In life, as in music, there are some moments you never forget. Those moments when you hear an artist for the first time, and nothing will ever quite be the same again. One moment like that for us, was the first time we heard the voice of Juanita Stein. It was 2006, the track was Low Happening by the band Juanita fronted, The Howling Bells. Out of a clatter of drums and the jarring, thrash of electric guitars, emerged this most extraordinary sound. With a tone of pure disdain, Juanita swanned in, “God only knows what you do with yourself, you sleep all day and you’re wasting away”, effortlessly cool, the epitome of nonchalance, if a voice could strut this one did. That The Howling Bells didn’t come to dominate the musical landscape of the mid-noughties remains, in our eyes, one of the world’s great mysteries.
Fast forward slightly over a decade, and following the release of four albums, The Howling Bells sit in hiatus. Following the birth of her first child, Juanita Stein, found the first shoots of a new musical path, the first smatterings of a solo career. That solo project will see the light of day later this month with the release of her debut album, America.
Juanita has described the record as, “an ode to the dark heart of America. Of times gone and times to come. Dusty trails, a whimsical 50s suburbia and the haze of the 1960s”. It’s an idealised vision of America as viewed from the eyes of someone who grew up in Australia, inspired as much by the world of film, music and television, as it was by any true experience of the country. Like when Hamilton Leithauser left The Walkmen, Juanita has left the darkly-hued alt-rock of her previous band behind in favour of a more classically pop sound. Cold Comfort is a Caitlin Rose-like heartbroken ballad, recent single Dark Horse has the swaggering outlaw country guitar tones of The Shadows, while Not Paradise is just a classic 60’s pop song, with one of the year’s finest vocal performances. Best of all is the stunning I’ll Cry, a gentle waltz, it’s as if Françoise Hardy is covering the best Roy Orbison never wrote.
America is a love letter to a country that never really existed, a musing on our search for a personal paradise, and on the power the American dream still holds for so many of us. Ahead of the album’s release Juanita was kind enough to take some time out from the promotional trail and answer our questions, discussing growing up in a musical household, the inspiration behind her music and why music festivals are like an episode of The Simpsons.
FTR: For those who don’t know, who is Juanita Stein?
I was born and raised in Australia, I moved to London about a decade ago with my band Howling Bells, we toured and made records consistently. I’ve now stepped aside to make my debut solo album, titled ‘America’, which brings me to you.
FTR: You’re putting out your debut album this summer, what can you tell us about recording America?
I recorded it with Gus Seyffert at his studio in Los Angeles with a bunch of his very talented music buddies. We spent a lot of time discussing the stories behind the songs, the vibe, the message and all round finding a new space for me to be myself.
FTR: You recorded the album in Los Angeles, are you based out there now?
Nope. I’m based in Brighton, I moved here about 2 years ago.
FTR: What is it about America that appealed to you as a subject matter?
I find America utterly fascinating. It’s always appealed to me, the great history of the place, the aesthetic, I love the desert as much I love the cities. I find the distance between the people in various places incredible. I was obsessed with Hollywood movie stars when I was younger, the illusion of glamour and so on. Most of the music I’m influenced by is American. And of course more recently the political climate is beyond intriguing.
FTR: What made you decide to work on a solo album?
It was more a matter of time, I always knew I would embark on a solo journey, I just needed to find the right space.
FTR: How did the process differ from a Howling Bells record?
Well clearly, when you’re on your own, you’re completely autonomous, every decision is driven from a purely instinctive place, as opposed to trying to compromise those things with other people. Every persons experience is so personal, its kinda mad to think you’re always going to find a happy place with everyone you work with.
FTR: This is your first record since having a child, do you think that has shaped your song-writing?
I mean, structurally, melodically, I don’t think so. I’m always reaching for the gigantic melodies. Subject wise, I think it may have affected me. My universe is not as narrow as it used to be. There are new feelings, new experiences and so on. What’s important to me has definitely changed.
FTR: What are your aspirations for this record? How do you measure success?
My aspirations would be for people to connect with the feeling on the record. To understand what I’m conveying, to respond emotionally to the music. To BUY RECORDS! And come to shows!
Measuring success….Isn’t it Churchill that says “Success is not final. Failure is not Fatal. It’s the courage to continue that counts”. Basically, I feel that success is being able to continue to do what you love, with meaning.
FTR: Who are your musical influences, what were you listening to when you wrote America?
Roy Orbison, Stevie Wonder, Jimi Hendrix and Dolly Parton, I’d say they’re the mountain peaks for me. I know they all inhabit very different places musically and lyrically, but they’ve always been my constants and teachers in life. Not to mention The Beatles, but I feel like that goes without saying.
FTR: What about influences outside of music? What inspires you?
I adore films and documentaries, I love art, I love travelling, people watching, café sitting, gallery hopping, talking to strangers. That all counts.
FTR: Your father wrote one of the songs on the album, do you think growing up in a musical family affected the music you make?
For sure, my folks normalised the idea of a crazy musical household. There was constant music being played, whether it be my dad’s vinyl collection or him writing and recording. His blues/gospel/folk style undoubtedly influenced me, and when I ‘discovered’ my own version of music I tried to mesh those styles together. Now I’m just back where I started!
FTR: America is coming out on Nude Records, did you consider self-releasing it? Are labels still important?
I didn’t really consider it because self-release requires a lot of time and a little money. I know a lot of people do it and I think that’s awesome. I just knew that I wanted to collaborate with someone to release the record. Someone who got the music and shared a vision with me.
FTR: Are labels still important?
Smart and cool labels are still important.
FTR: You’ve got some festival slots coming up this Summer, do you enjoy festivals? What can people expect from your live show?
I love festivals, I love the community vibe, it often feels like a weird Simpsons episode where you’re sharing a space with completely random and varied artists, all there doing the same thing. My live show has tinges of country, folk and rock. It’s impossible for me to detach myself from having played in a moody, indie rock band for the last decade, so there’s always gonna be that element. Otherwise, just good vibes.
FTR: What does you going solo mean for Howling Bells? Do you have plans to work together again?
Right now I’m focusing on my record and playing shows, this is what feels right for now. Nothings ever really over is it!?
FTR: What’s next for Juanita Stein?
I’ve recently finished a run of dates supporting the awesome Matthew Logan Vasquez in the US, then I’ll be playing some festivals in July throughout the UK and I’ll be doing some headline shows around Autumn in the UK/EU.
America is out July 28th via Nude Records. Click HERE for more information on Juanita Stein.