Stef Chura Steps Into The Spotlight

The rising Michigan rocker talks about her debut album, ‘Messes’

On the final song of Stef Chura’s debut album, she sings a line that’s wormed its way into my brain and stayed there since I heard it last fall. “What’s nauseating can set you free,” the 28-year-old Detroit singer-songwriter claims, sounding out the second word as naus-jee-ate-ing, her nasal voice calling to mind a scrappier-sounding Dolores O’Riordan of The Cranberries.

The song, “Speeding Ticket,” is about forcing yourself to grow, to fall forward no matter how terrifying the future may seem. And that’s actually something Chura had to figure out herself in making her album, Messes. “I was afraid to make a record for a long time,” Chura tells me over the phone as she and her drummer, Ryan Clancy, drive back to Detroit after a recording session. “It was scary to me — just the idea of finally getting it right.”

For Chura, a self-proclaimed perfectionist, Messes has seemed like a long time coming, even if national audiences are just starting to hear of her. Much like recent breakthrough acts such as Car Seat Headrest and Frankie Cosmos, Chura has been self-releasing her own bedroom-recorded music on Bandcamp for the past seven years. She’s also spent much of that time moving across her home state, from Ypsilanti to Detroit, and slowly establishing herself as a well-known face in the latter city’s still-growing DIY rock scene. “There are really, like, no house shows in Detroit,” Chura says. “There was a much bigger noise scene and DIY scene when I lived in Ypsi.”

The new album, out on Detroit’s own indie label Urinal Cake Records, may be the beginning of a bigger break for Chura. Her first properly recorded album, produced by fellow Michigander Fred Thomas, Messes tackles the kind of confrontational growth that it took for her to make this record in the first place. Throughout, she sings of edging out of bad friendships, work relationships, and towns over confident, sugary pop-rock. “Right when it starts to feel like home, it’s time to go,” Chura wails over fuzzy, serpentine guitar melodies on “Slow Motion.”

A major highlight on the record is Chura’s voice, which is prone to breathy, almost yodel-y stretches, and can take the simplest lyric and twist it into what sounds like a hundred knots until, suddenly, you realize that’s the chorus. “If you wanted to walk away, you can do that all you can,” she sings on the jangly “Spotted Gold,” zigzagging and repeating the line like it’s a marble ping-ponging around inside a glass. It’s a flexibility Chura owes to her day job (or, really, night job) of hosting karaoke at three different bars on three different nights around Detroit. “I’ll sing, like, five times a night and it actually really helps with strengthening [my voice],” Chura says. Her go-to picks: The Cranberries, unsurprisingly, plus Aerosmith, Rod Stewart, The Pretenders, and The Outfield’s “Your Love.”

Her move toward Messes, she says, began after she lost a close friend when she was 24. “I felt very fucked-up and even suicidal, and I thought, If I were to die today, what was the thing I'd be sad that I never did? It would be that I never actually recorded my songs in a way that I wanted them to be remembered.” So she reached out to Thomas, a veteran Michigan artist who also leads the indie-pop group Saturday Looks Good to Me, and asked for his help rerecording a couple of her best Bandcamp songs. “Then it was, ‘Oh, ha ha, actually I have 14 songs, let’s make a record right now!’”

She says she’s been frustrated by the perception in some early reviews that her songs are just about boyfriends. “I’m the kind of person who talks to myself and has fake conversations or confrontations that I need to have,” she tells me, laughing. “None of these songs are romantically tinged, but now someone can assume that they’re all about a boy. Is this going to be the rest of my career? Everyone thinks I’m writing about crushes, and they’re not going to think any more about the song than that?”

Chura grew up in Northern Michigan, where her parents were a couple of chiropractors with cool taste in music. “I listened to The Jim Carroll Band and Lydia Lunch when I was a little kid,” she says. “I always lamented over never having a real boy-band phase.” A self-taught guitarist, she moved to Ypsilanti for college when she was 19 and started to frequent house shows. Eventually, the “Stef Chura band” came to be, though it’s had several different lineups over the years. “This is the third form of the band over the years,” she says. “One was like a punk band, one was kind of shoegaze-y.”

At the time, Chura says, she saw music as a hobby, even after she moved to Detroit in 2012 and enrolled at the College for Creative Studies. “I was someone who maybe marginalized my creative endeavors, because I felt like I had to go to college for something else,” she says. “I was trying all these majors that weren’t working out and kind of wasting my time.” But as she got to know more local artists, she came to realize she could put a lot of herself into her career without guilt.

I mention an older interview in which Chura said that “pursuing a creative endeavor can be terrifying,” and ask what she meant. “If you tell anyone that you’re pursuing something creative, you’re likely to get a condescending remark,” she says. “But then when you actually become successful, people are really surprised. They’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, guess you’re doing that.’”

In retrospect, Chura says, she wishes she had seen the rewards of focusing on music earlier on. “It’s so easy to go to college — you just show up and suddenly you’re $40,000 in debt,” she says. “If I had more confidence in what I was doing earlier on ... I wish I had never gone to school.”

Now that she has a foothold of her own, Chura says she’d like to see Detroit become a bigger platform for rock music in a national way. Many of her peers, she says, rarely tour outside of the city. “I feel like there’s a really well-known Seattle scene or in Philly. Why is it not like this here?”

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