words by sammy maine
photo by arvida byström
Stef Chura isn’t someone who stays put for very long. Although she’s long been a prominent presence in the Michigan music scene, she’s moved around the State close to 20 times. Perhaps it serves as a distraction from getting too comfortable or too close to anything that could resemble a home. On Messes, Chura’s debut album on Saddle Creek, she faces up to the significance of these realities by coming face-to-face with her biggest worry – where she fits into this stupid thing we all call life.
By utilizing her introspection and crafting it into something conversational, Messes is an emotional collage we can all relate to. Despite her often despairing, drawn-out vocal delivery, Chura isn’t afraid of these internal anxieties. She propels them centre stage, surrounded by lush swells of charmingly discordant strums and convulsing rhythms that make these assertions of the self seem like a necessary cathartic exercise in abreaction. While the record touches on failed relationships with shitty people, power struggles and conflicting friendships, it’s Chura’s various tributes to a beloved friend after his death that serves as a poignant opposition to her brashy performance.
While the album has been out digitally since 2017, it’s physical release has prompted Chura to ruminate on what these songs mean to her, now she’s had a while to sit with them. I call her at her Detroit home – in true Stef-style, it’s one that she’s just moved into – to look back on the significance of Messes, spirituality and how the loss of one of her best friends prompted her to take the leap into the unknown.
Hi Stef! How are you?
Hi! I’m good. This might sound really lame but this is actually my first ever Skype call.
Ah no way, how’s it feel?
It feels great. I love the ring tone so much.
So you did a pretty long tour towards the end of the year. Would you say you’re the kind of person that takes care of themselves on the road?
Oh my god, so this last tour we did like a five week tour and I didn’t drink and now I still don’t drink. It’s so easy once you get over the hard part of just getting used to telling people no. When people hear that you don’t drink, they automatically feel really bad about themselves. They think that by you doing that, you’re saying you’re better than them or something.
Has not drinking changed your social life?
Kinda. I got back from tour and I just had like a huge page turn in my life. I came back, we went right in the studio for two weeks, and then I moved out of the place I’d been living in into my own apartment. Just by doing that and also not drinking throughout this, I’m automatically like, less social. I’m trying not to go to shows as much as I was. I’m trying to take a little break because I know sometimes I’d be putting shows in front of stuff in my life that needed to get done. So maybe a little bit. Maybe I’m having a little bit of a hibernation thing that like feels necessary. We played over 100 shows last year. I’ve been in this new apartment by myself, trying to just have some time to myself.
Is it the first time you’ve lived alone?
No but it feels like it in a way because in the past, I’ve lived alone in Detroit a couple of times and it was always for like a couple of months and then I would either consider it too expensive or I would want to be in a social situation. I used to live with Molly Soda; I moved from living alone for a few months into her house because it seemed more fun. Now I’ve signed a year lease and I’m super ready to not think about what the next, better thing is. I’m committed to living alone, actually.
So Messes is your debut studio album. Was that studio experience different from your previous EPs?
Being able to look back on the album a little bit, I wanted it to sound crisper and cleaner but I really like the way that it turned out. There were so many things I learned through doing that album and the studio we went into was really small. It wasn’t like the mixer was separated from the room, we were just all in the room together. A big part of it was working through Fred Thomas, he’s definitely a person who is going to leave his creative mark on whoever he records. I really got to sense what it’s like to be with him and how he does things. Before, everything else I’d done was me plugging straight into a four track and it being solo, so it was a big learning experience to see drums getting tracked and to be able to work on stuff in a slightly different way. Me and my drummer had been playing as a two piece for a year when we decided to record it and Fred played all the bass on the songs that have bass. He just plugged in DI, we never actually played together – he wrote the parts after recording me and my drummer.
Was it weird to hear bass on the tracks?
I really love what Fred did. I knew the songs needed bass. It might have been a little bit more organic to have actually practiced them a little bit together – that’s the only thing I look back on in maybe making it work better. On the songs ‘You’ and ‘Messes’, he wrote these really cool bass lines that no one else really would’ve.
Are you someone who can work well with other people?
The more I’m going along, I’m very open to working with people. I wouldn’t say Fred was necessarily a producer, he kind of just played on the songs, there wasn’t any arranging that went on for Messes. That was another learning experience for me; Fred was like ‘let’s add in all this synth!’ and I was just like, ‘uh, no’ [laughs]. He kept trying to sneak synth parts into everything and I had to be like, ‘I’m sorry, this isn’t happening.’ Now I’m growing. We worked with Will Toldeo [Car Seat Headrest] on the new album and that has been an amazing experience. He is just like the band member that I’ve never had. He is proficient at every instrument and he just has these ideas that are really simple about how a song should be. I really learned a lot about myself like, just this whole journey of recording Messes and growing into the second album. I’m really learning to focus on energy on what my role really is and what my strong suits are. I think the way I do things is really complimentary to working with a producer. I felt like it was really working with Will.
Do you feel like a different person to the one who wrote Messes? Is it weird to be playing stuff that you wrote quite a few years ago now?
A little. As far as the learning experience goes, it wasn’t a really clean release earlier this year so I feel like it’s getting some due attention. We did do a lot of press for the US but none for the UK and the album wasn’t distributed anywhere, so it’s getting a proper release now. I think this is good and it’s still the most recent release I have so I don’t mind talking about it. I’m excited and ready to move on though because I did put a lot of energy onto it and then I was really afraid to move on and then once we recorded this new stuff, I was like ‘goodbye!’.
I read that a lot of the material was born out of the loss of one of your best friends.
It feels so depressing to tell people that but it is really true. I probably wouldn’t have taken the leap if I didn’t have that situation bring my life into context.
How did that event shape the album?
I wrote “Faded Heart” about my friend and there’s a song on the new album about him that I wrote at the same time. A lot of these songs were quite old and the other half are a little newer, written in the last couple of years. A lot of the older ones, “Speeding Ticket”, “Human Being”, “Time To Go'”, those ones were just songs that I really felt needed to be released properly. When my friend passed, I guess the distinction for me was that I needed to just… if i were to pass and I were to look back on my life and thought about what I needed to do I would’ve regretted not recording these songs how I felt like they needed to be recorded and doing a proper release just to see where it went.
Did his passing make you look at life differently?
I feel like I took a risk by doing it. People stay really safe and they’re unhappy about it. It’s weird. I had somebody say something that was really offensive to me at the time my friend passed and he didn’t mean it to be offensive, I just took it that way, but he said, “your friend passing might be the the best thing that ever happened to you” but what he meant was it was a big thing. Like it did make such an impact that I did such a life shift. I feel like a totally different person. I’ve grown so much and now it’s not really about my friend any more. I’ll always think of him but I would say there’s a lot of growth that’s happened and part of him passing is definitely involved in that growth. I’m glad that I took the risk iI did and I understand the importance in taking risks. There are going to be things that are going to stop you in your life and you’re going to regret not just doing the things you felt like you wanted to do. Life is meaningless, you get to add meaning to it.
You’ve described the record as “a cathartic release of emotional stress.” That sounds really intense. Did it ever get too much?
I’ve never really told anyone this about making this record but I used to date my drummer and we dated for two years and we were breaking up during the recording of the record. It was extremely stressful. I was hyper emotional. It was like, “are you coming?” like I didn’t know what was happening. So, in that sense it was but I wouldn’t say that that painted the whole event. That was kind of going on behind the scenes, I don’t even know if Fred was super present to that being an issue because when we were there we were working. That’s the funny thing about recording is that, you’re bringing to life the stuff that you’ve made so even if the stuff you made is kind of a painful memory or something, it’s really beautiful to actually record it.
You’ve also talked about how the record kind of obsesses over how you should have done better or been stronger in the past. Are you tough on yourself? How is your relationship with yourself today?
So different. I really look back on that record and I see the person I was and I did some work on my anxiety but I had a lot of anxiety around choices especially which caused me an extreme amount of stress. That started happening with the band and everything for a little bit but I just feel like I got to the source of my anxiety. The album is this huge expression of every little situation with my anxiety. I was so in my head about every little situation. I got some cool songs out of it though. It wasn’t all for nothing I guess!
Was that influenced by the Power of Now book? I noticed you chatting about it on your Audiotree session.
I definitely consider myself a spiritual person. I don’t really share that side of myself with people who are in the music community, I don’t really think they know that. That Audiotree session was right after, I think I explained, that crazy trip. I was super depressed on that tour and really stressed out and then I listened to that book and I had a really spiritual experience with it. We drove for so long and I listened to it and I got out of my head after the book. I don’t know if that’s something that other people have had happen. I didn’t get to the sources of my anxiety through that book but I got aware that the dark thoughts I was having, they weren’t me. I’m not my anxiety, it’s something else. I couldn’t quite wrap my head around it at the time but I started to question all that stuff that was happening in my head that was causing me all the stress. Like, why am I thinking about this? I got a lot out of listening to it. I liked it that way.
Speaking of spirituality, are you into horoscopes at all?
I get enjoyment out of them, I don’t know if it’s my Bible though. I’d like to get a really deep chart. I subscribe but I’m grain of salt with it a little bit.
I saw you’ve retweeted Astropoets on Twitter a few times. Aren’t they the greatest?
I follow them and I really like the astrology twitters because they’re so bitchy about what your sign is. And it’s nice because they’re universally bitchy. I feel like my Scorpio sign is a sign that gets a lot of shit even from people who don’t like astrology. That’s what drives me crazy. I was seeing this person, he’s very open in not believing in astrology, he doesn’t like it and I brought up when my birthday was and he was like ‘oh you’re a scorpio‘ I was like ‘how can you say that?!’
I noticed a lot of colour in the visual presentation in your work. Is using those vivid colours intentional?
I worked with Molly Soda on the album art and she’s an internet artist and she’s like a multi-platform person. She does YouTube videos, she does poetry… she’s in history books right now for digital art. She’ll tour with punk bands and do poetry, she does a lot. She’s so talented and I’m so glad that we got to live together and we did the “Slow Motion” video together; she did the album art and I think just being around her and her working on some stuff for the band, that really created that aesthetic for the album. I think in January 2015, I went to LA with Molly and I met the people who ended up wanting to work on “Spotted Gold” and “Speeding Ticket”. Molly wasn’t involved in those at all but those are her friends so I feel like some of that aesthetic and internet art colour scheme type stuff is present.
The artwork is super jarring. Like there’s products that are used for beauty alongside bugs.
The only thing I told her was that when people saw it in the record store, I wanted them to have to pick it up and I feel like she achieved that. The juxtaposition of make-up and dirt and bugs and pixelated roses, it’s very her.
So for people who haven’t head Messes, how would you like them to feel after they listen to it for the first time?
The things that matter to me as a songwriter, as a lyricist is that I hope they know that the songs were made intentionally and it wasn’t like I accidentally ended up in a band and we made a sound. It was very intentional.
Messes is out 2nd February, via Saddle Creek
Pre-order it here