Like many in the music industry, British musician Shura (real name Alexandra Denton) has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. But Shura has turned the zombie apocalypse, the Wild West and even the horror genre into her playground. How? By streaming her adventures in The Last of Us Part II on the popular platform, Twitch.
Shura’s music has inspired and touched the hearts of many queer people, with one of her very first music videos ‘What’s It Gonna Be?’ depicting the high school romance we all wished we had growing up.
However, with so very little to do during lockdown, what inspired Shura to start streaming in the first place?
With 2020 being the year that it is, let me just ask a very honest question: how have you been?
It’s been fine! I’ve actually just been preparing to come back to the UK, because I’ve been in New York for the past six months. Normally I split my time fairly evenly between New York and London, but I got to New York the day before everything locked down. So you know, I’ve been there for a while, and I missed the cats and my family, and wanted to do a bit of work in London. So after kind of five or six months, I was like ‘okay, should really go back now for a little bit.‘
I’ve [also] been finishing up my The Last of Us Part II playthrough, and in between that, packing. It’s been stressful, because that’s not exactly a relaxing game to play.
How have you managed to cope creatively throughout the global pandemic?
It’s really difficult. I find writing original music is very difficult to do when I’m not relaxed and happy, so in terms of writing songs, it’s nigh on impossible at the moment. Now obviously, the longer this goes on for, and the more and more used to it we get, the more you come to the realisation that ‘you know, I have to do it,’ or there’s ‘no option to not do it because this is going to go on for a long time.’
So for me, the way that I found the sort of creative outlet is to focus on remixing. I’ve been remixing for other artists and it’s a way of me also having some form of income, some form of creative outlet that doesn’t require necessarily me to write autobiographically because of course, that’s that’s mostly how I write. I write about my experiences and obviously, I am experience starved at the moment, as we all are. I can’t even leave the house for two weeks. Even when I did leave the house when I was in New York, it would be to get groceries, and maybe once I went for a haircut. I think if you’re the type of writer who draws from life experience, it’s difficult. Unless you really want to go into writing about this experience, but this quarantine and the pandemic? It’s not really something I want to write about. That’s not to say that I won’t draw on it in some way, but I think we’re going to see a lot of music that’s just ambient sad piano music, because that’s what people are making, or we’re just going to see a lot of songs about people being stuck at home. And frankly, I feel like that’s quite boring. If someone makes a great one, I’m up for it.
I’m not feeling particularly inspired, which is also why I’m throwing myself into other things like reading and watching great cinema and playing great games. Because you have to, you know? You have to feed your brain in other ways when you can’t go out and experience life. It’s been very different in New York to the UK. It was the epicentre for the United States and it locked down very early, and in a very serious way. People are only just starting to go out, and even then a lot of people just aren’t because they’re like, ‘well, there’s going to be a second wave, anyway.’
You’ve recently started streaming video games these past few months, with The Last of Us Part II. What inspired you to get into streaming?
I’ve always played video games – that’s something that I’ve always done anyway. I think my decision to start streaming is a combination of things. I released a record last year and for five months, I was touring it, and we were going to go into the festival season this summer, and continue touring it. And then the pandemic happened. So we obviously have this problem of just trying to stay in touch with anyone, but I also had absolutely no way of sort of staying in touch with my fanbase and interacting with them in a way that feels exciting beyond me just continuing to tweet and post on Instagram. A lot of people have been doing Instagram lives and playing gigs, all that kind of stuff, and whilst I definitely will do that at some point… How much does someone really want to see someone play a gig in their bedroom in their pajamas? It’s just a shit way of doing a gig.
So I thought ‘well, I’m playing video games. Maybe I could just play them and let fans watch.’ And not everyone who’s a fan of my music is going to be a fan of video games, or even know that I’m a fan of video games, but there’s a lot of fans of my music that do know that. They know one of my songs is inspired by Mass Effect. That this guitar part was inspired by The Last of Us. There is this history of me having a relationship with games, so [streaming] feels like something that just makes sense for me to do.
Why start streaming with The Last of Us Part II?
I played The Last of Us Part II to myself, then me and my girlfriend completed it one weekend, and then I sort of came to the internet and there was just like, an absolute shitshow. Just a shitshow of misogyny, homophobia, antisemitism… Just really nasty stuff. A lot of really nasty dialogue surrounding the game. And I felt like maybe by streaming The Last of Us Part II, I could add something positive into the atmosphere surrounding that game. And the thing with The Last of Us is that it’s a triple-A game, not an indie, and I love indies games but it’s like the Hollywood movie version of a game and you have a lead character that’s queer. Incidentally queer, it’s not the biggest part of the story. It’s just like ‘okay, she’s gay,’ and it felt like an important moment. I read an article a couple of years ago by Samantha Greer where she explored how many gay characters there were in video games and at the time I think her count was something like seven? Seven queer characters that are written as queer, not just optional like how in Mass Effect you can create a Female Shepard and make her gay.
When it comes to music, to film, I feel like we’ve made such progress. It’s still not perfect, but we’re seeing so much more representation in film and in music and yet, the gaming industry is still really fucked. I’m sure the counts different now, but I’d love to see someone do a deep dive on it because seven? Seven in the history of gaming? That’s extraordinary.
So yes [streaming TLOU2] just felt like something that would just be fun and interesting to do. And it felt important. Yes, as a way of staying in touch with fans, but, I felt like this game causing such a reaction proved to me that it was really important that it exists.
Have you experienced any homophobic or transphobic trolls in your when streaming?
No, I haven’t actually, but I think I’m quite lucky in that this is literally the first thing that I’ve ever streamed. So on one level, my channel is sort of small enough that the only people there at the moment are my fan base and so that’s a really wholesome, lovely community. I did have my first troll in the chat, but it was playing Fall Guys, and my bot caught it and it was nothing. It wasn’t anything homophobic. I did feel like it was a rite of passage, I’m now officially a streamer, but yeah, it’s been positive.
There are people who occasionally debate in the chat about certain decisions, what they would do instead, etc, but it’s been sensible, intelligent dialogue and you know there are things in [The Last of Us Part II] that happen that I wouldn’t do but I’m not that character. It’s not my story to tell. There are things where I’m like ‘I would have liked to not have had that final fight on the beach’ because I’m very squeamish. I could have done without that. I was quite happy in my farmhouse. But also that’s not me.
Sounds like you’re very invested in The Last of Us all the same…
I always say to people who haven’t played The Last of Us Part I or Part II, ‘you really need to play this game because it’s like a film.’ It’s as good as a film, but it’s interactive. I didn’t play the first game – I watched my twin brother play it, so I did watch it as a film. I have since played it, but you know, the storylines, the acting… It’s as good as a great film.
But I think the difference is, obviously, because you’re controlling it, and you’re playing it, you have a completely different relationship to the characters. You have this sense of ownership and it’s like, ‘this is me’ or ‘I own this person, because I’ve played this’ – so that’s why I think that the reactions are so emotional. Tou see it on both sides, you see it in a positive way and you see it in a negative way. So you see kind of the vitriol, but then you’re also seeing people, you know, get tattoos that are the same as Ellie’s because they relate to that character. And, I mean, my dad watched a lot of me playing the game, which is hilarious. And you know, he was really enjoying it just because it’s like watching a film. And he was like, ‘did they write this game for you? Because the lead character is a lesbian who loves space and plays guitar. It’s you.‘ I laugh because I’m like, God, it does really feel as if this game was just made for me. It’s the perfect game for me. I don’t think it was made for me, literally, but if someone were to make me a game, this is probably as close as you could get.
Would you be open to writing music for video games? Such as how the Final Fantasy series have used stars like Ariana Grande and Leona Lewis.
I’d love to! I’d love to make soundtracks for video games, and not necessarily having me sing, either. I love driving around in GTA with the radio station and having Kendrick Lamar come on, that’s epic. But I love that there are also amazing soundtracks that are just purely instrumental. I’ve always been interested in doing something like that for film or TV or video games. Inside is one of my favourite games and I loved the music, the music for that game is just insane. I feel like the Rat King was massively inspired by the end of Inside and I did a deep dive into the composer of Inside and how they used both skulls and bones to send soundwaves through actual bones and recorded that to kind of get this really weird, eerie sound. I’m very into that. But before I was making music I was working in TV and film and post-production and something that I was really interested in was Foley and and sound design and all that kind of stuff. Like, how do you make the sound of an explosion without actually exploding anything?
Has being out and proud affected you within the music industry?
I always say that it’s really difficult to know the answer to that question, because it’s not like I was ever not out. And my first song I released… the video was very gay. A few months later, I was asked by journalists if I was queer and I said ‘yes’ because obviously I was. I was out to everyone in my life. So it’s just really hard to say because I don’t know what my career would have looked like if I hadn’t been out. But when I released music, it was clear that I was queer and there still weren’t many out queer artists. You could probably list on two hands the amount of current out queer artists that weren’t a bygone era because we did have a time, in the 80s certainly and later than that, where we had queer artists who were massive.
But yes, it’s hard to say. I was never asked to tone it down or anything by my label. I was never told to hide my sexuality. It’s been fairly straightforward, and I was really lucky that when I came out, it wasn’t a great surprise to anyone in my family or in my friendship circle. So it kind of felt like that when I came out again, as a musician, it was just like, ‘oh, yeah, it kind of makes sense.’ Occasionally, you get the odd YouTube comment, being like, ‘oh, gross lesbians,’ but like, you know, nothing on the scale of the vitriol that that’s been aimed towards Naughty Dog and Neil Druckmann. Sometimes you get a comment from someone who’s very religious and it goes against their beliefs going ‘this is gross’ or ‘you’re going to hell,’ but really it’s been pretty easy. Yeah, I wouldn’t know what it’d be like to be the other way around. I’ve been played on the radio, I’ve done TV appearances, and I play festivals… It doesn’t feel like any point I’ve ever been denied an opportunity because I’m gay. Maybe I have – I just wouldn’t know about it. They would they wouldn’t ever say ‘oh, you’re not doing that because you’re gay.’
What would be the dream game for you in regards to queer representation in video games? Not including The Last of Us Part II!
I think first and foremost, and this is true of all media, is that we need queer stories told by queer people and a greater diversity of queerness. Because that’s the thing, isn’t it? You can say the word ‘queer’ but that word encompasses so many types of people! So I’d like to see more queer people making games, more people of colour making games, more queer people of colour, more trans people making games… Because then you’ll see better and more authentic representation, the more diverse you are, the better the representation is going to be. It’s true of the film industry, it’s true of any creative industry – and I’d say the gaming industry is the furthest behind.
I remember seeing a tweet from someone in the gaming industry, I think they were from TellTale – though I may be misremembering – and they were talking about when they first started working on their game, every model that they based their female characters on, was wearing heels and had massive boobs. That was just the base. Every woman came with heels. It’s like ‘hey, we’re making a game about a zombie apocalypse, who the fuck is wearing heels?’
The fact is that it isn’t only men playing games anymore. It really isn’t. But also, it never really was in the first place. There was that horrendous article that E3 reposted the other day about ‘here’s a bunch of games that women like to play!’ Almost straight away they realized they made a mistake, but the top game was Sudoku and I’m not saying women don’t play Sudoku but…what the fuck? I play GTA, I play Red Dead Redemption, I play The Last of Us, I play Mass Effect. Yes I play Animal Crossing, too, and I love The Sims as well – you know, I was gay in The Sims before I was gay in real life – but do better! Just do better. Women play games. Gay people play games. Most gay people I know play games because, as you’ve said, it’s not dissimilar to why queer people play D&D – it’s a place where you can be whoever the fuck you are, whoever the fuck you want, in a world where maybe it isn’t safe to be whoever the fuck you want.
With 2020 being so nearly over – which is scary, by the way – what do you have planned for the future?
More Twitch, apparently! Obviously I’m going to continue writing music, and now that I’m in London it’s a lot easier to do sessions with other people – for now at least. Who knows how long that’s going to be the case? Festival is booked for next year. Whether or not it’ll happen I don’t know, but I’m working on developing a few ideas that aren’t related to music which is fun to think about, because it is difficult to work entirely on music when the industry, as you know it, is being completely decimated. It’s hard to work in an industry when you don’t really know when that industry can come back to life. Of course I’ll be writing, and I’m more than certain I’ll be doing some sort of live gig on Twitch, and making sure that for fans of me who don’t give a fuck about gaming – cause there are a few people who don’t care about gaming – that I can interact and play shows for them, too.
But at the moment, I really am enjoying discovering a new platform and connecting to people in that way. There have been people that have come to my Gaythroughs, so to speak, who literally have no fucking idea I make music. At the moment, that’s an exciting platform for me and I guess I just need to work on it because fuck me! It is difficult! I have learned so much tech, and I’m a techie person you know? I’ve worked in post-production, I can edit, I can produce music but setting all this stuff up was difficult. And I’m doing it all on a Mac, as well, which is great for music, but streaming… Now I’m just saving up for a gaming laptop. I can’t get a desktop because my job means that I have to travel. Also can I say, when looking at the specs for a gaming laptop, it’s like it’s a completely different language? It’s like ‘I don’t know! I’ve never needed one of these before.’
So yeah, there’s some really great, queer content creators on Twitch. I’m very aware of queer musicians, queer actors and all that kind of stuff, but I’m learning more about this world and seeing all these great queer content creators and ‘meeting’ them… I’ve been talking to iamBrandon quite a lot, and he has been helping me figure out what the fuck I’m doing. It’s been nice to discover a whole new, queer world out there and talk to people who didn’t even know I existed until two months ago.