Alexandra Lilah Denton is in love with a woman.
You can hear the feeling animate her voice, even over the phone, when she talks about falling in love, or the long-distance longing that preceded it. While previous fans of the British singer/songwriter Shura will be more than familiar with the unrequited love and complicated desires that dominated her synthy debut, Nothing’s Real, back in 2016, her latest work provides resolution and fulfilment in shades of deeply comforting blue. Moving from a palette of icy electronic melodies to one dominated by warm-hued R&B and romantic lyrics, her follow-up record, forevher, is about as far away from a sophomore slump as a musician can get.
When the London-based musician fell for a woman living in Brooklyn, the eventual unfolding of their feelings — which led, necessarily, to international flights — play out on the song that introduced the album, “BKLYNLNDN.” Evoking the likes of Bon Iver, St. Vincent, and Blood Orange on a glacial, AutoTuned bit of synth-threaded funk, Denton deftly combines religious imagery with the lovely and specific lust of long-distance feelings, erupting into the urgency of the chorus: “This isn’t love / this is an emergency.”
In 2019, when massive stars like Janelle Monáe and Hayley Kiyoko are proudly out and queer in their music and personal lives, telling queer narratives is more important than ever, not only for representation, but also to prove that straight audiences are just as capable of understanding the feelings contained in explicitly gay narratives and relating to them, despite pronoun or detail. After all, we know it’s possible — gay audiences have been doing it for centuries. “I thought it would be interesting to make an explicitly queer record and see if people who aren’t queer could relate to it in the same way that I absolutely can relate to music made by straight people,” Shura explained over the phone one early summer morning. “I’m being more explicitly queer on this record and asking that question: Is it, in fact, more relatable because I’m just being more me, more of myself, more truthful?”
Part of living that truth means bringing allusions from religion into her own queer love story in a very direct way. The centerpiece of the album, “religion (u can lay your hands on me),” is a playful take on a spiritual practice, the underlying distance that typified her relationship early on, and, of course, sexual consent. “The first song I wrote that made this record was ‘religion,’ and I think it was always in my mind that every song that I wrote for this album had to somehow connect back to that,” Shura explained. “I don’t know if you know The L Word and ‘the chart,’ but it felt like in the middle it had to be ‘religion,’ and all these other songs could somehow connect back to the middle.”
Using this song as a focal point for every other track on the album, Denton was able to create an interwoven web of ideas and feelings that drew together to form forevher, which is out this week via Secretly Canadian, and available with exclusive splatter vinyl here. In an expansive and surprisingly open conversation about love, sexuality, music, and religion, Shura pulled the curtain back on the ideation and writing of forevher and the sonic shifts for this record.
VMP: One of the first things that stands out on the album is the juxtaposition of sexuality and religion. Why did the dichotomy between those two elements in particular stand out to you?
Shura: My father is a staunch atheist and has made lots of documentaries about religion and stuff. So even though I didn’t grow up with faith, it was absolutely part of my upbringing. He would read me Bible stories not because he was religious, but because he thought it was important for us to hear them, because they’re essentially some of the oldest we have. I’ve always been fascinated by religion in general. Very early on I remember having the thought that — especially in Christianity — we have the example of Mary as the perfect woman, being a virgin and a mother, and that being really problematic for women.
Being interested in religion is sort of just being interested in humans, and how we can twist anything to back up what we already believe. That’s something that happens in faith and in politics. And then obviously you have this rich history of pop music playing around with religion, and growing up being a devotee of Madonna and having very vivid memories growing up watching “Like A Prayer” and being in awe of that. So yeah, it’s sort of my homage in part to the history of pop music playing with religious themes. But then also it’s something I’ve been fascinated with most of my life.
One of the lead singles, “religion (you can lay your hands on me),” makes those themes even more direct. There’s a playfulness there, too, in that song and that video.
The first line I say, “it’s human, it’s our religion,” I’m playing with the idea of sex being a kind of religion. In the way that we often talk about love and sex with similar terms that we use around religion like devotion, or we believe in love so we have faith in the idea of love, and sex is a kind of ritual in that sense. So, I think once I had that line, and once I was playing around with the chorus and the idea of someone laying their hands on me — and I had written that, in part, because at that moment in time, the person I was talking about couldn’t touch me, because they were on the other side of the planet.
So it was that playfulness of, “Oh you can touch me, but I can say that because I know you can’t.” Which fueled that playfulness further. I just wanted to have fun, especially when I know I’m talking about queer relationships. Not only are we talking about sex and religion, but particularly queer love, and particularly queer love between two women, because historically religion has a huge problem with the idea of women taking pleasure in sex. So in this song, I really wanted to take that idea as far as I could and absolutely have fun with the absurdity of the idea. And I also did that in the video, in having this absurd other world where I could be a pope as a woman and be in charge of a convent of lesbian nuns.
Because of the oppression of heterosexual and patriarchal culture, it’s rare for a work of queer art to be seen as universal. And why was including that element of universality into the album important to you?
All my life, more or less until the last five or six years — bar Tegan and Sara — I would listen to pop music made by heterosexual people about heterosexual relationships. I would twist things in my head to relate to me. So I would change pronouns, I wouldn’t necessarily change them and sing them out loud, but in my mind, even if I didn’t ever change the pronoun, in my head if a person was singing about a man, I would imagine it as a woman, because that’s just who I am. I listen to Bon Iver and I cry. I don’t listen to him and say, “Well, this is a straight man living in a cabin in the woods, I can’t possibly relate to this.”
Universality is important to me, and it’s important to all music, because that’s how people relate. If people can’t relate to something, then what’s the point in a sense? But I do believe that sometimes the counterintuitive thing is what makes art relatable. Certainly with a lot of pop music people go, “OK well in order to be relatable it has to be very simple and nonspecific with very basic lyrics that anyone could sing along to so it doesn’t matter.” And I’m of the opinion that sometimes being more specific helps people connect to it more. That’s something I’ve done in all my music, but particularly on this record, I give excruciatingly specific details. I hope that by being more specific, people will relate to it more.
Your debut was more synthy and more lonely, can you talk about the sonic shift and how that informed this record? Even the romance and sexuality of the more funky and R&B forms here immediately stand out.
When I started making the record, I’d recently fallen in love, I was listening to very different music than what I was listening to when I was making the first record. I was listening to a lot of soul music, and ’70s soul, ’70s folk, I’d just rediscovered Joni Mitchell in a big way, all the Minnie Riperton songs that I hadn’t realized existed. I was listening to very different music and really excited by it. I think partly, partly being in Brooklyn and hanging out at the Lot radio and there’s so much amazing disco and soul being played. It was just kind of soundtracking my life at the time.
I got really into the idea of using all the instruments that I would’ve been allergic to when I made the first record. I was very excited by the idea of writing songs predominantly on piano, and figuring out how to still use synths, but the piano is the core, and the starting point for these songs. And I wanted to make sure that as much of it was played live. Because the process of making the first record was incredibly lonely. It was me and Joel, Joel Pott, who I wrote most of the songs with, in a room together in Southeast London. Even in the way we worked, we worked on one song, and then moved onto the next song, from start to finish. So even the process of working on the songs was lonely, because we’d work on one at a time.
Whereas on this record I worked with the same bassist and drummer for the whole thing. And I’d already written the songs. I said, “OK, these are the songs, and this is kind of vaguely how I see the songs going, but I want you to play together and respond to each other in the way that, it could be really human.” So we recorded all the drums and bass together. I wanted it to feel groovier and more human, because the story of this record was about human connection rather than isolation. The first record was very to-the-grid and as perfect as I could physically make it. This one, I wanted it to be loose and free, and groovy. It was definitely a choice to approach this in a different, more fluid way, using a different palette sonically. Partly just because I was in a very different place emotionally and geographically.
What was the first song when you started to get a sense of what the second album would be like?
The first song that I wrote that made this record was “religion,” and it was always in my mind that every song I wrote for this record had to somehow connect back to that. Whether it was through another song. For me, probably, the song or the moment that I’m proudest of and love the most and feel like is really the heart and soul of this entire journey is “princess leia,” which is probably the most different song on the record to anything I’ve done before. And one of the few songs not really about love. But [it] is about death, and I guess the reason why death comes up a little bit is because when you do love someone, whether that’s your family or romantic love for a partner, it does make you more afraid to lose things. And I felt like even though this is, I hope, a joyful record, there is a slightly darker side, where I’m also still freaking out. It’s kind of like there’s the real me, being like, “I know you’re really happy, but you’re gonna die.” I think that song for me was a really special moment in the writing and recording.
I think those dualities, being so deep in love and realizing loss is going to come no matter what happens, is something I connected to in Bluets. When I saw it mentioned as part of your framework in writing the record, it made a lot of sense. Why do you think using a color lends itself so well to talking about these tender feelings of love?
The best way to begin trying to answer that question is to talk about what blue means for me. It’s a word I used earlier, there’s a longing in the color blue, and a desire for the eternal, and I think that’s partly in its association with religion. But it’s absolutely this deep, rich blue that I’m talking about, sort of both warm and there is also a sadness there. And it’s going back to that duality, this warmth from the love, from feeling and falling in love, and this slight sadness that it can’t be forever, even if you were to love that person all your life, and you were to be together for the rest of your life, there is a sadness that one day it will end, and it will end either because they die or you die.
Did coming out change things for you when it comes to creating music?
I don’t think it changed things for the way I make music, because even if people didn’t know to begin with that I was gay, I was very much out in my life and at my record label. So I don’t think it changed the way that I wrote. I definitely feel like on this record — and probably just as a result of being in love and having a love story to talk about — I felt emboldened to be specific or more explicitly queer. But it’s that thing when you’re in love and you want to tell everyone about it. It’s more just a product of being in love that changed the way that I write than publicly being queer. In a sense, your sexuality has very little to do with sex.