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Stef Chura Moves From the Karaoke Bar to Indie Rock’s Big Leagues

With the arrival of new LP ‘Midnight,’ the Detroit singer-songwriter talks trading DIY immediacy for a more polished sound

stef chura

Daniel Topete for Rolling Stone

artist you need to know ayntkIn early May, Stef Chura was hosting a karaoke night at a Detroit bar when someone tried to steal her tip jar. “I almost lost my mind,” she says angrily. Karaoke is a way for the 30-year-old indie rocker to perfect her singing, but it’s also her day job. “I’m finally getting to the point where I’m really comfortable on the mic,” she says. “If I didn’t have an early flight, I would go hard tonight!”

Right now, Chura is sitting at a diner in Manhattan’s West Village, debating whether or not she should order eggs Benedict. Dressed in a pale-pink windbreaker, with an apple-rind earring dangling from one lobe, she’s speaking passionately about her second album, Midnight — or, as she calls it, “My first actual, legit release.”

It’s an ambitious leap forward from 2017’s Messes, her sparkling debut that gained widespread acclaim despite being released on local Detroit label Urinal Cake Records. It also garnered the attention of Will Toledo, who recruited Chura and her band to open for Car Seat Headrest on tour. “Messes was my baby,” she says fondly. “It was pretty true to how it’s written in the moment.” This isn’t the case for Midnight. “A lot of the writing is a little all over the place for me,” she admits. “Because we pulled songs from different eras of my life.”

The songs — 12 sugary, hook-laden tracks fused with distorted guitar riffs — land somewhere between indie and punk. At the center is Chura’s shattering voice; she delivers each line with a fierce urgency, as if she might erupt at any moment. “I’ll be waiting in your living room,” she announces over a searing riff on the opening track, “All I Do is Lie.” “Call me if it’s too late/Call me if it’s too soon.”

“Sweet Sweet Midnight,” a standout track inspired by a friend who passed away, features a duet with Toledo, who also produced the album. “I wasn’t exactly looking for a producer,” Chura concedes. “I don’t even know if I would have tried to find one for this record; I wouldn’t have thought of it. But I really trusted him.”

After Chura sent Toledo 25 demos, he flew to Detroit, where he and Chura picked 11 of them, arranging and recording at Tempermill Studios. Some songs, like “3D Girl,” came from old sketches that Toledo fleshed out. “I definitely feel like this album is such a big jump in growth for me,” Chura says. “A lot of it was having someone like Will to work with and allowing myself to expand a song from its natural state.”

Chura grew up in Alpena, Michigan, with parents she considers hippies because they’re both chiropractors. “My dad had great old punk records,” Chura says. “He had Devo, the Jim Carroll Band, Lene Lovich and all this really crazy shit that probably not a lot of kids would hear, let alone kids in middle-of-nowhere Michigan.” At 14, Chura started playing her father’s Gibson acoustic guitar. After getting kicked out of boarding school, she began to seriously write songs, inspired by her favorite band, the Distillers. “My first guitar was the same guitar as Brody Dalle’s,” she says. “I was super, super obsessed.”

The singer changed the spelling of her first name — from Stephanie to Stefanie — when she was 19. “It was a classy move,” she says, laughing. “You know when you have those little moments in your life where you need to change?” She moved to Detroit in 2009, where she became a part of the local music scene. “I feel like it’s not like it was,” she says of the city. “There was a golden era with the garage-rock stuff and Jack White and the White Stripes but … do I relate to the current scene? There’s definitely a scene that I’ve played music in for a long time. So I do relate to that.”

Chura began playing in bands, developing her distinct razor-sharp voice. “I found myself just falling into these vocal patterns that seemed really natural,” she explains. “I’m almost trying to un-train myself because I think sometimes I can do it too much.” She became self-conscious about sharing her lyrics, so she muddled her words, making them difficult to decipher. “I didn’t even realize that until after I put out Messes and some people were like, ‘We don’t know what you’re saying!’ I aim for more clarity on this album.”

This summer, Chura will leave the karaoke bar to embark on her first headlining tour, something she’s been gradually working toward. “I definitely had to grow into what it is to play a show and be in front of a crowd and play your songs true to the recording,” Chura says. “You don’t become your favorite artist or people you admire overnight.”

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