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Stef Chura: The Best of What's Next

Music Features Stef Chura
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Stef Chura: The Best of What's Next

“Have you ever heard of the ‘Return of Saturn’ years?” Stef Chura asks. The Detroit singer-songwriter is sitting across from me in a restaurant booth in Brooklyn, looking earnest through her round, wire-frame glasses. I ask her if this has anything to do with No Doubt’s 2000 album. Chura laughs and says no, even though that’s what she thought too at first. “It’s between [the ages of] 27 and 30. It’s this time period of extreme change and evaluation of your life, where you really start to make some decisions about where your life’s going and start to trim the fat of what you need to do. A lot of people make really big life decisions during those years.”

Apparently astrology buffs call your late 20s a “Saturn Return” because the titular planet takes approximately 29.5 years to complete one full orbit around the sun, and when it does, it will return to the same zodiac sign it was in when you were born, signifying your next step into a more mature role. Chura, who recently turned 28, finds comfort in this idea. “I was having that age-27 life crisis thing, and was like, ‘Oh wait, no, this is a good time period.’”

Chura’s star is certainly on the rise: Just last week she released her debut, Messes via Urinal Cake Records, an 11-song set of warbling guitar-pop anthems that showcase her husky, perpetually downturned vocals. She’s earned coverage across web on Stereogum, Pitchfork and NPR, and she can count Fred Thomas (Saturday Looks Good to Me) as a fan; the noted indie-rock vet produced and played bass on her first LP.

Of course none of these accolades came overnight. Back in 2008, the Michigan native was working at a food co-op in the town of Ypsilanti, occasionally playing solo shows and recording tapes. (That’s when she met Thomas, who was dating a friend of Chura’s at the time.) Later, in 2012, she moved to Detroit for art school, but immediately dropped out. “I reminisce on the time period where I thought art school was a good idea and I want to shake myself so hard because it did nothing for me,” she says. “I think you can feel lost before you decide you really wanna have your music be the thing you wanna do. Because you feel like you need to get this degree or a job. Your music is like a side project. In one semester I spent, like, $25,000 and it didn’t really do anything. Like, $25-30,000 in loans for one semester of graphic design. You should never have to pay that much money to learn how to use InDesign!”

After leaving school, Chura slowly got back in the music game, though she considered it more of a hobby than a valid career option. Playing D.I.Y. shows and occasionally uploading tracks to Bandcamp, she primarily supported herself via a series of “toxic” restaurant jobs. “I’ve never had a restaurant job where there was not a lot of really unacceptable sexual harassment shit going on,” she says. “No one wants to talk about it, so it becomes completely fine that that stuff happens. I hate working those jobs because I’m always the kind of girl who’s like, ‘Hey, this is super fucked up!’” (Fortunately, Chura has since escaped the world of food service and now supplements her income by hosting karaoke nights four or five nights a week.)

She didn’t seriously pursue music until 2013, when her close friend suddenly passed away due to a drowning accident in Lake Michigan. The tragedy turned out to be something a wake-up call for Chura, professionally speaking. “I had never experienced death,” she says. “It was this really insane thing for me. Like, I picked out the clothes he wore in his casket. I was really close with his family. I dunno, I think you ponder suicide when someone really close to you dies like that. But I think if you’re having thoughts like that you actually have a lot more at your fingertips because you’re thinking what the one thing you’d regret would be if you died today. And I felt like I needed to at least make one record and put that out there. But now that I’m actually in it I’m like, ‘Oh my god, this is so fun!’”

Now, nearly four years later, Chura’s reverie has become a reality. Discussing her record’s forthright title, she explains how it’s “more about emotional mess than physical mess. Like, the idea of knowing that you’re getting yourself into something and it’s probably wrong. I don’t know if you’ve ever had this thought before: You’re doing something like, ‘I probably shouldn’t do this, it’s going to be a bad experience for me,’ but you want it because you’ve never done it before. Learning things the hard way.”

Reflecting a post-adolescent period of trial and error, Chura’s debut appears to writhe with growing pains as she quavers to an unwilling crush, “Right when it starts to feel like home / It’s time to go” on album opener “Slow Motion.” The conflicts repeat on the withered follow-up, “You,” where Chura trills like skeptical Dolores O’Riordan: “Sick and tired / Always admired you from afar.”

Chura’s internal debates can also spill out in person. She admits to sometimes wishing she’d put more effort into music earlier in her 20s, despite her blossoming visibility (she’s about to tour with Washington D.C. punks Priests next). Then, just as suddenly, she changes her mind. “I think a lot of people think there’s these picture-perfect stories of someone getting really successful when they’re young,” she says. ”[But] there’s no right age to be doing anything. That’s what I learned.”

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