Julia Cumming on Sunflower Bean & Embracing the Performance of Makeup

It’s not likely you’ll catch musician Julia Cumming on stage bare-faced. The frontwoman and bassist of the Brooklyn-based rock band Sunflower Bean views makeup as “an opportunity to express yourself, like a calling card,” she says from her hotel room in Grand Rapids, Mich., while on tour. Cumming and the band are promoting their latest album, Headful of Sugarreleased in May 2022, by hitting the road for the first time since 2019, when they toured as openers for Beck, Cage the Elephant, and Spoon.

This time around, Cumming—who recently starred in campaigns for Saint Laurent and Diesel—is playing with colorful eyeshadow and embellishments, such as crystals, for her performance makeup. While it’s a form of expression for the 26-year-old creative, it’s also a sign of the times.

“There are so many areas where women or people are supposed to hate themselves, and beauty and skincare have been purveyors of that,” Cumming says. “I feel like there’s a switch happening now, where there’s an opportunity to accept ourselves and be more confident because we’re treating ourselves properly.”

The pandemic was also a catalyst for Cumming’s views on beauty to sharpen. She embraced self-care as a form of self-soothing, taking up an interest in skincare and letting her brown roots grow long enough to belie her bleached-blonde hair. “Being blonde is a drama,” she says, tousling her two-tone bob in front of her Zoom camera. (Still, hair bonds permitting, she plans to be blonde forever.)

Here, Cumming shares her skin-care go-tos, her secret to performance-ready makeup, and drawing inspiration from rock icons like Nina Hagen, Joan Jett—and the most alt, rock and roll, devil-may-care spirit of them all: Joan Didion.

Photograph by Pierre Crosby

Where do music and beauty intersect for you?

Makeup is a performance. It’s similar to style. I’ve definitely played around with that on different albums. My manager and I are creatively close, and we had a very specific blue eye that we did for the entire Twentytwo in Blue [Sunflower Bean’s 2018 album] campaign. We created that look with one of those Mac pencils, but they discontinued it. After that, we did this stadium tour with Beck and that’s when we tried bigger stuff every night—big rhinestone looks, things like that. On this album, we’ve simplified it, but are also trying a lot more. I understand my face, my eye shape more. I can’t do lips as much because it’ll get all over the microphone—and then all over my face. Still, it sets the tone.

What’s your secret to keeping makeup on while performing?

It took me a long time to discover setting sprays. Right now, I use the Charlotte Tilbury Airbrush Flawless Setting Spray. As long as I layer it in between each step, it does really hold and has a natural look.

What’s your skincare routine like?

I’ve always been a sunscreen addict. Right now, I’m using the Supergoop City Sunscreen Serum. During daytime, it’s always sunscreen and a little bit of moisturizer if I’m not doing a show. For nighttime, I love the Luna Sleeping Night Oil from Sunday Riley. That’s the first retinol product I’ve gotten into. I also love rose hip oil and Bio Oil. I did get into slugging. I have Vaseline and I try to do a little bit of massage.

How do you care for your hair?

I went blonde when I was 16. I went to a horrible salon, and it took me a long time to get it right. It wasn’t until I met Chelsey Pickthorn—she’s an amazing colorist who taught me about double-processing. During the pandemic, I let so much of my brown hair grow, and I felt like I was accepting that’s who I am. But also, I want to be blonde forever. I feel like the two-tone thing that we’re doing is a visual representation of the two parts of myself. Being blonde is a drama, for sure. If I didn’t feel like it was so much a part of my identity, I wouldn’t do it.

What’s the best beauty advice you’ve received, and who was it from?

My mom was a musician. She has always been this strong, professional woman, and she took care of herself. She did exercises every night. She always stretched her face. She always used cold cream. Putting that time and effort into her body has led to her longevity. I always looked up to her, and seeing my mom take care of herself definitely has had an effect on me.

Who’s your beauty icon?

I’m definitely inspired by artistic women. Nina Hagen was really inspiring to me during the pandemic. I look at the icons of rock: Joan Jett, Courtney Love, Debbie Harry, Kim Gordon, Patti Smith, even Joan Didion. It’s not necessarily about the literal look, it’s about the spirit of those women, the realness and imperfection.

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