I’ve often wondered what it would be like growing up in New York, a life of the subway from a young age, a teenage bodega run, the opportunity to see music any night of the week, in any neighborhood. What might it be like to have your childhood bedroom be converted from a music studio in the Alphabet City apartment where you grew up? What might it be like to take the train in from the suburbs on the weekends and go to shows at DIY venues in Brooklyn, before so many of them faded away? How does that change you as a person, and how does it affect you as a musician?
To get an answer to questions like these, you can ask all the members of dreamy, introspective alt-rock trio Sunflower Bean. Bassist/vocalist Julia Cumming hails from the aforementioned Alphabet City, while guitarist/vocalist Nick Kivlen and drummer Jacob Faber are both from Long Island. Growing up, Cumming spent time in music studios with her dad, an amateur bass player for several bands in New York. He took her to CBGB in the middle of the before it closed so she could say she’d been there. Kivlen and Faber learned having a career as a musician was possible by going into Brooklyn for shows. In their own way, each had an experience that taught them chasing the dream of working in music was actually possible.
The dream continues today with the release of Sunflower Bean’s second album, Twentytwo in Blue. It comes after the positive critical reception of their 2016 debut, Human Ceremony, an album tackling the coming-of-age experience that was praised for its “sweet, ingenious psych-pop” by Rolling Stone and how it “quakes with the hunger and excitement” by The Guardian. It was an album the band recorded at just 20 years old, and now two years later, at the eponymous age of twenty-two, they’re looking at a different kind of coming-of-age. “I think that 22’s a really funny age in general,” Cumming says. “You’ve passed all these really important points and you can drink and you can kind of do whatever, but you’re still really in the beginning of adulthood and you don’t have everything fully figured out.”
This is part of the beauty of the album, though: Sunflower Bean are both fully conscious of their age and all they have to learn while also living fully in their experience of a particular moment. It’s as if they are nostalgic for the future, for the lives they haven’t lived yet, and the present at the same time. They don’t look backward, only inward and forward. Listening to them, I hear Fleetwood Mac, Television, and Best Coast all at once. On “I Was a Fool,” Cumming and Kivlen’s complementary vocals sweetly dance together, he a fool who lost his nerve, a child who can’t keep his word. On “Twentytwo,” Cumming’s voice shimmers hauntingly, “I do not go quietly/ Into the night that calls me/ Even when I’m alone.” There’s nothing quiet about being this age. On the album, the band is fear and power, caution and excitement, self-consciousness and courage. All the things a person is at 22. “We didn’t know until releasing the record or even the track “Twentytwo” that Taylor Swift had a song called “22” that’s about super about being like, crazy free and whatever,” Cumming says. “Our perspective was kind of different.”
Yet while Sunflower Bean has drawn attention in the past for a maturity of sound that belies their age, and much of their subject matter is related to the experience of growing up, they don’t put their youth on a pedestal. “The fact that we’ve been extremely driven from a young age is definitely part of our history and our story. I don’t think that we really lean on it, I don’t think we ever meant to lean on it,” Cumming says. “We definitely don’t use it as an excuse when anyone’s listening to our music. I think we just want them to share it for what it is and take it for what it is and I’m more excited as the future goes on to just let our work speak for itself.” In this vein, Sunflower Bean embraces the imperfections in their work as jumping off points that allow them to remember the flawed beauty of rock that led them to love it in the first place. “In alternative music, there is this option for this live feeling and a chance for things that aren’t always lining up exactly the way you think,” Cumming says. “I think for us the record is perfectly imperfect and perfectly unique in its experimentation.”
Imperfections and all, the band has always been a reflection of who they are and the times they’re living in, Cumming says. This is particularly true now in such a tenuous social and political climate, reactions to which are woven throughout Twentytwo in Blue. In particular, in the song “Crisis Fest” the band is jarred by the sickness of the present reality and the song “Oh No, Bye Bye” is an anthem to uncertainty. The album is by no means political–the band feels they would be taking advantage of the times if that were the case–but the current social dialogues did make them feel, and the album is a vocalization of those feelings. “We’re not approaching these problems saying we have an answer, we’re approaching the problem saying we’re angry, we’re resilient, we’re hopeful and that we hope that everyone listening, we’re all on the same wavelength and we hope the music provides solace and fun and connection with other people,” Cumming says.
This connection–an attachment, even–was one of the band’s goals with the album. In a digital age when people don’t even get 15 minutes of fame but rather 15 seconds, when everything moves so quickly that it’s hard to hold onto something for long enough to develop any real feelings for it, it’s an ambitious goal to have. But even if they reach just a handful of people, sparking a feeling of connectivity they wouldn’t have otherwise, the band feels it will have been successful. As Cumming says, “every single person that hears Twentytwo in Blue, every single person that hears the single and sends us a message or sends me a message, I think all of us [as a band] are deeply lucky to have that opportunity to share our work with them and hear how they feel about it.”