Following the release of their latest album Heartstrings, Dean Forte spoke to Howling Bells frontwoman Juanita Stein about the recording of the new album, motherhood, and the importance of delivering an emotional and meaningful live performance.

Congratulations on the new album, Heartstrings, whilst having relocated from Sydney to London a decade ago, you hadn’t actually recorded an album there until now have you?

That’s right yes. It’s really weird that it’s happened like that, but every record has been a different opportunity to explore something different and that’s just where the music has taken us.

What was it like working with a guy like Alan Moulder this time around? Obviously he’s worked on a number of legendary albums over the years, was it easy for him to capture the vision you had for the album?

He was fantastic! It was more so the collaboration with Catherine Marks who has been working in England for about 10 years as well. She did most of the production and Alan oversaw the project, so he came in a few times to check in, and give some perspective. If you want anyone giving you some perspective it’s Alan Moulder, so that was pretty special.

Congratulations on the birth of your first child as well! How much of an impact on the album has that experience been for you?

Thank you! I think it’s made quite a profound impact on me as a songwriter, which in turn has obviously affected how the record sounds. The songs themselves aren’t literally stories about motherhood, but I guess it’s the experience more than anything that has changed my perspective.

Do you think it has changed you as a person as well as a songwriter?

Of course, yeah. It’s inevitable isn’t it. It’s such a massive shift in anyone’s life, it’s seems the only thing to do is embrace that and celebrate it. It’s an incredibly profound and wonderful time.

Will motherhood change the way you approach touring this time around?

Yeah I think so. It’s a long time to be away from a little baby, so yeah I think the touring aspect will change, but it can be done and it’s been done a million times before, but it’s just matter of being extra extra organised.

Having been to a number of your live shows, one thing that is quite obvious is how much the audience feel your vocals in the live setting, as opposed to sitting at home listening to your albums. How important is it for the band to really deliver a quality live performance?

It’s everything. It’s the only chance that we have as a band to engage with our audience. So it has to be special and it has to be meaningful, otherwise it’s a waste of your time and the audience’s time. Obviously travelling a long way to express the music, and without a wealth of special effects and all the things that make the things look great, we have to tap in and produce something really emotional. That’s what I want to see when I go and see a band, I want to be exceptionally moved and I want to be spellbound.

Do you think the element of the live performance is more important for a band than say it was 15 years ago?

Without a doubt. For a band like us who doesn’t play arenas and doesn’t sell millions of records, the only way we can express ourselves and survive as artists is through playing live. There’s no other way, and it’s heart wrenching for artists, because only yesterday I read an article about how digital sales, without even including physical sales, but the main source of income through album sales has decreased by 15%. People aren’t even buying that many digital records anymore, so if you’re not taking the show on the road, it’s pretty hopeless.

You’ve got a new bass player, Gary, what can you tell us about him, how you met and how he has managed to fit in with everyone in the band?

He’s a dude, he’s a real dude. He’s got crazy hair which he takes a lot of pride in. We met him years ago just through living around and having mutual friends. We were very aware that he was obsessed with music and played guitar and bass, so when we were left bassless, he popped up immediately, and there’s been no looking back since.

Going back to the new album, it’s got such a wonderful texture about it. The final track off the album (and my personal favourite) ‘Heartstrings’ was actually the first song written for the album I believe. Did its composition change at all as the rest of the album took shape?

It’s kept its personality I guess, insofar as the lyrics and progression is the same, but instrumentally it was totally reinterpreted to work with the album. That was one of our biggest concerns when we met with Catherine and Alan, that we really, really loved the song, and we felt it was a very special song, but it was a higher register on the vocals, and there were synths in the background. So we took it down an octave and it’s how it sounds now.

Songs like ‘Euphoria’ really allow your vocals to shine through, they resonate to an almost cinematic feel to them, has there been an influence to create a sound that has that feel to it?

Yes, film has a huge influence for myself in terms of songwriting. Even artwork for the album, I always want everything to look great, like an old soundtrack or an old film poster or something, so in essence, it infringes on every aspect of music for me, I’m just so moved by the genre of film. I feel like it can create something that no other genre can do, when it’s done properly of course.

The track ‘Paper Heart’ stands out a lot, at times sounding quite isolated and desolate, but at the same time quite warm and comforting, how does it differ to songs like ‘Original Sin’ or ‘Slowburn’ which have that very familiar soaring vocals and rustic sound to them?

It was refreshing, and it felt very natural to write a song like that. In fact a lot of Howling Bells songs actually sound like that before the band have painted them. So it was pretty unanimous that this song remained “isolated”, as you said, and vocally it was actually the most challenging song on the record. I found it so hard to get through it because it was such an intense and emotional experience for myself. There were a lot of hiccups in the vocals where I instinctively wanted to polish over them and get rid of them, but Catherine was very adamant that we keep it on the record, so what is on the record is really the first take and me sniffling and trying really, really hard to get through it all in one take.

Do you feel that London has the same creative influence and appeal to you that you sought initially a decade ago, or has it evolved into something different that has influenced your songwriting?

It’s still an incredibly challenging city, and it’s the challenge and the pull and push of the city that I really respond to. I find if I’m too comfortable and things are too easy, I’m not nearly as pushed as a musician as I am in London. I mean, we don’t experience the same challenges when we got here, but I mean, shit, you’d like to think after 10 years things have evolved, and they have. The city itself is still pretty spectacular.

You’ve done a couple of shows around the UK debuting the new album, how has the new album been received so far at your live shows?

Yeah really good. When we played a few shows when the record wasn’t out, there wasn’t that connection just yet with the new material, but the reaction to the new album was really warm, which was very nice.

AUSTRALIAN TOUR DATES

Saturday 6th September 2014
PERTH, Amplifier – WA

Thursday 11th September 2014
MELBOURNE, Howler – VIC

Friday, 12th September 2014
SYDNEY, Oxford Arts Factory

For complete tour and ticket information, visit: www.howlingbells.co.uk www.livenation.com.au

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