Juanita Stein’s second solo album arrives less than a year after her first, ‘America’, saw the former Howling Bells frontwoman exploring the iconography and cultural landscapes of a country that had always fascinated her from afar. Yet, while ’Until The Lights Fade’ is cut from the same musical cloth as its predecessor – the crepuscular twang of bar-room guitars, the keening romanticism of its melodies, the sparseness and simplicity of its arrangements – the album’s ten songs are concerned with thoughts, feelings, stories and characters rooted far closer to home.
“I feel like these albums are two sides of the same coin,” Stein explains. “If ‘America’ was the starting point of a journey – the musical equivalent of me spreading my wings, but also treading carefully, trying to figure myself out having come from such an intense period of camaraderie in the band – then this record is me starting to gain a bit more traction, feeling more confident in where I’m coming from and what it is I’m doing.”
Like the classic American road movies Stein fell in love with as a teenager and still looks to for inspiration today, the first steps of that journey were taken cautiously, but she soon gathered speed, buoyed in no small part by the response she was met with while opening for The Killers on their massive 2017 UK arena tour, as well as other support slots with Michael Kiwanuka and Richard Hawley. If going out on her own, “felt a lot like starting over from scratch,” those experiences – not to mention her first solo headline tour of the UK – were affirmation that she was moving in the right direction.
So when the opportunity arose late last year to spend a week in Austin, Texas with the producer Stuart Sikes (Cat Power, White Stripes, Loretta Lynn), she explains, “I just grabbed it. When you reach a certain point in life and moments like that appear, you have to go with it. Up till now, everything I’ve done has always been planned and laboured over, but this album was very impromptu, very spur of the moment – a couple of the musicians I was working with I had only met for the first time that week. It was like nothing I’d ever done before.”
The songs that ultimately emerged from those sessions form a kind of self-portrait of where Juanita Stein is at, the lessons she’s learned, and the things that shaped her. ‘Until The Lights Fade’ is an album rich in wisdom, empathy and hard-fought experience, and nowhere is that more evident than on opening track ‘All The Way’, which puts Stein in the shoes of her late grandmother, who ‘Caught a ship headed for your freedom/ Escaped a fate worse than any you’d believe in,’ by fleeing war-torn Eastern Europe to seek refuge in Australia.
As Stein puts it, “there are two kinds of survivors: the ones who spend the rest of their lives talking about their experience and educating others, and the ones like my grandmother, who just want to forget it ever happened. But I didn’t want to forget about it – it was a very intense part of my upbringing. And as a mother myself, I think about her experience a lot, about how on top of all the challenges that we face on a daily basis, her family also had to deal with what must have felt like the end of the world. So I wanted to try and frame that experience in a song, to keep it forever.”
The idea of survival crops up again and again on ‘Until The Lights Fade’, though it doesn’t always take the shape of the stark life-or-death decisions faced by her grandmother. Tracks like ‘Get Back To The City’ and ‘Easy Street’ instead depict women who find themselves trapped in impossible situations trying to navigate a way out for them, while ‘Cool’ serves as a kind of personal mantra for deflecting the slings and arrows of modern life.
As the mother of two young daughters, Stein acknowledges that her songwriting has taken on a different perspective, informed by the burgeoning #MeToo and #TimesUp movements that have inspired so many women across the globe to make their voices – and their stories – heard. “I feel more feminine strength in the world than I ever have and that is pretty powerful,” she says. “And I definitely feel like some of the lyrical messages on this album are ones that I would want to impart to my daughters. Those songs are tales of women I know who wove an unfortunate path, and I know what it feels like to be trapped in a relationship, or in a situation, and how hard it can be be to emerge from. As a woman, it’s important to find that strength, and use it when you need to.”
Indeed, if there’s a unifying theme running throughout ‘Until The Lights Fade’, it’s one of personal agency and self-reliance, of learning from your mistakes and taking your destiny in your own hands. After all, that’s what Stein herself did by stepping away from Howling Bells and following her own creative impulses and intuitions. “There’s definitely a theme of self-awareness, of family, and of gaining strength through experience,” she agrees. “The most valuable lesson I learned from doing the first album was that my voice is the strongest: nobody else’s. And if I don’t listen to that voice, or if I lose faith in it, then the message becomes false and there’s no point in continuing.”
That may have been the reasoning behind the late inclusion on the album of ‘Forgiver’, a collaboration co-written and produced by Brandon Flowers during Stein’s just-completed run of European dates with The Killers. Much like the week she spent in Austin, ‘Forgiver’ – recorded during the downtime between shows in The Killers’ mobile studio – was another of those serendipitous moments that she felt compelled to make the most of, and the swaggering, streetwise end result once again validates those instincts.
Then there is the album’s title, taken from a line in the song ‘Fast Lane’, which “goes back to that idea of having the strength and wisdom to navigate your path through life. That’s what the song is about: you can’t escape your demons, and you’re always going to face immense challenges, but it’s important to see things through until the lights fade.” For Juanita Stein, ‘Until The Lights Fade’ is a pact, a promise to herself to stay the course no matter what obstacles she may have to overcome on a journey that is still only getting started.