Photos / Reva May
Story / Monica Wolfe
After years of self-recording demos on cassette tapes and playing DIY shows in Michigan’s indie scene, Stef Chura is finally releasing her first full-length studio album, Messes, and she couldn’t be more excited. With tracks ranging from a deep folky intimacy to the punchiness of ‘90s feminist punk, the album adopts a rich and churning life of its own.
This sophisticated debut is self-aware and multifaceted. The title track, “Messes,” is one you’ll want to listen to through headphones, letting the surreal, dreamlike instrumentals take over with a dark and rolling momentum while swirling vocals find their footing in this carefully crafted mess of highs and lows, chaos and fortitude. “Slow Motion” and “Spotted Gold” are headstrong and upbeat, with a grimy pop feel calling back to Liz Phair and Sonic Youth. Understated and mellow, “Human Being” is arguably the beating heart of the album; its wistful, melting vocals underline the existential pondering that is the foundation of Chura’s songwriting.
“I think it’s funny that the album is named Messes and that it’s coming out at a time that seems so fucking messy,” Chura tells me. She’s referring, of course, to the mess of a political era that’s just begun. But the messes the album sorts out are of a more personal, but perhaps just as volatile nature, and we talk through them in terms of introspection, the current social climate, and Detroit’s artistic community:
MW: You have a big tour coming up in February. Have you toured before, or is this your first major tour?
SC: Last year in February was actually our first tour. And we went to South by Southwest. But it was a little bit of a bust. And we did a little bit of touring in 2016 also. We toured with Car Seat Headrest in August.
MW: Are you excited for this one? You’re coming all the way out to the West Coast, right?
SC: Yeah. I’ve never toured the West Coast fully. When we toured with Car Seat Headrest, we went to Seattle and then we came back, but we never went through California, so I’m really excited to do that.
MW: Yeah, that is exciting. So, how do you feel playing onstage versus playing alone at home? Do you see music as more of an interactive or a personal process?
SC: Oh, jeez. I mean, I would say it’s very personal. I don’t think I’m the type of person who thrives off of the live experience as much. I mean, I’m growing to enjoy that more, but very frequently while I’m playing onstage, I’m asking myself, “Why am I doing this to myself? Why am I playing in front of people? This is awful, kind of.” But that’s not—I don’t—it’s not awful, but I do get nerves, even though they’re way better than they used to be.
MW: So, you’ve always kind of had stage fright? Or—
SC: I wouldn’t even qualify it as stage fright. I just think sometimes I have an existential—I actually feel really comfortable onstage now, but I almost have an existential experience where I’m like, “What am I doing?” It’s just crazy.
MW: Is it a fear of being judged for your music, or is it just a general anxiety thing?
SC: Jeez. Maybe. I don’t know. I would’ve never thought of phrasing it as “judged” for my music, but I probably do feel that way. It’s just a general anxiety. Maybe I just find something funny about it, ‘cause I feel like the writing process was very much the reason why I play music. I never was like, “I want to be in a band!” And then, “I’m gonna write some songs for that.” I was like, “I wrote a shitload of songs. I should play them in front of people.”
MW: What do you hope your listeners feel when they first listen to Messes? Do you have a story that you’re trying to tell with the album? Are there certain ideas that you’re trying to get across?
SC: Well, it’s weird because I would’ve never considered it a conceptual album, but the more I delved into the songs that made it on the record, I realized there was kind of a theme of emotional mess, and, not in a romantic way, per se, but power struggles that you encounter as a woman throughout your life. I feel like writing has been a big emotional release for me, or cathartic in that sense, so that’s probably why that became a theme almost unintentionally. But I don’t know. I don’t know what I want people to get out of it. I just hope they like it.
MW: I like that you brought up power struggles as a woman. It’s very relevant right now. Messes comes out just a week after our new president gets inaugurated. How does it feel being a female artist in this new era? Do you have hopes or fears as a woman, or an artist, or just a human in the next four years?
SF: I have fears in a big way, because for me, reproductive rights was kind of a one-ticket issue for me for a candidate. I really believe in having reproductive rights, and that not having them is basically female enslavement of their bodies. So, you know, I do have fear that—I mean, I actually utilize some of the public services that I have a feeling will go away if Planned Parenthood is defunded, so I fear that aspect. I do have some hope that this election woke some people up—like, some of the people who were kind of sitting on their asses and thought the Democrats were going to elect themselves. And I hope that people vote for senators when that comes up. I am surprised that Bernie Sanders exists and is a continual voice. I do think it’s funny that the album is named Messes, and that it’s coming out at a time that seems so fucking messy. It seems appropriately titled.
MW: Oh, I like that. I don’t see Messes necessarily as a political album, but do you see yourself using your music as a platform for a social or political voice in the future?
SC: You know, in the past I’ve struggled with this, because I do think my songwriting is more personal, but I feel like just being a musician, you have a voice whether your music is like that or not, and you should use it and you should be vocal about your feelings on politics. For a while I felt like I couldn’t do that because I wasn’t the Dead Kennedys or something. I mostly felt guilty. I was like, “I’m not political enough.” I mean, I don’t know. Even if your songs aren’t that political, they could probably become that way, or you could still talk about politics as a person.
MW: Yeah, definitely. I don’t think you’re obligated to use your music for that, but I think it’s interesting that once you have this platform—you know, you’re touring, you become a person that people are looking at, you can use your voice outside of music, perhaps.
SC: Yeah, I mean, I’m curious about what will happen in the next year, because music is such a platform for calling out politics, and I’m wondering how—I’m just wondering what will happen, if people will become interested in writing about that stuff still or if people will be kind of complacent.
MW: I see it as a big turning point. I guess we’ll see. So, what are some of your biggest musical influences? Who did you look up to for songwriting, or just for their sound or personality?
SC: I really liked Buffy Sainte Marie when I first heard her, and when I was in high school, The Velvet Underground was a huge influence. And I remember hearing Cat Power’s “Nude as the News,” and I had this big epiphany, like, “Oh, this what music is supposed to sound like.” I also really liked Sonic Youth. And I was a kid who was obsessed with Nirvana. And yeah, I really think I was shaped, in a way, not so much by my high school influences, but in elementary school, I always pined the fact that my friends had all these memories of loving NSYNC and the Backstreet Boys and Hanson, and I never had a boy band thing. I never had a Britney Spears thing. I was like, “Aw, I don’t have that.” And then I realized, “Oh, yeah, I just actually listened to real music.” Like, I loved The Offspring’s Smash album. I liked Metallica, the Black Album, in elementary school.
MW: If they’re any different—they might be the same—but what are some of your current favorite bands or artists that you’re listening to lately?
SC: I love Jay Som’s “I Think You’re Alright.” Oh, my God, that’s an amazing song! It’s really, really good. And there’s Sparklehorse. Well, I guess that’s more of an influence, but I keep revisiting that. I really like that Warehouse record. Warehouse has a song called “Reservoir” that I’ve been obsessed with.
MW: Okay, so I saw that you recorded the album with Fred Thomas, and Ryan Clancy played on it, too. Do you have any permanent band members, or is it just you with other musicians supporting you for live shows and recording?
SC: We’ve been touring as a three-piece with Ryan Clancy on drums and Cy Tulip on the bass, but that person might be on-and-off with the touring, so it’s kind of a little bit of a fluctuating lineup as far as the bass player goes. But Ryan and I played as a two-piece for like a year, and then we kind of got the songs down, and then we recorded the album with Fred, who played bass on the album, too.
MW: What’s your songwriting process like? Do you write with Ryan, or do you write stuff alone?
SC: I usually write stuff alone, and then me and Ryan Clancy will work it out and arrange it a little bit. So, it’s mostly me writing at my house, and then I’ll practice it with Ryan, and we add bass later.
MW: How was it recording your first full-length studio album? Did it feel a lot different than recording your older demos?
SC: Yeah, it really was so different, and it was such a learning experience. I’m really thankful for the experience, but I would definitely do it different next time. [laughs]
MW: Really? How so?
SC: Okay, well, recording my demos was just like a live take. I was DI [direct input] into a four-track, and there was no overdubbing at all. It was just live. And then with this, I’d really been pushing away doing a real recording, because I knew I was going to be kind of a perfectionist about it. And, you know, I’m sure a lot of people can relate to this: I look back, and I was so obsessed with how my voice sounded on some of the stuff that I couldn’t see that things were good when they were good. I was overthinking it. Also, all the sessions were really spread out. Fred was working in the studio, and he was recording a lot of other bands, and we would record together once or twice a month for about six months. If I were to do it again, I would be like, “I want a week of studio time where we do everything.” We started recording it in the spring of 2015, and I think it wasn’t done being mixed until the winter of 2016.
MW: Sounds like quite the process.
SC: Yeah. It just took too long. But I think it sounds really good now.
MW: Yeah, I think so too. I really love how it came out. So, you’re based in Detroit. When I hear about Detroit, it’s often referenced as this neglected city. How is it making music there? What’s the artistic community like?
SC: You know, the community for the kind of music that I make is really small and tight-knit. And there are a lot of shows going on. I was living in a different part of Michigan, and I moved here. Detroit doesn’t really have a DIY scene. It doesn’t really have a house show scene right now. I feel like I see little blips of it, but I’m not sure if it’s as strong as other places in the Midwest like Chicago and Milwaukee, or even Minneapolis. But I—yeah, I really love all my friends, and there’s a lot of really good bands, but a lot of them don’t get out of Detroit, as far as touring goes. They’re kind of stuck.
MW: Do you think that your environment and community—living in Detroit—influences your music, as opposed to if you lived somewhere like New York City or LA? Does it change your perspective?
SC: Probably. There is something really bleak about this place. It can be sad or lonely because it’s so empty. It’s kind of this empty concrete jungle, so on a grey day it’s just kind of—yeah. I don’t know. I wrote most of the record in Detroit. A couple of the songs are really old. Two of them are from before I lived in Detroit, and—
MW: Which ones are those?
SC: “Becoming Shadows” is off the first tape that I did, and so is “Speeding Ticket.” I wrote “Speeding Ticket” when I was 18, which is about ten years ago, but the rest of them were written in Detroit. The oldest of those are like four years ago. But that being said, the record didn’t start being recorded until two years ago. It just seems like a long process. I was new to the city when I wrote a lot of the songs, so I was kind of trapped in my apartment with no friends. Really great way to write an album, when you don’t know anyone.
MW: Sounds productive, at least.
SC: It was, really. Yeah.
MW: Do you see yourself staying in Detroit? Is it your home now?
SC: I definitely think of this place as my home. And sometimes I get the bug to leave, but this is definitely the last place that I’ll move in Michigan, if I were to leave, but I don’t think I would do that for a few years. I like a lot about it here. Before, I said it was kind of bleak, but there’s also something really nice about this place. And it is starting to feel like a home, and I’ve lived here for five years. Also, I feel like it’s a great place for a touring musician. The rent is pretty cheap, and I don’t really need other resources, so…if for some reason I get rich or fall in love or something, [laughs] then I’ll probably move, but I’ll probably stay here until that happens.