Redbrick Meets: Sunflower Bean | Redbrick | University of Birmingham

Redbrick Meets: Sunflower Bean

Sunflower Bean bassist and singer, Julia Cumming, talks to Redbrick's Pablo Doyle about the making of their new album, Twentytwo In Blue, the political influences that shaped it, and her love for English fry-ups and the BBC

Pablo: So, you’re back in the UK since your last tour… nice to be back?

Julia: As always. It’s raining, it’s cloudy, I’m drinking a coffee…yeah, it’s great, I love it.

You’re just getting into the swing of promoting you new album, Twentytwo In Blue, which is coming out two years after your debut, Human Ceremony. Quite a quick turnover time to bring out a whole new album considering how much touring you do as well. Did you already have these songs written? Where did the new record originate from?

Only some tiny aspects and ideas were written on tour. We finished the tour in November 2016 and we said to each other ‘we’ll take some time off… we’ve never really had any time off’, but as soon as we got back to New York we realised we didn’t want any time off at all. I think it started with Nick (guitarist & singer). I always admire his guitar playing approach, he goes away from what everyone else is doing. 

Making the second album was exciting and liberation. We stayed really quiet and didn’t tell anyone we were working on it

He felt that the ‘chorusy’ and ‘jangly’ guitar sound had been overdone - despite it being a huge part of our sound. So he pulled it back and tried a more classical approach of playing. This then gave me the opportunity to try out new things as a bassist or as a vocalist. It felt liberating and exciting. It basically took us from December 2016 to December 2017 to just work on it. We didn’t do anything else. We stayed really quiet and didn’t tell anyone we were working on it. I’m ecstatic for the world to hear it now.

You can really hear that change of approach on the album. It seems like you’re also more at the forefront of every song, especially vocally. Did that happen naturally? Did you find yourself simply writing more lyrics?

I think when we pulled away from all the effects, I realised I could do more as a singer. It also has to do with trust from your band mates. The way I’m singing now is definitely closer to who I am as a person, and to let that out into the world is really scary, so having your bandmates by your side supporting you is really incredible. It definitely took time for me to be okay with myself and the things I wanted to say artistically and vocally. 

It definitely took time for me to be okay with myself and the things I wanted to say artistically and vocally

And the album is called Twentytwo In Blue, and all three of you are turning 22, so does the title have to do with your age? Or what is the story behind the name?

When you’re making a record you’re always living these different thoughts, feelings and images. And the colour that kept coming back to us was blue. Blue generally has a ‘sad’ or ‘melancholy’ connotation to it but Jacob said that, to him, blue was the sky, the ocean, it was hopeful. This reflects what the record is - resilient and hopeful. 

I first listened to your debut album, Human Ceremony, in the shower. I think I stayed in there for the whole duration of it, which was probably not great for the environment. But, where and when would you ideally like people to listen to Twentytwo In Blue?

I would like fans to listen to the record when they’ve had a really bad day. Like when you get into a fight with someone and you just need something with you, to help you get by. When you’re looking for a friend or a little help.

Another interesting aspect is that you drew quite a lot of inspiration from the crazy political environment at the time. Political albums are very rarely done nowadays – at least compared to the last few decades - it’s almost seen as ‘uncool’. How did politics end up influencing the album so much?

I think you’re always going to be affected by what’s going on around you. I used to be extremely political as a teenager; I used to have my own political radio show and my activism was a big part of my life. When I joined Sunflower Bean I pulled back a bit from it all. At the time things in the US seemed okay on the surface…at least for a little white girl like me, you know. I had the privilege of not having to pay attention, but I don’t think that’s fair anymore. So sometimes you have to use art and music to help express other parts of yourself. At the time it was really affecting all us. 

For a little white girl like me, I had the privilege of not having to pay attention to the political climate, but I don’t think that’s fair anymore

The song ‘Crisis Fest’ on the new album covers this topic in a very honest way. People break their arm, and don’t go to hospital because they can’t afford it and don’t want to go bankrupt. For breaking an arm! It’s things like that where I ask myself ‘what am I supposed to do?’ and I feel like we really have to talk about it in our music. It’s quite easy to get it wrong. But hopefully those who listen to the album will see what we’re trying to say without us coming across as cheesy or going all ‘power to the people’ on them.

That’s admirable. I think people will resonate with the message well. And you’re going to start your UK tour soon. What’s your favourite thing about the UK?

Hmmm… is it wrong if I say fry-ups? You guys really know how to fry food here.

Really? That’s surprising coming from someone who lives in the country where they fry literally everything…

Well you guys really value breakfast here. In the US it’s not so much of an occasion. Also Sunday roasts are amazing! There are a lot of things to like here. Like the BBC is really cool! You’re very lucky having centralised radio. The US is so big you don’t get something which covers everything like the BBC does.

So if you could bring one person, one record and one meal on tour what would it be? I’m guessing the meal would be some sort of fry-up…

Yeah for sure, a fry-up covers a lot. I would bring my mate Matt because he makes a lot of bad jokes and he would be really fun to have around in like a bad situation. Oooh… I would bring Transformer (Lou Reed) cause I’m looking for humour. I need some Lou and some hash browns.

Well I hope your tour lives up to all these expectations!

You can find out more about Sunflower Bean's latest releases and tour on their website.


2nd March 2018 at 9:00 am