“I literally made a pact with myself to never return back to Australia until we had an entire record to show for it,” she says, speaking on the phone from her North London home. “We stepped through some pretty muddy spaces until we did get into the studio and recorded that first record.”
It’s now eight years on from Howling Bells’ self-titled debut and the band’s fourth LP, Heartstrings, has just hit the shelves. Various media outlets have touted the record a comeback LP, thus implying 2011’s The Loudest Engine was something of a misstep. Stein doesn’t necessarily concur with this notion, but she understands where the suggestion stems from.
“[The Loudest Engine] was definitely a departure from the second record,” she says. “Unless you’re sticking to a very, very rigid artistic path I think you’re toying with people’s emotions. They come to expect one thing from you and then when you suddenly make a really sharp left turn it’s a little unsettling.
“I have my favourite bands [too] and I get kind of bummed when they do something drastically different. But as the artist I also understand the need and the hunger to try something different, or at least invest in something that feels a little bit different.”
So what has the foursome – completed by Stein’s brother and lead guitarist Joel, drummer Glenn Moule and new recruit, bassist Gary Daines – done differently this time around? First of all, comprising ten tracks and clocking in at just over 30 minutes, Heartstrings is the pithiest of the band’s four releases. It’s still a rather varied collection, but the songs come forth with striking immediacy.
“You get older and you tend to fuck around a lot less.” Stein explains. “You don’t mince words anymore, so to speak. I just feel like, artistically, I know exactly what I want to say and there’s no point in misinterpreting what it is I need to say.”
This record also marks the first time Howling Bells have been free from record company instructions. The added independence made it much easier for Stein to adopt this lucid creative tact.
“Art is not very good at being boxed in,” she says. “To have to work to a timeframe and create music on tap is very, very challenging. I really enjoyed this particular process because it just happened when it felt like it was ready to happen.”
Interestingly, once the muse beckoned, the absence of bigwig commanders actually allowed things to happen very quickly. “All the songs were written in a very short period of time and the recording was only 10 or 11 days. So everything about the record felt really succinct and very direct.”
Accordingly, the employment of an instinctive songwriting approach has essentially resulted in a distilled showcase of Howling Bells’ various strengths. Heartstrings encompasses stadium atmospherics, punchy outlaw rock and sparse piano balladry. However, the group weren’t adhering to a strict stylistic agenda.
“I think we were conscientious of doing what we feel we’re best at, and that’s kind of atmospheric moody rock,” says Stein. “It’s taken a few years to come back to that point, but it’s not like we sit down and talk about who we are and what style or direction we need to go in. You just need to let that happen.”
What ultimately distinguishes Heartstrings is an emphatic sense of purpose, which was somewhat lacking from the two preceding LPs. Following The Loudest Engine, the band members recognised a need to refresh and put Howling Bells on hold for a couple of years. In the interim Stein gave birth to her first child and more recently she’s joined former Kaiser Chiefs drummer Nick Hodgson and singer Anna Goodall in the London-based psych-pop band, Albert Albert. Meanwhile, Joel Stein moved over to Berlin to explore his songwriting potential, which resulted in his new band Glassmaps.
“Watching other people was really refreshing for me,” Stein says. “Obviously I’ve been playing with these particular people for about a decade now and you do become very comfortable with the way the people around you work. So it was very interesting to break out of that and get an insight into how other musicians play and create music.”
Taking a step back also allowed the foursome to take stock of their primary goals and aspirations. These have inevitably altered somewhat since shifting hemispheres a decade ago, but the resolute commitment to making quality music remains.
“Ten years down the road you don’t harbour that same burning ambition,” Stein says. “Now it’s about artistic survival and expression. Back then it was about needing to prove a point. For me now, it’s definitely more about consistently expressing myself, otherwise I start to feel very choked.
“It’s also just about relaxing. I think what’s comes from the length of time that we’ve been playing in a band, and also becoming a mother. A lot of things take a back seat and it’s incredibly freeing.”
BY AUGUSTUS WELBY