Music interview – Juanita Stein on how an infatuation with America inspired her debut solo album

Juanita Stein. Photo by Rob Loud
Juanita Stein. Photo by Rob Loud
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With her band Howling Bells in hiatus since the release of their fourth album Heartstrings in 2014 – on a record label run by former Kaiser Chief Nick Hodgson – Juanita Stein has switched her attention to a solo career.

Having recently released her first album under her own steam, America, this month she ventures out on a solo tour, which includes a date in Leeds.

As to why she addressed this collection of songs to the Land of the Free, the 40-year-old Australian singer says: “It wasn’t a conscious decision at all prior to making the record. There was no real ideology set out before, concept-wise. It was only when I finished mastering the record and I sat down and listened to the whole thing as a piece that it dawned on me how significant the connection was between every song and America.”

Growing up in Sydney, Stein remembers the USA being presented as “this fantastical dreamworld that you read about in storybooks and watch in movies and TV shows”.

“It became something very idealised and something that myself and all of my friends were pretty obsessed with.

“It wasn’t until I went there for the first time with my brother Joel and the first place we landed was Los Angeles and ended up staying in a friend of a friend’s house in a really dodgy part of Hollywood and our dreams just came crashing down. It was a really seedy part of town and the bubble burst right then and there. But also my obsession and infatuation definitely continued.”

Juanita Stein. Photo by Rob Loud

Juanita Stein. Photo by Rob Loud

Stein’s father, Peter, was a musician who was “heavily influenced” by American blues and folk music. “There was copious amounts of [Bob] Dylan, The Band, [David] Crosby, Fleetwood Mac. He had this really big box of vinyl and I would go up there and I remember once being particularly fascinated and turned on by the cover of Innervisions by Stevie Wonder, I thought it was the most beautiful album cover I’d ever seen and that started a longtime obsession with Stevie Wonder. So [the American musical influence] was kind of everything and everywhere from the ages.”

Stein appreciates the similarities between the wide open spaces of America’s Mid West and Australia’s vast hinterland. “I’m from Sydney so it’s very much a cosmopolitan city but you just head out one or two hours and it becomes quite sparse. Where our drummer from the Howling Bells was from is a place called Gayndah and that’s very much the very traditional Outback in the sense that there was absolutely nothing for as far as the eye could see. But there are a lot of places in America where you could be anywhere in Australia, really.”

The video for the single Dark Horse is a short road movie shot on Stein’s trip to Texas earlier this year. The singer was reminded of the places she visited when Hurricane Harvey struck the Lone Star State last month. “I know that Austin was not hit and most of the time that I spent there recently was in Austin. We only drove for about maybe an hour so I can’t imagine it was too devastated in that area, but having said that, I have booked Houston as a place that I’m playing next month so I’m doubting whether that’s a possibility, but we’ll see.”

The song Florence was inspired by Florence Owens Thompson, the subject of the famous Depression era photograph Migrant Mother by Dorothea Langue. Stein saw in Thompson’s story of widowhood and poverty something of considerable contemporary relevance.

The only thing separating Florence Owens Thompson from so many other women right now is time, but her experience is tragically familiar.

Juanita Stein

“I’m kind of surprised that it hasn’t come up more regularly,” she says. “The only thing separating her from so many other women right now is time, but her experience is tragically familiar. She was the subject of the Great Depression but there’s horrific struggle going on in many parts of the world and I just felt something. It’s a very familiar image that you see throughout your life often but it wasn’t until I saw a documentary three or four years ago about the Great Depression and the Dustbowl era and there was a bit of emphasis on that particular photo and I became really obsessed with her and started to do a whole lot of research on her and her story. I found it fascinating, her story of survival because she was up against every possible odd and she had ten children. This idea that she survived everything and ended up living in this trailer until the day she died. When they asked her why she didn’t move into a house she said because she always needed to feel the ground underneath her feet. I thought there was something really beautiful in that.”

Another song on the album, Comfort, was written by Stein’s father. She chose it, she says because: “I had a history of playing music with my dad and I felt in a lot of ways he has shaped my musical being, so for many reasons it was an important song for me to do, especially on my first solo record.”

With Howling Bells having “parked the car for a little bit while we take our own personal journeys and see where it takes us”, Stein is enthused about touring with a new band of musicians. As well as her own headline shows, she is due to support The Killers on their UK arena tour. “What other opportunity do you get to play your songs to 10,000 or 15,000 people?” she says, with evident excitement. “It’s an incredible chance for me to spread the word, so to speak. I adore playing live so I’m really looking forward to it.”

America is out now. Juanita Stein plays at Headrow House on September 29 and with The Killers at First Direct Arena on November 19. www.juanitastein.com

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