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Howling Bells

Howling Bells

Interviewed by
Danielle Street
Tuesday 9th September, 2014 2:32PM

A few months ago Howling Bells singer Juanita Stein stitched her heart to her sleeve and braced herself for the release of her band's fourth album, Heartstrings. The 10-track offering is the first full-length album the gothic indie-rock outfit have actually recorded in London since relocating there from Sydney almost 10 years ago. And in that time, Stein has become a mother and says that experience opened up the universe and pushed her to pen truly and deeply personal songs for the first time ever. The record, which recorded in a whirlwind 11 days, not only wears the hallmark of Steins's elegant vocals, but it boasts production from Catherine J. Marks and Alan Moulder, whose collective CV includes working with acts like PJ Harvey, Arctic Monkeys, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Blonde Redhead, Interpol, Foo Fighters, and many, many more. UnderTheRadar spoke with Stein ahead of the band's first New Zealand show since 2006, to have a chat about the new album and see how things have changed since their last visit, and what the future might hold...

UTR: Juanita, you've been in London nearly 10 years now. Do you ever think about returning to live in Australia?

Stein: Often. Like, really a lot. Especially now I find, with the older I’m getting and I had my first little baby girl a couple of years ago, and your priorities, inevitably they change. So the idea of Australia seems more and more desirable.

Do you get to get home much to Australia?

I do, if I’m lucky maybe once a year.

To perform?

No, not performing as often, more seeing family and friends I guess.

Last time Howling Bells performed in New Zealand was 2006, so a long time ago, do you remember anything from then?

I do, yea of course! I remember eating at a really cool noodle place in Auckland. I remember the scenery was spectacular. Like parts of Australia, I remember an epic sense of space and just good clean air. That’s the kind of thing I remember.

There is some conflicting information out there, so maybe you can clarify, did Howling Bells form before or after you moved to London?

Before. It was just just before we kind of disbanded as Waikiki, which is the other band we were in. And we met a bass player and made a collective decision to move to London together.

There is a lot of commentary that Howling Bells have developed a "broody” sound, is that an influence of being in England?

I wouldn’t necessarily say that, because the songs we’d written for our first album were written in Australia. We kinda of culled them in one particular period of time in Sydney, so it definitely came together in Australia. Perhaps being in England and recording that album [debut record Howling Bells] in Liverpool just at the time it was very dark and wet and cold, so it’s very possible that sonically took effect.

Your new album Heartstrings is the first album you’ve recorded in London, since you moved there. How does it sit with your previous releases musically?

I think, for us, Heartstrings is about a band being very assured of themselves and very comfortable that the sound that the four of us make together. I think it’s inevitable in any decade long career you are going to experiment with different sounds and genres, I guess. But for us it feels really nice to return to this so-called brooding atmosphere that we feel very comfortable in.

Why did it take such a long time to record in London, where you have been based for nearly a decade?

I don’t know, it’s weird. Circumstances present themselves for example on our third record we didn’t have the opportunity to record in London, but there was an opportunity to go to America and record at a studio in Las Vegas and we took it at the time, because we are active and inspired musicians and want to continue making music, so it was either take that opportunity or don’t do anything at all.

Could you tell me about the actual recording of Heartstrings?

It was all very very fast, which is incredibly refreshing I think for a musician trying to function today. So it was nice, I felt incredibly excited at that particular point in time, and most of the songs were written in one burst. We kind of got together as a band and honed the songs and then sent them to a couple of producers, and as soon as Catherine and Alan came back to us and told us they were very interested we literally leaped at the opportunity. And they just happened to have a block of time available at the studio which was 11 days, so we just grabbed it and went for it.

You described the songs on the album as “deeply personal”, did you find that nerve wracking to put intimate work out into the world?

Not anymore, I used to. I used to be very very scared. I was always very nervous about giving too much away. I always felt very private as an artist and a singer, and I never understood the relationship you’re “supposed” to have with your audience.

What changed?

I think, it’s cliched I suppose, but you have a child and that does open you up to the universe in a way that I never really expected, and suddenly the things that felt secretive don’t feel so secretive any more. And if anything, I think I kind of became very gracious and appreciative that I do have a platform to express myself, and it’s kind of a really nice way to open yourself up. You have people who are basically willing and opened armed and listening to what you have to say. So I feel like, for the first time, I really wanted to express myself.

And has it been a positive experience retrospectively. What kind of feedback have you gotten?

Well, if people are critical of the album it isn’t so much about the lyrical content, people always expect certain things from you musically and obviously you can’t please everybody, so for the most part I found it to be a very positive reaction.

What’s your favourite song on the album of deeply personal songs?

I really do love the mid-point on the record which is 'Paper Heart’. I think I appreciate it so much, because it is excruciatingly personal, so it was very refreshing for me. And to find myself at such a vulnerable point, especially when we play it live because its when the band go off the stage and it’s just me singing this very very personal track, it's very interesting for me.

What themes does 'Paper Heart' deal with?

Well, It was written in Australia and it was highly symbolic in the sense that the paper plane in a way represents a very very frail and a tender heart, and the idea that it is so breakable. When we were recording the song I found that the hardest to sing and it took quite a few goes to get through it from beginning to end because I found it so difficult. I think, in my mind, I had bought my recent experience of giving birth and I still felt very very close to home.

Obviously all that emotion helped make it into a fantastic track. On another note, you have collaborated with a number of musicians over the years, what would your dream collaboration be?

Um, I would really love to work on a soundtrack for a film. So probably working with any number of film composers. There’s a brilliant composer, whose name is Alexandre Desplat and he writes exquisite scores for films [his recent work includes Godzilla, The Grand Budapest Hotel and Argo]. To do something like that for some kind of epic film would be incredible.

Is that something you are actively looking to do, or is it on a kind of “wish list”?

I’m always actively looking to do it, but next to putting an ad in the paper I’m really sure how to go about it!

Haha right. Well, I guess the next time we will see you is on stage in New Zealand. Is your daughter travelling with you?

No, it’s a bit too long, and a bit difficult, but we will only be away for about 10 days in total, so we will make it worth it!

Howling Bells are performing this Saturday 13th September at The Tuning Fork in Auckland. Head over here for more information.