“I just moved, so I’m kind of in the middle of unpacking a bunch of shit,” says Stef Chura, who just moved into her own place in Detroit. It wasn’t a far move: the musician is a Michigan native. “I would leave,” she says of her hometown. “It would just depend. I just moved into a one-bedroom apartment so I wouldn’t do it for a while. Maybe LA or New Orleans. My brother lives in New Orleans. I would consider New York, but I really don’t like it there, so I don’t know why I’m saying that.”
Stef wears big, round glasses and sings with a robust and sorrowful twang. Songs like “Human Being”, off her 2017 album titles Messes, bring tears to a listener’s eyes—her style is profoundly heartbreaking and deeply relatable. Upon first hearing her voice, I could have mistaken her for a post-Fleetwood Mac Stevie Nicks, with songwriting qualities very reminiscent of ‘90s/‘00s indie darlings Modest Mouse. This is not a comparison easily earned, yet in this case it is given quite enthusiastically: she sings with a woeful and rich quality that breeds nostalgic feelings.
Looking back on her old stomping grounds of Gaylord, Michigan, and the nearby city of Alpena, Stef recalls a music scene centered around house shows. “In the rock scene, which is already super small, there’s like one whole thing that is just garage rock music. But it’s all very small. On top of that, there’s people doing more indie rock type stuff—those people I play with a lot. And there’s a lot of sub-genre stuff going on,” she says. But her recent shows have been a far cry from house gigs in Gaylord. Stef has lately spent a lot of time on tour in the U.S. and Canada, and she’s been some wild places: “The one I can’t really get over right now is we just did a show with Jay Som [at] Meow Wolf in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Oh my god. It is like a museum with this art installation, it’s huge, it’s like the size of an entire house, and even further. Like you go into the house and everything is themed and it’s like you're in a situation, there’s a story for the house, and it’s become the subject of some interdimensional attack. You’re in the house and the rooms transform. You’ll be like, Oh this is like a normal curtain, and there will be like, a slide into this other room that is completely glowing. And you can walk through that into another room. It’s like this huge, huge labyrinth.”
Stef’s embrace of the strange and unfamiliar makes a lot of sense. She describes at length recent efforts she’s made to expand her boundaries, such as filming the music video for “Speeding Ticket" under the direction of Ambar Navarro. “It was like, a new experience for me. I hadn’t done a music video like that where I was looking into the camera and singing. It was really new for me, but a positive experience,” she says. The video was filmed at someone’s home in Los Angeles, and Stef didn’t know any of the people there except Ambar. According to Stef, it shows: “Looking at the footage now, to me I seem a little uncomfortable.” But it would be hard for a viewer to notice—she seems entirely self-assured on camera, like she's the one who belongs there and we're the ones who are intruding.
Messes, Stef’s first full-length album, is just about to celebrate its first birthday. It’s a deeply emotional album for Stef: “It’s more about emotional mess than physical mess. It’s kind of about that, and about just knowing you’re getting into something that’s a bad idea and doing it anyway. I recently made some discoveries about my life, and I realized I’ve always been someone who is confused about choices. That’s probably the theme of the album.” The album art, done by Molly Soda, is meant to be eye-catching and mysterious, and in person the effect is striking—you’ll be enticed to buy it without having ever listened to a song. The whole purpose of producing a vinyl record as opposed to just distributing media digitally is important to Stef. “I think my favorite part about making the physical is seeing how the actual art turned out. They’re gonna reissue it on CD and cassette as well, and Molly did all of that stuff—the art, the lyric sheets and stuff—and that’s really really cool.”
Stef has been playing and writing music since she was 13 and is a multi-instrumentalist who plays guitar, bass and a little bit of piano. “I own a recorder,” she jokes. “When I was a kid, I really wanted to grow up to be a babysitter, and I was actually able to achieve that by the time I was 12. Then I could expand from there. I think when I was in like junior high, I got really, really into Nirvana. I would download everything off of Napster, like all the unreleased stuff that ended up coming out later. And I had a cousin who was like a singer-songwriter, who made a huge influence on me.” Maybe that’s why music has always been a major source of emotional and spiritual growth and discovery for Stef—she says it helps alleviate some of the self-inflicted tension of nostalgia. “I think the interesting takeaway is that I was kind of just singing about the same shit that was torturing me forever. There’s always been the cathartic release element of writing a song, but then I was like, they’re all about power struggle,” she explains. “Not like exactly romantic, but some are about bosses, friendships, just in every area of my life. They all have different themes: one song is about when I worked at a strip club, one song is about a landmark, a couple friendships or whatever—maybe there’s a loss-of-control element behind all that.”
So what’s next for Stef? She’s working on a new album, and when asked, she says it’s coming along very naturally—in part because this time she is working with a producer. “There’s some really brand new stuff on this album, and some kind of still older content. I wrote a ton of songs in 2013, and a lot of stuff I didn’t expect is on this record. I’m really excited about it because it’s stuff I’ve always wanted to share but it felt a little incomplete, or it was just a vocal line and then I wrote the music to it with the [right] person.” They have yet to pick a release date, as the album is still being mixed, but sights are set on summer or fall of 2018. Whenever it winds up coming out, Stef is looking forward to it: “It just was a lot more freeing of an approach” to make the new album, Stef says. Going off what Messes sounds like, that can only bode well.
Photos by Kelsey Hart (@thelittleghost on IG)