Sun June and Bowerbirds Get to Know Each Other

The artists talk band names, “regret pop,” and working for Terrence Malick.

Bowerbirds and Sun June don’t have all that much in common on the surface: The former started making records back in 2006, and recently ended a long absence with a new album called becalmyounglovers. The latter was formed in Austin just a few years ago, and recently released their second album, Somewhere. But Sun June members Laura Colwell and Stephen Salisbury are longtime fans of Bowerbirds staple Phil Moore, and they had plenty to speak about in early 2021. 
—Josh Modell, Talkhouse Executive Editor

Laura Colwell: I guess we’re here to talk about your new record, however far down the rabbit hole we go. It’s really exciting for us to be on the other side of an interview, even though it’s very nerve wracking at the same time. It makes me think of all the questions that are normally asked of us that I think, “Oh, my god, I can’t possibly answer this,” and then I want to ask the same things.

Phil Moore: Like “How did your band get started?” I’m very curious about that, but you’ve probably answered that a million times.

Stephen Salisbury: What was hard for me was figuring out what I wanted to know, as opposed to just falling back on questions I know people ask.

Laura: I definitely want to know how the last year has been.

Phil: I think that’s probably best for our mental health, to know those things about each other, versus just getting glimpses of social media. But I was wondering, when your album was released, whether you had plans to be a touring band and those got squashed.

Laura: We didn’t push it by much, but there was definitely a thought. I don’t mind not touring though. It’s nice to just release music. How do you feel about that?

Phil: I love it. It’s so good. I was done with touring a long time ago, and I really wasn’t sure if I was going to be touring at all on this record. I had this record for a while and I was postponing it because I didn’t really know if I wanted to tour. I just sat on it pre-pandemic. So it was freeing when the pandemic happened. I was like, I’ll just release it during this. And then no expectations. It worked out for me. But I feel like y’all were in the middle of being a band.

Laura: Yeah. I guess it’s like we have no right to say that we were tired of touring.

Phil: I think you can.

Stephen: Phil, you’ve had such a busy pandemic year because you released two EPs, too. How did you think about what to put out when?

Phil: Actually this album that I’m putting out now was done before those two EPs. The oldest song is maybe eight years old. One of my best friends who I’ve known around North Carolina, who is also my manager, heard it and was like, “I should start managing you.” But that was a few years ago. I don’t love the way that the music industry… I don’t love the record cycle. I wanted to get around that, and so I recorded all of my own stuff and could release it as soon as I wanted to. So that feeling behind the songs is still there when you release songs. That was the idea, at least.

Laura: It’s awesome. You’re in control.

Phil: It seems like you spread out somewhat during the pandemic. But have you all been writing music and feeling creatively productive during this time?

Laura: We bounced around a little bit throughout the year. We were in California for a bit, and then I came back to Texas and Stephen went to North Carolina. And the rest of the band is here in Austin, so I got to play with them whenever it was safe to get together and practice. We had to come back to songs after a year of not playing together and basically finish them. So it was like they were still fresh. It was hard for me to be as creative as I felt like I should be. I felt guilty about not wanting to write. Like what’s wrong with me? Stephen’s more proactive than me, wouldn’t you say, Stephen?

Stephen: Well, I live alone right now. I have very little impediment. And Laura’s had to do all the creative work of rearranging the songs because sometimes it’s two people playing it, sometimes it’s one person, sometimes it’s five. So Laura’s had to do all the album release work and I’ve just been able to think.

Phil: It’s so interesting to hear about the division of labor that naturally comes with the band.

Stephen: I was actually curious too, and I don’t mean to ask something too personal, but Bowerbirds was described as a duo for a long time, so how was that transition to try to record this new record with an entirely different division of labor?

Phil: It was insular, I guess. I used to write the majority of the songs, and the lyrics and everything. I didn’t have the certainty behind the songs like I did before, with nobody to bounce it off of and be like, “That part’s cool. Just repeat that. Do that more.” It was difficult and all the parts about being in a band that aren’t the music… I was willing to let Beth do the majority of that stuff because I didn’t fully understand. She is a visual artist, so that was hard to navigate since I’m mostly not a visual person. There’s one thing that I’m very curious about, the thing in your bio about working for that Terrence Malick film. What was it called again?

Laura: Song To Song.

Phil: What was your involvement in that? Or how did you meet? I love that movie. I love Terrence Malick. He’s one of my faves. But you all work in film, right?

Laura: Well, Stephen was an editor at the time. And of course, I shouldn’t say we were only working on that, because he had two other films that he was making at the same time. Stephen was an editor and I was an office production assistant. I would go between all the producers’ tasks and try to button things up on that end while everything was constantly changing on Malick’s end. So that was fun, because it’s just like a never ending thing for him, which maybe informs how I want to approach music. Because it never feels finished.

Stephen: You’ve got to walk away at some point.

Laura: Now I work as an editor. But at the time I was just trying to fit in on viewings and edit. It was just fun to see everybody working so collaboratively.

Stephen: The Malick work environment is exactly opposite of the Malick aesthetic. It’s not airy. It’s not free.

Laura: There’s not jumping from moment to moment. You’re just in one long, I guess, moment.

Stephen: All the editors are pretty beaten down by the time work started there. We definitely met musicians through it and definitely started playing music in the office as a result.

Phil: Were you playing music because that was part of the film or were you playing music because everybody was playing music around there?

Stephen: Somebody gave him a guitar. We actually never found out who the guitar belonged to, but it was a nice old guitar. And so when he was out of town, we just would play on it. But it wasn’t like it was a big Jamboree or something.

Phil: Did you do music before that?

Laura: I was in some bands in high school and stuff, just as a singer. I never knew how to play anything. I moved to Austin for a film, thinking that that would be my only thing. And maybe here and there I’d get to sing in some weird capacity like I had been doing, just random gigs with people that I’m friends with who needed a backup singer. I met Stephen and things changed. It was encouraging to show something you wrote to somebody who actually wanted you to keep working on it. Sounds silly.

Phil: No, that’s so important.

Laura: It sounds like with you and the Bowerbirds, not having someone to bounce these new songs off of, your manager was encouraging you to keep it going. Is that true?

Phil:  I have two people in my life, Martin and my friend, Brent, who’s my old college friend and lives in this area. They’re the two people that are my yes people. And they’re like, “Yeah, keep going. That’s awesome. I love this part.” But they’re actually a little more critical than some other people.

Laura: That’s good.

Phil: They’re realistic. They’re not just like, “Oh, that’s pretty,” and that’s the end of it. They’re like, “That’s so cool, how you did this specific thing.” Both of them can play music, but neither one of them are musicians. Those opinions seem to be my favorite opinions at least.

Laura: They care enough to have an opinion. I think Stephen’s like that for me. I don’t know if I’m like that for him.

Phil: One thing I wanted to talk about with y’all’s record is that it feels like such a record. There’s a palette that you all have lyrically and instrumentally, and it just all feels like one thing with all this nice space in it. It makes me feel good. It makes me feel nostalgic.

Laura: I think there’s a lot of overlap in theme with these records. Maybe I’m just feeling good about what you said. I think there’s a calming quality just from start to finish with your records. We definitely try to make a palette and sometimes I don’t know if we are always successful. 

Phil: It seems like an effortless flow from start to finish. So that’s really cool.

Stephen: Awesome. Thank you. It seems like you changed the track order on your record too. So I know that’s part of what makes an album cohesive. Now that we’re making records, oftentimes I’ll make a new playlist where I reorder other people’s songs into the order that I think is right.

Stephen: What I want to do in the future is what you’re describing, Phil, which is to have more of a committee meeting about what’s working and what’s not. Because that’s what you do in film, and it’s so helpful. Maybe I’m naive, but it doesn’t seem a habit in music, where you give the album to 10 people and you say, “What do you think?”

Phil: I don’t know if I do it that well either. I go to my safe places. I’d get my feelings hurt probably if I gave it to whoever. Does that happen with film in a hierarchical way? I’m trying to visualize what you’re saying in a room with desks and stuff.

Laura: Yeah. Like a round table discussion, post screening. I think there’s things you know maybe could be true that you want changed, and someone might bring it up and you feel validated. And then other times you’ll bring something up you think is totally perfect and could never change. It’s hard to open yourself up like that. I feel like music is a way more vulnerable thing. Unless you’re the writer and director, I guess.

Laura: Do you miss anything about touring? You said you’re over it, but you must miss something.

Phil: I just miss seeing other towns, I guess. And of course I miss playing shows every night. I think that’s the only thing I really love about tour, that hour that you’re up on stage. There’s so much driving involved, but that hour you get to play in front of people and being a really good band… I would never practice as much as I practice on tour. By the fourth show, I’m like, Wow. I can actually play the song that I wrote. I miss being a good musician, I guess. I remember touring for 200 something days out of the year.

Stephen: Oh, my god!

Phil: I wouldn’t ever get settled. I have this chair by my bed that I put my clothes that I’m using on, and I still live like that, even though there’s a dresser right over here. It’s just in me still, even though it’s been many years since I toured. But is it going to be totally different? I have no idea. There’s part of me that feels like this pandemic will change everything. Every business and every way of thinking is going to be totally different when we come back. And then there’s another part of me that seems like it’s business as usual for capitalism. What do y’all do for work? Do you still edit films?

Laura: Yeah. I work as an editor, freelance. But just this year I went back to an old job for a reality television company. It’s really draining, 10 hours a day. I guess that’s why my creative juices haven’t been flying, but I can’t really use that excuse because it wasn’t like I was doing it all year. But I will be doing it all year this year. Part of me really wants that big support slot offer. Stephen’s shifted gears a little bit. I mean, that’s why he’s in North Carolina.

Stephen: I’m going to UNC Chapel Hill, studying microbiology. It’s like doing the dishes. It’s just a lot of little tasks that I do every day in the lab, and it’s actually really calming. You can think about other things while you’re doing it and not looking at a screen, which is nice.

Phil: I’m doing some production assistant thing. I’m doing real estate photography too, which is weird, but actually fun. And you get to be a voyeur in these houses. There’s this place south of Chapel Hill called The Governor’s Club. It makes me so mad that these places exist. There’s a person at the gate that gives you a card and has to talk to somebody. And he’s skeptical that you’re going in there at all. And you’re like, “I’m just trying to do this thing. It’s not a big deal.” It makes you really weird about the world, but it’s kind of fun and voyeuristic. Work is so strange.

Laura: To be doing different things all the time sounds nice.

Phil: Sitting in front of a computer is definitely hard to avoid for work.

Laura: Actually, I don’t know if this is a good segue or not. I was curious about the way you’ve titled becalmyounglovers as one word. I want to know your reasoning behind it, but I also have a theory that might be totally off. But it makes me think that it’s alluding to hashtags or social media mantra.

Phil: It’s actually my friend’s email address. 

Laura: Amazing.

Phil: When I was asking him if I could use it, he was just like, “Yeah, that’s just a combination of words. No big deal. But you have to do it all lowercase and together.” So it was more from him.

Stephen: He’ll be getting some emails after this, I think.

Phil: I hope so. I was thinking people could call him for love advice. What were you thinking when you came up with Somewhere as the album title?

Laura: I think maybe we had found what was going to be the album art before we even decided on the title. I think we are still figuring that out and we ended up taking it from the last song, one of the lyrics from the song “Colors.” In that song in particular, you’re in between two worlds. You’re dealing with loss and grief, and how it feels in the present, and whether or not there’s just somewhere else. I don’t know if there’s any real spirituality to it more than just being in an in-between in way. I think there’s a lot of that on the record, too. So it felt like it fit.

Phil: When I first heard the title and was listening to your record, and there’s all these geographical references that seem like, what if we live here? What if we go here? New Orleans, LA, and everything. All the space in your music too, it gave me the impression of just the west and being somewhat transient.

Stephen: That’s awesome.

Laura: We’re all just living in fantasies, maybe.

Phil: Where did the name Sun June come from? I know we said we wouldn’t do this.

Laura: Here’s a softball. Well, we used to be called Jeff, J-E-F-F. We named ourselves after one of the editors left Malick, named Jeff. Great editor.

Stephen: Shout out to Jeff.

Laura: He gave us our first name, but we were really jokey. And I think we wanted to be taken more seriously or take ourselves more seriously. So we thought, okay, we got to change our name. And it was a long process to figure out what we wanted to be. There’s just so many bands out there. How in the world can I name myself something different? We ended up having this spreadsheet of words that we would just combine, seeing what sonics worked and stuff and eventually got Sun June. 

Stephen: But we failed to consider the fact that our name appears on posters just like Sunday, June 28.

Phil: Who would, unless you’re doing graphic design all day long? And you could always have that answer in your pocket as your fake answer if you needed one.

Laura: We wanted to get buried in the algorithm. Don’t let anyone ever find us. I guess I have to ask you the same question about Bowerbirds.

Phil: Damn it. No, it was just from a children’s book. And I was a bird watcher, a birder. My parents are birders. But I’d never been to Australia and bowerbirds only exist in Australia, and New Zealand. So it was just in this children’s encyclopedia, and it was this amazing bird that did this amazing thing. It turns out it’s like a crow basically, they’re very common, but they make these amazing shelters with blue… The satin bowerbird takes blue things and collects them, makes these collections. And then there’s actually more intricate bowerbirds that make domes and all these berries and different arrangements to attract females. And I’d never heard about them, and it was just right around the time that I was writing the music. And my partner at the time, Beth, was making art and had discovered them. So that’s what it became.

I love that you called yourself “regret pop.” That is so hilarious to me, and it totally works. You came up with that yourself, right, for a genre of music?

Laura: Yeah.

Phil: I love that. Because it’s as absurd as calling… Genres of music are absurd. But then you hear it and you hear your music and you’re like, That totally makes sense

Laura: I think it’s part of our not always taking ourselves seriously either. It’s like everything’s a joke. Even pain. I don’t know if it’s a crutch now. I don’t know how to get away from it.

Stephen: We can retire it.

Phil: Any further categorization of music is always going to… Maybe in the moment, you’re like, Yeah, I’m part of this thing, and then some years passed and you’re like, I’m not really… For example, Bowerbirds and “freak folk,” if you remember that handle. And then just years later being like, “It’s really not that freaky of music.” Then you have to live that down a little bit. Stephen: God, we hope to be roped into something. Just rope us in, please.

Phil: All right. Should we wrap this?

Stephen: What do you think? I want to make clear that we love your new record.

Phil: Likewise.

(Photo Credit: left, Santiago Dietche; right, Libby Rodenbough)

The five members of Sun June spent their early years spread out across the United States, from the boonies of the Hudson Valley to the sprawling outskirts of LA. Having spent their college years within the gloomy, cold winters of the Northeast, Laura Colwell and Stephen Salisbury found themselves in the vibrant melting-pot of inspiration that is Austin, Texas. Meeting each other while working on Terrence Malick’s Song to Song, the pair were immediately taken by the city’s bustling small clubs and honky-tonk scene, and the fact that there was always an instrument within reach, always someone to play alongside.

Coming alive in this newly discovered landscape, Colwell and Salisbury formed Sun June alongside Michael Bain on lead guitar, Sarah Schultz on drums, and Justin Harris on bass. Their latest album, Somewhere, is out now.

(Photo Credit: Santiago Dietche)