Last week the incredibly talented Juanita Stein (Howling Bells) arrived in Liverpool as part of her first tour to promote her beautiful debut solo album ‘America,’ which incidentally is one of the finest releases of 2017 ( read our album review here. ) Live, the album has even more power than on record and was a perfect example of how live music, in the right hands, can be unerring in its ability to have a profound emotional effect on the listener, more so than via any other another medium. It was a beautiful and hugely uplifting set. As a huge fan, proselytizer and supporter of Howling Bells over the years we were delighted to catch up and chat with Juanita before (and actually during) her gig, as we sat on a suitably dusty stairwell in Liverpool’s Buyers Club to talk about America, Nashville, going solo, the surreal world of Trump, success and how the music business has changed over the last ten years.
Congratulations on your debut solo album ‘America,’ you must be very pleased with the reception it’s received?
JS: Ah, thank you! Yeah, it’s been decent for sure, mind you I’ve not won a Grammy yet but it’s been good!
You said previously that Howling Bells last album ‘Heartstrings’ was written really quickly in a flurry of activity, when did you first start writing ‘America’, were all the songs originally written purely for a solo project?
JS: Well, some songs were written about two years ago, but when the recording process got nearer then the songwriting took on more purpose, as I knew they were definitely going to be on a solo album. So yeah a mix, some were definitely written with the intention of being a part of a solo record and some were written earlier when I honestly had no idea what I was going to do with them!
You’ve said that ‘America’ kind of set out as a voyage into the dark heart of America, but it’s not the dark heart of Trump’s crazy vision of America, it’s a record with very wistful evocative nostalgic kind of vibe.
JS: Wow I mean I couldn’t even begin to take on Trump’s vision of America, I mean it’s beyond anybody’s expectation or comprehension! I wouldn’t even know where to start ! The America in my mind is the one I grew up with. As you say it’s kind of wistful and nostalgic. I often feel different countries and cities come to prominence and flourish at certain points in time, you know like Paris in France in the 20’s, and I feel that America really flourished pop culture wise in the 50’s. So in my head, I’m kind of stuck there! It all exploded back then and the likes of Roy Orbison and Patsy Cline were always a huge influence on me. So that’s the America I’m talking about and dreaming of but there are modern references on the album too.
You’ve taken some of the tropes of Country – bad men, broken hearts, whiskey, the symbolic blue dress, but the women in it seem strong, not weak victims ultimately there’s a feeling of hopefulness and redemption.
JS: 100% yeah! That wasn’t something I’d consciously intended but I guess it started to reflect where I’m at in my own life. Y’know, being the Mother of two small children and combined with some of the amazing experiences I’ve had, the ups and downs I feel like I’ve arrived at a point with enough wisdom, strength and experience to equip me for what comes next, and I guess you instill that into your songs and the characters within them.
“Florence” is a song that befits the iconic image it was based on “The “Migrant Mother” photograph of Florence Owens Thompson by Dorothea Lange during the Great Depression. What was it personally that drew you to that particular image and inspired you to write about it?
JS: To be honest it was a documentary, I was sitting down watching TV one night and there was a documentary on about Dustbowl America. It went through all the key images and events, and it focused on the ‘Migrant Mother’. And although I’d seen it 100 times before for some reason at that particular moment in time it just struck a deeply profound note with me. I’d been playing the guitar as I’d been watching it and the song literally came out straight away. I just vomited out how I felt looking at the image there and then. I was watching TV, the baby was sleeping upstairs and I was like ‘how the fuck did she summon the courage to survive.’ And of course, there are parallels with what’s going on today. I mean on the news you see a three-year-old washed up on a beach and it breaks you and you think how do Mothers survive that?
So what were the biggest influences on you when writing the album
JS: Emotionally I wanted it to sound nostalgic, sepia-toned. I often talk about my Dad in interviews but the fact of the matter is that’s what I grew up listening to, my Dad constructing songs, he’s a songwriter and that’s what he does. And ‘Florence’ is a very similar song to the kind my father writes, so in a way, I did find myself regurgitating what I heard as a kid. And I have to say when I was young Bob Dylan was on 23 hours of the day … and as a kid I hated it! I just couldn’t see the attraction. And now it’s like some sort of religion that’s seeped into my bones and it’s as close to the truth as we’ll get I think.
Your Dad wrote ‘I’m Not Afraid’ on Howling Bells classic debut as well as ‘Cold Comfort’ on ‘America,’ which is really timeless. How did that work? Did he write the song and say ‘ do you fancy doing this one? “
JS: He also wrote ‘Tornado’ on the Bells ‘Heartstrings’ album which is a dusty country-tinged tumbleweedy type of song, and therefore very Howling Bells! But yeah he’s always writing songs, he rings me every other week saying ‘What do you think of this song?’ but ‘Cold Comfort’ really stood out because as you say it’s got a real timeless quality. And to be honest I’d rather cover his timeless songs than someone else’s. The only thing we changed in the studio was that we added a bridge which wasn’t there before.
And on this album, you worked with Gus Seyffert producing – how did he get involved and what was it like working with him?
JS: We connected through a mutual friend initially and then we met briefly when he came to London when he was playing bass with Beck. We got on well and then we recorded the album in two weeks in his studio in L.A. It was brilliant working with him and very, very different to anything I’ve ever done with Howling Bells. I did relinquish a lot of control to him, with the Bells I’d always had a lot of control. So it was a bit of a gamble. But he did a beautiful job.
And gigs, what’s the biggest difference performing solo rather than with Howling Bells, aside from the obvious?
JS: Initially it was equally terrifying, equally liberating. Obviously, there’s a lot of emotion invested in the Bells and I think with anything you’ve been involved in for over ten years there are bound to be huge emotional ties and a lot of baggage. And so it was very freeing just standing there by myself. And I was kind of feeling like it was time to challenge myself. So I really acknowledged that, and still do. I’m doing a lot of things I haven’t done before and often don’t know what the fuck I’m doing [laughing]! But I have to do it! It just feels like a necessary thing to do right now
So is it a case of its the end of Howling Bells or just a hiatus?
JS: Ooh I really don’t know! But I can’t ever say no to the band because I love the guys so much and I love the music we’ve made. And we’ve still got songs floating around that have never been recorded so who knows! For now, we’ll just see where this particular journey takes me!
Did you ever feel after the hugely positive critical reaction to the Howling Bells eponymous debut that there was a feeling that critics simply wanted you to keep replicating that style on subsequent releases? For me every album was different, which as an artist must be much more satisfying, pushing your sound and songwriting into different sonic territories rather than retreading a familiar path?
JS: It is yeah, in retrospect, we could have very easily made the same record two or three times. And to be fair we might have had a better chance of sustaining ourselves if we had, because for an artist to change course on every record? It’s kind of like a suicide mission [laughing]! So in a way, we shot ourselves in the foot a number of times. But we were just four very different individuals with really strong desires and opinions.
And your tastes and perspectives change over the years …
JS: Exactly, I mean some of the songs on the first album I wrote when I was 19, and all of a sudden you’re 35 and you’re playing the same songs and you’re like ‘I just don’t fucking identify with that song anymore!’ So you have to change …
You moved from Australia to London and now you’re based Brighton, what were your memories of the move from Oz, was it a massive culture shock?
JS: It was a huge culture shock and quite scary, but when you’re young, you’re game for anything and we had so much desire and ambition. It didn’t matter that we were all sharing a room, sleeping in terrible places or working really shitty jobs because we had the music and that sustained us. And that was all that mattered. It was a rite of passage I guess!
In 2014 when ‘Heartstrings’ was released I read an interview (with the Arts Desk )where you were asked what you imagined yourself to be doing in the next 10 year and you said ” I hope to be making country records, I think. I don’t want to be slinging a black Gibson around my neck at 45 years old. I’d love to make a record with my dad,” – So you’ve fulfilled part of that ambition already in like, just 3 years, so would you like to do more work with your dad?
JS: Wow did I say that! [Laughs] Well there you go! That’s pretty cool, maybe I was wrong about the Gibson but yeah I’d love to go to Nashville and make a classic country record with my Dad. He’s got songbooks just full of country songs. So yes that would be amazing!
For an artist to survive over 10 years in the industry it’s quite an achievement and you’ve witnessed huge changes in that time. From illegal downloads, falling sales to the current streaming model… what’s been the biggest change in your opinion?
JS: Oh there have been huge changes for sure, I guess now it’s the lack of control the big labels have. They aren’t now the most powerful thing in the industry. Technology seems to be at the forefront and the big winner so far. And everybody else is trying to work out what the ‘great thing ‘actually is? It’s been like the music businesses’ industrial revolution and everybody is wondering what will happen next. As a musician kind of caught in the middle of this cycle, the only thing I can keep doing is write and play emotionally charged music which I hope people will respond to and connect with. I mean after the show I’m out there at the merch desk and people are buying CDs and vinyl which is great and all I could ask for at this point! For me, nothing can replace the physical tangible product.
You’ve done huge tours with Howling Bells opening for the likes Coldplay and The Killers in the past ( and you are supporting the Killers again soon.) What’s that whole experience like?
JS: It’s incredible really, it kind of like being given a bird’s eye view of the pinnacle. Like being taken from the middle of the mountain to the peak and being shown what it could be like. It’s quite amazing to see firsthand what bands like The Killers and Coldplay have achieved. I mean people take the piss but can you imagine what it takes not just to get to where they are but to actually sustain it. So we’ve looked at it close up in all its glory, this amazing machine and y’know, you can take from it what you will. So let’s finish on this note, success is not just talent alone, it’s not. There’s a multitude of factors that contribute to great success. That’s the really interesting part for me when I meet these hugely successful artists, I like trying to figure out and break it down from a psychological perspective, just what is it that’s got them to where they are, this seemingly intangible thing. They are obviously very talented, but there’s more to it – I mean I know plenty of really talented people and they are never going to get to that level, ever.
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Tour Dates ( Including supporting The Killers)
Kasbah Social Club
Bristol, United Kingdom
San Antonio, TX
8th Wonder Brewery
Belfast, United Kingdom
First Direct Arena
Leeds, United Kingdom
Glasgow, United Kingdom
GE Oil & Gas Arena
Aberdeen, United Kingdom
Nottingham, United Kingdom
Sheffield, United Kingdom
London, United Kingdom
London, United Kingdom
The Shacklewell Arms
London, United Kingdom
Saint Paul, MN
City Winery Chicago
Wisconsin Union Theater
Tip Top Deluxe Bar & Grill
Grand Rapids, MI
New York, NY
World Cafe Live
Halfway House Concert
Blue Plate Special @ WDVX
The East Room