New York City

Sunflower Bean's ‘Blue' Note

Sunflower Bean vocalist/bassist Julia Cumming talks about the band's new album and creative process

Earlier this year, New York City trio Sunflower Bean released their sophomore full-length album "Twentytwo in Blue" -- an aptly titled ode (each member turned 22 during its creation) to resiliency, love and coming-of-age in an increasingly turbulent era.

On one hand, it's become a rallying cry of sorts for embracing individuality, revolting against systemic abuse and bucking societal norms (on the anthem "Crisis Fest," for example, vocalist/bassist Julia Cumming sings "If you hold us back / You know that we can shout / We brought you into this place / You know we can take you out"). Seems rather topical.

On the other hand, it also takes square aim at heartstrings with its laments on withered relationships (on "I Was a Fool," Cumming sings "I was getting lost in your quicksand / Looking around for your hand / When I noticed falling where I once stood / If I was blind, you were heartless").

And there's the crux of it: "Twentytwo in Blue" (out now via Mom + Pop Records) is so stylistically varied and thematically diverse, it can be something different to everyone. A lot of that can be attributed to the fact that all three of the band's members (Cumming, drummer Jacob Faber and guitarist/vocalist Nick Kivlen) contribute as songwriters.

"I think it keeps it really interesting for us," Cumming told me over the phone recently, when asked about how all three of them pitch in creatively. "I think when a band is working really well, you have everyone coming together to create something better than you could've done on your own ... It keeps it very expansive for us. I think if you're kind of pigeonholed into one genre, it can be really exhausting."

Across tracks that at times recall Fleetwood Mac (just listen to the background harmonies on "Memoria"), Joan Jett or even the Sundays, "Twentytwo in Blue" not only showcases the individual members' personal growth via its lyrics but also in how they've leveled up from the raw psychedelia on their 2016 debut record "Human Ceremony" to a more polished, layered sound. Credit some of that to Unknown Mortal Orchestra's Jacob Portrait, who expertly produced the new album, but also to the band's evolved approach to recording.

"For many years, we didn't necessarily understand how to utilize a studio. I think on 'Human Ceremony,' we started that process and it was really empowering. On 'Twentytwo in Blue,' we were able to go deeper into that. I think we definitely went into the record with the intention of letting ourselves be multi-faceted and letting ourselves be soft or vulnerable or all of those things without judgement and seeing how the songs could grow individually.

"It's really all in service to the song and trying to help the song be what it is rather than kind of getting in the way of it while trying to make it sound like something else. I think we just wanted to really let them live."

That kind of freeing environment led the three members of Sunflower Bean to create what they genuinely needed to.

"I think writing songs is a really weird thing to do as an art form," Cumming explained. "Because there's a lot of things that can be expressed that you can't express in just words or without music. It's an art form that's a way of communication that we need, you know what I mean?

"I remember being an early teenager and having all these thoughts and not knowing how to say them to anyone," she continued, "but if I wrote them in a song, I could explain what I meant. I didn't have to be fearful and I think it's inevitable, right? It's kind of how we deal with life. So there's not really many options: We're songwriters. It's how we have to get by ... Life is really strange and upsetting and funny and absurd sometimes and to reconcile with those things, you need to make art about it."

Such is "Twentytwo in Blue" -- an album that captures all those swirling wistful, beautiful, furious, hopeful, nightmarish and illuminating moments of life and invites listeners to dive in and feel connected.

"I think a lot of the record is about trying to give yourself strength," Cumming told me. "'Empower yourself' sounds a bit cheesy but we're trying to help you understand the power that you have. It's not an aggressive power, but more so the power of just living and not dying. 'I lived through this, I lived another day, I can vote, I can grow' -- it's resilience.

"I kind of have this image of when you're at the beach and you see a dock where boats might come in and you see a really old piece of wood in the water and you think, 'How long could that have been in there?' And you think about how many waves have hit it. And that's kind of how I feel. I feel like there's a part of me, and a part of all of us, that is just really strong -- and it's just about seeing that it's there."

Sunflower Bean headline the Che Cafe on Wednesday, June 13, with Jesse Jo Stark opening. The show is all ages and tickets are available here.

Dustin Lothspeich has been an associate editor at SoundDiego since 2013, books The Merrow and runs the music equipment-worshipping blog Gear and Loathing in San Diego. Follow his updates on Twitter or contact him directly.

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