Stef Chura has been hosting karaoke two to three times a week for four years. She considers herself a veteran. “I need to know my hours,” she says. “Do I have 10,000 hours? Am I a real professional yet?” It’s a funny question for a professional touring musician with a record contract to ask herself.
Belting a song to a roomful of strangers often makes people feel vulnerable or self-conscious. For Chura, it’s a breeze. Making music with other people? That’s where she gets the jitters. She recorded her 2017 debut, Messes, with fellow Michigan songwriter Fred Thomas. It was the first time she’d worked in collaboration with someone else, after years of mostly playing and writing solo. It proved to be more challenging than she expected.
“I don’t think control freak is the right word,” she says while trying to describe her attitude. “I did not have communication skills, and you need those to be in a band—like, opening your mouth and saying what you’re thinking and not just holding it in a frustrating little ball until you explode.”
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She was incredibly protective of her songs, and didn’t want to tinker with them or expand on the arrangements once they were written. “Fred said, ‘Let’s add some synth’ and I was like, ‘No,’” she says with comical emphasis. “I was just hard ‘no’ with any idea he had, which I feel kind of bad about—but that’s just where I was at.”
The stress of the process and her hesitance to healthily relay her emotions is reflected in the anxious grunge-pop sound of her music. By contrast, her new album, Midnight, is looser and less constrained than Messes. Chura sounds more in control of everything she’s doing.
Ironically, that quality came from relinquishing some of her control to musical partner Will Toledo (Car Seat Headrest), who not only produced the entire record, but wrote and played all the basslines, contributed guitar, synths and piano, and co-wrote and sang on the duet, “Sweet Sweet Midnight.” “He has a way of just knowing how a song should go,” Chura says. “I don’t know if I can quite put my finger on it, but there’s a quality to the record that’s just undoubtedly touched by him.”
The most obvious difference between Midnight and Messes is the way in which Chura lets her bluesy rasp rip, making full use of her elastic range. It’s particularly effective on tracks like “All I Do Is Lie,” “Method Man,” and “Jumpin’ Jack,” which are also some of the songs where Toledo’s presence is most felt. Each one has a distinct moment where it sounds like the song is ending, and then it suddenly transitions into an entirely new section—one of Toledo’s signature moves.
“I had this other demo that was just, ‘If you do it to me, I don’t care / I could do it to you.’ [Which is now] the end of ‘All I Do Is Lie.’ I sang it but it was swung—I was singing it very differently. And he was like, ‘What if you sing really straight?’”
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She explains “swung” versus “straight” singing by referencing the end of the Car Seat Headrest hit “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales,” when Toledo sings, “It doesn’t have to be like this,” directly on the rhythm, like he’s following the metronome precisely. “That was definitely something that I learned from him. He sings and plays really, really straight. I naturally will swing a song. That was something I learned about myself, and now I love singing that song. I love the way the end of ‘All I Do Is Lie’ turned out.”
Beyond just learning new techniques, Chura says she grew as a person throughout the making of Midnight. “You know, with Messes that [album] really embodied a way of being for me. I just felt out of control at that time period. With this, it was collaborative in a certain way that it wasn’t so totally consuming of my emotions.”
The subject matter isn’t directly tied to the title in the way Messes was, but Midnight does sound like the beginning of a new day for Chura. “I feel like the album is maybe more of a growth than people might’ve predicted for my second record, and that was actually hard for me,” she says. “There’s a point where you make a record where you kind of lose your mind, ‘cause there’s all this potential about what could happen with it, and it’s scary to release it because then you have to just live with what happens. What happens might not live up to your expectations. It forces you to grow, and it forces you to change.”