Looking back, Stef Chura changed in the most profound of ways during the writing and release of her acclaimed 2017 debut album, Messes.
“I think that I began to seek order in a new way because I had to,” the Detroit indie rocker says, speaking on her cell from a tour van headed to Phoenix. “There had to be some kind of shift if I was to keep going. I didn’t realize how much Messes was an autobiography in a weird way. The process of releasing the record had me look at my life. I had to confront a lot of stuff.”
A big one was convincing herself that, after years of playing in other people’s bands while writing bedroom songs for herself, she had something important to offer.
“I didn’t like playing live,” Chura admits. “I didn’t like seeing pictures of myself. And I really didn’t love myself at all. That made everything pretty stressful. But I knew that I had to confront that and deal with it—to realize what I had, and what I didn’t have.”
Today, the singer-guitarist is 30 and in a much better place, with her just-released sophomore outing, Midnight, getting the same reverential reception as Messes. Both records position Chura as part of a whip-smart, DIY wave that includes the likes of Lucy Dacus, Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lala Lala. Like those artists, Chura traffics in a brand of indie rock that nods to the genre’s early-’90s glory years while pushing things forward.
Midnight shows the singer as having little interest in repeating Messes’ more or less monochromatic approach to lo-fi. After starting out all wonderfully laconic with “All I Do Is Lie”, the record pulls a hard left into guitar-crunched garageland with “Scream” and then gets loud yet somehow meditative with the organ-swirled “Degrees”. From there, Chura references everything from Texas-sunset Americana (“Trumbull”) to reimagined shoegaze (“3D Girl”). The one constant is her amazing, always emotive voice, which suggests she has studied masters like Karen O, Chrissie Hynde, and Stevie Nicks.
For Chura, both Messes and Midnight have marked a period of intense personal growth. She might belong at the cool kids’ lunch table today, but that wasn’t always the case.
“I would call the period of not liking myself basically my entire 20s,” Chura says openly. “I got bullied pretty severely in the gym and in the locker room and at lunch in junior high.”
That partly explains why she was initially reluctant to put herself out there as a solo artist.
“I think there was the idea that people would be laughing at me,” Chura says. “I carried that in my self-esteem for a really long time. It really was after putting out Messes that I had to go, ‘I can’t just feel bad about myself. I’ve got what I’ve got, and there are ways to deal with that.’ One of them was realizing that nothing was wrong with me.”
As Chura has noted in multiple interviews, the death of a close friend in a swimming accident when she was 24 led to the revelation that life is short, so one needs to do something with one’s time here.
“There was definitely a kick in the ass,” she says. “In my early 20s, I really didn’t want to be in any kind of spotlight at all. My friend passing away really did impact me. I looked at my life and thought, ‘What if I just died tomorrow?’ It wasn’t super dramatic—it was more ‘What would I be okay with, and what wouldn’t I be okay with?’ After the scary part was over—making and releasing Messes—I sort of thought, ‘I really could have done this when I was a lot younger.’ ”
That newfound confidence manifested itself in an interesting way on Midnight. Chura admits that when she was working on her debut LP, she was resistant to the idea that her songs could be improved by someone other than herself. For example, she dismissed suggestions from the album’s producer, Fred Thomas, that the songs could be fleshed out with synths.
Work on Midnight began while Messes was still establishing her as an important new voice. What she gained in that short window was an openness to new things, which is a true hallmark of personal growth.
In the producer’s chair for Midnight was Car Seat Headrest’s Will Toledo, whom Chura toured with in 2016. The indie-rock golden boy first reached out after discovering her on Tumblr via a Pitchfork mention. After falling hard for Messes, he offered to produce two songs—“Degrees” and “Sour Honey”—for a Record Store Day 7-inch. The experience was positive enough that Toledo agreed to helm Midnight. He gently pushed Chura in new ways, which she could not be more grateful for.
“The songs for the 7-inch were both ones I cut from Messes, so I was pretty open-minded with them,” she says. “It was like, ‘We’ll just take these where they are going to go, rather than being beholden to some idea I had about them.’ They sounded amazing, so when Will decided to do the album, I was really open for whatever went down.
“A lot of the songs went in places where I never thought they could go,” Chura continues. “There was a core of what I wanted to happen, but Will added a lot of elements to make them very experimental. Take something like ‘Method Man’—that came from a very old demo of songs. It’s kind of postpunk, but Will wanted to do some stuff with hip-hop drums, which really took it to a different place.”
That willingness to try anything has Chura excited about getting back into the studio, possibly as early as this fall. Having tamed the demons that once held her back, she’s endlessly excited about what tomorrow might bring: “It was kind of like that old proverb ‘The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. And the second-best time is today.’ Now I’m more focused on what I’m doing now than what I didn’t do in the past.”
Stef Chura plays the Biltmore Cabaret on Thursday (August 1).