MAG 2, Music
Heart, Gut, Soul: Smoke speaks to Sunflower Bean
Since forming in 2013, Sunflower Bean have been moving incredibly fast. With two previous albums going down a storm – including 5* reviews from NME, and their latest Twentytwo in Blue making the UK Top 40 – they have just announced a new EP, King of Dudes (out January 25th).
While they tour the UK ahead of the release, I was able to ask bassist and lead singer Julia Cummings some burning questions about the music and their journey.
I received the call at around 12:30pm, whilst sitting in my dining room, and was immediately greeted by a bright, energetic voice with a clear American accent.
Hi Julia, how are you guys doing?
Good! We are just in beautiful, soggy Leeds. It’s cool, we’re here at the wardrobe getting ready for the day.
Nice, didn’t you have a show last night in Cardiff?
Yes, last night we were in Cardiff, it was the first night! We have a lot of new things happening within the set and it’s our first time touring with Danny. We wanted to bring something new to the UK; you know the people who have been supporting us for a long time. I think it’s really fun.
What do you feel has been your greatest musical achievement so far?
I’m tempted to say the EP because I’m so excited about it, we’re always looking forward. I think it’s one of our greatest achievements as songwriters – it’s really special.
Also Twentytwo in Blue because of the amount of work and thought and feeling that went into it. I think musically that was the biggest undertaking we’ve done so far, and the fact that it got into the Top40 here in the UK was a really amazing achievement that went along with the creativity. Those things don’t always match up, so it’s really nice when they do!
When you started in 2013, did you ever believe you could be as successful as you are today? Do you have any advice for doubtful young musicians?
I just came up with this slang and I’ve only used it a couple times, but I’m gonna tell you because it goes with this question.
It’s called the HGS. It stands for Heart, Gut, Soul. I’ve been trying to understand where one’s creativity comes from and how creatives work, especially when you’re an independent artist, you’re asked 100 questions a day about everything. You’re in charge of everything, like Sunflower Bean, every decision is made by me, Nick, Jacob and our manager Christa. It’s like a four-person brain that just does everything and you get asked 100 things and you have to decide on them creatively.
I think in order to be an artist who is out in the world, open to ridicule and have your whole life on the line all the time, you have to trust your heart, gut and soul that there’s a reason you’re doing it. There’s a certain part of you that knows what it’s doing. It’s about understanding why you make those decisions and why you wanna do what you do.
Was there ever a time in your career when you didn’t wholly believe in what you were creating? If so, how did you overcome that?
Well I think that’s the nice thing about being an independent artist, ideally there’s no one that can tell you what you should be creating except yourself. It’s a really cool spot to be in and I’m really thankful for it. For everything we have done, I know the place that it’s come from and when I hear people respond to it, I feel really good about that because it feels like a clear communication between us and them.
I would say there is nothing that I’ve ever felt we’ve done and been creatively unhappy with. Some things are ambitious and it may take a long time to see if we can actually nail them, especially when you’re trying to make music that maybe is a little strange.
I’d say some things are difficult and I hope that we’ve been able to pull them all off, but once you put something out, it’s not really for you to decide anymore, it’s out in the world.
You’ve managed to complete quite a few things on a musician’s bucket list, but what else do you hope to experience?
Oh my gosh! Well that’s one of the weird things about being “entertainment”, just this world feels like constant mountains. There’s always something more, always something on the horizon.
I think sometimes because you’re rushing around so much, it’s hard to really feel everything and experience everything the way that you want to. I think that we’re getting better at it, as I’m getting older. I remember me and Jacob had a really amazing experience this summer at a festival.
All the stars were out, we went onto the beach at night and just looked at the stars for like an hour. It’s stuff like that, the places that you are. You could never have imagined you would be there. Loving the people you’re with and just really feeling that moment is probably one of the most rewarding things besides the work itself.
If you could collaborate with anyone (alive or dead) who would it be?
Lou Reed. It would probably sound super weird and bad, but that’s the best thing about Lou, there’s so many parts of his career. He’s an artist that never really wanted to stay the same, never wanted to get stale, he’d rather make something bad than make something stale.
Do you arrange your music differently specifically for live performances?
Yeah we do! I think the live show definitely has things the record doesn’t have that comes from our background of DIY and live music. Let’s say one night the crowd is really crazy and jumping, we have the ability to play the songs in a way that feeds that energy. The set is arranged with flexibility to have every show be different. I think that’s one way to keep it interesting because you don’t get sick of it.
How do you go about writing, is it a group effort or does one of you lead an idea?
It really depends, I think that one of Nick’s biggest strengths as an artist is being a guitarist. I think he’s a really neat guitarist and that’s kind of been the leader of our different creative eras. Definitely bringing in Twentytwo in Blue, he was very adamant about wanting to not do what we had done before, to just not be pencilled into the chorus sound on guitar and the 80s thing.
I actually started on guitar, but as I’ve been playing so much bass, that then became the forefront of my life. Jake has been working on a lot of songs too, so I think the process has been shifting over time.
I have a couple questions here from fans.
The first one is from Lauren. She loves how each one of you has your own individual look and wanted to know, aside from the music, who are your style inspirations?
I would say for Twentytwo in Blue, I thought a lot about Cher, who’s like hard not to love as a style queen. I think in general, I’m inspired by people who really go for it and people who are dedicated to an original look.
For King of the Dudes, I’m already starting to think about what that will look like. I’m starting to hoard outfits that I wanna wear for it because they look like how the music sounds, but I’m gonna hold off until you get to hear those songs live!
The next one is from Lewis. He said he saw you support Wolf Alice before, the release of Twentytwo in Blue. Is it scary playing new material knowing that the audience won’t know any of the songs?
I think in that case we wanted to give people a taste of what was coming. We were so proud and so excited about what we were doing and felt that if we shared it, there was no way that it could go wrong.
I think that’s probably the HGS talking, but at the time it felt very natural and when you’re opening up anyway, you’re sort of just there to support the show and show what you do. With our own shows of course, we wanna make sure to show a lot of everything we’ve done in our career, but with that for some reason it felt like a no brainer.
You’ve announced an EP release for January, what else is in store for 2019?
It’s out January 25th, it’s a four song EP. I think that with any bit of music you put out, the goal is to just support it and do it justice.
We’ve been touring for about a year and a half and now with this it’s probably going to be more. This tour is the last headlining tour in the books, there’s no planning for touring in 2019 yet, so if people wanna see us, right now is the definite time because the future is wide open.