Detroit based artist, Stef Chura recently dropped her sophomore full-length, Midnight via Saddle Creek Records. Stef and I chatted about her discoveries of new arrangements while working with producer, Will Toldeo (Car Seat Headrest), how she connects with her writing, and her favorite DJ Assault track. She will be live on KEXP at Noon on The Midday Show on August 1st. This session is free and open to the public.
KEXP: I want to talk about the transition from your debut, Messes to the new record, Midnight. I really love Midnight. You are so forward in your vocals and you have these solid intentions. I was curious, were there specific intentions that you wanted to bring out in this new record?
Stef Chura: Oh yeah, even if I didn't realize that I would it was different – being different from how Messes is constructed. I knew some elements were intentional or keep working as well. When he (Will Toledo of Car Seat Headrest) and I talked about that we agreed to do it – I knew I was going out allow this person in a lot more than I did Fred Thomas, who recorded Messes and Fred is a fantastic songwriter. I just wasn't ready to let someone in and I think that shaped the songs in a big way.
Also, it is interesting when you record yourself and you read reviews of yourself, and you see videos of yourself, and you can really you get to see what's happening from another perspective. I think I do want more. I love it when there's clarity in the vocals of bands that I love – being able to read the lyrics and hear the lyrics. I always feel more connected to that and I didn't even realize I wasn't doing that. But that was another element that I wanted to bring to making this album.
I feel very connected with the vocals and the lyrics. I have listened to it from start to finish every time in order of the sequence. Also, you talked about allowing another person in with your work. What did that take for that to happen especially with something that is yours?
I think part of this is the choice of doing that, with Messes, I did it locally and I recorded Midnight in Detroit, too. But I recorded Messes in Ann Arbor and a little bit in L.A. I knew I wanted to record something and I knew I wanted to record with Fred. I'd always wanted to record with him but I just didn't. I never recorded anything before so I think a big element of that was just choosing to do it.
So like after that experience, I was not looking for a producer. It was very, very haphazard how me and Will ended up working together. We basically recorded that seven-inch together first and it just was so easy. I asked him about doing an album and I wouldn't have even asked if that wasn't going to be like that, but it was choosing something-- I'm going to choose this person and that's what's happening. I'm going to be a lot more open-minded.
I like that choice to be open-minded and be vulnerable. Did you feel with your songwriting that there was a new challenge of vulnerability? I feel like a lot of these tracks have specific meanings attached to them.
No. I guess there's like a lot of different ways to maybe do that with a song. I kind of learned how he does things and he just has a really different way of doing things than I do. At first, with some of the songs I was like, wait, what are we doing about that? Then I was like, No, that's an improvement. This is good. I think if it was the younger me, I would've said No [laughs]
I've read that you feel like your lyrics are cathartic. What is it like to have someone like go in and disassemble your thoughts and change it up? Did it change up any meanings for you?
All the lyrics are mine and a lot of the meanings are very intact with the music that was being worked with, but a couple of the songs that did happen because I sent him a ton of demos and he picked a certain amount. Then, a couple of them he wanted to work the lyrics into different songs. For me, that was like one of the things---wait, but I wrote this and it meant this whole other thing to me. And we're going to shimmy some of the lyrics from that one into this one? We can't do that. It's just not right. But then, I was like, No, this is an improvement.
Some of the lyrics in "Sweet Sweet Midnight" at the very end "I wasn't moving," the harmony of that came from another demo. "All I Do Is Lie," at the very end, we added a part that was a totally different demo. But it worked as that little moment on that track.
It's fantastic how a collage of demos can come to be this one fleshed out piece. With these improvements that you made, were there certain things that you discovered throughout this recording process that you discovered about yourself that you intend to use going forward?
I think this whole process of releasing this record made me have to be a better performer, in a way. So, going into the next record I'm seeing things that I'd like to work on even further. I mean there's a lot of stuff from this record that I'll take into like writing and demoing. There was so much in the world of arrangements – I never ever arranged anything before. I totally didn't get it. With Messes, I just wrote all songs like that, and then, I would be like, 'God wrote this?' [laughs].
When I took it to Fred Thomas, he wanted to add a bunch of stuff to the album, and I was like, No, this is a guitar album. I was so afraid to mess with structure of the song and that is really worth doing. Even if you come back around and mess with it a little bit. It's good to hear it in different ways and play with it and not be so, I don't know what the right word is – sacred or something about it, because usually at the end, you go through a bunch of ideas you'll end up with something better. It's nice to build; to work it out.
I like that you mention that it's important to not keep something so sacred. Was there a particular moment that you thought, yes this is arranging, that you really enjoyed?
"All I Do is Lie", what we did do for that song was that part where there's multiple vocals coming in – that part was already there. Then, Will suggested the multiple layering of the vocals which, I've never done stuff like that before. That was really cool. He had a couple ideas and he also isn't afraid to scream. I think with Messes, it's very even-keeled and there's a certain mood to it because of that. Not that is good or bad or anything, that was perfect. But with this one, there's these backup vocals in "3D Girl," where literally, I am screaming.
It's pretty low in the mix, but you can tell I'm screaming "my girl" and doing some stuff like that in "Sweet Sweet Midnight," there's a part where we're screaming together. I remember Will walked in the booth and him telling Adam, the engineer to start recording. He just was screaming and I was like, oh my god this sounds crazy, what is he doing. Then, he walks out of the booth and says, "All right. Your turn." I didn't think it was something we were keeping and then it ended up being one of my favorite moments on the album.
I love that screaming bit. As you mentioned before, you really love in music connecting with vocals that you can hear and with this record, I feel like we definitely hear you from screaming to these inflections that you do with your vocals. Do you feel that you have found your voice?
Oh, I'm not sure. [laughs] I don't know. I feel like I'm getting there.
I've had so much fun listening to your vocals and how they interact with the lyrics.
I feel like on the next album I want to work a little bit more with lyric writing or being a little more intentional with that because I used to write more and be more into poetry and I think want to get back into that.
What about the poetic side of things do you want to delve into?
I would say a lot of the time I like to just write and I like to just like put out what comes out. I like calling it an emotional collage because, to me, it was a few different scenarios, a few different meanings that would be somewhat connected by a feeling that I had or wordplay to a certain degree. With Will, the only song that we worked on lyrics together was "Sweet Sweet Midnight" and it was cool to see that process. There's just a way of writing that's always going to be really natural for me and so, I'll still like do that. But then, take some of the songs and try to build on the lyrics and work with them in a different way. I want to work on them more than I normally do. Usually, I kind of write what I write. I like singing the song and I write it as I sing it.
Yeah, I like this concept of emotional collage and bringing it together. I'm really excited to hear what that means for you.
With some pop singers, there's a storyline and this is different stories blended together. I feel like "Slow Motion," the song from Messes is a good example of that for me because it was really about a lot of different people, but with this underlying feeling of disempowerment that I had in my life, in that moment, that reached ahead. That was a relief. It's a good cathartic release, but it's not exactly about one person or one storyline it's about a mood.
That's a really cool way of expressing your writing. I really enjoy that there can be an underlying mood that we can all universally connect with. With your audience, do you find moments of really connecting with them, meeting them with this catharsis in these spaces?
We played in D.C. last night and it was a Monday and it was sold out. People were singing the lyrics to "Scream" and that doesn't usually happen. So I was like, wow this is such a beautiful moment. This is really cool. You could hear them singing it. There's was this one kid in the front who knew all the words and I was like, damn. It's cool to see people at different shows knowing the lyrics. That wasn't quite the case with the Messes, which I think was a clarity thing than it was anything else. I do feel more of a connection. I think a lot of these songs are a little more upbeat, which is more fun live. Not really better or worse but just really, really fun to play.
I'm a Midwest kid so I'm always like curious about other Midwest music scenes. You're in Detroit and I was wondering do you feel a connection with your music scene?
Yeah, I do. There's been a music scene that I've been playing in forever and I definitely feel connected to that next. Anna Burch is a good friend of mine. Her record is so good. Bonny Doon--great, great dudes. I don't know if you know Craig Brown Band. He's on Third Man Records. They tour all the time and they're doing enough.
I've always been curious about the different layers of music scenes because when I think of Detroit, I usually think of techno. How do you feel you have been able to grow within this varied community?
Everybody goes to raves. You can catch rockers at the raves for sure.
Oh, I'm a rocker and I totally rave. This is not uncommon in Seattle.
We were laughing about that lyric that Soundgarden has, I think it goes like, [sings] 'Feeling Minnesota, feeling California' – you know that song?
Yes, because I'm from Minnesota. So I laugh about it all the time.
Yeah, but I do love techno and I did learn a lot about house music living in Detroit. I really didn't listen to it that much before living there, but I like DJ Assault. Do you know of him? There's a song called, "Sex on the Beach." Great song. Check it out. But, yeah, I forgot the original question [laughs]
How do you feel as an artist growing within the Detroit music community?
It's interesting because not a lot of bands get out and do that. I think Fred Thomas was definitely a big catalyst and there was just like a point in my life where a few different things happen. There isn't a lot of structure here to do that. So it's a little bit of an undertaking. I think everyone's pathway with music is there's no exact, straight shot. I'm doing it. It's not like going to college or I know I get this degree and I know how to do this and I know I do that.
Everybody can do a different path. I think really young bands from L.A. do stuff that I just never would have thought of doing when I was like a teen. I was like, how did you come to this idea, now? I was trying to buy cigarettes at your age. I wasn't legally able to. That's was my big scam, but I wasn't thinking about the big picture in the same way. So it's been a little bit of playing music, meeting people and wanting to do that.
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