitly queer and incidentally queer. And your queerness has been a major talking point during recent interviews. Did you expect the queerness of this album to be as big of a focus as it’s been while promoting the album?
When you come from a queer perspective, you never really feel like what you’re doing is super gay because it’s just what you’re doing. It’s only when you start to see it through the eyes of other people – when you see fans and they’re so excited that it is explicitly queer and they’re like, “Oh my god, this is the album that I needed when I was a teenager that I didn’t have.”
I did an interview recently and the headline was, “Shura sometimes forgets she’s a lesbian” (laughs). I just forget in the same way that I forget that I am a woman sometimes because I don’t really wake up every day going, “Where am I gonna take my vagina today?” If you are going to be openly queer, it’s always going to be a part of any conversation. For Nothing’s Real, actually, it was still a talking point even though I never used a pronoun. Even when I wasn’t being explicitly queer lyrically, it was still a part of the conversation.
How does it feel to be using specific gender pronouns on this album?
It’s fun to be able to do it and be like, “I don’t care. I don’t care that someone might go, ‘Oh, shit, OK! Let me switch this off.’”
How were you writing about being queer at the age of 16, when you first started writing songs?
The language I would use was very decorative. I would use metaphors and allegories, and it would be much closer to poetry lyrically. I would never be specific about what was going on. I would kind of talk in…
Exactly. But I understood the code. And anyone who knew what it was about would know the code; anyone who was a fan, if they understood that I was gay, would also get the code. But I think just growing up in general as a writer, I’ve found where I thrive is in the really mundane and the really specific.
That’s the thing: When you first start making music, it’s normally because you’re a fan, right? It takes you a while sometimes to discover what it is that you’re good at. Maybe you try to emulate some of your heroes and then over time you discover what you’re about. As a kid, I would’ve loved to have been a rock star. I would’ve wanted to be in a rock band and shredded (laughs), but I’ll let someone else be good at that and I’ll do this. One of the most important things about being creative is knowing what you’re not good at.
What else are you not good at?
My singing voice, I wouldn’t describe it as especially acrobatic. I have, I would say, a relatively delicate voice. Some of my heroes – some of the people whose voices I love, like Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey – they are voices. You hear them and you know who it is straightaway, and I was just like, “Well, I can’t sing like that so I’m gonna stop trying and I have to find the way my voice works.” Another thing I’m not good at it, apparently, is buying presents, which was really tragic to discover.
Who told you that you weren’t a good gift giver?
My girlfriend! I thought I was brilliant at buying presents until this relationship. But I don’t know whether I’m not very good or she’s just very, very picky about what she likes. (Laughs)
I used to buy Mariah Carey albums and give them to people as gifts even if they weren’t fans.
When Nothing’s Real came out, my twin bought 10 copies of the album and gave them to everyone he worked with. (Laughs)
How has love changed the way you approach queerness in your work?
I’m exploring a different side of my queer romantic experience, which is like … joy (laughs). For a start! The queer stories we’re exposed to are quite dramatic stories; in film and music, we don’t get to see a lot of happiness or things working. This record is about a three-year period, a little time capsule of a really lovely time … before it goes wrong! And hopefully it never will (laughs). It’s made me sort of feel braver in terms of expressing my queerness, but then also makes me feel more vulnerable.
Declaring being in love is putting yourself in a vulnerable position. But I’m somewhat used to putting my life experiences on record, so for me it’s maybe not as big of a deal because it’s just what I’ve always done. I guess it’s a bigger audience now (laughs) than when I was 16 and recording on a MiniDisc recorder for my friends at school, who were like, “Ugh. She just wishes she were Avril Lavigne.”
What is Pauline’s favorite song on the album?
Her favorite song is “The Stage.” I think she likes the rhythm of it because it’s quite weird. It’s quite a weird record. Quite a challenge. I was a bit nervous about putting it out before the record was released because, musically, it’s a demanding listen because of these huge shifts and chord progressions and key changes that never really materialize. I finished the record in January and was like, “I just delivered something. I don’t know what it is. I like it. But I don’t know what it is.”
Do you know now?
I definitely have a better handle on it now. And actually, this is (laughs) gonna sound awful, probably, but the more I get to know it, the more proud of myself I am. The more I kind of impress myself. Like everyone else, I’m still getting to know it. It’s like having a kid and when they get to be about 4, 5 or 6 and you start to realize they’re developing a real personality and you’re like, “Oh, I made one of these children! Great!” That’s kind of like me with my album. I’m like, “Oh, wow. This is all right. Well done.”
As editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBTQ wire service, Chris Azzopardi has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Cher, Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Vanity Fair, GQ and Billboard. Reach him via Twitter @chrisazzopardi.