20 Questions With Sunflower Bean: Inside the NYC Trio’s Upbringing & Pivotal Third Album
Sunflower Bean’s third studio album, Headful of Sugar, is a freeing project for both the New York trio as well as their listeners. Created primarily in the Catskills during the pandemic by Julia Cumming, Nick Kivlen and Olive Faber, the follow-up to the group’s 2018 LP Twentytwo in Blue introduces bright pop textures to the band’s sound, taking risks with the production as the songwriting becomes more personal and incisive. The result is an album that Kivlen says he thought would never see the light of day — but once it does on Friday (May 6) through Mom + Pop Records, could widen Sunflower Bean’s listenership considerably.
Ahead of Headful of Sugar’s release, the three members of Sunflower Bean answered Billboard’s 20 Questions about their music backgrounds, karaoke jams and the creation of their third full-length.
1. What’s the first piece of music that you bought for yourself, and what was the medium?
Nick: I remember buying tons of single songs for one dollar on the iTunes Store. I remember getting “Coming Undone” by Korn after watching the music video.
Olive: The first thing I remember buying was that Nirvana greatest hits CD — the black one with Nirvana in silver print on the front. It had “You Know You’re Right” and I loved it so much.
2. What was the first concert you saw?
Nick: Van’s Warped Tour in 2008 at Nassau Coliseum. The last moments of the early Y2K pop punk era before the recession. It was also the day Amy Winehouse died. Sounds like a cursed event but I actually had an amazing time.
Olive: My dad was into a lot of jazz fusion, so he took me to see like Victor Wooten and Chick Corea when I was really young. One of the first concerts that I remember going to under my own volition was MGMT at Radio City [Music Hall] in 2010. I asked a girl to go with me and she declined but then I saw her there with her friends and was in my bag for most of the show.
3. How did your parents influence your taste in music?
Julia: Music was always playing in our house. My parents are super passionate about it and very obsessed with songs and songwriting. I always joke that I had no choice, since music was the coolest and most important thing going on. I looked up to my parents, of course, and they valued music so much. I remember dancing to “Waltz #2” on my dad’s feet around the living room.
Nick: They bought me a Ramones CD at a garage sale when I was like 7. It thoroughly changed my life. They also got me an electric guitar shortly after.
Olive: They always had music on around the house and in the car. Music was always a constant. I feel like it instilled this idea in me that you can soundtrack your own life.
4. Who made you realize you could be an artist full-time?
Nick: Probably when the local Brooklyn bands I was seeing started going to Europe or playing Terminal 5. The first Beach Fossils album was a huge influence because it showed something amazing could be made at home on your laptop. It was really magical to be so young and surrounded by talented people.
Olive: Same as Nick. Like, just seeing local bands get out and go on big tours and what not made me believe it was possible.
Julia: Growing up in the East Village and Alphabet City, I was around a lot of artists and people passionate about art. I loved going to open mics and seeing everyone performing, being different, just full of life. It was a very alternative way of living but I thought it was normal and was really inspired by it. I always thought if I could have a roof over my head, food, good friends and family, and make what I wanted to make and live how I wanted to live, that would be all I needed. I still live by that.
5. What’s at the top of your professional bucket list?
Julia: I want to play at Madison Square Garden.
Nick: I don’t really have one, but it would be cool to make a song you hear at bars you like for the rest of your life. Think “The Boys are Back in Town“ or “Walk On the Wild Side.”
6. How did your hometown/city shape who you are?
Nick: Growing up in the suburbs was slower, and you could dedicate time to hanging out and practicing your instrument. The city was also only a 40-minute train ride so it was easy to sneak in and see live music then come home and practice guitar.
7. What’s the last song you listened to?
Olive: “Really Wanted You,” Emmitt Rhodes.
Nick: Pusha T’s new album. And “Make No Sense,” YoungBoy Never Broke Again.
8. If you could see any artist in concert, dead or alive, who would it be?
Julia: Iggy Pop – again.
9. How has the pandemic affected your creative process?
Olive: Since we were not on the road for the first time in like six years, I was able to really dive into recording and figuring out how to do things at home with the few microphones and inputs we had.
10. When did you begin working on the songs that would eventually comprise Headful of Sugar?
Nick: I think of May 2020 as the start date. We reunited after being separated for three months and went right to work in our home studio. We wrote and recorded “In Flight,” “Roll the Dice” and “Headful of Sugar” all in like one week.
Olive: We started writing like fall 2019 and continued up till it was mastered August 2021.
11. In a press release for the album, you speak about how “tomorrow is not promised, no tour is promised.” How did that mindset inform this album?
Nick: While making it, I was sort of resigned to the fact it was never going to come out. It felt like the world would never be the same and it was just time to have fun making music with your friends. Doing it for the love of the game.
Olive: We were able to let go during the writing process. We got to a point where we were writing and recording a song a day, every day. It let us be a lot less precious about each and every song and just keep going.
12. How did the bond between the band members evolve during the pandemic?
Olive: We were able to hang out as friends in a way we haven’t in a while because we were just working on tour all the time. We were living together again while we recorded a good chunk of the album.
13. Who else contributed to the new album, and how did they join the fold?
Nick: Jacob Portrait was our remote producer. We would record a ton of songs and send them to him. He curated what we would continue to work on.
Julia: Suzy Shinn and Shamir were also big parts of the song “Stand By Me.” I have always admired Shamir and their career, always following who they are and sticking to it. I also thought Suzy was so cool, she’s one of the most passionate and powerful producers in the game. Shamir really brought the verse melody to life. Without them I don’t think this song would have been finished.
14. After touring behind Twentytwo in Blue and 2019 EP King of the Dudes, how do you expect your approach to touring to change for this album?
Nick: I’m not sure it will. The band live is centered around how naturally the three of us jam together. That’s always been constant and not gonna change.
15. Which song on the album are you most excited to start playing live?
Nick: “Beat the Odds.” It’s very unhinged in the live version.
16. What’s your karaoke go-to?
Nick: “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do” by Neil Sedaka.
Julia: “Walk On By,” Dionne Warwick.
17. What’s one thing your most devoted fans don’t know about you?
Nick: When I cook, I like to take a lot of liberties and artistic license with the recipe.
Julia: It’s true. Sometimes his cooking is frightening.
18. What movie, or song, always makes you cry?
Nick: “Hello It’s Me” by Lou Reed and John Cale.
19. What do you hope to accomplish by the end of 2022?
Julia: I think that getting this record out and feeling like it’s been able to reach who it should… excite people, make them cry and laugh and most importantly HAVE FUN. That’s the most important thing. All other expectations have become pointless in this time. Just to play and release music is a privilege and a pleasure.
20. What’s one piece of advice you would give to your younger self?
Julia: Don’t take anything for granted. Take your antidepressants. Write! All! The! Time!
20 Questions With Sunflower Bean: Inside the NYC Trio’s Upbringing & Pivotal Third Album Sunflower Bean’s third studio album, Headful of Sugar, is a freeing project for both the New York trio as well as their listeners. Created primarily in the Catskills during the pandemic by Julia Cumming, Nick Kivlen and Olive Faber, the follow-up to…