In the Bandcamp era, a debut record can look an awful lot like a greatest hits collection. If an artist seems suspiciously assured on their first proper album, they’ve probably been workshopping their songs for years. This is nothing new, of course. Artists have always refined their chops on demos and mixtapes before a full-fledged studio production—but now, you can follow them every step of the way on SoundCloud.
Stef Chura’s first record, Messes, follows the lineage of Car Seat Headrest or Frankie Cosmos in that some songs have existed online in one form or another for upwards of five years. The Detroit singer hasn’t quite matched either artist’s extensive catalog of pre-label releases—but she comes to us with a singular approach. Her voice, which never quite flatlines to a deadpan, is a flexible, perpetually warbling instrument—to the point where a phrase like “honeymoon phase” can express more than it has any right to. Through arpeggio-picked electric ballads and straight-ahead ‘90s garage rockers, Chura’s meditations run the gamut from growth and identity to coping with loss.
Following a recent tour stop in Pittsburgh, I talked to Chura about stumbling into a concept album, feeling politically motivated after the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., and the worst songs she’s seen people attempt at karaoke night.
TrackRecord: Some of these songs have lived for years on Bandcamp or as cassettes and demos. Why do you think it took so long for a proper recording to emerge?
Stef Chura: I don’t know, I never really had an opportunity to record someplace nice. And I also was highly intimidated by using recording gear, which I wish I would have just thrown myself into, because now I’ve started doing a bit of Live Sound for my job, and it’s really not that bad once you get familiar with it. I would just do tons of voice memos on my phone and record those demos on a cassette, like a four-track live take. But those recordings were never that good, and therefore no one cared enough to be like, “Hey you should record with me.” Or maybe not a lot of people even heard them. I often look back and think, “Why didn’t I try to do more with it?” I just kept going to college for stuff that I didn’t like doing instead.
TR: You went to art school for a bit, right?
SC: I went to art school for a semester. I also went studied art at a community college before that.
TR: At what point did you decide you wanted to go for music full time?
SC: I just kind of had a few different things collide in my life, [and] kind of had the revelation that art school wasn’t going to work out. I would say I probably never pursued music because I wasn’t very confident at all, I was like super low self-esteem. I did not like playing in front of people, and I did not like having people take my picture at all.
But then I kept switching majors, because I didn’t get a lot of outside validation about studying ceramics, so I studied graphic design at this really expensive art school, and then I switched for a semester to animation. The first day, I was sitting in this 2D animation class, and they’re all fighting with each other about Disney vs. Pixar and Pokémon and Dreamworks and shit, and I was like, “Oh wow, I give zero fucks about any of that.” It just made me have this really big realization—I dropped out of school because I was like, “I don’t feel that way about any of the stuff that I’m studying.” I had a few things happen, where I realized I had to make at least one record to see how it would go.
TR: A lot of this album sounds like it’s about growth and the fluidity of identity, especially on the song “Thin.” Was that “skin” you were trying on represent unfulfilling friendships, traits within yourself, or something else entirely?
SC: I actually wrote that song—for six months, I cocktailed at a strip club. It was right after my friend died, and I worked at this strip club, and I don’t know if you can relate to this—I just found myself in this situation where I was like, “This is not where I should be.” There’s also a lot of times where I feel like I’m exploring something just for the sake of exploring it. Even if I see it’ll be bad for me, I’ll still be curious about it.
TR: One of the primary sources of anguish on Messes is losing one of your best friends, but the record isn’t maudlin or singularly focused on that. What are some of the other, smaller-stakes messes from this time period that might be harder to parse from the record?
SC: There’s only one song about my friend who passed away, and that’s “Faded Heart,” but I feel like I keep bringing it up in interviews because, like I said, there’s a couple of reasons for me wanting to actually make a record, and that had also happened. It just confronts you with the idea of: “What do you want to do before you die?”
A lot of it is just probably anything that’s emotionally overwhelming. And even though I didn’t mean for the album to have any kind of similar theme or feel, but I feel like it all was—being that songwriting might be my way to deal with emotional overload, that was weirdly the theme. Emotional mess, in that sense. I didn’t think of it as a concept album, but then it kind of ended up having a concept in the end.
TR: I saw on Twitter you were in Washington, D.C. for the Women’s March, recording right outside of Trump Tower. Have events of the past week made you inclined to be more politically outspoken in your work or press going forward?
SC: I definitely think that anyone who’s in a position to have a microphone in front of them should have a political opinion and should speak it. One of the biggest takeaways I had from that rally was just, it was really inspiring, but one of the main messages was: Don’t go home and be complacent. Don’t forget that you came to this, continue to help and continue to be a part of something and do whatever you can. I guess if I play shows, I can donate some of the money to a charity, continue to just be vocal.
TR: I’ve seen that you also work nights doing karaoke. Instead of asking what your go-to song is, what’s a song you dread seeing someone attempt at karaoke?
SC: Groups of women always want to sing TLC “Waterfalls”—never ever good. Oh, this is a song I used to love before I hosted karaoke: 4 Non Blondes, “What’s Up.” Rarely ever sang well by anyone. There are so many good ones that people love to fuck up. I need to write these down, because someday I’ll wish I had these terrible memories I could wash out of my brain, and they’d actually be gone.
One time I had this guy pay $100 to sing Stone Temple Pilots “Plush.” He wanted to right away, though, because it was really busy—or did he want “Interstate Love Song?” What’s the one that goes [hums opening riff to “Plush”]?
TR: Yeah, that’s “Plush.” [Poorly hums opening riff to “Interstate Love Song”]
SC: Oh fuck, I don’t know, I think it was “Plush.” It might have been “Interstate Love Song,” actually. I think it’s “Interstate Love Song.”
He was singing it, and then during the bridge he was like, “Man, I love this song, it’s so beautiful.” [laughs]. And I was like, “You do love this song, you paid $100 to sing it!”