A chat with Julia Cumming of Sunflower Bean

 By Shirley Griffith 

June 2, 2018

In 2016, Rolling Stone magazine declared Sunflower Bean “NYC’s Coolest Young Band” before the release of their debut, Human Ceremony. Lo-fi recordings and bedroom pop seemed to dominate the three-piece’s Brooklyn home scene which allowed Sunflower Bean’s spacey, psychedelic and classic rock ‘n’ roll influences to stand out in a vibrant realm all their own. After releasing Human Ceremony, the band has primarily been either touring or recording for the past two years, which should come as no surprise as Oh My Rockness (NYC) called them 2014’s hardest working band. The band has drawn comparisons and genre-labeling from psych-sludge-indie pop all the way to the shimmering ballads of Fleetwood Mac. Their style is dynamic and vast, incorporating lush, almost melancholic tones one minute and artful swagger the next.

In late March, the trio released their follow-up album, Twentytwo in Blue, which shares its name and value with how old the members were while recording it. Co-produced by Matthew Portrait of Unknown Mortal Orchestra, the album is an impressive step from Human Ceremony and shows the band on a trajectory, experimenting with vocal ranges, political messaging, and self-assured artistry. Tracks like “Twentytwo” resemble the faraway yearn and sparkle of the ‘70s while “Crisis Fest” stomps in with an audacious Mick Jagger strut. “I Was A Fool” glimmers the way a demure iceberg tip shines elegantly in the sun, knowing it has an entire mountain of darkness holding it afloat. Savory melodies and thick, foggy fuzz form a sweeping impression among the album, allowing each instrumental element to situate in its right place without ever feeling forced. Lead singer and bassist, Julia Cumming, seamlessly elevates tracks with her imposingly pure vocals and range, offering a lucid guiding light to the dewy vapor of Nick Kivlen’s timeless sunrise guitar tones. Drummer Jacob Farber displays rolling, romantic influences throughout Twentytwo in Blue with laidback swells on “Any Way You Like It” switching into Velvet Underground depth on “Sinking Sands.”

L to R: Julia Cumming, Jacob Faber, and Nick Kivlen. Photo: Andy DeLuca

Julia was kind enough to answer some questions for us below:

CLTure: What does it mean, to you, to be 22 in 2018?

Julia: It means that I’m old enough to know my strength, but young enough to know I have a lot to learn.

CLTure: You’ve described the album in one word as ‘resilience’ which indicates a strength and growth in the face of struggle. Where do you draw your hopefulness from in this current political landscape?

Julia: I draw a lot of hopefulness in the increase in progressive candidates that are running for office, people who might not thought of themselves as leaders but now know that there is literally nothing to lose. I take a lot of solace in nature too, how the sun still comes out and the seasons still change even when our turmoil feels all encompassing.

CLTure: Twentytwo in Blue sounds quite different than your debut album. Have your influences evolved from the classic rock psychedelia tones that were displayed on Human Ceremony?

Julia: We always want to push ourselves, and we didn’t want to be the exact same band as we were on Human Ceremony. Nick came to us with this different guitar tone, more stripped down and less chorus tone, and it gave me a chance to really use my voice. I think this whole process made me a stronger performer and artist.

CLTure: Do you ever draw from other mediums to inspire a song or a philosophy of your artistic mindset?

L to R: Jacob Faber, Julia Cumming, and Nick Kivlen. Photo: Andy DeLuca

Julia: Sometimes I listen to music while writing music, or lyrics. I think keeping your mind full of new inspirations, books, movies, is really important. One of my favorite movies is Harold & Maude from the 70’s. I find that a lot of my personal philosophies are from the character Maude!

CLTure: You all started as fairly young musicians, both before and at the start of forming Sunflower Bean. Did you ever experience venues/sound techs/audiences that didn’t take you seriously because of your age?

Julia: I’d say yes, but I think when you’re in that position you just can’t really care. You want to do it so badly that it doesn’t really matter what people think. But we definitely were outliers in a scene of people in their 20’s and 30’s, and as NY got more strict we couldn’t even get into venues we were supposed to be playing. That sucked.

CLTure: After touring so extensively off your debut release in 2016, have you gathered any touring tips to keep your sanity on the road?

Julia: For me, it’s exercising and not drinking. At a certain point you have to think about what kind of life you wanna have. Do you wanna be sick all the time, or do you actually wanna make some weird art? Making weird good art requires a lot of brain power I don’t wanna use on beer.

L to R: Nick Kivlen, Julia Cumming, and Jacob Faber.

CLTure: What bands are you currently listening to?

Julia: The Japanese House, Jay Som, Sandy Alex G, Sorry, and Dream Wife!

CLTure: Is there anything about Charlotte or NC in general that you’re excited to experience? (I humbly suggest drinking a cold Cheerwine from a glass bottle!)

Julia: We always eat really well in NC…I distinctly remember great ice cream and sushi. When you tour all the time, having a great little meal can really shape your day and mood. We are really, really excited to experience more North Carolina!

Sunflower Bean plays with Nude Party at Snug Harbor on Tuesday, June 5

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