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Interview with Sunflower Bean's Julia Cumming for Rockins International Zine (RIZ)

Interview with Sunflower Bean's Julia Cumming for Rockins International Zine (RIZ)

The thick bushy eyebrows, white dishevelled hair and dark eyes framed with smudged jet- black eyeliner make Julia Cumming the spitting image of a 70’s punk heroine. Now the face of Rockins’ pre-fall ’17 collection, Julia first made her entrance into the realm of modelling as a teenager looking to make some extra cash. We’ve since seen her on the runway for Saint Laurent and on the pages of countless influential magazines; her ever appealing androgyny harking back to the bygone decades of music and fashion’s heyday.

Be that as it may, it’s her band Sunflower Bean that Julia is best known for. Taking centre stage as the female front on lead vocals and bass, Julia began her musical journey studying classical singing at high school, cutting out images of Brian Wilson from magazines for her bedroom wall and playing as one half of the all-girl psych band, Supercute! These days, Julia spends her time living on the road alongside her ‘Bean’ bandmates: drummer Jacob and guitarist Nick - the former emitting an 80’s metal aura and the latter resembling a double of Bob Dylan in his youth. Having the world at your feet sure is fun at 21, but her likeable youthfulness does not come without a devoted passion for her band and a switched-on attitude to the world she finds herself in. On the way to sound check for her gig in Long Island that night, I talk with Julia about her thrift-store wardrobe, her musical heroes and her old Gary Glitter tribute band, ‘Terry Tinsel’.

What were you like growing up and what did you spend your time listening to?

My first memory is of wanting to be in The Beatles, and both of my parents played a lot of music for me. I say that I didn’t really listen to the newer stuff, I mean kind of like some new indie rock but music was always a huge part of my life I just wasn’t exactly sure how to do it. And by 13 I had joined my first band and I haven’t really stopped since, so it’s been pretty narrowly focused since then.

I heard you were a big Brian Wilson fan.

Yes. I think that comes from also having a love of choral music or church music, and that classical education that you kind of get mixed up in 60’s pop in a way, and Brian Wilson is really like a composer, you know, set in a time where 60’s pop kind of ruled. So what he creates is really interesting, and I love the later The Beach Boys, ‘With Me Tonight’ is my favourite, because I think it’s the most complex and it’s the most strange and fucked up. Yeah he’s definitely one of my idols.

Talk me through ‘Terry Tinsel’.

Oh, my god. Well you’re from the place, so. No one in the US knows Gary Glitter, so it doesn’t really matter, but I’ve just been like a life-long glam rock fan. It was kind of like a teenage experiment in trying to like the art. We think we just wanted to have fun and it was the first time I was playing guitar, and I took some stuff I learnt from that and was able to apply that to the Bean.

When you were a kid, what did you see yourself doing when you were older and how has this changed from what you’re doing now?

I think if you told little me what I’m doing now, she’d be psyched. Because I think I’ve been really lucky, I’m in a band with two really amazing people - our drummer Jacob and our guitarist Nick, and our manager Crysta - so I get to work with my best friends, and travel the world. You work a lot, but you make you’re own hours and you’re making art. You’re making music and you’re pouring it out of thin air and getting to see how people react. It’s really exciting, so it’s 100 times worth over any problems that might arise and I’m just living it as long as I can.

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Did you know you were going to be making music when you were younger?

I hoped so. I thought about other jobs maybe, but this is what I wanted to do but this is why I think DIY music was very important to the band and me, because it kind of shows you how to do something and how to get involved in the world of music and before then, there’s no real path. You can’t go to college for this trajectory, so you’re kind of in the dark until you discover the sort of do it yourself world. So I’m lucky in New York that that was available to me and my parents let me go out and try.

Who are your biggest musical idols?

Well we already talked about Brian Wilson, I would say the first person that came into my head was Lou Reed. I think that’s a big influence for all of us in Sunflower Bean. He’s from New York, I think as a songwriter he’s so interesting. One of those things you can definitely, definitely always put on, and you don’t get sick of.

Who are you listening to now - new and old?

Right now, to The Smiths, to the Stone Roses. Just trying to take in a lot of different stuff because Sunflower Bean is working on making a second record. I like new artists too. There’s a band in the UK called Ulrika Spacek, they’re really interesting. And I like this girl, Empress Of, she’s really cool, she makes more kind of like synth-related stuff, she’s really good and inspirational. Cate Le Bon is one of my all time favourites, seen her live twice and she’s such a hero because she just doesn’t give a shit.

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Who or what has inspired your current style?

You know I think it really depends. In our first band, that’s where I really fell in love with clothes because we used to sow our own dresses and sow all this crap, I was the worst at sowing out of all of us but we all tried. And then of course, doing modelling you have a different appreciation because you get to be around some of the most intricate or exciting or high-level artistry that comes with fashion, but the thing about all that stuff is that people can’t afford it, and that’s where I think style comes in because you take whatever you can get from dollar stores and thrift stores, and you have to kind of make it yourself. Basically everything I own apart from shoes and gifts and a couple of things is thrifted. That’s mostly how I do stuff and that’s what’s cool about being on the road, you just get to go to so many different thrift stores and so many different parts of the United States. Us as a band definitely have our favourite places that we know all around and when you’re in a city, you try to hit one of those places.

What are you wearing today?

Today I’m wearing a vintage Valentino shirt - it might be a knock-off but I don’t think it is. Got it for like 30 bucks. Vintage fake Gucci bag, I got a pair of black non-stretch Levis which I know that Rockins would love. I got a little pair of green glasses on. They don’t do much, they don’t darken anything they just make it greener. It’s doing somethin’ - why not?

What has been your experience of being a front woman of a band? Has it come with its obstacles?

I wouldn’t think of it as obstacles. As I said before, you kind of have a team and we all lean on each other and I don’t think we could do anything without the support and strength of each other. It’s more so with bass, there will be guys who are like ‘I’ve never seen a girl play bass like that before’ or ‘you’re really a great bass player for a girl’, and things like that. I’m sort of used to it at this point but Jacob or Nick will be like “that’s really fucked up” and it’s so internalised, you’re so used to that sort of language or behaviour that you already have a way of dealing with it. But I think there are so many important women that are doing so much great work now that we’re in such a better place than we were even five years ago. I always say that if I have a daughter, and she wants to make music, the questions she’ll be asked are different to the ones I’m asked. It’s one of those things where you have to pay intention and engage with it and talk about it so you raise awareness, but also be like fuck that, don’t let it get into your head or affect what you’re gonna do. The best thing to do is prove everyone wrong and be the best you can be and that’s what I’m gonna do.

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You modelled for Rockins new pre-fall collection - what appeals to you about the Rockins label?

I mean... what’s not to like, you know? I loved a lot of the pants and a lot of the scarves, and I just think that Jess is really cool. I like that it’s her and her husband doing this little thing and making this little world and that the quality is really nice and creative. When I wear one of the scarves with a plain outfit it takes it to the next level. It’s definitely something that I use, you know.. With modelling and the arts, you really want it to be something you can stand behind that can represent you and I think they’re really doing that. My band mate Nick, the guitarist, really likes it too, he wears his scarf every day.

What goals do you hope to achieve during your remaining time on this planet?

That’s a big question! I think politically in the US it’s so crazy right now. The world is kind of calling upon artists more than ever to do stuff. I wish that I could be like an immigration lawyer too. You can wish and then you can be like ok realistically, what can I do? I think that I’d like make music that makes people feel and that helps them get through their time on this planet, and helps me get through mine. Kind of goes both ways and you know, do some good. Stand up for the right things, eat some nice food along the way, fall in love a few times. What else is there you know? I don’t think that I’ll ever have the answers but I’m gonna have fun tryin’.

Photography from article: Siobhan Bailey Turner.

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