Life is a balancing act – sometimes, it feels like we’re living in the moment, and other times, it feels like we’re looking at our lives from outside in. This is the feeling Jessica Hottman wanted to capture on her debut EP as Sun Cycles, Imaginary, out later this month via Kansas City, MO-based label French Exit Records. The past few years have been a whirlwind for Hottman – last time we caught up with her, she was writing and recording with her sister Heather in aptly-named indie rock outfit The Hottman Sisters, but in the process of releasing their first and only EP Louder in 2018, Hottman began traveling between Omaha and Los Angeles, where her solo project Sun Cycles began to take hold.
Releasing a string of singles last year – “Rodeo,” “Bang Bang,” and “Kids” – Hottman says it was time to get serious and make a cohesive release. “When I feel like I’m transitioning [in life], I always feel like it’s time for a musical transition as well,” she says, explaining that the singles were a way for her to test the limits of what she could do, and the experience of working on them helped her feel more confident. “The music that I’d been listening to and life experiences all play into that – it just seemed like the right time to put something out that was a little more coherent, like a little body of work that goes together.”
Recorded in Philadelphia, with friends from Kansas, it’s obvious that Hottman’s fast-paced lifestyle contributed to some of the EP’s existential themes. Eventually, Hottman’s path led her to settle on the East Coast, and that’s where, riding the trains bleary-eyed at all hours of the morning, equally awed and exhausted by the grind of New York City, Hottman found her biggest inspiration for the four tracks that would comprise Imaginary. “The grittiness of New York City [gave] the music a dark, charged up, really synthy sort of feel,” Hottman says. “[NYC is] beautiful and life-giving and motivating, but there’s also a hustle to it, so I think that it morphed things in a different direction. [When] I decided to relocate out here, it just weirdly kind of made sense – it feels like I fully immersed myself into [Sun Cycles]. It went from just dabbling at it to being all in.”
The first single from the project, “Into Confusion,” features rapid-fire synths that sweep listeners up immediately, while Hottman hangs in lyrical limbo. “Got my foot on the pedal/Cruising the middle/What side am I on?/Where do I belong?” she asks. “‘Into Confusion’ is definitely about that grey area, the middle ground of wondering how much of life is in my control and out of my control and blowing that concept up even bigger,” Hottman says. “There are things that just feel at the mercy of the road ahead of us. I think it’s speaking to that, and wondering how to live the day to day is the confusion part.”
The single sets the stage for the rest of the EP, which Hottman says centers around the feeling of being caught between a make-believe world and the real one. “I’ve always been sort of a daydreamer, and I think many artists can relate to that – you’re living your life out, but you’re also sort of watching your life being played out, analyzing it, and creating art that speaks to that sort of outside-yourself feeling,” she explains. “That was the inspiration for this EP, particularly the two perspectives being together.”
“Untouchable” and “Make Believe” both center around the ecstatic fantasies born on the dance floor, while “Laugh Until We Die” again revisits the idea of drifting in those liminal spaces (“It’s 8 in the morning/I lay here mourning who they said I’d be/It’s 6 in the evening/I’m not sure I’m breathing/Suffocating in my dream”), comparing her disorientation to being whipped around on rickety carnival rides. The neon-lit production throughout adds both polish and a measured amount of nostalgia to get lost in; along the way, Hottman channels quirky pop divas like Imogen Heap and Caroline Polacheck with emotive vocals and dark, theatrical twists.
These songs differ from the Sun Cycles singles Hottman released in the project’s infancy, when she was spending more time in LA – thematically, the earlier cuts deal with dusty roads, plotting escape, shotgun romance, and other distinctly Californian motifs, but even sonically, Imaginary is loftier and looser, less concerned with looking put together than it is with taking listeners for the ride of their lives. “I was kind of coming into my own and testing the waters a little bit with those singles,” Hottman says; from that assured place, she jumps into the unknown and embraces the unexpected, the East Coast relocation dovetailing nicely with what felt like “time for like a new turn within the project.”
And Imaginary is also a departure from The Hottman Sisters’ EP Louder, which relies mote heavily on hook-laden indie rock swagger. Though part of it was logistical, Hottman says focusing on Sun Cycles just made more sense for her creatively. “I was writing all the stuff for the Hottman Sisters, so really it was more about taking my brain power from being in two projects and moving it to one project to focus on it,” she explains, though she also drops a few hints that her previous project is “not officially over and done” – the sisters have been chatting about working on new material together.
But most of all, Hottman says Sun Cycles has allowed her to come alive as an artist in her own right. “As a female coming up in this industry, I just think back to like five years ago when I was first starting and I felt like I had to lean in to like, a male character that was going to correct [me] – but I always felt like I had these other ideas,” she remembers. “I’ve found my voice more and more and I’ve been able to really come into my own and validate my own decisions. Feeling empowered as my own self and as a female to say, I can make these decisions, I can do this, has actually been really much more exciting than nerve-wracking.”
Now, she finds comfort in the unknown as much as she appreciates when everything goes according to plan. “The way that I accept that into my life is just knowing that two truths can exist,” Hottman says. There’s a line of resolve in “Into Confusion” that goes, “In the grey, I know I can carry my own.” Hottman keeps that mantra close to her heart, a reminder “to plan things out but also to just let things happen, too,” that no matter what, she’ll be just fine. That, she says, has given her the freedom to let Sun Cycles be exactly what it needs to be.
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