Detroit indie rocker Stef Chura sees the light on ‘Midnight’

Stef Chura in her video for "Scream."
Stef Chura in her video for "Scream." Kelsey Hart

Stef Chura is in love.

"Like, really in love," she says, her eyes fluttering into the back of her head like a cartoon.

This may or may not be the direct result of her newfound Transcendental Meditation practice or the casual consumption of juiced celery and onions ("That shit makes me feel like a legend"), but when the 30-year-old artist and beloved Detroit karaoke host returns from her weekly vocal lessons, she acknowledges that some things have managed to feel like they've fallen precariously into place.

"No joke, I started doing TM and then I fell in love," she says. "It's very effective and it gives you energy and makes you feel hyper-relaxed. It's really cool. I feel like I have a new sense of being related to my body."

While Chura calls some forms of meditation "total woo-woo crap," she admits that this newfound multifaceted clarity has become a theme in her latest chapter, which includes the release of her highly anticipated sophomore record, Midnight — a follow-up to her bright and alluring 2017 debut, Messes.

By the sound of Midnight, one might be surprised to learn that Chura recorded it within months of Messes's release and mixed it a year later. It's shocking not because it sounds wildly different, as the record clearly acts as an extension of its predecessor, but because it strikes a palpable balance of control and release. Midnight sounds polished, if only by way of angsty spit shine with her trademark swagger, blistering guitar, and grunge-rock yodel intact. So has Chura cleaned up her messes?

"Maybe. Not yet. Not fully, no, no," she stammers. "Well, she tried."

Midnight is Chura at her sharpest. Every guitar lick and pause sounds intentional because it is. More than intention, though, Midnight rejects the formulaic, manufactured ambivalence of modern rock and yet is deceptively accessible, even more so than Messes. Chura says much of that shift can be attributed to learning to trust someone with what she refers to as her "baby." On Midnight, that someone was indie rock virtuoso Will Toledo of Car Seat Headrest, who produced the record and is featured on the grief-soaked title track, "Sweet, Sweet Midnight." Toledo, who pursued Chura after Pitchfork compared her distorted bedroom pop single "Slow Motion" to Car Seat Headrest and before she had even landed a label deal, took hold of Chura's 20-some demos and dissected each one, rearranging lyrics, verses, hooks, and phrases like some sort of Google Doc-wielding sonic Dr. Frankenstein.

"I was like, wait, this song has all this meaning to me," she says. "It belongs here. It had all this significance to me. But really, I learned, it doesn't have to be so significant when the goal is to create the song and let it be the best song that it can be."

This Zen master approach is a far cry from the "psycho" Chura claims to have been while in the studio during the production of Messes, with prolific singer-songwriter and producer Fred Thomas at the helm. "I should have listened to him with some of these notes he had, but I was really protective," she says, adding Thomas advocated for some synths but she shot it down, insisting that Messes was meant to be a guitar-driven record.

"God bless anyone who's working with people who don't have any experience, cause you're just gonna fuck shit up no matter what," she says. "No one could have told me anything 'cause I just wasn't listening."

It's nearly impossible to avoid music journalists' exhausting adjectival acrobatics when they're tasked with having to describe or categorize Chura's vocals — the irrefutable focal point of her music. Once an astute observation, the word "warble" has since become a lazy generalization of Chura's many nuanced vocal dips, dives, and cracks and, as evidenced by Midnight, is clearly no longer a suitable description.

"With Messes, there were a lot of comments from people who couldn't understand what I was saying, and I didn't really realize I was doing that," she says, going on to reference the countless cringe-worthy photos of her performing in which her neck veins appear to be bulging out of her neck. "I knew I had a voice where I could get a lot of volume, but I was using my throat to do it and it wasn't working. So I'm learning to shift all the power from my throat to my stomach. I'm working on my voice a little bit. Not to change it, but to save it."

Chura grew up in Alpena — a city an hour south of the Mackinac Bridge, or the tip of the index finger, as Chura demonstrates using her right palm as a Michigan map. She labels her hometown "very conservative, super white, and red as fuck," and when asked if there was a music scene in Alpena, she laughs.

"There's nothing in Alpena," she says. "Well, there's a cement factory. And a huge limestone quarry. Like, one of the biggest in the world." 

In eighth grade, Chura was both a cheerleader and on the wrestling team. So in her latest video for "Scream," she gets nostalgic by donning a cheerleading outfit ("I kept the skirt," she says), clutching her Fender, and looking like a badass in a high school auditorium while teenage girls smoke cigarettes in bathroom stalls and sheepish young couples sheepishly kiss each other under the bleachers.

"No one could see a thing/ If only you could hear me scream," Chura wails in what feels like a poignant moment of femme-fueled fury.

Chura says her father taught her how to play guitar when she was 14 and in high school. She aligned herself with theater kids but also dabbled in drugs and punk music. "I had a big ska phase," she says. It wasn't until she moved to Ypsilanti in 2009 that she was able to embed herself as a fixture in the local indie scene, performing in other people's projects while giving legs to her own growing body of material. Shortly after moving to Detroit in 2012, she linked up with drummer Ryan Clancy and began piecing together decade-old demos and freshly minted tracks that would eventually form her debut, which she likens to a "best-of" record.

"I've been writing since I was, like, a teen and I just had all these songs," she says. "So, with Messes, even though some of the songs were older, I needed to give them a home. They needed to live somewhere before I could fully move on. Midnight feels similar to Messes in a way. A lot of songs about cathartic release and friendships and really just my own passive-aggressive sense of dealing with things. Like, there are some conversations that I need to have that I haven't ... instead, I put them in songs."

The creation of Midnight may have challenged Chura's attitude about production and songwriting, and it may have partially informed the development of her contagious "let it be" energy, but the record also marks a moment of emotional progress and healing. It's here that Chura reckons with loss and how to forge a future from the fear of not living long enough to have one.

"Riptides are real and they actually kill people," she explains. Chura's close friend drowned in Lake Michigan when both were 24. She credits the tragedy as being the driving force behind her pursuit of a music career. "It makes you zoom out and think when I die, what's the thing I need to have done?" she says. "For me, it was a record. And I think now that I've done it, the thing I was the most afraid of was, once I do this, will I have nowhere else to go? Will I have spent all my creative energy and I'll just be confused? But that's not it at all. Once you open the one door, there's another door and that can look like anything."

Right now, Chura is content flinging new doors open while making an effort to leave others propped open and slamming those that no longer serve her. In terms of what this looks like, well, it looks a lot like the 1998 Lilith Fair live compilation CD, a collection Chura has been immersing herself in and admits has shaped her recent perspectives on what she hopes to create beyond Midnight. For one, she admires the path taken by the women of Lilith Fair — Lisa Loeb, Paula Cole, the Cardigans, to name a few.

"I love the way that those women have major label success, but there's no lack of integrity with the songwriting and maybe in a way like that is like an era that is just gone," she says. "Like, you know, it doesn't exactly work like that. Especially for someone who's doing indie music .... They were selling CDs, and there was a different market for that. So you could just have these singles exist and you can push a lot of money into them because people bought a lot of CDs, and the way money was made allowed a lot of people that have music careers that don't exist in the same way. [Now] they put a lot of money into artists and, like, these big artists, and there's a huge gap between indie and major label artists."

With label representation — like Messes, Midnight is on Saddle Creek Records, home of high-profile indie acts like Bright Eyes and Cursive — comes some pressure. Chura admits that maintaining integrity as a label-represented artist has become a priority. "There's a whole professional aspect to being a musician that you really don't sign up for when you're like, 'I want to play in a band.' I think I always want to be someone of high integrity," she says. "I don't want to accidentally be an asshole to someone."

Following the release of Midnight, Chura will embark on a headlining tour in her gold minivan, along with her four-piece band, which now includes Minneapolis-bred guitarist Clara Salyer. She half-jokes about crunching the numbers to try and afford a roomier vehicle for the journey. But for now, she's in love with the ride.

"It's a cool little world," she says. "Once I opened this door, it's like a cool world that was actually not so hard to access. It wasn't as intimidating as I thought. I just had to make the music to do it."

Stef Chura's Midnight will be released on Friday, June 7 on Saddle Creek Records. Chura will perform with French Vanilla and Johnny Ill on Saturday, July 6 at Deluxx Fluxx; 1274 Library St., Detroit; Doors at 7 p.m. Tickets are $10 and available here.

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