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.

Pauline Scanlon: “I Follow My Heart”

Ahead of her gig tonight at the White Horse in Ballincollig, Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with singer Pauline Scanlon about music, TV, and her new record.

“It was all around me from when I was a kid. We were pretty much like any family in Ireland at that time, pre-TG4, so there wasn’t a whole pile of Irish pop-culture on the TV or the radio when I was growing up, though we had Irish culture, language and music around us all the time. I grew up in the countryside in Burnham, just outside Dingle, surrounded by farms and generations of my family. It was gorgeous, a rural childhood in a beautiful place.” The story of singer Pauline Scanlon starts in the Corca Dhuibne Gaeltacht, and ahead of her gig tonight at the White, the conversation begins with the Irish language before progressing to her debut solo record. Released over a decade ago, the question emerges of artistic changes in the intervening years. “I’ve just developed my craft I guess, I feel a lot more at ease in studios these days since I’ve done so much recording over the last 10 years on various recordings. Artistically, I don’t know that I’ve changed that much, I have always just wanted to sing what I feel, and that’s pretty much what I do. I guess I have developed my singing and improved it over the years, but in general, I follow my heart and create what feels right.”

Scanlon has worked in session with an astounding variety of talents, including as a featured vocalist for Sharon Shannon and band. How does sessioning differ to her from her own endeavours? And how much free rein have you over your end of things as a session musician? “It really depends on the session, when I was in Sharon’s band, I was a guest singer, so we’d pick songs together and I’d sing them with free rein. If I’m recording backing vocals for somebody else’s music I try to accommodate their tastes, and mould myself to their singing as much as possible, since I become part of their expression rather than my own. I absolutely love harmony singing, harmonies are my favourite part of music, I’m lucky that some my closest friends are also singers so I get to do a lot of it. In general though, free rein is something that I pretty much always have in a sense, I’d very rarely being doing something so specific that I’d have very strict guidelines.”

As one half of vocal group Lumiere, her work has taken her around the world, while signed to Sony for the project’s first album cycle. Scanlon illustrates the differences between more independent artistic endeavour, and the rigours of major-label entertainment. “We released our first album on Sony, and our second on indie label IRL. I’ve had so many different experiences with major and indie labels that it’s hard to draw a straight comparison. When we worked with Sony in Ireland they had an amazing team of really passionate music-lovers working with us and we had a great time with them. They bent over backwards for us and really helped us launch the band. We went with a smaller label the second time round as they were tied in with our management and had much the same experience, Lumiere has been very lucky with the people around us from the very start.”

Scanlon has ventured into TV work in recent years off the back of her musical exploits, both as presenter and subject. How does the process and work of preparing and presenting television differ from music and the stage? “It is completely different. Music for me is a soulful and emotional thing, it’s about how I feel about the most important parts of life in general and sometimes more specifically my own own life. It runs deep. TV presenting is the exact opposite! For me, it’s nothing like performing onstage or anywhere else. It’s a job with long hours and a very specific Job description, which I enjoy but don’t ever really compare to my singing. I really prefer the documentary end of things telly-wise, its a different world, with different people and personalities and it’s nice to dip the toe in every now and again, but music is really what I’m about.”

New solo album Gossamer was just released in May. Give us some insight to its writing, arrangement, and recording process. “I had been collecting songs for a couple of years, ideas on where I wanted to go with them, and producer John Reynolds and I had discussed the overall feel we wanted for the album. We worked with the band in the room and developed the sound for a week before we recorded.”

Pauline Scanlon plays the White Horse in Ballincollig tonight, with guest Anna Mitchell. Kickoff is at 8.30, tickets €15.