by Kristy Diaz
photo: Sumner Howells

Willow Hawks is living The Dream – or at least a version of it. When I call, they’re sitting in bed with their cat drinking iced coffee, and I almost feel like we should end the conversation right there because, honestly, what could be more important? DIY? Unlikely. But, aside from having a pretty ideal interview setup, they seem content. They’re back in therapy, they tell me with a confidence and sense of joy that sounds like healing, and at the start of this year, their band released their second album Clothbound, and it’s one of 2021’s best records.

Formed in Cleveland in 2016, the Sonder Bombs originally consisted of just Hawks and guitarist and keyboard player Jimmy Wilkens, having met through a mutual friend. Wilkens’ initial brief was to work with Hawks to put some demos down in order to find a band before they both eventually came to the obvious conclusion: “You know, we could just become a band!” After that first year as a two-piece, they became four and the band wrote their 2018 debut Modern Female Rockstar – a record full of whip-smart ire directed at all the right targets. It was personal and political at once, with tracks like ‘Title’ and ‘U(ke) Ain’t Enough’ challenging sexism in the music industry with all the wisdom and wit bestowed upon young people advocating for their space in the world. 

“Those are like the first songs I’d ever written,” Hawks explains. “Part of why [the album] ended up being so political was because being in this band and writing those songs was the first time in my life that I had ever felt like I had a voice and I could talk and yell and rage about the things that upset me within the music industry and within the world in general. I did have a lot of anger at that point. I think that’s part of why it was such an aggressive punk record, even if it is based on ukulele,” they laugh, referencing the instrument they defend against people (okay, men) who don’t think you can write a punk record with one.

Following the album’s release, everything moved quickly. The band booked an intensive touring schedule and started pulling together songs for the next record. “Music really did become my whole life after we dropped Modern Female Rockstar,” Hawks says. In addition to their existing label, Boston/Cleveland-based indie Take This To Heart Records, the band teamed up with Big Scary Monsters for the UK/EU release of Clothbound, a move that saw them expand their homegrown fanbase further overseas. And as they’ve done so, their sound has developed, too, emerging from the “growing pains” Hawks describes as having been through between writing the two albums. “We started Sonder Bombs when I was 19, and I’m 24 now. It’s a big age difference,” they say. 

But their age wasn’t the only thing that changed. While touring Modern Female Rockstar, Hawks’ mental health was severely strained, the toll of two years of back-to-back travel becoming unmanageable. “Touring is difficult, especially when it’s your first time really travelling the whole country because before that we had only done regional tours. So, you don’t have the friends on the West Coast that you would have if you had been there multiple times. There was a lot of uncertainty on where we were going to be staying and how we were going to eat,” they explain. During a particularly taxing – and lonely – nine-week run, they had to call time. “I had a couple of really bad panic attacks and an absolute breakdown which sent me home for a week. I called my managers like, ‘I have to get off the road’.” 

On Clothbound, we see Hawks in a place where their health and relationships needed more urgent attention than the opinions of some boring industry types. Musically, it joins a wave of emo-punk meets indie-pop that is delicate and untouchable at once, laden with huge, full melodies that highlight the most distinctive thing about the band: Hawks’ voice. It is no stretch to equate it with some of the genre’s greats such as Frances Quinlan or Hayley Williams – robust, textured and effortlessly note-perfect even when they contort it through the yells and gritted teeth that deliver their innermost emotions. Clothbound is a journey of sadness and self-love existing alongside each other, and a person doing everything they can to hold it together through interpersonal conflicts and imperfect relationships. “Because there’s so many different ways to love a person, there’s a lot of different ways to be hurt by people, too,” Hawks reflects. 

The shift in thematic focus from the political to the personal shouldn’t be mistaken for apathy, though: “The world is constantly on fire. I’m still mad. I still talk about things and voice my opinion, but I’m also in therapy now, which is a big deal because when I was writing Modern Female Rockstar I hadn’t been in therapy for a really long time, so my relationship with my mental health was not super stable. Clothbound ended up being mostly about that because I was trying to like, not die.” 

Self-care – in the truest, least appropriated-by-capitalism meaning – is one of the most compelling ideas on the record. On the album’s upbeat second single, ‘Crying is Cool’, Hawks teaches a lesson in self-compassion while inviting anyone to join them for the ride, feel their feelings and show vulnerability. (“No one ever tells us it’s okay, but it’s okay, yeah you are safe”). But while it sounds like showing up for a friend, it’s actually Hawks showing up for themself following the problems they faced on tour and the death of their grandfather. “I had all of these feelings inside of me, but I hadn’t been able to cry for a pretty long time – and a long time for me is not actually that long for most people because I cry like three times a day. I love that shit,” they half-joke. “I was trying to soothe myself and be my own friend in writing that song. I finally am able to cry now and be more vulnerable with people. It really did change stuff for me.” 

Perhaps the most obvious aspect of the band’s development on Clothbound is how different all of the songs sound, something Hawks also attributes to this tumultuous period: “There is a lot of shit that I was trying to get out on those songs. I think that’s also why there’s so much variety on the record because there wasn’t as much of a specific direction or theme; it was just everything that I went through in that two-to-three-year span and how I processed [it].” On later single ‘k.’, the band – completed by drummer Jer Berkin and bassist Kevin Cappy – veers into hardcore punk territory, marking a new sound for them and fitting the subject matter of dealing with the fallout of manipulation and emotional abuse. “The first thing I wrote was that riff that sounds pretty nasty. And I had never written anything that nasty on the ukelele,” Hawks laughs. “I immediately brought it to Jimmy and Cappy and was like, ‘this is going to be a heavy song, a mean song,’ and Jimmy just ran with it. He loves hardcore, so most of the elements on that song are from his brain.”

The full range of influences in the band came to fruition when writing Clothbound – in a cramped, empty pie shop in the summer heat, no less – as they collaborated in ways they hadn’t on their debut, the result of long-developed security in their writing process. “We all actively try to work together when we write music, which again is way different to how we approached Modern Female Rockstar. Even now, I’m writing new songs and everybody is more involved than they were with Clothbound. So it’s just going to get better and better,” says Hawks. “We trust each other a lot. I used to get scared when I would write a new song and have to show it to Jimmy, I would always be really self-conscious, and now I can write a song and send demos over in the group chat and everybody just hypes me up. It’s a really nice space to be in and to be creative with your best friends. I feel very safe.”

It’s clear that the journey Hawks has taken through therapy, self-searching and growing up as part of The Sonder Bombs has left them more self-assured than ever as I ask if they – and their ukelele – feel more ‘taken seriously’ now. “That is the best part: I don’t give a fuck anymore,” they respond. “Like, I don’t really care if a bunch of dudes at the top of the music industry food chain take us seriously or not. I’m just going to keep making whatever I want to make because that’s what empowers me. Having that creative control and expression is what empowers me.” I instantly think back to 2018’s ‘Title’, where Hawks sings, “I don’t wanna be your merch girl, I wanna be your goddamn idol”, and you know what, I think they might be.