The first thing you might notice when you listen to Stef Chura’s debut album, Messes, is her vocals. She adopts the warm, rapid pitch changes of a ‘60s folk singer and pays modern day homage, pairing it with the loud and direct singing style of ‘90s-era female-driven indie rock.
“I’m definitely obsessed with Buffy Sainte-Marie as far as folk singers go, and I loved that Nico album, Chelsea Girl,” she tells us of her musical inspirations, which also include Babes in Toyland and L7.
A longtime stalwart in the Detroit DIY music scene, Chura first started writing music in her early teens. It wasn’t until around 2009 that she started playing live—and at the time, solo. Her extensive library of 2009-2016 demos and EPs were comprised of straightforward indie-folk, and while her new album presents itself as more of a bedroom pop/indie rock listen.
Messes is a tidal wave of emotionally-charged songs, from the dreamy, distorted sprawl of the title track to “Time to Go,” a song with a grunge-pop influence that opens with a few seconds of reverby, fingerpicking. Written in 2015 and released in full on January 27, 2017, Chura says there was no conscious editing down of subject matter to fit any political or gender-specific viewpoints but conscious or not, her songwriting illustrates the everyday struggles we as women face and takes subtle jabs at the things that cause them.
For example, “Thin,” recalls her time spent as a cocktail waitress at a Detroit strip club that she’s dubbed as the “darkest, shittiest place that exists in the city.” There’s also “On and Off for You,” where she tells of a woman’s revenge after a nearsighted honeymoon phase, singing “I’m taking my baby north for the winter / And if you want to come you can watch us deliver.”
Still, Chura doesn’t consider Messes a political record in the classic sense. “I’m not screaming something really political but there’s something there, I guess. I don’t think I would have written the songs I wrote if I wasn’t a woman,” she says.
“I think the person I am as a songwriter has really come out to me through the process of making this record,” she explains. “I had no intention of this, [but] a lot of the songs are about power struggles. There are so many that are subliminal and frustrating as a women, and not just in a romantic or sexist way but in the workplace, in your everyday.”
She Shreds spoke with Chura about Messes, along with her influences and songwriting. Check it out below, and if you’re in Portland on Friday, February 17, come see her at our showcase at Disjecta with Priests and Mr. Wrong in Portland. All ages are welcome and $1 from each ticket will benefit Casa Ruby LGBT Community Center.
She Shreds: What inspired you to start playing music in the first place?
Stef Chura: I always wrote songs as a child before I learned how to play an instrument. I would just write them for myself. Then I was in a band that never played any shows in high school that was all women, called Burning Bush. It’s been kind of a slow process of finding out that it was something I could just do. When you tell someone that you’re just going to pursue music they’re very skeptical of you at first. There’s not as much infrastructure as there is for like, college, or really most other pursuits.
What bands and artists were you listening to at a young age that inspired you to write?
Well, I remember being a child and writing a song about the Cheeto cat [laughs]. I always loved music and I have a really personal attachment to reading through the lyrics of certain albums. I had sort of this photographic memory for lyrics, particularly that Counting Crows album, August and Everything After, also Smash by The Offspring.
How did that interest in lyrics affect your own songwriting?
I don’t feel like I’m ever writing a storyline type of lyric. It’s more like a lot of different imagery, maybe a few different seeds in one song so that it’s more of an emotion than it is about one person or one event. I have some pretty heady poetry friends and in the past I’ve definitely put the big focus on lyrical content for a lot of my stuff. I still really appreciate lyrics, but even in an abstract way, it doesn’t always have to be this big heady thing. They can be really sparse and simple. In terms of the musical aspect, maybe I’m ready to focus on it more because it’s not poetry, it’s music.
How do you approach writing the music for the songs on Messes?
I sometimes need to deconstruct to have something work for me. Some of the songs in the record really reflect that, like “Human Being” is the same guitar line all the way through, and “Thin” is very repetitive. I’ve found it’s easier to continue writing something when I stop pressuring myself to include something that is normally supposed to be there. It’s kind of freeing in that sense, which for me is the point of writing.
When I’m writing, I’m not writing the lyrics, I’ll just record it all and write out the lyrics when I listen to the recording. This is super corny, but I had a poetry teacher who told me this quote from Bob Marley that music is like a radio station, and some people are just tuned into it. I feel like the more I’m trying to write something the worse it comes out.
You’ve released a lot of music in the past, but never a full record. How did Messes come to be your first?
I’ve dabbled in everything because I think I wasn’t ready to admit that I could, I wasn’t ready to allow myself to just make a record and just pursue music because it’s a little bit daunting and you don’t know how to make it sustainable for yourself. But I had a couple events happen in my life that were really just kind of sad and depressing and really confronted me with the idea of like, what do you need to do before you die? Which is really kind of intense, but that’s real. If there’s something you’d really regret not doing before you die then it doesn’t make sense to put it off for a year or think you’re going to have more time, because maybe you won’t.
Was there anything else on that bucket list that you felt you had to complete?
Well, now that I’m in it, it’s actually so fun and I have so many goals for myself as an artist.
Make a second record [laughs].