Julie Hawk began to experiment with sound way before she ever wanted to become a frontwoman. A self-taught guitarist from Galway, Ireland, the bassist-singer for the indie three-piece HAVVK spent time exploring the sonic capabilities of her voice at home as a young girl, attempting to translate the sounds of Joanna Newsom’s harp to the chords of an acoustic guitar.
After being drawn to the artist St. Vincent as a somewhat secret mentor, Julia as a DIY polymath proceeded to knuckle down and study the intricacies of all-encompassing artistic practices. Today, as the face of HAVVK, she is proud of the process and applies all she’s learned, from complex lyrics to running her own label.
Sonically, HAVVK oscillates between a high-pitched cry for justice and a soft caress of emotional understanding that is outlined by heavy melodic guitars and a thrumming bass heartbeat. With a deeply independent ethos, the band tackles the complexities of the modern emotional landscape as well as fundamental politics, such as abortion rights, gender inequality, loneliness and the potential extremes of online culture.
As the Berlin-based band periodically releases cryptic music videos before the big release of their two-part first album Cause & Effect, PRØHBTD spoke with Julie about the formative power of being away from home, why being a frontwoman matters, and how to stay alive and create during times of adversity.
Do you remember the first time you thought about becoming a musician?
The transition from being a fan and concert-goer to a musician happened when I first got into St. Vincent, around the time her album Actor was released. Rather than just listening to her music, I was almost obsessively studying what she was doing. I looked into how artful and meticulous she was about everything, not only performing, but really putting a whole, fully-formed concept and artwork behind what she does.
It was the first time I'd really started getting very nerdy about listening to someone, wanting to seriously learn, rather than just sitting back and thinking, “You’re amazing, I'm going to worship you.” Instead, I thought, “I'm going to make you my mentor, even if you don’t know about it.”
What did you think you were going to be before then?
I really didn't know. I studied English. It was a bit of an escape, to put off the decision of what should I do with my life, but I learned a lot at university. I didn't end up wanting to pursue literature or anything like that, but I sure as hell learned how to focus. I got hugely into writing off the back of that.
I studied in Galway, which is a really small city. It’s an amazing place to grow up in, but by the third year of university, I needed to get out. There was the sense that I wasn't really changing, growing or becoming who I would eventually be as a person.
When you're in your hometown, everyone knows you as exactly who you were for the past 20 years. I actually had a very eye-opening trip to Montreal during my university years. It was where I actually started listening to a lot of the bands that ended up influencing me, like TV on the Radio. It was also the first time I introduced myself to a whole city of people who didn’t know me. The fact I was making first impressions was hugely liberating. It’s not like I became a very different person, but I was a much more open-minded version of myself.
I found myself having conversations that I might have shied away from before, and noticing I had opinions that I hadn't really realized I'd formed, or maybe I'd only kept to myself before.
From Galway, you went to London, and from London you went to Berlin. What are the differences between these cities’ music scenes?
Ironically, I’m actually getting to know the Irish scene way more since moving to Berlin. I'm not always there, so I might have an unusual perspective, but the music community back in Ireland is just so diverse and so hard working. Particularly in recent years, the scene has been massively undermined by the fact that living costs are very high, and it's really hard to keep the scene going and keep supporting each other healthily when so many people are struggling just to make rent, and venues are shutting down.
I think something that's been really influential on Irish people’s desire to take ownership of the music scene was the fact that, over the past six years, we've been so politically vocal as a young society. We've really seen what we can do when we pull together.
We passed the Marriage Equality Act in Ireland back in 2015, which was massively down to younger generations coming together and realizing that they wanted to change the country they lived in. The Repeal vote last year also passed, which means that abortion is now legal. That is a huge deal in Irish culture. I think the Repeal vote probably couldn't have happened without Marriage Equality first, and now there’s a desire to tackle the housing and homelessness crises as well. Ten years ago, we might have thought, “What can we do, we're just young people.” I think that also seeps down into the music scene and makes people want to see it thrive.
There's so much happening in London every night, and because there are thousands of musicians living there, it's so competitive that it feels like it’s at a bit of a standstill sometimes with the amount of choice available. I think that makes it difficult for a real sense of community to kick off, but the things you can actually see and do there are incredible, if you can afford it.
As for Berlin, I think I've managed to find a scene that, at least for now, is somewhere in the middle. It’s somewhere artists can achieve a work/life balance. There is also definitely a sense of respect to choosing a creative career. Plus, I feel less on edge than I did when I was in London. There, I felt like I had to socially justify my lifestyle choice as a musician, whereas here it's very accepted and respected to be doing something creative with your life. I think it's seen as a genuine and necessary part of the community.
Of course, we do have the same issues [in Berlin] as a lot of other places⎯rents are going up and venues are shutting down, but it's not as rapid and it's been an incredibly active city for decades. So, hopefully, people will fight more naturally to keep things open and to protect the rights of artists and make sure that spaces are safe and inclusive.
How do you look after yourself as a young creative person making music and living during a time of worldwide burnout?
Something I realized recently was that, for a long time, I thought I was the only one feeling [burnt out] that way. I think everyone else also thought they were the only ones feeling that way. Something I've learned since the beginning of last year is to just give myself a bit of space to be more transparent with people about the fact that some of this [creative work] is difficult. I’m not complaining about it, but it’s not easy.
For example, online, there is a pressure to make things look like they just happen. You know yourself that that's not true, but you still believe it when you see other people's social media feeds⎯that things are just happening for them, that they naturally look and sound amazing, and have this great story to tell all the time so they're always looking like they’re having fun.
I started an organization called SelfMade, around late January 2018. Joanna Bain, an artist I met online, and I wanted to start an event that celebrated artists, young and old, who were fairly DIY and doing a lot of work that was unacknowledged on their online feeds. We wanted to do something that was a performance, but that also facilitated a panel discussion to talk about the day-to-day reality of [creative] work⎯something that wasn’t about people sitting around complaining about how it was hard but was actually about celebrating the dedication and the skills that go into your craft.
It was one of the healthiest, most rewarding evenings that I've ever been to, never mind the fact that I was involved in running it. It really fed back into my daily headspace, where I'm giving myself a break from thinking that the slightly more boring sides of making music are things that I shouldn't enjoy. It's changed my attitude towards things like sitting down and planning a tour, for example. It is hard work, but it's really satisfying, and it takes skills that I should actually be proud of, instead of saying, “This belongs in an office.”
If we're all being completely honest⎯and it’s really hard to be⎯what it takes to make music into a sustainable career has really changed in the last 10 years. For my own headspace, it’s been good to have conversations [with others] that allow the definition of success in music to be different for everyone so that I'm not constantly thinking, “This person got this many streams and I don't have them.” I think long term, that's something that I really would like to see everyone in the music scene to start to realize.
That redefinition has been massively important for me in the last year. I'm a bit of a workaholic, so I'm also trying to make more time for myself by reading, swimming, running and just really enjoying food. I’m trying to look at those things as not being “a reward” but actually just being really necessary for my life.
Exploring my own feminism and what it means to me has also been important because I take a huge amount of joy in a lot of things that some people might think are shallow. I really love makeup and getting dressed up sometimes, and I'm trying to just be more forgiving of myself and think it’s just great that these things bring me joy. It doesn't have to define how you're living up to other people's expectations of you. They can just be things that make you happy.
Speaking about feminism, what issues are specific to women in music currently that still need to be tackled and discussed?
I think everyone is affected by matters of body image today, especially in terms of what they see online, but commercially this [industry] is hugely geared towards women. It's a billion-dollar market. There’s no denying that this is really damaging, in terms of how women feel like they should look and the money and time they need to put in to meet societal standards. When you add that element into the fact that you're the face of a project or a band, it's really stressful. It’s very isolating because it's not nice to admit that you're feeling those doubts about yourself.
Actually, for our first SelfMade panel, we had all women speakers. Guys are welcome, of course, because what we do and speak about is relevant for all genders, but we're very determined to put in the work and take steps to redress the imbalance between the number of women and men you see on stage.
The one thing that came up a lot in that first panel especially was about being taken seriously as a musician⎯as a technical expert, as a professional, rational expert in what you do, the daily hoops you have to jump through to navigate being taken seriously [as a woman in the music industry], whereas guys having [technical] skills and knowledge about the industry is sometimes perceived as a given. It’s total bullshit⎯we're all as confused as each other.
Another thing is feeling safe in the industry⎯making sure that venues are keeping an eye out for behavior that's endangering or isolating women and LGBTQ+ people. That's something I really want to see change, but it's a slow process because the industry is so dominated by male voices and perspectives. It's starting to happen, but obviously it takes time.
Talking about being taken seriously, often people will immediately box up women performers into a “female fronted” category instead of taking time to actually listen to the music.
Yes, “female-fronted” isn't a genre of music. I'll tell you that straight. But it’s tricky because for me I think it's also politically important to say, “Yes, this band has a frontwoman, and don't pretend that's not fucking cool.” You have to toe the line and question yourself: Why are you pointing this out? In many instances, it's really important to highlight that it is a political act, but sometimes it’s also hugely misguided⎯it’s just someone jumping on a buzzword and trying to fill a quota.
You were talking about different interpretations of success. What are you working towards?
I’m starting to realize that it's cool to have long-term and short-term goals and give the space to allow those things to change⎯not to see them as failures, but to see them as okay. What I consider to be a success has changed now and that's okay.
Right now, I want the band to be something that I can pursue, something that I can take on the road and something that I can really connect with listeners through, whether that's at gigs or online. That would be my dream for 2019. We’re already planning tours, so that’s in motion.
Short term, I'm really excited about our label, Veta Records. Matt [Harris, our guitarist] and I run it, and we want artists to feel empowered by the fact that there's a gap in the industry: Fewer labels are going out and putting thousands of dollars into bands right now. It sucks, and it would be great if people were just getting signed and being supported, but we are really determined, and one thing that drives the label and the way we work is that we have all these skills [we’ve gathered over the years]. DIY is not anything to be ashamed of. There's just so much you can do when you get enough creatives with different skills all into a team together.
That big gap in the industry just means that there's room for you to take up some space for yourself. So that's what we're driven by at the moment. I just want to see the label have an influence on some artists and the wider community that we’re involved with. We just want to help bring more musicians together.