Juanita Stein: Taking on a Global America

After five years of writing and recording, Howling Bells frontwoman Juanita Stein’s debut album foreshadows her debut solo tour. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with her ahead of her upcoming Fred Zeppelin’s date.

A long road has led Juanita Stein to where she presently stands: as frontwoman and rhythm guitarist of London-based outfit Howling Bells (and before that, their initial, Sydney-based incarnation, Waikiki), she’s basked in critical acclaim and undertaken comprehensive world touring, both as a headline act and in support of arena-botherers like The Killers, in the process making Clash Magazine’s Top Women list in 2009. Bringing herself back to square one, Stein’s first solo album America was five years in the making, and will be showcased by her first headlining solo tour, including an excursion upstairs to the red room in Fred Zeppelin’s on Wednesday October 4th. On the phone before heading out on the UK leg of her tour, she’s understandably excited and nervous about going it alone. “Straight away, it’s equally liberating and nerve-wracking. You don’t have the support system that you’ve had for many years. There’s a lot more autonomy, but a lot more responsibility, as I’m finding out today trying to figure out electronic stuff I haven’t had to before. The logistics are overwhelming but for the most part I’m looking forward to performing my own material.”

Beginning life in 2012 and with studio work getting underway three years later, it’s fair to say that Stein has taken her time in bringing her material to life. A personal reflection on the changes the world has undergone from her view on a tour bus, America takes on the American dream, and its knock-on effects on cultures worldwide, in withering, sultry alt-country fashion. In the studio, meanwhile, it was a time of development. “I suppose I collaborated a lot more with the producer, as there wasn’t a ‘band’, per se. A lot of discussions going back and forth. A lot of effort gone into lyrics, a lot more so on this record. The other thing was there was a bunch of guys playing on the record I’d never worked with before, so that was strange, because I’d been playing with the same guys for over a decade. That was really interesting. They were amazing, they brought something fresh. Conceptually, I hadn’t set out to make a record that was specifically about America, but I guess my subconscious was overwhelming, in making what was obviously an ode to America. It was only when I sat down and listened to it that it dawned on me that that’s what it was about.”

The album’s lengthy gestation period has allowed Stein the opportunity to live with various stages of it, before settling on a final product and arranging for its release. Stein explores how she feels about the record as it was at its conclusion, and how she’d have done things in the intermittent time before its release this past summer: “I feel like it was a very honest interpretation of those songs in that point in time, but I would probably do them differently now because I’ve lived with them and I’ve been playing them live, and they always take on another life. I had no idea what the songs were when they were first recorded. Now I’m a lot more familiar with them. In retrospect, I’m very happy with it and I think it’s a quietly soulful record.”

After the upcoming UK/Irish dates, Stein has something of a coup lined up for November, as she accompanies The Killers on their UK arena dates that month. The difference again arises between treading those massive stages alone versus being with the band, as well as the topic of spending road time with one of the mainstream’s biggest bands of the last two decades. “There’s not a whole lot of downtime. They are incredibly supportive, they have always have been. Optimistic, I suppose. It’s nice to be on the road with people who support what you do. And they’re about as well-oiled a machine as you’re going to get. It’s absolutely incredible to watch that happen and take something away from it. I’m obviously not going to copy their arena setup, but their professionalism is pretty mindblowing. As far as myself doing shows without the band: I don’t know. I’m nervous and game in equal (measure).

Of course, this isn’t Stein’s first rodeo away from Howling Bells and her established means and methods in a general sense, having appeared on numerous other bands’ records in guest capacities. When asked for her favourite, she makes mention of a little-known group of upstarts from the UK. “The Coldplay one was pretty special, it (album Mylo Xyloto) was the biggest album I’ve ever appeared on, even though it wasn’t in a predominant role. It was really interesting coming from a very organic, indie, lo-fi background to step into these spectacular, large (studio experiences).” How does the creative process differ between collaborators when sessioning? “It was literally turning up to studio, getting a sheet of lyrics and running through it a few times. If something sticks, it sticks, if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. Some people want your input, and some people like what you do sonically and that’s what they ask you to bring. They’re completely different”.

With all of the activity ahead, Stein wouldn’t be to blame for taking it in for a moment, but the future looms large and plans for the foreseeable are underway. “Thinking about a second record. I have a US tour coming up in December, that’s my first solo American tour. That’s as far as I’ve gone (laughs).”

Juanita Stein plays upstairs in Fred Zeppelin’s, Parliament Street, on Wednesday October 4th. Tickets €15 on the door.

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