Love, loss, karaoke, grief. One of these things is not like the others.
Except for when it is. When celebrated music writer Rob Sheffield’s wife died suddenly of a pulmonary embolism, he dealt with the loss by pouring it into a karaoke mic. (For what it’s worth, he went on to write a wonderfully tender book about it.)
Stef Chura can relate. She’s not just an avowed karaoke fan; she hosts karaoke nights for her day (erm, evening?) job at two bars in Detroit. She plays witness to members of the general non-performing public, kicking out the jams, emotionally loaded or not. And she loves it.
“[Karaoke], to this day, is still extremely bizarre. There’s nothing regular about it. Who invented this? They’re a genius,” she says.
As for the love, loss and grief bit, that’s real for Chura, too. She recorded and released her 2017 debut album, Messes, after the death of a close friend prompted her to consider what she would most regret dying without doing — in this case, recording her music as she intended. The record, released on Detroit label Urinal Cake Records, garnered positive reviews and underground attention. Most everything prior to that, Chura says, was messy.
Raised in Alpena, Michigan, by her chiropractor parents, she spent her early twenties in creative and personal limbo. Having excelled at ceramics in high school, she enrolled in Washtenaw Community College in Ypsilanti, Michigan.
“I had no sense of ‘I’m here for this degree,’ and I had no sense of a plan in my life. I took seven ceramics classes. I paid for them all out of pocket,” she says.
In Ypsilanti, Chura says she drank too much and just barely held it together. She worked at a food co-op and moved constantly between cheap apartments and houses with friends.
“All my furniture was plastic,” she recalls.
Situated 45 minutes west of Detroit, Ypsilanti was, by Chura’s account, a “house-show town” with a small population that belies its songwriting talent, which includes folk songwriter Matt Jones, Totally Awesome Fest founder Patrick Elkins, and longtime indie underground hero Fred Thomas (who produced Messes and recently dropped a split seven-inch with Anna Burch).
Chura left Ypsilanti shortly after she started dating a computer programmer, which convinced her to enroll at the College of Creative Studies in Detroit to study graphic design.
“I was like, ‘I’m going to study graphic design because of no sense of self!’ I did that for a semester. It was the most expensive mistake I’ve ever done,” she says.
During her lone semester, true to form, Chura took a ceramics class. Meanwhile, she got “slowly sucked into playing music” around the city, including at 1217 Griswold, the Capitol Park loft that can rightly claim to be one of the birthplaces of Detroit’s rave scene and of techno music itself. She played in short-lived bands Mirror Moon and Diskette, but mostly stuck to performing her own songs under her own name — no small feat for someone whose life was frequently defined by anxiety and instability.
“I just kept it, and I felt really weird about it the whole time during Messes,” she says. “When you have a band name, there’s a certain level of protection. But I just did it, and I carried all that with me. I just had to be like, ‘This is what we’re doing, and it’s good.’”
Messes did plenty well, introducing Chura as a jagged-edge indie-rock songwriter with an unmistakable and elastic voice capable of warbling and wailing. Comparisons to Car Seat Headrest were inevitable — frontman Will Toledo possesses a similarly distinct voice locked and loaded with nervous energy. When Toledo found a Pitchfork review on Tumblr that compared the two, he reached out and invited Chura to open for his band on tour.
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The pair hit it off. Toledo produced Chura’s special Record Store Day seven-inch and her followup to Messes, this year’s Midnight. While she had spent the recording process for Messes “really not into working with the songs” beyond her initial arrangements, she decided to loosen her grip with the meticulous Toledo.
Which brings her back to the grief. On Midnight, Chura revisited her friend’s death on album standout “Sweet Sweet Midnight,” an endlessly replay-able and skronking duet in which Toledo and Chura trade verses with increasing urgency. It takes on multiple stages of grief at once: If Chura opens the song with acceptance (“You were running with the shadows/But you came back to shine a light on me”), she owns her anger and bargaining as the song hits its final crescendo (“You said you’re still coming home/Last time I saw you/You said you’d be home”).
It’s pure, uninhibited, furiously realized catharsis and, quite possibly, the next great karaoke duet for cool indie kids the world over. Only time will tell.
Stef Chura, 8 p.m. Tuesday, August 6, Larimer Lounge, 2721 Larimer Street, $12 plus fees.