“I hated Bob Dylan growing up! I detested his voice and thought his music was whiny. I would scream at my dad to turn his music off,” Juanita Stein recalls. Stein, who formerly fronted Howling Bells, came of age in Australia where she learned music from her father Peter Stein. A blues and folk performer and songwriter, Peter had his songs covered around the world by the likes of Blind Boys of Alabama and Vince Jones. His total commitment to music rubbed off on Juanita, who remembers singing on one of his records at age five. Now, as Juanita copes with Peter’s passing, she channels the music of her childhood on her new LP Snapshot, out October 23.
“My sole musical education was through my dad. He adored the blues and Dylan and the Beatles. They were the three kinds of music that we listened to the most. He was gigging and I remember tagging along to gigs of his and recording for him sometimes. He was heart, mind, body, soul, all music,” Stein recalls. When Peter fell sick, Stein canceled tour dates and hurried to be with her family. At the time, she didn’t really have recording plans for the future. “I was probably subconsciously trying to take a break because I’d recorded two solo albums very quickly. I was happy playing shows. Then my father got ill, and that spawned a new body of work,” she recalls.
Back in Brighton—her adopted home—the songs came freely. Like Stein’s previous work, Snapshot is driven by impeccable melodies, blending acoustic and slightly electric instruments to set a mood. Stein’s voice goes from a gauzy haunt to a throaty stomp, offering the vocal versatility that set Howling Bells apart. Her earlier solo efforts (2017’s America and 2018’s Until the Lights Fade) were praised for the synergy of Stein’s vocals with the stories she told.
For the singer-songwriter, though, Snapshot was the logical next step, though it was inspired by harsh and unexpected circumstances. “It’s an extension of my body of work in total. Nothing about it felt forced. It came about very naturally,” Stein says. Writing the songs turned out to be the easy part. “When I was putting pen to paper, it wasn’t difficult. Singing it over and over again in the studio was a bit more difficult,” she says. “It’s like any kind of diary entry. You get it off your chest and write it down once. You might reflect on that in a couple years. But I have to get that out and mull over it and sing it ten times to find the right voice for it,” Stein continues.
The right voice, and, of course—the right words. In Howling Bells, as in her solo work, Stein has gravitated to abstraction and symbolism to get her message across. This time, though, she needed to be direct. “I give a lot away in music as it is, but to be transparent was always challenging. But if you’re singing about losing someone you love, you can’t use too much symbolism. You have to be frank,” Stein remarks, noting that it felt easy to write more transparent lyrics.
Perhaps being lyrically direct is a skill the singer-songwriter has gleaned from other musicians, including, yes, Bob Dylan. “You hit a certain age and some lyrics start to make sense to you. That happened to me with Dylan. Took a long time, but he taught me about lyrical honesty,” she admits. Over the years, Stein has also enjoyed the raw expressive poetry of punk rock. Her very first favorite band was Nirvana, mainly for Kurt Cobain’s confessional screams. “That’s what I love so much about it. That there’s this God-given screamer who just screams what he feels.”
Though Stein has experimented musically, she doesn’t stray too much from her own path, lest she seem inauthentic. “Essentially my soul sits more comfortably on a moody plane. People pick up on that. If you listen to someone you pick up instantly whether it’s contrived or not,” she says matter-of-factly. Though Snapshot is about mourning her father, it never feels like Stein is simply purging her grief.
Due to the pandemic, Stein hasn’t had much opportunity to try out the new songs on a live audience, something she greatly misses. “The camera’s not a person. Getting up in front of real humans, that’s something I can feed off. It’s hard to feed off the camera,” she explains. However, she’s also finding advantages in livestreams, such as how available people are right now. She’s planned a livestreamed concert from Brighton Electric with six other musicians (instead of the usual three) will be available on-demand for 24 hours worldwide on November 1. It’s a benefit for the #WeMakeEvents campaign, which is pushing for financial relief for music venues and promoters impacted by COVID. The event reunites Stein with her backing band and helps her introduce the new record to fans curious to see a snapshot come to life.