Sunflower Bean’s contemporary brand of nostalgic rock music harkens equally to Hole and Fleetwood Mac. A trio of 22-year-old native New Yorkers, fronted by the forceful and stunning Julia Cumming, playing their own rock-’n’-roll songs in 2018: it all might come off as an affectation — the vintage clothes, the vintage vibes. Yet, magically, Cumming, drummer Jacob Faber, and guitarist Nick Kivlen manage to create music that feels both wholly modern (your mom doesn’t know these lyrics) and timeless (despite sounding like they could be at home in a set from the ’70s or ’90s). They are young, earnest old souls, more familiar with T. Rex (Cumming had “Life’s a Gas” tattooed on her arm the day she turned 18) than T. Swift.
Cumming first met the boys at a now-shuttered deli–cum–music venue in Bushwick called Living Bread. “It was an amazing place that doesn’t exist anymore, like everything good in New York. Now it’s a fucking clam shack,” she says. They got to talking, and as they were leaving, Kivlen mentioned to Cumming that he was starting a band called Sunflower Bean. She knew, the moment she heard the name, she’d found her band. She saw the boys play as Sunflower Bean with a different bass player and was into it, especially when Kivlen got down on his knees to play “Wild Thing.” “I was like, Oh, shit, he’s got grit,” she says. From there, she was invited to play with them, but wasn’t sure if she was ready, having just left her previous band Supercute! “It’s like joining a new relationship; it’s scary,” says Cumming. Theirs is one of those success stories that gives hopeless romantics reason to believe in love — or musical compatibility — at first sight.
I’ve listened to the compulsively loopable “Twentytwo,” from their sophomore album, Twentytwo in Blue, maybe 22 million times since the band’s label, Mom+Pop, sent over an early download link a few weeks ago. The song resonates like an old diary entry from the tail end of a breakup you blocked out of memory. It is buoyant and bright, despite lyrics that speak to feeling used up even when you’re in the bloom of youth, and a choral refrain promising not to go quietly into a night that sounds a lot like Dante’s seventh circle of depression.
These new songs grow on you the more you listen. My favor was quickly cemented after seeing the band play live at the Moroccan Lounge in Los Angeles. Cumming, gives off uncanny Courtney Love–with–a–bass–guitar vibes (perhaps unsurprising: Cumming told me Love is a big fan of hers). And Kivlen, who stomped around the stage in a powder-blue satin pajama set, radiated pure Bob Dylan, shy with his long brown curls.
I met the band for lunch at Urth Cafe in Los Angeles to talk about their new record, why they decided to get political, and the feelings that inspired Twentytwo in Blue.
Molly Oswaks: Your new record, Twentytwo in Blue, is billed as not shying away from “the political changes and cultural shifts in America.” What does that mean to you?
Julia Cumming: We stripped away some of the noise that was surrounding some of the work we were doing. Rather than being a political record, it’s more of our feelings about the environment that we’re living in weaved into the art that we’re making.
MO: Tell me about the song “Twentytwo”. I can’t get it out of my head.
JC: I’m still kind of figuring out how to talk about it. The verses are a response to standards that are put on you by society, or your ex-boyfriend, or your family. That first lyric: “Busted and used, that’s how you view your girl, now that she’s 22” –– that’s something that we all thought was funny, it’s almost this New York slang, busted, then it comes in with these strings. It’s not tongue in cheek, but it’s not cheery.
And then ultimately, with the chorus, it’s supposed to give you strength for the battle of life, the battle against yourself. That lyric of Even when I’m alone, which is at the end of the chorus, there comes that time in the day when you’re just by yourself, and that’s the time when it’s easiest to slip into giving up. I hope that this song can be solace to someone, and to ourselves, in times of need.
MO: I think this would not be a complete conversation without addressing another song called "22".
JC: The Taylor Swift one? We just found out about it a couple of days ago! Swear to God.
Nick Kivlin: What’s it like?
Jacob Faber: I haven’t heard it.
MO: It’s very different.
NK: I can imagine, with Taylor…
MO: Is Twentytwo a response to something in particular?
JC: Sort of, but I don’t think it’s really important. There’s certain things that, as a band, we’ve always liked to keep to ourselves. If we give everything away, it loses some of the fun.
MO: What do you think makes this record so relatable, even from a personal perspective?
JC: This is something you can tell with any artist you love: The best way to communicate is always authenticity and courage and being genuine. And I think that Twentytwo in Blue, for better or for worse, is very genuine.
JF: A lot of the topics are pretty personal, but in that personalness, there’s universalness to it all. Being 22, in this time, a lot of people are feeling what we’re feeling.
MO: What are you feeling?
JF: Stunned. But also hopeful. A word we’ve been saying a lot is resilience.
JC: I think a big one is powerlessness. That’s something we’re looking at on the record. Moments of finding power and moments of trying to tell yourself how to find it, or to not stop looking for it.
MO: What does it mean to you, to feel powerless?
JC: I think there’s powerlessness in knowing that the NRA is in everyone’s pockets and not being able to do anything about it. I think there’s that white-knuckle rage that a lot of people don’t know what to do with. And I think there’s a similar powerlessness in being told, “Oh, you’re beautiful right now. You should go out and meet a lot of guys and have a lot of fun, because you’re 22.” That feels like powerlessness to me, to feel that your identity is wrapped around how you present yourself. The powerlessness over the expectations put on you as a young person, especially when you’re in entertainment, and the way you present yourself rather than who you are.
MO: In light of that powerlessness, you always have choice. You can choose what you put out into the world, your message.
JC: Something that gives people a lot of power, I think, is talking. Even through our music, I think that’s a start for us personally. With bands, you just have to find people crazy enough to do it with you, and we’ve been lucky enough to find each other.
Molly Oswaks is a writer in Los Angeles, California. Follower her on Twitter here.