Virtual Reality: Inside Shura's Breakthrough

The British singer discusses the panic attacks and philosophical breakthroughs behind her excellent debut, 'Nothing's Real'

Two days before the release of Shura’s debut album this month, she was making contingency plans with her label for a posthumous release. "I was like, ‘Well, if I died before Friday, I still want my album to go out,’" the 25-year-old singer says decisively, eating chicken and coleslaw a few doors down from the London flat she shares with her twin brother, Nick. Her preoccupation with death began about two years ago, she tells me, shortly after she self-released "Touch," a fluttering slow jam about a relationship collapsing under its own weight. The stylish DIY video racked up hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube nearly instantly (it’s currently well over 26 million), and labels came calling — inducing a midnight panic attack that convinced Shura she was dying.

In the hospital, the nurses plastered her with heart monitors. "I was like, What the fuck is this? Why am I having lung scans?" she says, brandishing her fork. "Oh my god, it’s cancer. Immediately your brain goes there: I smoke, oh shit." Eventually, she was told there was nothing wrong, and sent home with some pills to calm her down. "I burst into tears. In a way, that was almost more frightening: Isn’t it terrifying that because of whatever habits you’ve gotten into mentally, it can build up until you reach that point where you feel physical symptoms that intensely?"

Once recovered, she wrote a song called "Nothing’s Real," wrapping her anxiety in a whirling disco cape. It became the title track of her album, neatly summarizing her existential crisis. "I’m really freaked out by time," Shura says. "How, for instance, what I did last week is not real in the sense that it’s happened. It’s just a memory that’s filed away in my brain. There’s that Laura Marling song, 'Short Movie' — that’s how I feel about life. You’re kind of interacting with it, but at the same time you’re not." The album is full of similarly philosophical moments, which sound less like classic stoner chat and more like relatable fears over running out of time. Shura's songs honor intimate moments of indecision and fear that could, given the chance, change her life. Relationships collapse, and she wonders if there’s anything she could have said, while feeling like she always knew it was coming.

Nothing’s Real spills over with pearlescent anxiety anthems. In person, though, Shura herself is authoritative and briskly funny. "I know I don’t suck at being me," she says. "I’m really good at being me." After "Touch" blew up, she wasted no time deciding what kind of pop star to be (having long disabused herself of her childhood Josie and the Pussycats fantasy). Born Aleksandra Denton to English and Russian parents who split when she was young, she got a confidence boost as a teenager when her dad drove her to open-mic nights in Manchester, where she'd sing for bored old men. She played youth football for Manchester City, but quit to pursue songwriting: "I realized at age 16, instead of going out on a Saturday morning in December in the rain, in shorts and a t-shirt, I could stay inside and write music."

Until then, she’d mostly listened to her parents’ LPs and electronic acts introduced by her older brother. A new job in a record store heralded her own love affair with music, connecting her with artists like PJ Harvey. "It really helped me when I was a teenager, because I never really fit in at school," Shura says. "I didn’t fit in on my football team, I was always the odd one out." (Around the same time, she says, she sold a copy of Patti Smith’s Horses to local hero Morrissey. "That was really weird, when he bought a record that obviously he must already own. It must have been a present.")

Shura stayed on the open-mic circuit when she moved to London to study English literature. In her final year, she met the Iranian producer Hiatus, who offered to remix one of her tracks. Their collaboration blossomed (she sings on a few tracks from his 2013 album, Parklands) but she became jealous of his ability to translate ideas into music. She used YouTube tutorials to learn how to program, and uploaded a few tracks and remixes that she'd made on her own to SoundCloud. A manager soon got in touch and asked her to meet. After six months emailing each other their favorite records, they bonded over their shared love of Alicia Keys’s "Try Sleeping With a Broken Heart."

"That was when we really realized the kind of direction I wanted to go in musically," Shura says, nursing a refill of cola and orange soda. "Then he said, ‘Why don’t you try writing with Joel Pott from Athlete?’" In the mid-2000s, Athlete’s jaunty indie rock ruled Britain, but these days they’re remembered with about as much fondness as Jamiroquai; Shura was initially less than thrilled by the suggestion. "But then my manager sent me this song [Pott] wrote with someone, and it was amazing." Their chemistry became apparent over a few pints, and proved transformative in the studio. "I discovered that I really like having someone in the room with me," she says. "Probably because I’m a twin."

Pott also introduced Shura to the Juno 106 synthesizer. "Everything that comes out of it sounds like a Madonna song," she says. "I think when I realized that synthesizers could be physical things rather than just squares on your computer, that’s when I really understood that they were instruments. It was like being given the keys to the Millennium Falcon." She teased from it the subtle hues of Madonna’s debut and Janet Jackson’s The Velvet Rope: "Touch" emerged, and then "Indecision," in which she agonized over which label to sign to. Eventually, she went with a major, Polydor/Interscope.

Playing with her yellow beanie, Shura recounts why she didn't sign to an independent label. "There’s a part of me that’s ambitious," she says with a shrug. "I’d like to — if it ever got to that stage — have the infrastructure there to be successful. I don’t want it overnight, but I just imagined signing to 4AD for like, I don’t know, £2, [and] I knew that I couldn’t make the record in my bedroom. Sometimes you imagine you’re going to sign to an indie because, why would anyone bigger want you? It’s really surprising when suddenly the majors come along. It’s almost like you’re scared to imagine what it would be to be popular."

Contrary to Shura’s fears, the label didn’t make her wear dresses (today she’s in an oversize shirt and baggy trousers) or tell her what to do. "They literally told me, ‘Call us when you’ve got enough songs for an album.’" In search of a couple more singles, they set her up with A-list producer and songwriter Greg Kurstin days after Adele released "Hello," which he cowrote and which Shura heard often on her daily Uber rides to his Hollywood studio. No pressure, then. They emerged with "Tongue Tied" and "What’s It Gonna Be?," whose high-budget video queers the tropes of John Hughes’s high school movies. Shura mentions that she had another panic attack on set: "I don’t mind talking about it — people are talking about it more and more now, which is really important. I don’t think I’ve met a single musician who hasn’t had a panic attack."

Shura’s dad is a documentarian, and audio samples from Denton family home videos litter Nothing’s Real. "Songs, in a way, become a fiction once you put them out, because it becomes what someone else interprets, right?" she says, holding my gaze. "It’s suddenly about whoever’s listening to it. But then by putting [myself] in it — me, age 3, blowing bubbles — it means I’m almost physically in my own record, even though I’m not. It’s like a time capsule. I know that the sun will explode in a billion years, but maybe for 20 years people will care that me, Nick, and my mum and dad are all in this one space. I’m really glad my parents divorced, because it would’ve been a nightmare if they tried to stay together," she adds. "We didn’t have a family unit like you see in films. It’s almost like I never had it, so I made it in my record."

Living out west in working-class Shepherd's Bush with Nick is a bulwark against the stress of living in the music hubs of East and South London. "I think it’s good to be competitive with yourself," says Shura. "It means every day is about trying to better what I did before, rather than comparing myself to anyone else. That’s the most dangerous thing. Everyone’s path is so different, and careers aren’t linear. With ‘Touch,’ I put a demo out and it went and exploded. I wasn’t prepared for that. If I’d known that was going to happen, I’d have had a whole album finished and already signed a deal. You drop the ball and pick up the pieces in whatever order it seems to make the most sense to you at the time."

Did this realization — the sense that, as she sings, nothing is really real — help her face her anxieties? "Possibly," she says, after a pause. "I do always say we’re all going to die anyway. Which actually does calm me down if I’m worried about being embarrassed. It doesn't always work. Sometimes I just want to sing out loud on the street, but I’m like, maybe I shouldn’t do that because it’s a bit embarrassing. I did it yesterday. Me and Luke from my band were singing French songs really loud. We weren’t drunk, just really happy. Then someone on Twitter was wondering who was singing loudly at the tube station, and realized it was me. You might as well just be you — just go for it."