On the first track of her debut album, Messes, Stef Chura presents herself as a thoughtful vocalist—a performer whose vibrating voice entices her listeners to re-listen, to take her words as much for their audible value as their literal meaning.
On the song “Thin,” Chura is quiet, but her vocals and lyrics take center stage. She sings, “Tried you on for a bit / Just to see if it’s fitting,” and this seems to be the prevailing sentiment of Messes—figuring it all out by trying it all out.
Today we’re premiering the video for “Thin,” which was directed by Trevor Naud:
I phoned up Stef a couple days after the Women’s March on January 21 to talk about community, making music, and finding your way through insecurity.
RACHEL DAVIES: So you went to the Women’s March [in Washington, D.C.], right? How was it?
STEF CHURA: I jumped in a car—I want to say it was last minute, but when the election happened, my friend said she was going to go, and I was like, “Make me go.” It wasn’t that I was complacent or anything, but the record [was] coming out, and I’m stressed out, so I’m so glad that I ended up going.
Did you go with a big group or just you two?
Well, I went with my really close friend Shelley, and we drove with this other woman who was probably in her early 60s, who we just met. Her name is Nancy Flanagan and she’s a painter and a teacher at the community college in Ann Arbor, [Michigan]. She was amazing. She’s a total fine arts lady but she has this really interesting past where she like was friends with a lot of minimalist composers, and friends with, like Philip Glass. She had a really interesting life. She was a nice person to spend, like, 20 hours with in a car. It was really cool. We stayed at an older friend’s house—with Shelley’s closest friend from elementary school’s parents, and I actually knew one of the parents because I’d had them as a painting instructor. It was like being in a surrogate, very liberal family. I always thought my parents were pretty liberal because my mom always voted Democrat and my dad always voted third party, which I used to think was very radical of him, but I’ve suddenly learned it’s a very conservative move because I think he was voting Libertarian, or at least voting for Nader. [Staying with them] was so refreshing. I had never been around a group of people that was so liberal in a family setting.
That sounds amazing. It kind of sounds, like, made up, this journey on the road with an older woman you just met and a good friend.
Yeah, it was actually pretty magical. I was still feeling pretty stressed out about some personal stuff but it kind of got washed away. Also I’ve never been to a protest, and wow, quite the first protest!
Did you make a sign?
I did make a sign. I can send you a picture of it. I made a sign where one side says “No Racist USA” and the other has a fist. I wasn’t even going to have the sign, but I’m glad I did. The woman we stayed with was an art teacher—of course she has all these art materials, and, like, Fome-Cor. They were heavily prepared. They had stuff to make signs, stuff to make sandwiches to pack food. It was very planned. It was very cool. Being around that many people made me realize, well, first of all I’d never been around that many people before. You definitely do have to plan because there are so many people around, like even if you need to go to the bathroom. Every place that was open was so full, like if you needed food or anything, but obviously we didn’t because we packed sandwiches. It felt really good to be there because I realized that day we were driving there, that that was maybe the only place I wanted to be. That’s what was going to be in my mind anyway, so it was helpful to be doing the thing that I actually would have just been doing on the internet. I would recommend it to anyone who is on the fence.
When did you start playing music?
I started playing guitar when I was like 14. I learned some covers and stuff. My dad had a guitar and taught me some stuff. When I was 14, I went to this boarding school, and then I was kicked out of it, and when I came back I actually started writing songs. I have a cousin who’s a singer-songwriter, and I remember showing them to him.
Did you want to pursue it as a life path when you started making your own music? Were you like, “This is it,” or did you just keep working at it?
Well, I was almost the most productive with guitar stuff. I was seeking a lot of outside validation, I had low self-esteem, and confidence levels, as well as hating having my picture taken. I was always extremely self-conscious, so I never really considered it a life path, but I was always prolifically writing. I feel like “a hobby” is not the right way to say it. I was just always doing that from the time I was 15, more and more. In a way it was always this super important thing to me that I could never validate as being a career because I think if you don’t have someone in your life to guide you through the steps of being successful with your band, it’s really mysterious. I’d been playing for years, and it wasn’t until later that I met the drummer I play with now. [His band at the time was] touring and it laid out the infrastructure in a way that made me realize it wasn’t so mysterious. It felt less intimidating, and it was the right time in my life, though I wish I had the confidence to do it when I was younger because a lot of the songs on the record are actually rather old.
Some of these songs, like “Slow Motion” and “Human Being”, existed initially years ago as self-recorded tracks. What was it like to revisit them in the studio?
There’s a part of me that’s like, “Damn, I can’t believe I’m still playing this song,” but then there’s another part of me that feels like I really needed to record certain songs to be able to put them down. That was really important to me. “Speeding Ticket” for instance—I wrote when I was 18, and I’m 28 now. That’s a long time ago. “Becoming Shadows” and that are the two oldest songs.
Does it feel odd to revisit them emotionally or do they still ring true to you?
It kind of feels weird, a little bit. We haven’t been playing “Speeding Ticket” live much because I feel rather divorced from that feeling, but I think it comes in and out in waves. I might have been afraid to write a record because I thought I couldn’t do better, or I wouldn’t have enough music to write another one, but I can actually see how much better I will be doing. I’ve learned so much, and I could only write a better record. I’m really excited to finish new material.
So you’re on tour?
Yeah, we’re doing a three-week tour and we did two three-week tours last year. I’m a little bit scared [to] go for longer than three weeks because around the end of three weeks is when everyone starts to crack a little. I’ve always had this fantasy about touring and maybe even been like, “Someday I’m going to tour with my band, so I don’t need to now,” but touring is actually really stressful while being amazing.
I read in your bio that you’ve moved around a bit. Was that related to your journey with music?
Well, I didn’t move around that much, it’s not that interesting. I think I should take that out of my bio because another person in an interview…I’ve just lived in South-East Michigan and moved through different towns. I think the reason it’s in the bio is because “Slow Motion” has that line that’s like, “Right when it starts to feel like home it starts to go.” It’s not that I haven’t wanted to stay in one place, but I’ve always lived very frugally. I’ve been social enough that I end up in all these cheap but rather temporary situations where I’m living with a homeowner out of their house but they don’t typically have a roommate, or I’m their quirky roommate for six months and then they decide they don’t want a roommate.
Did you play live as you were moving around to all these different places?
Yeah, I lived in Ypsilanti, Michigan, and there were different eras in my life where I felt like I should live with some people because I was curious about them or I was really young and excited about becoming friends with these people so I just decided to move in with them. Definitely when I was in Ypsi there was more of a DIY and house show scene. There was this [puppet theater] called the Dreamland Theater that I lived above and would set up shows there. That was kind of a hub because Ypsi is such a small place. When I moved to Detroit, I wished there was a bigger scene but there hasn’t been a consistent house show scene. It’s been, like, all bars, some venues, and some DIY spaces, but not really house shows.
With respect to the video, how do you feel your musical and visual aesthetics intersect one another?
It’s interesting because I don’t know if I would have planned this but there’s been this very colorful thing that’s happened—with Molly Soda’s album art and her video for “Slow Motion,” which also kind of carried through with [Ambar Navarro’s video for] “Spotted Gold.” I feel like it’s been very cohesive, in its own way.
Do you ever work in visual mediums?
Yeah, it’s interesting. Academia will really funnel you into certain pathways. For the thing I like, it’s probably a little scary for some people to get into because you can’t get an associate’s degree, or something. You just kind of blindly work on it. But I did end up taking, like, eight ceramics courses in community college. I have a whole body of work, but ceramics are really tough if you don’t have a studio, so I haven’t done in the last few years.
What did you study at school?
I kept taking community college courses for ceramics but I got no external validation from my parents to pursue it. A lot of confused students, who end up going straight into a degree when they’re 18 and getting out when they’re 22, may end up not that pleased with the major they’ve chosen. They’ve chosen something they weren’t all that passionate about but they were just steered in that direction. I wasn’t really being steered in any direction. I had this thing I really liked, and I was only really good at art in school, so I ended up going to art school. It was the whole reason I went to Detroit. I didn’t even go for a full year, and I studied graphic design, which wasn’t even really something I connected with that much. I’m really glad I have the skills that I learned, but I just kept trying to validate my existence with some shitty day job. I studied graphic design in the first semester, and then I moved into animation. I had a bunch of stuff happen that semester that pushed me to realize I wanted to do music. The kids in the 2D animation course, I’m like 23, they’re maybe 18, and they love animation, it’s all they think about. They’re fighting over Disney versus Pixar, they’re being total nerds about it. A couple weeks into the class, they even tell you that jobs in the field are really hard to get. Everyone I was going to school with in that program was completely psychotic about animation so I knew I needed to focus my energy on something I really enjoy. I couldn’t do animation on the side. It’s not that type of career.
Is this around the same time you started playing shows?
No, I started playing shows when I was 19 and had just moved to Ypsi. I had some songs, nudged my friend to listen to them, and she encouraged me to play a house show. I had been playing for a few years and took a year off to go to school because I think I had decided that music was a hobby or something. That same semester, I ended up getting kind of sick, and my best friend died in a freak accident where he drowned in Lake Michigan [because of] a riptide. It was really unexpected, he was 24, and in really good health. It confronted me with the question of what I really needed to do [in my life]. I kind of wanted to die and hang out with my friend, and thought to myself, What would I have regretted if I had died? I realized I would feel really unhappy if I hadn’t recorded my songs and tried to make an album and seen what happened. Now we have the record! It’s kind of dark, but now I’m really happy!
Well, then it saved you!
It kind of did! It really was this thing that pushed me over the edge. It’s basically the only thing I’ve thought of since. We started recording in spring of 2015 and my friend died in fall of 2013, so we wrote during 2014.
Before you were talking about how people go to college straight of high school because they don’t know what else to do. Do you have any advice for readers who are hesitant about that path for themselves?
Without having to connect to such a dark thing like I did to get confronted with the question, just be honest with yourself about what you want, and what you like. If you’re driven enough, you can get that even if it seems overwhelming. I wouldn’t say this is totally gendered, but maybe as a woman, the way I’ve been socialized is to not say yes to myself sometimes, and to not be sure about the decisions that I’m making. I’ll know deep inside what I want to do, and then have a thought comes in like, This is what other people’ll think, this is what your parents want, this is what you’re supposed to do. Even if what you want to do is within the realms of going to college, you should pursue that. Even if you aren’t a musician but love music, there are so many opportunities. You could be a booking agent, work for a press company, or even be a journalist. Whether you’re writing, or doing interviews, making videos—there are lots of opportunities for things that don’t fit right into the mold. Don’t just get a graphic design degree if you’re not feeling that 100 percent. Just make sure you feel it 100 percent.
Make sure you’re like the animation students!
Totally! That gave me perspective. ♦