A couple of years ago, the viral synth-pop star Shura went on a date with a Brooklyn woman she’d met on Raya. Because she (real name: Alexandra Lilah Denton) is a critically acclaimed British success story, the date (naturally) involved a flight from London to New York. It went swimmingly. Shura fell in love. Now she lives in New York and has written an album about the romance. Titled Forevher, it grows from the airtight '80s bedroom aesthetic of the 30-year-old artist’s 2016 debut, Nothing's Real, itself a beats-laden record about rejection and heartbreak. According to Pitchfork at the time, Shura was offering “a fresh vision of pop’s new reality.”
Forevher is so glamorous, it could be the work of another artist. It's rooted in ’70s soul, resplendent with sultry, wanting imagery, and it has a happy ongoing ending. Shura debuted some of its songs at Glastonbury in June, wearing a white linen suit. She oozed chic sophistication and confidence. She completely owned it in a way that makes you wonder where this Shura was hiding before…
It’s early August, and Shura’s FaceTiming me from her London bed—the one she left for a New York equivalent way back when—a week before her album’s due out. She’s puffing on her JUUL. “It's sparse in here—quite depressing,” she says. She flicks her camera view to offer a tour of the old room, now an empty shell. Today she was at the London offices of her new label, Secretly Canadian, to sign albums for fans. She says she’s been crying at the album playbacks. Her dad cried, too. That was a first. “Why? It’s happy,” she said to him. “That’s why!” he replied. For a lesbian artist who prefigured our current rich wave of queer pop, Forevher is a crucial follow-up. It’s a risky departure, but one that demonstrates that on record and out in real life, Shura has grown exponentially more comfortable with her position at the top of the table.
GQ: So it's spelled F-o-r-e-v-h-e-r.
Shura: It's a really gay title.
How did you land on that?
Well, I wrote the song “Forever,” spelled the standard way. I thought it would be a nice album title, then I remembered that the Spice Girls had an album called Forever, so I can't do that. Don't wanna diss them. I was wondering what else I could call it. Everything sounded shit. Then I was talking to Pauline, my girlfriend. She goes, "Why don't you call it: Forev-her?!" The more I thought about it, the more it made sense: a mix of "For Her," "Forever," "Forever Her." This record is the first time I've used gender pronouns, too. Also, I like making up words. It's like I own a word now.”
I like that it was Pauline's idea. The record is about her, after all.
Yeah, she likes it, too. She reminds me frequently.
You moved to Brooklyn for love. Was there always a part of you that wanted to move to America?
When I was 16, I had a secret relationship with my best friend in high school. We'd have long telephone conversations and dream of living in New York. Seven or eight relationships later, I finally did it. Trump's election happened when Pauline and I first started talking. I remember texting her on election night. I was in L.A. I went to do James Corden the next day. It was like a funeral home at CBS. I don't smoke weed, but as the results were coming in, I decided I was going to have a joint. What else do you fucking do? Then, me being me, I had a panic attack. So I was getting into a bath thinking, “Am I gonna drown in the bath?! Oh, well…Trump's president.”
Have you missed London?
I don't miss London, I miss people. And cats. I spent seven years here and rarely left the house. I stopped living. In New York I feel like I'm alive. When things started happening for me in London, I got more anxious. In order to protect myself, I decided I was gonna be with my cats and my twin brother. So I don't miss not leaving the house.
Let's talk about how you flew to New York for a first date.
Insane. For me, though, flying across the ocean probably doesn't feel as big as it would to the average person. That's not to say I wasn't fucking terrified. It was the most high-stakes date I'd been on. We'd talked for four months. By the end we were having frequent five-hour-long conversations. I thought, “I can't keep living on the other side of the planet from someone I think I want to be with.” We could've spent a year having five-hour conversations every day, and I still wouldn't have had a girlfriend. We might not have actually fancied each other in 3D. What a waste of a year! Well, it's never a waste really, but…”
You want to know that you're not being catfished.
[Laughs] The funny thing was that someone joked, “What if she's a catfish?” It hadn't even occurred to me. Her friends had said the same thing. In a way, it's much more likely that I would have been the catfish in that scenario, pretending to be a minor celesbian. There's lots of pictures of me if you Google me—some of them good, some of them less good. She was probably more scared of that than I was. I was scared that when I showed up, she'd be like, “Oh, you're not as fit as your press shots.” Obviously! I haven't had a makeup artist, and I just got off a seven-hour flight!
On the song “The Stage,” you document your first date. You were at a MUNA gig, and you couldn't see anything because of your height. Is a gig a good place for a first date?
Yes! It was quite a gay vibe, and I love MUNA. I didn't ask Pauline beforehand if she liked MUNA. I'm hoping she does, because otherwise what's wrong with her taste? I like first dates where there's a focus point that isn't you: a gig, a movie. It takes the pressure off.
What was the second date?
Well, then it was a constant date. I'd booked a hotel. I didn't want to be that person like, “I'm going to stay at your place.” Because what if it's shit? It went really well. Instead of her saying, “Save your money, cancel the hotel, stay at my place,” she decided to have a staycation. We did three nights at the William Vale. That's what “Skyline” is about. I had booked it with the last of my Universal [her former label] advance. A really sensible way to spend it! A Manhattan view balcony room at the very top. It was like a dream. The night after we got together, I posted a picture of the sunrise. I couldn't believe we'd been talking for four months and finally hooked up. I have very little memory of the hook-up, because I was quite tipsy. But it can't have been awful.
As the relationship progressed, did you discuss that you were writing about it as the album?
I would write a song, and if I liked it I'd send it to her. Maybe she was a bit freaked out? I didn't set out to write a story about my online relationship. I was just writing songs. Then I realized most of them were about Pauline. I remember sending her “Religion (U Can Lay Your Hands on Me).” That started as a joke in Minneapolis—this sexy imagined ’70s porn soundtrack. It became about wanting to sleep with her, which is funny because we couldn't sleep with each other, being on the other side of the planet. Also, we didn't know if we would want to when we were confronted with each other.
What did writing about love instead of heartache open up for you in terms of songwriting? People say it's so much harder to embrace a good feeling.
It depends on how much distance you have. To sit down now and write a record about this might be harder, because I'd have to go through my filing cabinet of memories.
I didn't struggle with inspiration. I'd never felt joy in that extreme or written from that place. I've been in love in the past, but I had a full-time job and was writing on the weekends in stolen moments. Now I can devote my day to expressing a feeling. I was amenable to chord progressions and instruments that I'd have been allergic to on the first record: piano, acoustic guitar, things I'd thought were too cheesy, too happy. There were chords I'd spent four years avoiding.
How much of your change in direction was a reaction against your debut? You've mentioned in other interviews that it was a great adventure to attempt to queer up classic songwriting structures, almost retroactively inserting queerness into the familiar.
Yes, that's what I wanted to do with this artwork [inspired by Rodin's The Thinker]. I've already made an ’80s synth-pop record. To do it again would be stale. There are things I did on this record that I would've loved to do the first time, but I didn't have the time or space. Once I had a viral music video [“Touch”], it was like, “Right, you have to put out a song at least every six months.” I was signed when I had three songs!
This time we took [inspiration from] classic soul and folk from the ’70s, then inserted something modern. It was important for me to be inspired by classic structures but also be irreverent. On my first record, everything was in its perfect place. I wanted this to be loose, to be bits where it's not even in tune. I wanted it to be the way that you are when you're in love: not afraid.
In the “Religion…” video, you dress up as the pope and feature female nuns crushing on each other. What's fascinating to you about playing with the concept of religion?
I nearly studied theology. My dad's a documentary filmmaker and was the first person to do a TV interview with a pope. When my mum was having problems with her pregnancy with [my twin] Nick and I, my dad told the pope, and he replied, “I'm going to say a prayer for your pregnant wife.” That must be proof that God's okay with the gays, ’cause the pope blessed the pregnancy, and me and Nick are two flaming homosexuals.
Was it fun being the pope for a day?
I felt fabulous. Not gonna lie. You know me. I'm normally in a beanie and a denim jacket. I thought, “I never want to wear normal clothes again.”
You've stopped wearing beanies, though. You have this suited Gillian Anderson thing going on now. Do you have more confidence?
I am more confident than I was three years ago. When I was signed with a major, I felt it was important for me to cling onto anything that reminded me of myself, for fear of being turned into something else. Now I'm at an independent label, I'm playing dress-up. I've discovered that dressing up doesn't mean I'm not me.
Your Wikipedia page still says you're 26. Was there an element in the first few years of having to play down your age? Was there a pressure on you to appear younger?
I somehow managed to avoid feeling any pressure to be a certain age, a certain look. I was very lucky to have a good team around me. I felt lots of pressures but never to do with how I looked. I was reading an article with Clairo recently where she felt like she had to improve in the public eye and I related to that—having to get better.
When you started releasing music, it preempted this queering of the mainstream. Does it feel less lonely releasing an album this time? And one that's so openly gay? Before, you used to say that people focused on you being a lesbian in a way that overshadowed the music.
Taking ownership diffuses things. When my brother was a teenager, he was teased at school for being gay. One day he turned up with bleached blond curtains and everyone stopped teasing him. He was out and proud.
On this record, I'm more explicitly queer. Before it was the conversation that came up because there just weren't many of us, even three years ago. I can't think of anyone else. Obviously I have friends like Marika [Hackman] and The Japanese House, but their music [has only started] getting queerer. It's not like it was super obvious then. You could have easily listened to Marika's records and not known she was a lesbian, whereas now you'd have to be deaf!
I wondered if you and Marika have discussed it. Her new album is so open about gay sex.
I can only speak for me. Falling in love makes you more emboldened to be more direct. Also when I first put out a record it was a thing that I was a lesbian making indie pop. Now I could name about ten of us just off the top of my head. There's probably sixty.
You're one step ahead again because you're presenting an idea of safety in queer love. These aren't songs about sadness and alienation. This is as romantic and securely so as a heteronormative record.
You know, I can't think of any really happy gay love records. Maybe they don't exist for a reason. Maybe nobody wants to hear them! We'll find out in a week! I'm gonna be like the lesbian version of [Chance the Rapper’s] The Big Day: "We get it! You love your wife! Calm down. We preferred when you were unhappy. Go back to being sad and making synth-pop!"
In the end, would you say the person surprised the most by this record is actually you?
I'm surprised that it's a record about love, yes. I'm also surprised that by the time I've put it out I haven't been dumped. Well, there's still one week to go! But she's heard the record and hasn't dumped me. That's the biggest surprise.
Originally Appeared on GQ