Killer Female Talent Spotlight: Sunscreen

Image: Sunscreen by Nina Tempone.

Author: Melody Menu

Welcome to the Killer Female Talent Spotlight: a fortnightly column dedicated to shining a greater light on female and gender non-conforming artists in the music industry.

Sun-drenched pop on the outside, emotive and impassioned on the inside, Sunscreen occupy a space in-between where songs about anxiety become catchy, danceable and fun. Through their lens, mental health is seen as something worth exploring in an honest and non-judgemental way, to the tune of bright, nourishing guitars, grounded by Sarah Sykes’ distinctive vocals.

Sykes speaks candidly about her journey with Sunscreen, from first playing keyboard in Flowertruck; being inspired to learn guitar and start a new band; writing the songs that would feature on their debut EP Just A Drop; and offering up advice for those about to take the leap with their own brand-new project.

How did Sunscreen take shape?

I’d been playing around on a guitar in my room and teaching myself chords, and I thought, it’d be fun to do this with others. I knew one of my friends Alex was a guitarist and bass player, to I invited him round for a jam, along with his friend Hugo who I knew was a really good drummer. We had a jam on a few songs and ideas I’d written, and it went on from there. We never really had any plan or strategy, we just did it for fun and to see what we could come up with. We used to practice in the garage of this huge share house in Newtown I lived in at the time. Borrowing other people’s gear, of course.

Tell us a little about the track Voices and the video.

Voices is a song that was born out of jam in the garage back in 2016. Hugo and Alex (who was playing bass at the time – now he’s the lead guitarist) started playing this crazy driving rhythm and four simple chords. I recorded them playing on my phone and later that evening wrote a vocal melody over the top. The song is about having anxiety, basically, and being mad at yourself when anxiety prevents you from doing the things you want to do, like being relaxed and happy around the person you like.

We shot the music video at the Newcastle Ocean Baths, down the street from where I grew up. It’s a place that’s very close to my heart. Especially the blue wall where a lot of the clip is shot. It sounds weird, but aesthetically, I’ve always been very drawn to that wall. It’s a surreal place. We went on the day of the week they clean the pool. We did it without asking for permission, but the security guard was chilled. I also made everyone wake up at 4am to get the sunrise shot… something which they quickly forgave me for when we saw how beautiful it was. There’s something about the look and lighting of a sunrise that’s impossible to imitate.

How have concepts of anxiety and uncertainty influenced your debut EP?

Lyrically, anxiety and uncertainty have been the driving behind what I’ve written. I wrote a lot of the lyrics when I was two or three years younger than I am now, living in a new big city on not much money and trying to make friends with what was at the time a crippling social anxiety. I feel like a lot these things directly influenced songs like ‘Voices’, ‘Arms’, ‘Tide’… even though the lyrics are based around romantic relationships, uncertainty is still the underlying theme. But who doesn’t feel anxious when they’re young?

From playing keyboard in Flowertruck, how did it feel to pick up guitar for the first time and start a new band from scratch?

It felt equally terrifying and exhilarating. It’s a very nice, exciting feeling to start a new project from scratch, because your possibilities are truly endless. You’ve got a huge blank canvas to build upon, and no one has any preconceptions of what you’re going to do. Which was nice. When I first started Sunscreen, a lot of people were referring to it as a Flowertruck side project, or a solo project, and I kept having to correct them, because it’s truly neither. We’re a band with four equal members contributing.

Having a blank canvas is also daunting, as I’m sure any artist would know. It took a while – over a year – for us to find the sound we now call our own. I think it’s necessary for any new band to have this period of time where they figure out what works and what doesn’t. There’s a lot of pressure on new bands these days to ‘make it’ instantly, and be big off their first release or first gig. I definitely felt that pressure in the beginning. But I’m grateful for the time we took, because now we know what we want to do and how we want to sound.

What would your advice be for other people wanting to break into live music but who might not know where to start?

I was very lucky, because my first band was Flowertruck, a band that had already formed before I joined. So everything on the organisation and booking front was already getting taken care of. We had gigs lined up, and the guys in Flowertruck are super proactive, enthusiastic and driven, so all I really had to do was play keyboard and learn the rest along the way. Playing gigs can be bloody terrifying, especially when you first start out.

My advice would be to be kind to yourself if you don’t know what you’re doing yet. Try not to get upset and mad at yourself if you don’t quite know how to book a show, or if you get nervous. Or if you get stage fright so bad you start crying. Don’t be embarrassed about it. It may seem hard to believe, but mostly, audiences are way more supportive than they are judgemental. My advice would be to practice up for your first gig, on your guitar or whatever instrument you’ve got, and play a short set to a few friends. There’s absolutely no shame in starting off small. In fact, I think it’s better to start small.

Don’t forget, every gig you play will be a learning experience. Learning through trial and error is a massive part of it. Keep your mind open and believe in yourself and your ideas!

What’s next for the band?

Next up we’re recording our debut album. Hopefully. Fingers crossed! So new tunes, very soon.

Sunscreen play The Lady Hampshire as part of VIVID Festival on Saturday June 16.

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