thu 04/06/2020

10 Questions for Howling Bells' Juanita Stein | reviews, news & interviews

10 Questions for Howling Bells' Juanita Stein

10 Questions for Howling Bells' Juanita Stein

Ahead of gloom-pop quartet's fourth album, songwriter shares longevity secrets

"All you can do is record what feels the most honest": Juanita Stein (second left) and Howling BellsErik Weiss

Howling Bells have come a long way in the 10 years since they settled on a name and direction for their musical project, both physically - the four-piece uprooted themselves from Sydney, Australia to their adopted hometown of London to record and promote their self-titled debut album - and philosophically.

Howling Bells have come a long way in the 10 years since they settled on a name and direction for their musical project, both physically - the four-piece uprooted themselves from Sydney, Australia to their adopted hometown of London to record and promote their self-titled debut album - and philosophically. In 2006, their combination of heavy, gloomy guitars and toe-tapping melodies topped with songwriter Juanita Stein’s effortlessly cool vocals deservedly attracted the frenzied attention of the music press and Bella Union boss Simon Raymonde, but that attention died down after a series of lacklustre reviews and short-run record deals.

Fourth album Heartstrings, released on June 2, finds the band back on top form after a three-year hiatus prompted by - amongst other things - the birth of Juanita’s first child. Tracks like the thudding “Possessed” and “Slowburn” fizz with a revived urgency - unsurprisingly, given that the album was written in a “burst of creativity” in the songwriter’s basement last October and recorded in another short burst not long after, one track a day with a production team previously involved with albums by the likes of the Jesus and Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine and PJ Harvey. Heartstrings also features one song, “Tornado”, written by Juanita and lead guitarist Joel Stein’s father, a country-blues singer in their native Sydney.

In a chat with theartsdesk ahead of the album’s release and a supporting UK tour, Juanita confessed that the country-stomp of that track signals a musical direction she may explore further in future. We also talked about the secrets of band longevity - and why the short attention spans of critics mean nothing as long as you still have fans to play for.

LIS FERLA It’s been a few years since we have heard from Howling Bells - what have you been up to?

I don’t really get a perspective on something until much, much later on JUANITA STEIN Well, most significantly I had a baby - so that took up a couple of years! That’s been a very profound experience, and inevitably it takes you away from work - and, for a little while, creation. As well as that, I think we as a band felt that it was time to take a little bit of a break. We had recorded three albums, and there comes a time in any professional and creative working relationship when you need to step outside the circle for a little bit and get some perspective - so that’s what we did.

While the break gave you a long time to come up with the songs for the new album, the recording process itself was pretty quick - along the lines of one song a day. Was that intentional?

I wish I could say that it was more intentional than it was! You’d think that, having taken a few years off, it would make sense that I would have written all those songs in that break; but actually I wrote most of them in a pretty epic flurry of creativity about a month before recording the album. So most of the songs didn’t even exist six months ago! Everything from the writing, to the demo-ing, to the recording happened in a couple of months. 

There’s still a darkness and moodiness to your songwriting - what inspired this particular collection of songs?

Whatever music we create as a band is always going to have a particular sound, because that’s the connection that the four of us as individuals have - the result is always going to be something quite atmospheric, and dark, and bluesy, and dreamy, and all those things that make Howling Bells. So it’s not really an intentional thing - they’re just instinctive sounds. The songs are also quite instinctive for me - they’re quite an urgent bunch of songs because by the time I got around to sitting in my basement, literally, and writing them all I was feeling quite frustrated and anxious with the process and really pushed myself to get all this material outside of me.

Given the gap between the new album and your previous releases, are you nervous about what the reaction to it is going to be like or what it is going to be like playing live again?

Howling Bells - Heartstrings artworkI’m excited to play the songs live, and I haven’t given a lot of thought to the reaction from press or anything - in a sense it’s wasted energy for an artist to focus on that. All you can do is record what feels the most honest and then play it to a live audience; and that’s what I’m looking forward to the most.

There’s a gorgeous, classic look to your album artwork (right) this time around, which couldn’t be more different to some of your previous releases. Did you intend for each of your albums to have a very distinct ‘look’?

With the second album, Radio Wars, I think there was a definite feeling that we wanted to project something very different to the first record. Everything we seem to do as a band tends to be a reaction to the last campaign, so again the third album was very different from the second. I think the artwork for this album just felt like a very true representation of the music and how we’re feeling. The photo was literally taken at the park down the road from my house. Everything needed to feel very honest, and be a distinction from everything else that we’ve done - and it was recorded in London, so I wanted to tie that in too.

There was a lot of buzz around the release of your first album in 2006, but the reviews for your follow-ups have been poorer. Do you feel as if you were set up for a fall by the music press, and has the pressure of that lifted now with album #4?

We didn’t feel like that, because you’re not conscious of the present moment, really, when you’re in it. I don’t know about you, but I personally find that I don’t really get a perspective on something until much, much later on: that’s kind of encapsulated in one of the songs on this record called “Slowburn”, because I really do feel like everything for me happens slowly. So when we were recording our second album we didn’t feel like we had these epic expectations to fill - we were just following our instincts, and that’s all you can do as a musician: follow your instincts, and do the best that you can at the time.

I think because there’s been such a long break between the last few records and this one that there aren’t any momentous expectations - but we do hope that it connects with audiences the way that it has with us.

As well as being the first album after a break, Heartstrings is also your first on a new record label - although, the same could be said about every one of your albums! Are you happy with the relationship you have with your new label and the amount of creative control you have over the process?

Howling Bells by Erik WeissWe’re spectacularly happy with Birthday Records, and the relationship that we have with them is the most creative, and has the most freedom, that we have ever felt on a record label and I think that has impacted us artistically because there is nothing more offensive or restricting to an artist than a record label breathing down your neck. So this has been a really great experience so far. With a few of our other labels we were only ever signed for one record, and we’re very impatient people and we were constantly wanting to try new things. So that’s how that frenzy of various relationships came about.

Howling Bells have been London-based pretty much since the band began. Why did you make the decision to relocate from your native Australia?

Initially because we felt like we couldn’t achieve what we wanted to back home. We had really grand expectations and ambitions, and felt that for some reason London was the place for us to do it. 

What’s the biggest misconception that people have had about your band over the past 10 years?

I’m not sure. For a while we were perceived as a very gothic enterprise, and we’re really not. Maybe coming to London for the first time and having really had to struggle for that first couple of years, sharing bedrooms and having shitty jobs and having no money and knowing nobody created this atmosphere on the first record.

Your band has now been together for 10 years. What are you proudest of in that time?

Instinctively, my answer is the fact that we are still making music together. It’s hard enough for any band or any artist to consistently be imaginative, creative and cooperative, all the things that keep people inspired. It’s a very challenging world to exist in and I am phenomenally proud that we’re still excited about making music together. 

And, on I guess the flip-side of that: where do you hope to be in another 10 years, assuming you still plan to be doing this at all!

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, and I genuinely feel a deep connection to country music. I’d love to make a record with my dad, who’s a blues/country musician.

  • Heartstrings is released on 2 June. Howling Bells' UK tour begins on Thursday at the Boilerroom, Guildford.

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