2019 should be remembered as the year we, collectively as a society, started officially giving religious titles to lesbian pop stars. Hayley Kiyoko is Lesbian Jesus, Tegan and Sara are Lesbian Gods, Shura is Lesbian Pope.
"I can't wait to give everyone a title," Shura says over the phone from her twin brother's flat in London. "It's the best. Some people were like 'oh you're lesbian Jesus', and I was like no! Oh nonono. I'm correcting them. And then Hayley saw it and sent me a little kiss emoji, I was like don't worry, I'm doing the lord's work, so they don't get confused."
The title came around after Shura released her genius music video for 'religion (you can lay your hands on me)', where she officiates a wedding between two nuns.
"I dunno why gays are obsessed with religion. Maybe because some people interpret religion to be like no, you're not allowed! We're like 'well fuck this, I'll show you! I'm gonna be the bloody pope'. I feel like it's something that Madonna started. I remember being a kid and watching the video for 'Like A Prayer' and just thinking it was the most wonderful thing ever, the most kind of joyful and scary thing.
"I'm just really drawn to that imagery, since I was a kid, and have been really fascinated by religion. I mean I'm a staunch atheist, but I very nearly went to study theology because I found it so fascinating. Whether it's because it has been weaponised, not only against gay people but against women in general. So being a queer woman, it's double the shit that religion has thrown on you."
It was the first song she wrote for her second album 'forevher', just after she finished touring her debut record in 2016, and supporting Tegan and Sara. Staying in a friend's basement studio in Minneapolis, where the tour had dropped her off, she wrote her sexiest song yet.
"I wrote it when I had just started talking to my now current girlfriend," she says. "So it's funny that it's like the sexiest song on the record. You know, the song about physical desire is the song that I wrote when I literally couldn't be with her. It's a song about sex but, obviously, I couldn't have it because she was on the other side of the planet to me, which makes me laugh. But just being in Minneapolis and the rich musical history that that has; I'm obviously massively inspired by Prince, and you can hear it in that song."
If there's anything to be gathered from 'religion', it's that Shura is in a very different place (emotionally and 'physically') to where she was when she wrote 'Nothing's Real'. Most of the record centres around themes of desire and longing, and is unapologetically about queer sex in the same way records by Hayley Kiyoko, Marika Hackman and Years & Years have been recently.
"Culturally, we are very obsessed with sex and love, so in a certain sense, it's like a religion for us. We use sex to sell things, we use sex as a motive. I wanna find the man or woman of my dreams and fall in love with them and have great sex and have babies; it's hugely important to the experience of being human. I wanted to toy with the idea of how would I talk about that in a song, and especially how can I have fun with that because obviously being a queer woman it's traditionally something that can be frowned upon for some people of faith. So I guess I just wanted to be cheeky and have fun with the idea of no preacher to teach us to love."
It's also about expanding that space for queer women to exist in pop.
"When I was growing up, we had sex ed, but it was like put a condom on a banana, it wasn't like, 'Oh by the way gay people exist, and they're totally normal, and that's fine'. There was no guidance. You just grew up and would Google 'lesbian musician', and it was like oh, Tegan and Sara, yeah I'm gonna listen to them, or like 'how to lesbians have sex' - uh here's a bunch of porn, that's terrifying, I don't think I wanna do that? So you just kind of had to teach yourself. I guess I'm just having fun with that notion and seeing what I can get away with."
But the record is more than about shagging, of course. The comeback track 'BKLYNLDN', named after she moved to New York to live with her girlfriend, was a dramatic and intimate reintroduction that detailed the shift from the sadbangers on 'Nothing's Real'.
"Literally the opening 15 seconds of that song felt like a really exciting way of introducing people to this next record and a different era. It felt dramatic and bold and brave, and it's also a very slinky, almost very restrained track. I loved the idea of putting that out first, sometimes the temptation is to be as loud as possible and to be noisy and fast and exciting, I really liked the idea of seducing people into this new era, because that's sort of what that song is about – desire.
"I talk about the song being in two parts, the first half is a song about sex, and the second half is about love; thematically and musically it encapsulates the different aspects of the record. It ends with that really lovely coda, where everything kind of explodes. It's almost silly, it's so joyful. I mean, I sing the words 'I think you're awesome', which is just not a lyric is it? It's just a thing you'd say to the person you fancy. It's got that kind of silly, joyful, that thing you feel when you're first in love, when you just wanna skip around. You're in this bubble where it's just you and this other person, and you literally do not care what people think of you because it's almost as if no one else in the world exists."
Moving across the Atlantic meant that Shura ended up having some conflicting feelings about America too. If being obsessed with religion as an atheist seemed odd, she says she fell in love with America despite, well, everything going on in America right now. "It's an album about falling in love, while being in America, which is also a strange place to fall in love in at the moment. Because you can't help but fall in love with America at the same time but then there are so many things about America at the moment that I'm like uhhhhh."
One of the ways that American influence inserts itself is on the track 'tommy', a song that opens with a chat between Shura and 'Tommy', a 90-year-old man from Marfa, Texas, in a Dairy Queen. She wrote the song about a dream he'd had where his wife, who'd passed away, visited and told him he needs a new girlfriend or he'll die alone.
"I walked in, and he was just sitting there with his friend, and he said 'welcome to Dairy Queen', and I was like okay who's this guy, why's he welcoming me? Anyway, I got this ice cream because my girlfriend told me it was the best thing ever - wasn't really that fussed by the ice cream, it was fine, but it didn't blow my mind - and he came over and just started talking to us, and luckily she started recording the conversation.
"I just thought the dream was his subconscious leading him and saying 'it's okay, you loved her forever, you were there for her for the entirety of her life, and it's okay for you to move on'. That's something that I felt was such a lovely story and fitted so well with the themes of the record and my love story; it was just someone else's love story, it kind of interrupts. So my girlfriend recorded it, and I was like, I need to write a song about this guy, he's amazing."
The Tommy in question was tricky to track down afterwards (he has an email address but he 'doesn't know where it is':')), so Shura ended up giving the song to Marfa's local radio station to play specifically to him. "I got this email back saying he loves it and can you please send him the lyrics. It was one of those really magic moments where it was just chance, meeting this guy, and ever since I left the conversation, I thought even if I never release this I need to write a song about him, and it did happen and it made the record and it's one of my favourites at the moment on it."
While it's been three years in the making, there are still some connections between 'forevher' and Shura's debut, it's just grown up a little. The iPhone recording of Tommy's voice gets used in the same way her home videos did on 'Nothing's Real'.
"I listened to the first record a few months ago just for fun, and there's a naivety to it that I love. It feels a very teenage record, where this feels like my first record as a young woman who's entering adulthood. The first one feels like the soundtrack to a John Hughes movie, and in this one, I've graduated. In the past I've joked about albums being like Pokemon, they're still part of the same family, I've always wanted it to feel like an evolution."
Taken from the September issue of Dork. Shura's album 'forevher' is out now.
Featuring Muna, The Murder Capital, Shura, Ezra Furman, Spector and loads more.