Howling Bells

By Sebastian Mackay

"Level with me." Howling Bells vocalist Juanita Stein doesn't say it but you can hear it in her voice, "this usually only goes one way." Again, she doesn't actually say it but it's there. Brimming at the top of her intonation. Surprisingly seriously. Oddly serious. Actually, a little bit ridiculous.

What she does say: "If you ask guys it's always flying and for women it's always invisible. I don't know why but it always is."

The superpower question.

Always a fun one to go back to and somewhat interesting in that everyone says the same thing. But not Juanita, because there are rules! There is etiquette. There is a proper way to answer this question. Yes, by God I'm getting fascistic (at least a little) about it. Yes, dear reader, this is the grand sum of my life. Here I sit. Dictating rules to a famous person.

"So [because it] can't be flying or invisibility," she says with a level of mock seriousness that's dominated the last couple of minutes, "I would have to say the power to rectify, given the current political climate, it would be to bring world peace." A pause. "That has to be a superpower, surely."


She's not a political songwriter, not by a long shot (and by her own admission) but does it ever get her fired up. So naturally, there was a fair amount of long sticked poking and prodding.

"I have this great sense of frustration and the older I get the more important [politics] gets. We're in the middle of a fucking hurricane and it would be prominent [in her songwriting] but I tend to stray away from it. If you're a political songwriter then you need to know an awful lot and have to know what you're talking about."

Juanita has one of those lovely English accents. It's not the Queen's English but neither is it that muddy, sludge of an accent you find on that stellar new programme Sex Clinic.

"Nothing frustrates me more than misinformed or uninformed songwriters. Just because you're in that position doesn't mean you get to have free reign and say what you want. You have to be careful."

She cares, Juanita does, passionately. And while she keeps it in check (in her songwriting) being apolitical isn't a permanent fixture.

"My problem is that I feel moved and frustrated by so many issues. I'm internally ravaged; I'm disgusted by animal cruelty and the way women are treated in some countries and I don't know what to place emphasis on. But when the right thing comes up, I'll support it publicly."

Discussing politics and superpowers is a long way from Juanita's more, um, well, humble beginnings.

"When I was eighteen," this story begins with a touch of innocence and a giggle, "I had a job delivering food to this diner, cafe, type place. I would deliver chocolate and strawberry sundaes, only later to find out that I was delivering them to brothels! I didn't realise until the sixth or so visit and they all had a penchant for strawberry sundaes!"

But now, years away from strawberry sundae loving hookers, and four albums into a career with Howling Bells, the band are having to make a different set of considerations and walk the clichè fine line.

"Four records in you want to think about selling records. You want something that's going to keep you going, keep you out there and trying and,literally, so you can afford to keep doing it. When you're young and you sign to a record label you want to do well and you want to succeed. That's the normal evolution for every artist, to want to succeed."

They're not a platinum selling band but they know the formula and it's not something that exactly interests them.

"When you look at a platinum selling band, you can see what they're doing. They're considering lyric phrases, will this make my fans happy or will it make them sad? They always want to make them happy so they're considering the melodic changes."

The price of all of this happiness is death. Seriously though, the price of this happiness is coming across like One Direction (probably a death in of itself) and that means (probably) having your own rent-a-writer.

"It comes across as less authentic and I'm guilty of it," Juanita confesses. "When I was young we were eager and we're an ambitious band and you have to try, you have to at least try [to write those songs]. Now I'm more of the train of thought where you can't please everyone but you can please some people and they're important."

Still not a fail safe, but it's not really about being safe. Besides, no matter how safe you try to be, the bad will come and come and come.

"There will be people who appreciate it and there will be critics who cut to the core what you're trying to say or do. It can be soul crushing. You put everything there on a platter for it to be stomped on. When you're a young artist it's hard. But when you're progressing and consistent then that becomes less important."

Howling Bells - Heartstrings on iTunes

Howling Bells are playing one New Zealand show at the Tuning Fork this Saturday September 13th!  

Howling Bells

Saturday September 13th:  The Tuning Fork, Auckland

Tickets via Ticketmaster & Real Groovy