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.

Right Here, Right Now Festival: “There’s a Lot to Be Proud Of!”

A celebration of the current Cork scene that sees a variety of acts across the genre spectrum take centre-stage on the largest stage the city has to offer. That’s the underlying philosophy behind Right Here, Right Now, a festival co-presented by the team at Douglas Street venue Coughlan’s Live and Cork Opera House. It’s been a labour of love for both parties, as Coughlans’ Brian Hassett explains. “As Coughlan’s Live Promotions, we have been involved in putting on a number of shows already in Cork Opera House over the last few years, and through that we’ve gotten to know the team there. I think we had all been expressing recently about just how much great music was being created and released throughout Cork, and that planted a seed of thought with Eileen, the CEO of Cork Opera House. She asked us to call in for a meeting as she was keen to have an event that we could work on together to celebrate this current scene. Right Here Right Now was born from that, a weekend to focus a spotlight on these songwriters and bands that are currently releasing all these great albums. In Coughlans we work regularly in a very grass roots level with many of these groups and it’s amazing to have Cork Opera House, which is such an iconic venue, wanting to be so actively involved and working to develop that scene within the city.”

The collaborative process behind the festival has seen the operating power of the Opera House line up with the ground-floor knowledge of the Coughlan’s team to provide opportunities for local artists to be part of something truly special. “Well, I would say we have really been working as a team on it, and that everything along the way has been through discussion from both sides. It’s something that we have all really come together on through a shared passion. The main theme of the festival is bringing together lots of groups all under the one roof that have great songs, great songwriters and great performers. So with curating it, we all talked about the tremendous amount of bands throughout Cork that are active right now, putting out new music and touring before we quickly realised that there was likely enough there to fill numerous weekends, really. A major benefit to the festival was funding secured from The Arts Council through Cork Opera House to enable what is going to be the big centre piece of the weekend, Jack O’ Rourke & Band, Strung and Anna Mitchell all teaming up with The Cork Opera House Concert Orchestra for a show in the main auditorium. For both the musicians as well as the audience this show is going to be a pretty thrilling experience and an amazing one off opportunity.”

Friday gets the festival off to a strong start with Interference returning to the Opera House after a sold-out show in January – what are Hassey’s thoughts on the band’s current incarnation? “We’re delighted to have Interference back to open the festival. Their previous show sold out so quickly and left a lot of people unable to get tickets. Fergus’ passing was a massive loss to so many people and it was really special to see the band together performing a stunning show to a packed out Cork Opera House. The band were joined by a whole hosts of guests including Glen Hansard, Liam Ó Maonlaí, Joe O’ Leary, Jerry Fish, Jack O’ Rourke, Mundy, and many others in a night that honoured Ferg and the great catalogue of Interference songs. It was an extremely memorable show and they’ve recently released a stunning album, ‘The Sweet Spot’ so I’m really looking forward to welcoming them back. There’s lots of special guests lined up once again (which is a closely guarded secret for now), but let’s just say you definitely won’t want to miss it!”

Saturday is headlined by Cork singer-songwriter Jack O’Rourke with the COH Concert Orchestra, a spectacle in itself, as well as Anna Mitchell and Strung. The preparation for this centrepiece event has been thorough, with a pair of composers adding their work to expand each artist’s sound for the night. “We’ve been really lucky to team up with John O’ Brien who is writing the scores for Jack’s show and Cormac McCarthy who is writing for Anna Mitchell & Strung. John will then conduct and direct the Orchestra throughout the night. Both of them have been incredible with working alongside the artists, adding so much to the music. It’s a very rare opportunity for artists to get to reimagine their music and play with a cast of over 30 musicians so we’re all very excited for this.”

Sunday is the busiest day of the line-up by far, with Mick Flannery, The Shaker Hymn, Shookrah, Hank Wedel and more, a very varied line-out. Hassett takes us through the day and gives a little insight into juggling all the elements of the day. “Sunday sees six different shows in the one day, with twelve acts performing and for this we will be utilising two different spaces: The Right Room, which is on stage at Cork Opera House, and The Green Room which is in the backstage area. The shows will be staggered so that there’ll be very little overlap from one show to the next, with the live music going from one room to another throughout the day. Two of the shows I’m really looking forward to on the Sunday would be both of the late night shows; Marc O’ Reilly & band and John Blek & the Rats in The Right Room; and then also Shookrah in The Green Room, as these will be the final shows of the weekend, running until 2am, and it will feel pretty great to be able to settle back a little and enjoy them fully.”

We’ve seen the Green Room as of late in Cork Opera House events, but The Right Room is getting its debut with Right Here Right Now – what can we expect from this addition to the Opera House?

“As part of the festival, we wanted people to be able to have new and different experiences at Cork Opera House, and we hope that through the different setups and spaces there will be a different participation from the audience also. We’re taking over the backstage area for the weekend, transforming it and inviting everybody to come and share in it. So in The Right Room, the audience actually joins the bands on the stage, for the show. The whole thing happens ‘behind the curtain’, so to speak. For certain shows it will be nice and intimate with seating & tables, and for others it’s going to be much more of a party. Did I mention there’s also going to be a bar on the stage?”

The scene in Cork seems to be going from strength to strength with the development of fests like Quarter Block Party, Coughlan’s Live Music Fest, and now Right Here, Right Now. Hassett is full of enthusiasm for the development of the scene in recent years. It seems there has always been great music coming from Cork but definitely of late there has been a real abundance of wonderful albums. There are a lot of tirelessly working passionate musicians and in the last few years there has been a real growth in more of an industry and opportunities for them. There are festivals, venues. promoters, DJs, booking agents, studios, journalists, etc. all working together with musicians in sharing this wealth of great music. With the scene in Cork, right here, right now, there’s a lot to be proud of!”

The question at the end of all of this is simple – what about the festival going forward? What will the long-term hold? “Right Here Right Now ’17 is a three-day festival, but it could very easily be a week long with the amount of other groups we would have loved to include. We would love for this to become a yearly event in the calendar in Cork, an opportunity for people to come see some of the best music, both established and emerging.”

Right Here, Right Now happens throughout the weekend at Cork Opera House. Tickets are available at the box-office and at corkoperahouse.ie.

Review: Exmagician @ Cyprus Avenue, Cork (05/02/17)

Written for Hot Press in February of 2017. Unused.

In a city overburdened with festivals and events for this time of year, and on a freezing Sunday evening, it’s a small but dedicated crowd that greets Northern Irish four-piece exmagician, an outfit with more than enough DIY credibility behind them thanks to members’ involvement in dearly-departed electronic outfit Cashier No.5. Their new-found sound is a little bit of a departure, but the work has paid off, resulting in a deal with influential UK label Bella Union, releasing last year’s full-length Scan the Blue.

If it’s an intimate crowd upstairs, opening duo Waldorf and Cannon appear to make the most of it, gathering attendees around them for a set that takes in a number of road-tests of new tunes, alongside a couple of ditties in the likes of Syntax Error and The End of the Line. Relatively uncomplicated fare, the pair offer up alt-rock-informed power-pop that makes the most of a barebones setup, including a mad, double-pedal drum box that makes for intriguing gear-nerd watching. Finishing up for their own giggles on a stripped-down, slide-guitar take on the Beastie Boys’ Sabotage, they can’t be faulted for delivering a homely, snug take on getting straight-to-the-point guitar-pop.

The atmosphere seems to put the boys from exmagician at ease, also. Bantering casually as they’re getting on stage, it all sets the tone for an informal run-through of the band’s relatively short set, albeit one delivered with all the gravitas and layering their studio material hints at. It makes for an odd juxtaposition, actually: the lads proceed to get on first-name terms with their attendees, discuss that night’s Superbowl & their opinions on the half-time show, and outline their evening’s social plans inbetween missives from a set of singles like Bend With the Wind and Place Your Bets, nestling alongside cuts from the aforementioned album.

Not that the lads take a quiet night as an excuse to phone one in: they clearly enjoy being among friends, and it feeds into a spirited display. The wide, accessible, psych-inflected sonic vistas they recreate for the assembled heads have the feel of a private performance, as quieter tunes like Desperado float by dreamily, and the Stone Roses-esque psychpop of Plan Retrieval gives way to shuffling slow-burner Feet Don’t Fail. While innovation isn’t high on the list of priorities here, it’s made up for in charm and a subtle fullness in arrangement that plays on the familiarity and comfort these tunes evoke.

Place Your Bets brings the evening to a close, and the band raises their glasses to the crowd before doing so – a fitting accompaniment for an easy, hazy, almost sleepy slice of reverb-laden psych that suffers little for being stripped of an ambitious horn section, making something of their phalanxes of effects pedals and creating a suitably big wall of sound in time-honoured tradition. A suitably satisfying conclusion to an atmospheric set, delivered with confidence in their songcraft.