Hangout Fest Spotlight: Sunflower Bean’s Julia Cumming

Sunflower Bean is set to rock the stage this Sunday at Hangout Fest in Alabama.

Julia Cumming of Sunflower Bean is one badass babe who isn’t afraid to go for it. From following her passion for music at a young age, to learning to play multiple instruments, and walking fashion runways–Julia’s fearless instinct to master new things with ease has put her in that rare space of both super-creator and muse. We hopped on a call with the New York native to talk style, writing music with Sunflower Bean, embarrassing moments, and what makes her feel free.

You grew up in a very creative household, when were you first introduced to music?

I can’t really remember a time without it. One of my first memories of wanting to be in a band was at 4 years old. It was sort of my intention all my life. But I didn’t really know how to do it until I turned 13 and a friend asked me to join her band. I said “yes” without really knowing how to play anything, I just knew that it was what I wanted to be doing. Writing songs and playing music is kind of how I’ve been reckoning with being alive for many years now. So, it’s pretty in tune with who I am.

“Writing songs and playing music is kind of how I’ve been reckoning with being alive for many years now. So, it’s pretty in tune with who I am.”

You kind of went into music with open arms – learning to play whatever instrument was in front of you at the time. What was the first one you picked up?

It’s funny, actually the first one was ukulele which was given to me in my old band. It taught me about chords, and within a few weeks I went from that to guitar. Once you know how to play guitar, you kind of know your way around a bass. But it wasn’t until Sunflower Bean that I really became a bass player.

There aren’t that many lead singers who are also bassists, are there any that you look up to in particular for inspiration in that lane?

Not exactly. I mean, there’s a lot of really amazing women that I look up to, but also really just admire, like admire their energy. Like Cate Le Bon and Eleanor Friedberger, who don’t always feel so caught up in the flashiness of everything. They’re really just strong and powerful, so I look up to their energy. But playing bass melodically and singing is known to be a kind of difficult thing. What I try to tell people when they ask me about it is just that it’s the same as anything else, it’s just practice. It’s just coordinating and turning on a switch. Anyone could really do it if they wanted to.

You were in a band before and performing since you were super young, how did you come to join Sunflower Bean? 

I was out of my old band, playing solo music on guitar around New York with my dad as my bass player. I was in the middle stages of trying to figure out who I was. I had known Nick and Jacob from their band Turnip King, which still exists. I went to a show by myself, which I was nervous about, but I ended up talking to Nick for a long time there and the last thing he said to me was “I’m starting a band called Sunflower Bean” and I just had this kind of cosmic feeling about it, that I was going to join that band. That made me nervous, I was like “oh no, I’m gonna join that band”. I could tell by the way that we all were, that whatever we do, we’re going to do 100%, and that was a scary thing. So I kind of held off for a minute, they asked me to play a few times and I said “no”, because I was so anxious about the whole thing. But I think it was a bit inevitable, once we started it we knew it was the right thing for us.

So what is the story behind the Sunflower Bean’s name?

I think the most rudimentary thought is that Jacob likes coffee beans and Nick likes sunflower seeds, and that might have been how the words were knocking around. But the combination is perfect, because a Sunflower Bean doesn’t exist and it’s kind of sweet sounding. We really like to play within these concepts of sweet, but always kind of have a bite. Especially when we started out, we were heavy psych a lot of the time. Black Sabbath is what people kind of thought after seeing us and I really liked that. I like playing with people’s perception and having something more to show them. And I really feel like band names are silly and hard. It’s like naming yourself, you just need something that can capture your strangeness, and I think Sunflower Bean as name really does that.

“We really like to play within these concepts of sweet, but always kind of have a bite.”

If you had to choose your favorite thing about performing, what would that be?

I really like singing. I went to school for classical singing, and on this new record, Twentytwo in Blue, we’ve kind of written songs that give it a place. I feel like I’ve been able to grow in that sense. When the stage sound is really good and the situation is right and I can really sing, I feel really free. It’s the most wonderful feeling in the world to have this instrument inside of you that you can play with and experiment with. We’re an extremely live band, we don’t play to a click or tracks. So each show has this element of improvisation. We let ourselves play a little bit. I think that’s how we survive doing so many shows – giving ourselves the chance to have some fun with it. So I think being able to sing and have fun with experimentation is my favorite part.

It is in a way paying homage to a specific time in rock music. It’s supporting this idea of things that are less processed. Even giving yourself the chance to fail. And also letting our fans know that each show is going to be different. Each show is going to have something else that creates a different kind of space and keeps people coming.

“It’s the most wonderful feeling in the world to have this instrument inside of you that you can play with and experiment with.”

What’s the songwriting process like with the three of you?

It really depends on the song. The thing about Sunflower Bean is that all three of us are songwriters, so it makes the inspirations that we’re pulling from really varied. We have a lot that we have in common, but it’s what we don’t have in common that makes it really interesting. It usually starts with an idea and bringing that idea to the table. I don’t know how to describe it– I guess, it’s like having other lenses. It’s like letting your other lens get a sense of what you’ve been up to and how they can bring that to life. I think it takes a lot of trust, a really open mind, and time. It’s really rewarding and special that we can share, that we can bring life into these ideas together.

Describe your style in 3 words

Durable, flashy, chic.

I think that covers a few different areas because I like pushing the boundaries a little bit with things that are shorter or tighter, showing a bit of skin here and there. I don’t mind being a little grim, especially on stage. But the reality is that when you’re a touring musician, if your pieces don’t have durability they won’t work. There are things I know, like velvet doesn’t show wrinkles as much, so it’s easier to work with. All in all, I don’t feel like myself unless I’m dressing like myself. I almost don’t feel awake. I feel like I’m sleeping or hibernating and only getting ready to be myself.

What’s one embarrassing thing that’s ever happened to you?

In my old band, we used to hand-draw all of our CDs and burn our demos onto them on our computer. At the time, we would go on tour with Kate Nash a lot and she got us tickets to see The Smiths at Irving Plaza. It was for my birthday, I was turning 14. We got backstage, and Johnny Marr was playing for the band at the time, and I remember personally handing this hand-drawn CD full of hearts and little animals to him. Johnny Marr, one of the greatest rock guitarists of all time – and I was like “here it goes, here’s my thing!”. My sheer boldness of thinking that was a fine thing to do, that’s pretty just embarrassing. I’ve spoken to him since and of course he has no memory it, but in my head I’m still like “Oh my God, what was I thinking?!”.

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