This Saturday, April 21st is Record Store Day, a day that brings us back to a time when the only way you could hear your favorite artist’s new song was by purchasing it on seven inches of vinyl from your local record shop. That’s exactly how Detroit indie-rocker, Stef Chura, wants us to celebrate the annual homage to vinyl culture. Chura, who released her striking debut album Messes in 2017, is pressing a thousand copies of a new 7″ that includes two songs that didn’t make it onto the LP. Both of the songs – “Degrees” and “Sour Honey” – were produced by Will Toledo of Car Seat Headrest and show Chura’s range in emotion, voice, and musicianship.
“Degrees” is a weighty, haunting rumination on mortality that shifts between delicate verses and a blazing refrain. Chura says that the song was originally a plucky folk song, but Toledo had the idea to take it in a Janis Joplin “Ball and Chain” direction, adding gritty layers of guitar that conjure up the image of towering flames.
Falling on the opposite end of the spectrum sonically, “Sour Honey” is a stripped-down solo affair that features Chura’s flickering, elastic vocals accompanied by Toledo on piano. The bare, vulnerable sound is an appropriate match for the song’s subject matter – insecurity and hyper self-awareness. “I wrote that song when I was working at a strip club in Detroit as a cocktail server,” says Chura. “It was about the visceral, super physical feeling of complete embarrassment and humiliation. I think I used to suffer from a lot of social anxiety and miscommunications, and it was just a very cat-fighty atmosphere.”
The 7″ is a Record Store Day exclusive, which means you’ll only be able to pick it up at your local record store. Chura will perform at Detroit’s Third Man Records in tandem with the release, followed by shows in Cincinnati and Bloomington. Listen to “Degrees” and see Stef Chura’s upcoming tour dates below.
Saturday, April 21st @ Third Man Records Cass Corridor – Detroit, MI
Wednesday, April 25th @ MOTR Pub – Cincinnati, OH
Thursday, April 26th @ The Bishop – Bloomington, IN
“I’m sorry, I’m in the middle of the desert,” Stef Chura tells me, after our call has dropped off for the third time. Chura, who has been on tour with her band since August 28th, is driving through Texas to meet up with Jay Som in El Paso. Then, she tells me, they’ll “maybe go to a hot spring.” They were hoping to go camping, but it’s raining now.
My whole call with Chura is like this: casual, wandering, warm. As we catch up before her Columbus show at Skully’s Music Diner on 10/4, she tells me about the “hard Canadian bagels” they ate in Montreal, and the park they relaxed in before their show. Another time, Chura recalls, they played at Meow Wolf in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which she describes as “ a crazy museum, and the venue is a little stage inside the actual art piece.” Next she mentions a time that the “sex shop” located next to their venue had a “tunnel of love” made up of a rickety bridge and turning swirly lights. But not all of their tour has been this fun and breezy. Chura describes a show in Madison, Wisconsin, when a man walked up in front of the crowd to heckle her. “He can really play!” the man shouted, referring to Chura’s touring bassist, Collin Dekuiper. “Can you play like him?”
At a different gig, Chura says, “I was standing right next to [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][Dekuiper], and the sound guy walked up to the stage. And I could tell he wanted to talk to the bass player so much more than me.” Things like this “just happen,” Chura tells me. But at this point in her career, Chura is too focused on her music to talk about her gendered experiences in the music industry for long. “I think I’m starting to get bleaker as I get older,” she says.
And the music that Chura makes is worth focusing on. Messes, her debut album, is pointed and thoughtful, with expansive arrangements and rumbling guitar riffs. Since the release, Chura and her band have recorded a live EP with Audiotree – recordings with as much air and sprawl as Messes, but infused with the urgency captured during a live performance. Lyrically, Chura drifts through and between varied characters, scenes, and metaphors. “I don’t write in a story-line,” she tells me, “so a lot of the songs are more chaotic for me […] one verse will be about one thing, and another part of the song will be about something completely different.”
What pulls Chura’s lyrics together, however, is her continued exploration of the power dynamics that mold and complicate human interactions. Chura says that when she wrote Messes, she “thought about the songs as having such different content, [but] when they were all together and I was talking to more people about the songs, I realized that there was a theme that I hadn’t expected to be there. The songs are not mostly about romantic relationships, and [are] mostly about power struggles in my life.” Yet Chura’s work is not always read within this nuanced framework. She tells me about one review of Messes’ stand-out “Slow Motion” that particularly impacted her after the reviewer read the song as about “a crush and romance.” “I was super devastated that that’s what my whole music career was going to be like,” she says, “that people were going to think I was just some love-struck girl, writing about my crushes.
A deep-dive into her work reveals that Chura is anything but “love-struck.” While examining power and control, Chura never loses her grasp of intentionality. It’s this self-awareness, nestled within her densely descriptive lyrics, that drew me into her music in the first place. “There you were / Falling through / my hands like sand,” Chura sings on “Faded Heart.” It’s a spare lyric, but an effective one––dry, textured imagery balances the saccharine potential of the song’s title. In fact, Chura tells me, that lyric was inspired by a Joni Mitchell documentary she found at the dollar store.
“It was a really amazing documentary to be only a dollar,” she says, laughing. Chura explains to me that the documentary explored, in part, one of Mitchell’s romantic break-ups, and the letter that break-up produced. In the letter, Chura says, Mitchell wrote “something like: ‘if you hold sand in your hands too tightly, it will just fall through.’” That image stuck with Chura, eventually insinuating itself into the album. But Chura’s approach to the lyric, as always, was rooted in something more complicated than just a crush. “I wrote that song about my friend who passed away,” she says.
Chura’s on the longest tour of her career right now, but as she talks, she seems as motivated as ever. “We’re playing new stuff right now,” she says, “and we’re actually making a new record when we get [back] to Detroit. We definitely have enough stuff for our new album.” Along with the new material, the band has tweaked a few things for their performances: adding bass lines where songs didn’t have them, etc. “Also,” Chura jokes, “I pause ‘Time to Go’ to do the splits. “
Along with recording the new album, once home in Detroit, Chura will pick up her karaoke business, which gets put on hold during tour. “[I’ll] have three nights at a couple of bars throughout town,” she tells me. She’s a true karaoke believer: organizing each night doesn’t stop Chura from participating too. “You really have to [sing] the song you’re feeling,” she says. And right now, what she’s feeling is “Drops of Jupiter” by Train. “It’s such a good song!” she says, laughing. “It’s a song that nobody wants to know the lyrics to but they do. And it’s a little embarrassing.”
Chura tells me that the new album, like Messes, will mix new songs with older material. “I was feeling pressure that all of the songs had to be brand new,” she says, “but that’s not true. It’s kind of nice to work with the old stuff.” Opening up the time-frame of the album has worked for Chura before. “Speeding Ticket,” the oldest song on her debut album, is an understated recording with devastating, visceral lyrics.
At first, Chura says, she was “ashamed” to tell people she had written the song ten years ago. But she still really likes playing the song. “I’m not really bothered,” says Chura. “I was self-conscious at first but […] it’s a good song.” It’s true––it is a good song. Listening to “Speeding Ticket” feels like the few sleepy moments spent under covers after waking up, or the quiet warmth of a day inside during winter.
I think about how long Chura has been writing, and how many opportunities she has had to stop. Ultimately, this is what I love about Chura’s music, and about the unaffected, thoughtful way she speaks over the phone: she has put a lifetime of work into constructing her sound and her songs, and she knows it.
There’s something unidentifiably exciting about Stef Chura. It would be an easy out to say her warbled, playful vocal contortions are the key to her aforementioned excitability, which are undoubtedly fearless and perfectly flawed. Last month, I referred to her vocal playground as one crafted by Karen O meets Johnathon Richman, but with the recent release of “Slow Motion” off of her up and coming album Messes, I can see how I quickly generalized her aesthetic. Chura creates space and fills it with confessionary uncertainty. What Chura is doing is entirely all her own.
“Slow Motion” encapsulates personal frustration and manages to make a lo-fi cry for clarity anthemic for anyone who has ever wanted to control the speed of their own reality. The lyrics “you bottle/me in your pocket and explode/give me something/and I don’t know what it’s for/and right when it starts/ to feel like home/it’s time to go” paints an universal exploration of impermanence in feeling comfortable with ourselves as individuals, as well as our comfortability as a piece of our respective social quilt. With Ryan Clancy on drums and producer Fred Thomas on bass, Chura’s vocals are practically framed by the jumpy, hazy rhythms allowing her to use her beautifully tortured voice to maim and repair parts of the song at her leisure.
The video, which is a desaturated Microsoft Paint snack party in Detroit’s UFO Factory bathroom (inarguably the most popular bar bathroom for selfies) poses Chura as an unenthused guest of honor surrounded by balloons, toilet snacks, and a listless oversized stuffed bear. Shot by internationally acclaimed digital artist and Detroit implant Molly Soda, “Slow Motion” is a vivid collaboration between wanting to feel part of a whole and wanting to fall apart, whisked together with whimsy and an old screensaver from the 90’s. The party gets tripped out and psychedelically rambunctious as the guests go crazy with silly string and happy face balloons that seem melancholic in context. The video is a play on party culture and for Detroiters, gives a voice to an iconic space while touching base with those deep-rooted sad girl vibes, that need someone like Chura to portray with sincerity and unapologetic malaise.