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Julia Cumming: raw power

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‘I’m gonna make some art that makes people feel something’ – on-stage and off, Sunflower Bean’s Julia Cumming is a rock world presence it’s impossible to ignore

“I cut my hair because… I wanted to,” laughs Julia Cumming, the bleach-blonde bassist and singer of genre-blurring trio Sunflower Bean, who this year buzzed off her shoulder-length chop. “Because I think that, when something is expected, it’s boring. I just wanted to say I’m more than a haircut, I’m more than one person’s idea of who I am.”

Since first finding herself on tour as part of acoustic girl band Supercute! in her early teens, the magnetic 20-year-old has come into her own as an uninhibited frontwoman, providing a punkish counterpoint to an era that’s seen the idea of the ‘band’ edged out by manufactured pop individualism. With a voice that has the ability to flick between angelic lilt and riot-grrrl-inherited snarl, Cumming has the kind of presence that’s impossible to look away from as she plucks fiercely at her bass.

“When you’re playing a show, you’re free,” she says. “On stage you have the freedom to do anything, be anything. There aren’t many places where you can say that.” The same fearlessness drives her experiments with fashion, an artform Cumming considers on a par with the world of music. “At their best, I think they can both make you feel something really deeply.”

Now in the midst of an intensive world tour to promote her band’s debut album Human Ceremony, it’s clear there’s one thing that fuels everything Cumming does – the power of emotion. She really feels things, whether wanting to throw herself into a mosh pit (“It’s, like, the only time you’re ever allowed to really push people!”) or using her lyrics to express herself in ways she otherwise couldn’t (“In a sense, it’s easier than talking”). And, despite the fact her band is headlining shows from Shanghai to Vienna, she’s upfront about her desire to prove herself. “I’m here, and I’m trying, and I’m gonna show up and make some art that makes people feel something. Something that helps them get through this crazy world, because that’s what I feel like I was put on this earth to do.”

Who gave you your first break?

Julia Cumming: Oh my God. I guess I’d have to say Kate Nash. I was in a girl group when I was younger – she saw us play at an open mic and then she took us on a European tour and two American tours when I was, like, 13 or 14. Kate is still a really good friend of mine, I look up to her a lot as a friend and a sister.

What posters were on your bedroom wall when you were growing up?

Julia Cumming: In early high school I had a shrine to Brian Wilson and the album Smile. I cut out, like, 50 smiles from different magazines and had them going all across my room, it was just covered in little mouths. The song that moves me most is The Beach Boys’ ‘Our Prayer’ – the first time I heard it I was about 13, and it blew my mind about what pop music could be.

“In early high school I had a shrine to Brian Wilson and the album Smile. I cut out 50 smiles from different magazines and had them going all across my room” – Julia Cumming

Which teenage phases did you go through?

Julia Cumming: I had a Ramones bowl cut, I did a Twiggy thing… it wasn’t until I went blonde that I started feeling like myself. And I kind of realised I’d probably have to be this way forever. I recently tried to let my roots grow out a little – I thought, ‘Could I be a brunette?” But I was like, ‘Oh my God, no!’ It just wasn’t meant to be. But with music and art and style, you can’t be so afraid of what you’re gonna look like. There has to be some of that ugliness there too, which I think makes all those phases OK.

What do you think your 13-year-old self would make of you now?

Julia Cumming: She’d be shocked. I never, ever thought I’d be a model in any way, shape or form. Thirteen was probably the big turning point as far as being like, ‘Oh, I can do music’ – before then I’d kind of wanted to but hadn’t really known how. It wasn’t until my friend said, ‘You can join my band’ that I was like, ‘OK’. When I said it I had no idea what that meant, the path that it would take me down in my life. But I think my 13-year-old self would be shocked and hopefully happy. She’d probably be like, ‘Why aren’t you in school?’

Do you find yourself being referred to as a ‘female musician’? Is that frustrating?

Julia Cumming: I definitely get referred to as a female musician, but I think that’s OK because I am one. And there’s something also to be said for the female perspective. I think the future is about accepting women as musicians but also letting them be women, whatever that means to them, whether it’s wearing pants or a skirt, dressing up or dressing down. But I hope that if I have a daughter and she makes music, the questions that she gets asked will be different.

Which stage are you most proud to have played on?

Julia Cumming: We played the Bowery Ballroom in New York City – the capacity’s about 600. I’d opened there three, maybe four times, so headlining it felt like I’d really made it. It made me feel really special.

Do you still get nervous?

Julia Cumming: For sure, even at really small shows I get a little jittery just before we play. A show is a show – I think if you didn’t get jittery then that would be really bad. I’m definitely not afraid, but it’s good to take those feelings and turn them into something beautiful.

“With music and art and style, you can’t be so afraid of what you’re gonna look like. There has to be some of that ugliness there too” – Julia Cumming

Which frontman or woman do you most look up to?

Julia Cumming: Lias (Saoudi) from Fat White Family – I could say Iggy Pop or whatever, but it’s more interesting to talk about the things that we have now. I just think (Fat White Family) are a really special band. They push people, which is great – a band isn’t supposed to be completely neat around the edges, you know? That’s what we have offices for. It’s supposed to be weird. Just watching him perform, it’s hard to imagine him giving any more than he gives. People will pelt him with unopened cans of beer, it doesn’t even faze him.

Do you have a favourite spot in New York?

Julia Cumming: Probably the East Village. I’m from close by there, from an area called Alphabet City which is right by the East River, and I still live there now. So I’ve moved around a bit but I’m kind of back where I started. No matter where you go there’s something really good about home, it just feels right.

What advice would you give to someone starting their first band?

Julia Cumming: I’ve talked to a lot of kids at shows who come up to us and say, ‘I wanna play guitar, what do I do, where do I go?’ or, ‘I wanna come to New York but I don’t know how.’ I always like to say whatever your age, whatever your gender, whoever you are, you don’t get many chances in this world, so if you feel like you have something you just have to try. Especially with rock music, that’s what it’s about – pick up the guitar, pick up the drumsticks and find some friends who wanna play. Get out there.

In the next ten years, what three things do you want to achieve?

Julia Cumming: There’s only one thing, and if I can do it then I can die happy. Just to make an album, even one more album, that I believe in, and that makes people feel something, good or bad. Just to keep creating and do something I feel happy with. Then I’ll know that my life isn’t a waste, and I’ll be content.

Hair Edward Lampley at Bryant Artists using Davines, make-up Chiho Omae at Frank Reps using M.A.C, talent Julia Cumming at Marilyn NY, photographic assistant Ross Thompson, fashion assistants Ioana Ivan, Alison Isbell, production Yasuyo Hibino at fish* co, printing Color One Inc, casting Noah Shelley