Sun Cycles Prep Debut EP with Premiere of “Into Confusion”

Photo Credit: Ga Ji Ashlin Wang

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.

Follow Sun Cycles on Facebook for ongoing updates.

PREMIERE: The Hottman Sisters “Louder” EP

photo by Carley Scott Fields

Starting over, beginning anew, casting off the old… it’s a process easier said than done. Omaha, Nebraska natives The Hottman Sisters are determined to move forward creatively, letting the past fall back into the rear view. Comprised of actual sisters Jessica (guitar) and Heather (synths), along with drummer Ed Getzlaff, the indie rock trio reaches for a bigger sound on its latest (and aptly named) EP, Louder, and manages to reinvent themselves in the process.

Louder is a splash of cold water to the face, made for those twenty minute walks from the train to work, those fast steps that help ground you for the day ahead. “Fire,” the first single from the release, is an anthem hell bent on refocusing energy. “The fire / Like a roaring sound / Consuming / What used to hold me down” – these are the kind of lyrics we could see Tessa Thompson rocking out to in Westworld. It begs you to rewire your brain, setting your sights on who you are, not who you’ve been.

We sat down with the band and talked church, adding in a new band member, and how they captured that ’80s synth magic. Listen to Louder in its entirety below:

AF: Tell us about Omaha, Nebraska. What’s the music scene like over there?

Jessica: Omaha is a great place to start as a musician. It’s a forgiving music scene, so we have all been able to hone our craft here. As we have grown, we definitely are traveling out of Omaha a lot more. The scene here is very much singer-songwriter, and our music definitely falls more into indie rock/pop.

AF: Jess and Heather, you both started singing in church. Do you ever use church music as a kind of touchstone in terms of style, melody, etc?

Jess + Heather: We did grow up singing in church and a lot of the music was very much gospel/Christian Contemporary ’90s style tunes or classic hymns. These styles were definitely  inspirations for our sound. We are not really pulling style from modern church music. Church was a great place for learning our craft and playing music with others, but not necessarily for deriving our style.

AF: How did you get pulled into the band, Ed?

Ed: I was teaching music lessons here in Omaha at a nonprofit and Jessica was working in the marketing department for the same nonprofit. We barely knew each other at the time but she heard me drumming in one of the studios and she loved what she heard. At the time, The Hottman Sisters were looking for a new drummer that could go on tour with them. She messaged me on Facebook asking if I could tour the next month with them and I said yes. I had about two practices with the band before the tour and we hit the road. The rest is history.

AF: Has the dynamic felt different adding a drummer into the mix? The added impact on stage must be exciting.  

JH: We did have a drummer before Ed joined the project, but Ed’s specific drumming style is truly the perfect fit for the group. He serves the music well and is always conscious of playing what needs to be played vs. making everything a drum solo. This was very noticeable for us right away and we love that about Ed. The energy between the three of us on stage is almost indescribable. I feel that we all listen well to each other when we are playing, and it helps create music that feels very coherent and together.

AF: “Fire” is a catchy song with an important message on leaving the past behind. Can you tell us about the writing process for this song? What was the catalyst?

JH: The catalyst was that I had parts of myself that I wanted to change and I wrote this when I was in the midst of that change. I wanted to become a different version of myself, but even more than that, to become a version of myself that has always been there – to become the person I feel that I am called to be, the true me. This song was written about being able to let go of my old self to make room for a new self – a metamorphosis. Honestly, I wrote this song in under an hour, because it almost felt like it had been brewing in my subconscious for a long time. I typically write on a synth or keyboard (even though I play guitar in the band) and when I got to the synth, it just sort of all came out at once. I remember even tearing up writing this song because it was almost as if I was declaring a new identity as I was writing it.

AF: I hear some ’80s synth vibes on “Katz.” It reminds me a bit of St. Lucia. Where did you draw inspiration from sound-wise on the new EP?

JH: I love that you can hear the ’80s vibe in the music. As the songwriter for this project I definitely like mixing an upbeat feel with something haunting and nostalgic. Lots of music from the ’80s has this great mix of pop sounds and dark, mysterious lonesome sounds. I think that’s where the ’80s feel comes from.

EG: I also think it comes from all of our different preferences and backgrounds melding together. We knew we wanted to go for something bigger and “louder” with this new EP.

AF: How does the writing process work within the band? Do you normally start with instrumentation or do the lyrics form the basis of a song?

JH: I usually start by creating the bass line of a song. I then think about the different instrument melodies and how they will interact. This is the puzzle of a song for me and I love it. Once all of the melodies have been layered and make sense together, I will think about the vocal melody and how to make it stand out from all of the other parts of the song. Then finally, I will write lyrics to the song. The lyrics are usually the fastest part of the writing process for me. The next step is to bring the song to the band and put The Hottman Sisters touch on it. Each person brings their own flair and that creates the finished product. 

AF: What can a fan expect from a Hottman Sisters live show?

The Band: Fans of The Hottman Sisters can expect a theatrical experience in a lot of ways. We definitely incorporate many layers of sound into our live shows. We do lots of harmonizing and each live show is crafted to flow from one song to the next. We are equally as particular with our songs as our transitions between songs. Like I mentioned earlier, we like to mix upbeat pop sounds with a dark, haunting, nostalgic feel. The audience will hear this in the music and will see this in the visual/performance aspect of the show. We are very intentional in curating a live show that brings the audience through lots of different emotions.

The Hottman Sisters’ new EP Louder is due out Sept 28th. Want to see them live? Their national tour kicks off TOMORROW in their hometown of Omaha, NE. See tour dates below!

BAND OF THE MONTH: High Up Premieres “Alabama to the Basement”

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Photo by Andy Lachance

Ever been to a karaoke night and heard a voice rise up that actually sounded… really good? Christine Fink has one of those voices. She’d relegated her talents to karaoke nights in crowded Alabama bars – that is, until her sister Orenda, well-known for her work with Saddle Creek mainstay Azure Ray, dragged her into a bigger spotlight.

Christine moved to Omaha to form High Up with her sister, brother-in-law Todd Fink (also of The Faint), Josh Soto, and Matt Focht. This month, they released a self-titled four-song EP that blends classic Southern rock and soul, with a little punk vibe thrown in for good measure. Thematically, its songs capture longing and love in the tradition of Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin, but also critique the Capitalist machine with sassy bangers like “Two Weeks” and “Your System Failed You.”

Whether belting out a protest anthem or crooning an ode to a crush, High Up is a band that feels good to listen to, like slipping on a favorite jacket you haven’t worn in a while. Their debut album You Are Here, slated for release next month via Team Love, continues along the same lines, mixing up bluesy, heartfelt ballads and raucous shout-along refrains, like on album opener “Alabama to the Basement,” which we’re premiering below.

The song is a celebration of letting go and rocking out, with clear autobiograpical vibes regarding the band’s origin story. As a kid in middle school, there were certain songs I would set my radio to wake me up to; this song has that same rush, that energy you need to fight through another day, or push through a shitty situation on your way to something better. It’s the perfect introduction to an album that that tonally runs the gambit from high energy cheer to soulful sorrow.

We sat down with Christine to talk about loving your parents music, what it’s like writing with her sister, and when we can see High Up out on the road.

AF: You’re originally from Birmingham, Alabama correct? What did you grow up listening to as a kid?

CF: Yes, born in Birmingham, but spent varying years of my life in other towns – Ashville, Oneonta, and Muscle Shoals. My parents exposed me early on to stuff like Pink Floyd, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Hank Williams, Graham Parsons and the like. I was really into oldies as a kid – Frankie Valli, Beach Boys, etc. My first real exposure to soul I think was when I saw Smokey Robinson on Sesame Street in the late ’80s. I was never really the same after that. As I grew older, I developed a taste for punk and indie as well, and all those styles kinda melded to form my tastes as an adult.

AF: I always find it funny when people initially reject their parents music, only to come back to it later on with more perspective. Music can be so interesting when styles collide.

CF: Absolutely. I don’t remember really ever having disdain for what my parents listened to. They have great taste! Of course, they might remember differently!

AF: The story goes that your sister and band member, Orenda Fink, saw you perform karaoke in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. She was blown away and immediately thought you should start a band together. Was this a scary proposition?

CF: I jumped at the idea. It was really a big reason for me moving to Omaha to begin with – giving up the corporate grind and pursuing more creative endeavors. I’ve always had such great reverence for Orenda and her work, and wanted a chance to work with her creatively. The scariest part is probably the financial instability of playing music more or less full time. And rejection of course. But those fears come with the territory and the rewards outweigh the risks in my eyes.

AF: What were your go-to Karaoke songs?

CF: I love trying out all genres, so I pepper in a little bit of everything. My go-tos are usually midnight train to Georgia – Gladys knight and the pips, whole lotta love- Led Zeppelin, sometimes I’ll throw in some Radiohead or Dolly Parton for kicks.

AF: Can you tell us a bit about the songwriting process for High Up? Is there a lot of back and forth between you and Orenda? Or does she take lead when it comes to composition?

CF: Orenda does the bulk of the songwriting, but I co-write and we have a few other co-writers. The whole band collaborates on the tunes to varying degrees. It’s very open and collaborative.

AF: I love the video for “Two Weeks.” It really nails the playfulness and soul of the band. What was the production process like?

CF: Thanks! We recorded the video over the course of two days I believe? Harrison Martin directed and filmed and we had so many friends help. It was a blast and very low stress. It’s important to have a good time and we wanted to reflect the good vibes of the group who gathered to help us. It was a relatively quick and easy process because of the professionalism and talent of everyone involved. The scariest part was probably me having to stand on the table without busting my ass!

AF: “Blue Moon” really hit me in the gut. Can you give me a little background on its genesis?

CF: It hits me too to be honest. I’ve struggled with mental illness most of my life, and the song is really a way to express an almost constant sinking feeling, of feeling like I’ve exasperated those I care most about. There’s a little glimmer of hope in there: “I can’t take it much longer… Or so I say.” Because I can, I hope we all can, and can learn compassion, patience and love for those in our lives who are struggling.

AF: It’s wonderful that you felt comfortable sharing that kind of emotion. I myself struggle with anxiety and depression. It can be comforting to hear someone else’s journey. Were the lyrics difficult for you to share with the band? Or was it more of an unburdening?

CF: I feel like not sharing that emotion would be disingenuous. It’s who I am and I’ve gotten such comfort from other musicians who have been brave enough to open themselves up. Orenda and Morgan Nagler of Whispertown actually wrote that song for me, culled from many tearful admissions on my part. They took what I was experiencing and their reactions to it and wrote the song. It was heartbreaking to read for the first time, but also very cathartic. I’m so very grateful for their talent and ability to fine tune my messy emotions.

AF: Many of the songs on the album take their subject matter loosely from the Bible, such as “Glorious Giving In.” How does spirituality (or your reaction to it) play into High Up’s themes and material?

CF: I can’t speak for other members of the band, but I don’t have any kind of religious belief system. I love religious iconography and many of the allegories associated with religion, but I don’t subscribe to the actual belief system. We use spirituality and references of such because they do speak to the human condition a lot, and I appreciate that. I’m more of a nihilist, with a heavy dose of the Golden Rule.

AF: Can we expect to see High Up on tour soon?

CF: Yes!! We have a nationwide tour in the works for the month of March in support of our first full length, You Are Here, which comes out February 23rd on Team Love

AF: What do you hope the audience takes away from a High Up show?

CF: Lots of merch! Just kidding… My goal is to entertain and connect. I want people to have fun, get mad with me, get sad with me, laugh and cry with me. We’re all pretty fucked up, right? And so many times we feel like we’re the only ones, but we’re not. It’s important to reach out to others and say hey, you’re not alone, we can get through this together. If you can dance and sing along through the anger and tears, so much the better.

Preorder High Up’s debut album You Are Here via Bandcamp, and be sure to check them out on tour this Spring.[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]