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Reaching the emotional depths

An interview with Howling Bells

Juanita Stein is disarmingly pretty. But it’s not her angelic features that draw immediate attention today; instead it’s her boots, these amazing knee-high red things, with trimmings of baubles and stars around the ankles. Purchased in Newtown, procured in Nashville, they’re damn cool.

A bit like Howling Bells – if ever a group have avoided the cultural cringe that normally creeps into any Australian band moving to England, it’s this foursome. “I think it helps that we were there for 2 years,” Juanita outlines. “You have to give someone the time of day and really connect and identify with an environment. I’m proud of it and I think it’s a good record and I think people are connecting with it. I think when something a little bit left-of-centre comes around then they’re quite inviting and accepting of it.”

More wall than bandIn fact, Howling Bells first UK tour was with Editors around Europe and England. It might have started out as low-key, but it wasn’t long before Howling Bells were commanding column inches of their own. “We didn’t go in for 2 weeks with banners going ‘look at us, look at us…and now we’re going to piss off and you’re supposed to give a shit’ – it doesn’t work,” Juanita explains of the band’s initial decision to stay in England.

The decision to move to England was made after the band had recorded demos in Sydney, then sent them out to prospective producers. A good response was received from the respected Ken Nelson in particular, who is noted for his work with the likes of Coldplay. As a Liverpool resident, with his own studio, it made sense for the band to go a couple of months early prior to recording, getting into the groove of swinging London life. But it wasn’t so simple, as Juanita explains. “It just went on and on and on and he kept postponing it and postponing it, and before we knew it it was seven or eight months and we were looking outside a very dreary window one day going ‘Is this going to happen? Maybe we should go home’.”

In retrospect, Juanita believes that the gap in time contributed to the overall sound of the album and the growth of the band. “I think it matured us in a way that would not have happened if we had stayed here,” she says of the band’s brief time in Sydney, “and collectively we grew. I think it’s really important for a band to grow together as well, if you can stand each other after eight months of living in one room together, and then eventually we got the call to go and record in Liverpool.”

Certainly, their self-titled debut has met with the sort of critical acclaim that few Australian acts are used to – already the band have scored a jaw-dropping 9 out of 10 in the NME, while respected broadsheets like The Guardian have been similarly effusive in their praise. Not for a band formed from the ashes of Waikiki. “It was very much a natural progression,” Juanita says of the change from one band to the other. “It was as simple as Waikiki broke up, and that was it. I’d written all these songs that I was combusting with energy and knew I had to get out there somehow, and so we [Juanita and brother guitarist Joel] sat down and began working on these new songs. Then we met Brendan [Picchio, bass] and then it went from there.”

Juanita explains that she knew the material she was penning was never going to be for Waikiki, and that a transitional period would have to be made. This included the move to England. “I was driven by a force outside my consciousness, and I wasn’t going to let anything get in the way of that.”

Howling BellsThe recording experience was a different experience. “It was also the most earthy and raw recording experience I’ve ever had,” she elucidates. “The studio wasn’t this ridiculously lavish gold and marble room with room for an orchestra; it was old, and small, and earthy, with stones on the wall. Ken was unbelievably down to earth and very gentle and very warm, and so for us it was a very earthy experience.”

All tracking was done live – Howling Bells were thrown into the deep end, and didn’t believe in layering tracks so everything was out on the line. If it didn’t work as one, then it simply didn’t work. And work it has: the songs are nothing if not personal, and quite desperate at times. “They’re very, very desperate, and emotional and heart-wrenching,” she agrees. “I’m really laying it on the line. It was the first time I’ve put myself out there and for the first time just really, really had so much faith in the music and the people I was working with that I couldn’t have given a shit if nobody liked this. I don’t need anyone’s approval for this to be an incredible experience.”

It also ended up being cathartic, with Juanita comparing the singing of the songs to more or less reading her diary to anyone who cares to listen. “Doing the vocals was a very different experience for me – I couldn’t actually sing in a room that had lights on,” she comments. “They literally had to turn off every single light in the studio. I needed to feel like I was the only person in the room. I didn’t want to feel like anybody was watching me. It was very personal.”

Howling Bells’ self-titled album is out now. Launch dates:
6 July – Annandale Hotel, Sydney
7 July – ANU, Canberra
8 July – East Brunswick Club, Melbourne

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