Search The Line of Best Fit
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Copy of Sun June 2023 04 please credit Alex Winker

Awakenings in the night

09 October 2023, 09:25
Words by John Bell
Original Photography by Alex Winker

Laura Colwell talks John Bell through the romance, symbolism and geography that lie at the core of her songwriting contribution to Sun June, as the band prepare to release their third record Bad Dream Jaguar.

Nightmares have continued to shapeshift across time on canvas, paper or vinyl, just as wickedly as they have in our own minds. From crazed horses and resurrected corpses to omnipotent sandmen, devilish incubi and perturbed parliaments of owls, these beasts have long reflected personal fears and anxieties of the age with panicked awakenings in the night.

For Sun June’s Laura Colwell, a recurring shadow returns as a threatening jaguar – “Saw his red teeth gleam in the silence.” The moment is caught on ‘Easy Violence,’ the lead single from the band’s third album, Bad Dream Jaguar, and at first the song’s low, murky synth seems a far cry from the cloudy comfort of 2021’s Somewhere. But as Colwell’s eyes adjust to the “Red sun, long and constant,” she makes peace with her shadow before it dissipates in daylight, and the song begins to breathe and expand in that way that Sun June have always done so well.

“Panicked awakenings in the night? That’s what we should have called the record,” Colwell laughs. Since emerging in 2018, the Austin-based band have described their own music as “regret pop,” a more bittersweet take on the loose concept of dream pop. On their debut Years, their sparse and twinkling sound still felt rooted to their garage or practice room, while on Somewhere a lulling mist seemed to fill the space. Floating in these eyes-closed vibes can be found the regret part, with broad and emphatic impulses “Everything I had, I want it back” – a line that resounded in early 2021 – and also moments cut with a sharper specificity: “Called your mother on her birthday/ Goddamn, couldn’t think of a word to say”.

But if Somewhere bottled daydreams – even their band name evokes a warm-hued lens flare – on Bad Dream Jaguar we find Colwell and guitarist and partner Stephen Salisbury at dawn and dusk, in those hours where the door to our subconscious creaks ajar, “With the moon ahead and the stars above me”.

“We like to joke that all of our songs are just our dream journals that we are still deciphering years later,” she says. “There's a mix of songs that are very present and old anxieties that are still bothersome to us, and I guess it wouldn't be regret pop without some of the old darkness from the past creeping in at night. I really do think that that's exactly where we were headed with it. Even though we are always starting from a collection of songs, it's always interesting to try and pair the right ones together and find the common thread. We’ve realised that we're both experiencing similar anxieties and problems with our current lives.”


Though we find this jaguar shadow beginning to creep back in on ‘Moon Ahead’ before fading away again, it doesn’t represent a singular regret, but a collection of shared grievances. “It encompasses a lot and I think we were really not sure of naming the record Bad Dream Jaguar, because it felt too dramatic. But we were trying to own it, trying to own all of our traumas and grief. I think I deal with grief in a different way than Stephen does. He's talked about this before, his issues with his past and living his life sober still feels like a fresh thing to him. I don't want to call it a wound. What should I call it? I guess a shadow. The shadows that are ever present. I think that the main image was just striking to us, and we've toyed with being cheeky about monsters in the past in our writing. It felt like just, I don't know, things are getting real, you know what I'm saying? It's bigger than just our own past.”

Colwell appears warm, kind and giggly, but there’s a sense of self-doubt as she pauses or retreats from an answer mid-sentence, as if she’s overthinking how she’s coming across. This has filtered down into her role as one half of the band’s songwriters, she admits, and has needed encouragement from Salisbury to back herself. “I like to keep things very close to my chest,” she says, “while he's just always ready and willing to show a piece of something. ‘Moon Ahead’ almost didn't even happen because of that. I just never showed it to him. When I did, he was just like, ‘What are you doing? You're crazy, it's gotta go on the record!’ The song was a huge roadblock for me, and Stephen really pushed me on it. It deals with comparing myself to my mother and my father and trying to find the best of them and not the worst parts, because we're all a mixture of our parents, unfortunately.”

Copy of Sun June 2023 03 please credit Alex Winker

Do two songwriters in a relationship discuss what lies beneath their writing, like a couple of co-workers coming home together and saying what they really think? “I'm always trying to get to the bottom of it and Stephen's just like ‘Nah, we'll just let it be. I don't wanna think about it too hard.’ I think the distance helped. It helped me come into a new phase of writing. I did start to feel a little codependent on what Steven thought of something immediately, but it was interesting to be a little more isolated both physically and emotionally during that process.”

It’s a good thing "Moon Ahead" didn’t stay trapped in Colwell’s scrapbook. Although not released as a single, it builds gently as layers of dusty saxophones, flickering guitars and Colwell’s silky vocals meld with a marbling effect. It’s one of Bad Dream Jaguar’s triumphs, if not one of the band’s best songs to date.

“You would think I would try and learn from it, right? All I can say as I'm trying, I'm trying to just get through it, because most of the time we're gonna write the same song five different ways and then eventually it's gonna become something. That's part of the process, too. Just let it be bad. If you're feeling self conscious about writing a song, just let it be bad. No one cares.”


"Moon Ahead" was an aha moment for Salisbury, she says, one that helped break into new ground for their third album. But for the singer, it was the moments that remained tethered to Somewhere that felt the most fulfilling. After they’d recorded that second album, Salisbury left Austin for North Carolina to study microbiology, putting them in both a personal and professional long-distance relationship. As we talk, it becomes clear it’s no coincidence the songs Colwell feels most attached to are the ones rooted in Austin. One of these moments is "Mixed Bag" – the last single before the album’s release, which keeps “Texas on the timeline.” Another is the album’s ambient, AIR-esque opener "Eager". Colwell explains: “That was actually written many years ago as a demo with a vocal take with a lot of scratch and stuff that we just did at home. It just felt like it captured a moment, it captured a time in Austin that we were both living in. I think those songs were the pivotal moments of the record and how we chose to move forward with the rest of the songs and the music.”

Somewhere, as its name signalled, looked and dreamt away from Texas – strolling past Brooklyn basements, driving down to New Orleans or threats of moving to Los Angeles. But with Salisbury away and Colwell dividing her time at home and visiting him, Bad Dream Jagwar became rooted in Austin, or at least a nostalgia for a time when they were both in it. As always, that’s not without a touch of regret. 'Texas’ feels like The Lone Star State’s answer to ‘New York I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down’ – “Hopefully it’s a little more visceral!”

Not every song on the album considers Austin home, however. The daughter of a contractor and high school English teacher, Colwell grew up in the Catskills of Upstate New York in the outskirts, “the boonies” of town. She enjoyed a “lucky childhood,” as she puts it. The house was sold years ago, and just as Austin has come to symbolise a certain complicated happiness and nostalgia for her, the family home has come to represent a connection to her youth that’s falling darker into the distance. On ‘Sage,’ we find Colwell burning the herb – a sign of purging shadows – revisiting her old home and “Holding on to the darker edges of town.”

“I would have this recurring dream where I would be back at the house and it was slowly becoming less and less ours. It's not just about the house obviously, it's about more than that. It's about the connection and friends and the memories you hold on to, and I guess I'm just a sucker for the sentimental value of place and things; I hold a lot of emotional connection to certain times. I even got a Facebook message from the new owners one time because my mom left a box of baby photo albums in the attic and I was just like, man that's like the one thing… It's just funny to leave behind a photo album of me and my sister as babies, as children. It was just an honest mistake, but you know, it made me feel bad.”

In recent years the Hudson Valley area, once the heart of American folk rock, has seen a resurgence of young creatives move in from the major cities. Studios such as Sam Evian’s Flying Cloud are seeing a conveyor line of indie acts coming to record that would be considered Sun June’s peers. “I’m kinda jealous,” laughs Colwell.

There’s hardly a dearth of talent back in Austin, though. The couple have always been eager to emphasise the talent that bassist Justin Harris, drummer Sarah Schultz and lead guitarist Michael Bain bring to Sun June. As a unit their forte is layering uncomplicated but hypnotic arrangements that almost unravel and imagine a Texan landscape. Bad Dream Jaguar features additional shadings of vocals, synths, pedal steel and woodwinds from friends of the band, held together by producer Dan Duszynski. With a bigger pool of contributors, and writing and rehearsing time together limited to Salibsbury’s brief trips back to Austin, the band had to be a little less precious with the process. “It honestly made it kind of freeing to be able to challenge ourselves with other people in the room with new ideas that we wouldn't normally think of. In the past, we've always had songs and brought them to the band and figured out stuff together and even with our own bandmates, we would just throw stuff at them and be like, ‘Hey, we're gonna record next weekend because we're in town, so let's do it. Here's the song.’ I'm sure that was challenging for them but I do think we all found a new way of working together.”

Copy of Sun June 2023 02 please credit Alex Winker

The soft, glowy edge of Sun June’s music means they’re often described in a similar light. But much of Colwell’s writing is concrete and tactile, with cigarettes between the fingers or a phone by the ear or slamming down five dollar notes in the back of a cab. The pair first met while working together as film editors, and while Salisbury might have traded Premier Pro and editing suites for pipettes and laboratories, Colwell still works in the business and is certain of its influence. “Being editors created our terminologies and our approach to songwriting,” she says. “In a memory of a moment, you don't remember every single detail. There's always just one or two things that stick out, whether it's a cigarette butt or smell, a tinge of something.”

In these scenes you’re also likely to find some of the band’s music heroes. On Somewhere there was Karen O, Patti Smith and Stevie Nicks. Neil Young and John Prine appear here. On ‘Get Enough,’ Colwell just wishes The Beatles would get back together. “Sometimes it's summoning our idols. I think the references we make on this record are more about things that we know we can't have. We find it weird and funny to want to hear something that you know is impossible, or trying to capture something that has already had its moment and passed and you missed it, you know? Living in the wrong time. I think Somewhere was more idolising and fantasising about being around those people or being like them in some way, trying to embody them.”

Bad Dream Jaguar ends with Colwell waking again in the middle of the night. Lightning flashes over behind the hills in the distance. There’s a body beside her, but neither we nor her can tell if it’s real or another shadow. Doesn’t it get lonely, wallowing in memories and allowing the past to overlay the present like a collage? “Regret pop forever, never grow or never change, haha! Nah, I do wonder about that sometimes, whether we’ve moved into a new era, whatever self-realisation we’re currently in. I think we’re always gonna stand by regret pop though. I don’t know if you can have anxieties about future regrets, but…”

Bad Dream Jaguar is released on 20 October via Run For Cover Records

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