Laura Colwell and Stephen Salisbury met each other while working as editorial crew members of Terrence Malick’s Song to Song in Austin, Texas, where they fell into the city’s thriving music scene. They formed Sun June alongside lead guitarist Michael Bain, bassist Justin Harris, and drummer Sarah Schultz – who all come from different corners of the US – and released their debut album, Years, recorded live to tape, in 2018, following it up with 2021’s achingly beautiful Somewhere. In 2020, Salisbury left Austin for North Carolina to pursue a degree in microbiology, which led him and Colwell to write songs some 1300 miles apart, processing their long-distance relationship through the demos they’d send each other. Colwell moved to North Carolina in 2022, and the band’s new LP, Bad Dream Jaguar, came to life over five or six sessions across a number of studios. It’s dreamlike and gently immersive, floating somewhere between the strange loneliness of being in love and the painful nostalgia of letting go, and over a big, expansive landscape of sound where words and textures seem to interact on an intimate scale. “It’s too easy to fall in love/ It’s too easy to wear it off,” Colwell sings on the opening track, ‘Eager’. Yet Sun June make it sound easy to live the dream in it, too.
We caught up with Sun June’s Laura Colwell for the latest edition of our Artist Spotlight series to talk about writing through a long-distance relationship, self-editing, recurring dreams, and more.
Much of the lyrical content of the new album revolves around the strains of navigating a long-distance relationship with your bandmate and partner, Stephen Salisbury. When it came to passing songs back and forth, did the line between creative and romantic communication become blurred?
I think it’s always been blurred. [laughs] Whether there was distance or not between us, the distance has always been that songwriting is very insular. You’re in your own world working through something, whether you’re aware of what you’re saying in the song or not. Distance certainly adds more of a strain to feeling disconnected, and having a song to uncover whatever is going on that is unspoken is very heavy and interesting and weird. I wonder if, actually, being further apart and having songs reduced the blur, versus people in separate rooms writing a song, showing it to one another, and then immediately working on it, not having time to sit in it alone and race through your own thoughts about, Oh god, what are they saying? There would be times where you get a song and we just wouldn’t be able to talk about it right away. I think we’re both very conflict-averse, where I need to talk through something immediately. [laughs] And maybe I misunderstand what the blur is, but I think there’s an argument for that.
The idea of distance actually reducing the blur and whatever conflict may come up – that must also be freeing in some way.
Yeah, it might be. And then there’s also how… Wait, I had something and now I’ve lost it – which is usually how I’m writing songs. I’m like, “This is it,” and then, “Oh god, I don’t have anything, throw it out.” [laughs] But just being able to have the time to listen to somebody’s song, and then before it got to even a fully-realized song, bringing it into a studio and bringing it to the band, there was a lot of time when we were just tinkering on stuff. And that turned it into this idea that we wanted to try and capture that feeling of how we were working and be able to work with many different people in many different places – having time in each spot between this rolling collage of time and work, time and work. I think that ended up working in our favour. There’s still room to grow in that idea moving forward, which I hope we can.
Do you feel like you became better listeners of each other’s work through the making of this record?
I think I did. [laughs] I’m sure everyone did, but I know I can speak only for myself. I think I was able to give myself enough time between listening to something, even in the mixing stage with Dan Duszynski, who’s a wizard, really great engineer and mixer and musician in his own right. There were times where he would be adding something after we had recorded, in the final mixing stuff, and you had to really listen closely to hear this other layer that he added, a background vocal or guitar thing. I think I’ve always been sort of – I hope not overwhelming for the rest of the band, because if I hear a tiny little thing I’m like, “Oh, we gotta change that,” or, “We gotta make sure we don’t do that again.” I get a little in my head. With the way we used together most of the time, we’d have a song and we would just practice it to death and then eventually record it. It felt like we spent a lot of time on the tiniest details, maybe in not the healthiest way. [laughs] Making music should be more freeing and fun.
It’s also harder to summarize when the sessions are so stretched out. But I wonder, in the early stages of sharing demos with Stephen, if you had to navigate responding to each other’s musical ideas differently – if there were things emotionally that were easier or more difficult to communicate around.
Stephen and I are pretty set in our ways, I will say, as who we are to each other, how we interact and how we work creatively together. In that he’ll send me something and it will a long time to get back to him regularly, regardless of the distance. [laughs] He’s always nudging me to send him something, even if it’s not finished or whatever. I think that always was the case, and then over the two years of pandemic doing that, I guess I did find it a little more difficult to be on my own writing, being nervous to send something because I can’t see his face when he’s listening to it or whatever. The human interaction is where I get more out of what he’s thinking about it, without him even saying anything.
You talked about tinkering with stuff in the mixing stage – do you have a similar mindset when you’re just writing by yourself? What’s that process of self-editing like for you?
It’s definitely a self-editing thing. I think you hit the nail on the head there. It’s not so much what other people people will think, because I don’t think anyone’s going to hear it – it’s really my own obsessiveness of, Is this good enough? And then you spiral and you think, Why am obsessing over this tiny thing? If you’re trying to write songs, you should just let them be, and practice gets you there. The more you throw yourself out and maybe away eventually gets you to what you want to do, like writing the same song over and over again but eventually getting something that you like. I have the tendency to not like something until somebody else – until Stephen is like, “What are you talking about? This is great.”
I do get caught in my own head, and it’s obviously something I’m working on. Because music has always been very important to me, I love to sing, and writing music has been a great way to release whatever tension, grief, sadness that I have – happiness too, but that always comes through less, I think. [laughs] It’s hard to escape your own head sometimes when you feel like what you’re doing is maybe pointless. It’s stupid to think that – it’s not pointless. Art is important. It doesn’t matter if anyone hears the song, just write a song for you. So I have to try and tell myself that while I’m doing it.
How do you feel like your work as a film editor feeds into your songwriting approach? I feel like you’re quite selective when it comes to visual imagery and memories, for example, like you’re filtering out things in quite a deliberate way.
There’s got to be some throughline between trying to see a vision through in any art form. There’s something to film work though, where you’re working in this massive team. You have a lot of people with their own ideas trying to work together, trying to make this one thing. There’s a lot of meetings, a lot of talking through, so that you really understand what it is you’re doing. Stephen and I approach making an album the same way, where we’re talking through visuals and themes, but when we’re writing the songs, they don’t have a place on a record. It would be a dream of mine to make theme record – a genre record, if you want to call it that – where you’re focused on a central idea ahead of time, and then you write for the sake of that idea.
Because of how differently the system works in music and film, do you feel a preciousness towards the sort of solitary mystique of writing songs?
I think we have in the past. We’re trying to be better about that. Being precious is kind of the Sun June way. [laughs]
One song that stands out to me is ‘Sage’, because there’s that strong image of the house you grew up in the beginning, and after that you seem to cut out most detail to get to the raw emotion of it. Did that song come easily for you?
That song did come easily for me. It stemmed from a recurring dream I would have, and I finally felt like I needed to put it down. It wasn’t just a voice memo – it came with chords immediately, it came with the lyrics immediately. Sometimes you do just have this moment where you’re like, “I don’t know what’s happening, I don’t how I’ve got here, but here’s a song that just came out of me.” I don’t really know the magic behind that stuff, it’s a mystery to me. But something happened in my brain that fired out everything the way I wanted it to be, and it ended up sticking. It was one of the first things I liked right away. [laughs] And maybe because it was such a familiar place in my brain, that I had gotten used to it and I was trying to let go of it.
I think it dissolves lyrically to less specific imagery because that’s literally what was happening. It’s weird – I had, again, a dream about the street I grew up on last night – my COVID vaccine fever dream. [laughs] Maybe I’m stressed out about something, who knows why I have those dreams. But it was such strong imagery in my head that I was like, I just need to put this down, and for whatever reason it worked.
Was your recent dream similar?
Yeah. It’s kind of foggy; I woke up a lot last night, so I was having very lucid dreams. At this point, I wasn’t even in the house, I was on the street. Where I grew up, there’s no street lights, so it was very dark. Walking around at night, you can’t see two feet in front of you, but somehow you know where you are. [laughs]
With the album title in mind, I’m curious if there’s something about lifting imagery from dreams that feels different or significant for you.
Maybe. I do think we enjoy the first-person narrative – we are very much only talking about ourselves. We talk a little bit about somebody else, but always in relation to what you’ve done to them, or how you felt like you’ve wronged them or something. It’s first-person completely, dreams, right? It’s only you and your weird-ass brain. Maybe that’s why.
You reference some of your musical heroes on the album, including Neil Young and John Prine. But the one I wanted to talk about is the Beatles on ‘Get Enough’. I wonder if writing that song coincided with the release of the Get Back documentary.
I think it was fresh on our minds, yeah. And Stephen and I went to see Paul McCartney in North Carolina, which was hilarious and weird and just great. I love that song; Stephen wrote the majority of it. I filled in some things, but the Beatles getting back together was all him. It made me laugh – it touches on this idea that, Well, that’s never gonna happen, so good luck. [laughs] He was fresh on our minds, but what really happened was, Stephen had a bout of insomnia, he hadn’t been sleeping for like a week. Which was kind of torturous at times, but he claims to have heard the Beatles harmonizing in the shower. At a certain point when you haven’t slept enough, you start hearing things. Another moment of dream versus reality, so it really fit with the record. It wasn’t necessarily our first pick as the first single, but I think it rightfully showcases a lot of the themes of the record. It’s a dream journal, the whole thing. [laughs]
Beyond the demoing stage, what was it like seeing these songs come to life? How do you feel like your bandmates’ contributions brought a different colour to the songs than you’d envisioned?
I would love to talk about the whole band, because everyone does add their own colour. Michael Bain is our lead guitarist, and he’s always adding these incredibly intricate guitar parts. Everything he does I’m in awe of, and I don’t know how to explain it. He’s thoughtful, too, he likes to take his time writing stuff. Everything he did was almost, more or less, textures – I was like, “Let’s get more tones out of your guitar,” and he really took that and went with it. ‘Moon Ahead’ and ‘Ambitions’, he was just adding all of these amazing things – I was like, “I’m not going to heavily edit any of this because I love it all.” Usually, he writes so much that we have to edit it. I’m just like, “You’re too good. You have too many ideas we have to narrow down.”
Justin plays the bass primarily, but he did play some piano here and there. There were opportunities for people to bounce around. Sarah played congas for the first time. She also maybe got into marching band days with the song ‘Washington Square’. There’s a drum part at the end where she’s in full marching band mode, and you can just see her inner child coming out. With the fact that we added more drum machine to it, she found ways to play within that part as well. I think all of the interweaving that she’s doing there is incredible, moody and trippy in its own right. Santiago Dietche became our rhythm touring guitarist, and a song like ‘Sage’ – I had that way back when we were on tour with Somewhere, so I was starting to play that live, and he just immediately added all of these beautiful guitar parts within listening to Michael’s parts as well. There’s a lot more listening happening there, which was cool. And his voice is just beautiful, he sang on a few of the songs as well.
Apart from me and Stephen’s contributions, we also had other musicians come in. We had pedal steel by Justin Morris, which was then heavily manipulated by the mixer. It felt more textural and like a landscape of sound. And then Alexis Marsh, who plays woodwinds on the record – everything she sent us, I was like, “I love this. You’ve done an amazing arrangement, I have no notes. We’re gonna roll with this.” It was just all so big and wonderful. It’s very fun to collaborate with other people outside of the band as well, because they’re adding layers and emotions with their own instruments that you would never get.
One thing I love that seems to connect your and Stephen’s songwriting is the way you write about the feeling of an ending, or the space between a beginning and an ending. I hear it in ‘Moon Ahead’ and ‘John Prine’, but my favorite lyric is from ‘Get Enough’: “When it all comes down to an ending, I can feel it/ I can almost save it.” The ending of the song itself suggests it’s something intoxicating. For you, what else comes along with that feeling, whether it’s tied to that song or not? Is that something you can articulate?
I love the connecting of the dots. I guess what I can say is that while writing these songs, we were imagining what our lives were becoming, or about to be – Stephen had moved to North Carolina, I was going back and forth between Texas and North Carolina, moving there and leaving Texas – so I think there was a lot of what felt like a new chapter or fear of a new chapter. There was something happening where we were ending something here in Texas – it wasn’t ending, but it was changing, and it was enough to feel like it was out of our grasp anymore. Personally speaking, it felt like that. It’s like you still have the connections here, but you’re lost to maybe how to keep them. It’s not the first time I’ve moved in my life and felt like I was losing a community – I know it’s the modern age, we’re not losing anybody, we’re all talking to each other in other parts of the world. But I think that that feeling was ever-present in what I was writing, and what Stephen was writing, maybe, as well as our fears of our own relationship moving forward together in North Carolina after all this time being long distance. I don’t know where it’s getting us, but we’re still going.
Does releasing Bad Dream Jaguar feel like that sort of ending of a chapter?
I don’t know. These days, releasing a record means you have to tour it as well, and I think you add all these layers to how you’re processing it and maybe the feelings you had while writing those songs live to an audience each night for the next couple of months or whatever that we’re going to be doing it. And to friends and family, too – there’s people in the crowd who know you and know what you’ve been through. I hope it’s cathartic. I hope it feels like there’s new ways to interpret it or be comfortable in those feelings.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.