"Heavy" Rotation: Cece June's new EP paints an emotional self-portrait


Cece June holds an electric guitar and looks away from the camera.

Cece June chronicles loss, acceptance, and growth on How Did This Get So Heavy? Photo by Gabby Mack.

For Cece June, life is filled with near-misses and unresolved emotions.

The New York City singer-songwriter processes a gamut of feelings—from heartbreak to frustration to hope—about unclosed chapters on her latest indie-folk EP, How Did This Get So Heavy?

“It's a feeling that emulates the void when something is no longer in your life. It’s that feeling of trying to grapple with not having people around anymore or accepting that you’re going to have to move on,” said June, a University of Michigan alumna from Barcelona, Spain.

“It’s also feeling displaced or feeling frustrated. For instance, on ‘Things Unsaid,’ you’re [ruminating] on why something could have gone wrong and thinking, ‘I could potentially have an idea of what went wrong, but if I wanted to talk to the person for them to tell me and for me to get closure I can’t because they’re no longer in my life.’ There’s no way to answer those questions to let you move forward and move on easier.”

Despite those challenges, June faces her emotions head-on and looks to the future on her sophomore release. She chronicles loss, acceptance, and growth across eight tracks, which feature cathartic lyrics and wistful stripped-down instrumentation.

“I found solace in seeing the songs evolve as I evolved as a person myself. This EP was written and recorded over two-and-a-half to three years,” June said.

“There were songs that would ebb and flow, and there were times when I was recording them in the thick of the pain or times when I was reminiscing … and no longer being in the depths of that feeling or the grief or the heartbreak.”

To learn more, I spoke with June about her EP and the inspiration behind it.

Q: You relocated to New York City and started working in renewable energy after graduating from U-M last year. What’s it been like making the transition from college to the professional world?
A: It’s been the fulfillment of a dream; I spent my senior year working toward making this a reality. I landed my dream job and work in renewable energy, which is a passion of mine. Moving here has been awesome, and I love this city.

I’m from Barcelona, and I’m a cosmopolitan. I loved Ann Arbor for all of its things, but I miss the hustle and bustle of the city, the walkability, and the amount of things there are to do. It’s like my worlds have converged here; I have a lot of friends from Barcelona who are in New York, and I have family members, newfound friends, and [other] friends from Michigan. While I’m still acclimating and settling in, these past few months since graduating have been incredible.

Q: What’s been inspiring you from a musical standpoint lately?
A: I have been recording old stuff. I’ll write songs, and then I’ll be in the midst of recording another project. I’ll put them on hold, and then when I complete a project, I can get to recording those songs. That’s where I’m at right now. I’m casually recording with no pressure on myself. Maybe in the coming months once I fully settle in, I’ll think about putting in the time … reserving an afternoon in the week strictly dedicated to music.

QHow Did This Get So Heavy? explores a cycle of deep emotions and internal struggles experienced over time. How did writing those eight songs prove to be cathartic for you?
A: They’ve been written at different points over the last three years, and again for different relationships or what I like to call the “almosts.” This EP is a lot about the “almosts” or the frustration of that. … I wanted to channel the myth of Sisyphus.

My intent was to have that cyclicality in the EP where the first few songs are very raw and super heartbreaking. There’s hope in the end, and there’s a shedding that goes into it. There’s the understanding that you’re gonna go over it again, and you’re gonna hurt again, but ultimately you’ll get out of it like you have plenty of times before.

Excerpts of excerpts of Anthony Goicolea’s artwork, "Anonymous Self-Portrait"

Cece June features excerpts of GRID II from Anthony Goicolea’s Anonymous Self-Portrait exhibit on the cover of How Did This Get So Heavy?

Q: How did you come to select Anthony Goicolea’s artwork as the cover of your EP?
A: My father is an art gallerist, and I grew up in the art world. Anthony Goicolea is a New York-based Cuban-American artist who I’ve always loved. This EP cover—and as well as the singles—are all part of an exhibition that he did called Anonymous Self-Portrait in 2016 at my father’s gallery. Around that time, I was going to include one of them on my first EP, but I thought, “No, save it because you’re going to want to make something with them that’s bigger and more important.” I asked Anthony for his blessing ... and he was very willing from the beginning.

Q: How does Anonymous Self-Portrait visually represent the overall narrative and themes covered throughout the EP’s eight tracks?
A: I don’t think there could have been a more perfect representation of the songs in visual mode. Ultimately, these figures are shedding … and there’s a feeling of discomfort and needing to move, stretch, and contort yourself around others to feel comfortable again. There’s a feeling of nakedness and exposure.

The EP cover was edited—the original artwork has 12 figures. I took part of it, and then I Photoshopped out the figure in the center so it’s more like a frame. There are eight figures ultimately, and there are eight songs on the EP. The singles were very much part of them, and then I have the collection of the songs in more of a grid mode. The artwork is called GRID II. Anthony’s work constantly changes, and he transforms himself all the time.

When I was in the countryside in Spain, I decided to emulate those figures in a photoshoot, and I used them as promo material [on Instagram]. The way I arranged my feed was to follow a synergy, so you have the actual EP cover, and then I used some of the pictures to share the music credits. It’s all part of the narrative and visuals because I value visuals as much as I do the music. It concluded the narrative and made it reach its full potential.

Q: “Coffee Turned Cold” examines the heartbreak and loss from a past relationship. How did writing this track help you process that relationship? How did Hanya Yanagihara’s 2015 novel, A Little Life, inspire this track as well?
A: This one is truly about feeling depressed. A lot of times, I think of songs as colors, and it’s not me having synesthesia. It’s more like in my mind when I picture the song in my head and the imagery that it evokes … I think of songs as artworks because I did art history and I grew up in the art world. There are stories and images in my head, and this is purely gray and dull.

[This song] wasn’t about a personal breakup. This was me after reading A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. It was a [book] that tore and broke me—I couldn’t read a book for seven months afterward. The song’s not about the people in the [book] or the thought line. … It’s more about the feeling of grief, loss, and sadness that was left in my body. That [book] prompted me to write this song and it happened in one sitting. The book is set in New York City, and the second verse is me thinking of a city scene where you’re in your apartment, the window is open, you can hear the cars, and there are cigarettes.

Q: “Coffee Turned Cold” also pays homage to Miles Davis. Why did you decide to pay tribute to him on this track?
A: Miles Davis, to me, is a huge pleasure of an artist that I love to listen to. That was very literal, and that was me picturing something in my head and describing it in the song. There are little Easter eggs spread throughout the [EP], and when I sing, “When we listened to Miles …” the horn melody does the melody of “Someday My Prince Will Come” by Miles Davis. There’s little ode or nod to Miles, and the song starts with the sound of putting the needle on a [record], and then it ends with the [record] nearing the end and becoming slower, and it drops [several] octaves. This song is very sad, and to this day, it remains a feeling of sadness.

Q: You worked on the video for “Coffee Turned Cold” with directors Ania Casajuana and Sergio Avellaneda at your grandmother’s house in Barcelona. How did that setting help inspire the video?
A: [The EP’s opener] “Prelude (Ro)” features my grandma and me speaking. She’s telling me about her defense mechanism in love and being scared sometimes to be overbearing and smothering, which is how I feel a lot of the time. Her house is like my safe haven, and it’s also an incredible place. That’s where I started listening to Miles Davis—her house is always full of jazz. I recorded the music video there and on the beaches and streets of Barcelona and the metro.

For the “Coffee Turned Cold” video, I went home for Christmas in 2022 and I was there for two weeks. I spent a week and a half doing the video … and I was so grateful for [Ania and Sergio]—they did an incredible job.

Q: “Things Unsaid” examines feeling lost and confused after a relationship failed to progress. How did writing this track help you find some closure?
A: I don’t think the song gave me closure if I’m being quite honest. The reason why the verse of [Fleet Foxes’] “Blue Spotted Tail” encapsulates the feeling of the song is that it’s a big question mark. The [lyrics]—“Why in the night sky are the lights hung? / Why is the Earth moving ‘round the sun?”—are metaphysical questions, and they’re the biggest things you can think about. It’s brought down to the minute feeling of you distancing yourself so you wouldn’t be overbearing and the other person was still overwhelmed by your presence. It’s also about what you could have done better or how much less you could have given for it to go right. Ultimately, when you’re thinking about those things, it means you didn’t have to be in that relationship in the beginning.

Doing the arrangement for this song, if there was catharsis or a transformation of feelings, Tyler [Thenstedt] with the electric guitar was so awesome as well as the buildup and the violins. It’s one of my favorite songs. … It took on so many shapes with rearranging and having new ideas. It didn’t give me closure, but it’s still a song that keeps transforming.

[“Blue Spotted Tail”] also goes hand-in-hand with How Did This Get So Heavy? What is this, and how did this get so heavy? What are we talking about? Is it the world, is it you, or is it a specific moment in time? In the first verse, I sing the [lyric], “The last song she heard was / ‘Blue Spotted Tail,’” and I end with it. From the moment I wrote this song in my room with my guitar, that had to be there. For me, it perfectly leads into the interlude.

One thing about the [EP] and the difference between making an [EP] versus a mere collection of songs is where the songs are placed, why they are placed, and how you are tying them together. I think of How Did This Get So Heavy? as one long song … in the sense that I’ve thought about the intro and outro of every song and how it fits with the previous one, and the same with the energy levels and what it means for the storyline. I like the raw ending of “Things Unsaid” as being recorded with a phone in a room, and you can hear a bus go by on Huron Street in Ann Arbor.

Q: “Tiempo—Samu’s Version” addresses moving forward after losing someone and processing the pain from it. How did writing this track help you explore that grief?
A: I wrote this song when I was 16, and this was the earliest song I wrote. I did write it around the time that one of my good friends died. When you write a song when you’re going through that, you put it in a drawer. Even though I was performing this song and so many people in Spain know this song and love it … I bottled it up because I didn’t think it fit any of my projects. I had worked on it with my old producer in Spain, and it sounded so poppy in a way that I felt so estranged from it. This song was no longer anything that was relevant to me.

Q: How did producer Samuel Uribe Botero help you transform “Tiempo” from its original version?
A: When we were in the studio, Sam [Uribe Botero] looked at me and said, “Let’s be positive. Let’s do it again and reconstruct it.” We kept it to piano and voice—and at the end, for texture purposes, he added clarinet and violin. This was a song that Sam and I brought to a slower, rawer [feel]. It starts with Sam pressing on the piano strings, and I said, “We’re going to call this Samu’s Version” because it’s a visible ode and nod to him. He’s the most talented person I know, and I had such an incredible fortune to work with him on this. It’s “Samu’s Version” because it’s very much our dynamic, his incredible talent, and the way that he’s played every instrument on this album aside from recording, mixing, and producing.

It’s also “Samu’s Version” because maybe in the future I’ll want to turn this into a more intricate and arranged drum production. I didn’t want to call it “Tiempo” because it wasn’t true to the original version, but it was more like a “Tiempo” reimagined or a stripped-down version. It’s almost like I had lost touch with this song and it became important to me again, which is why I made it my third single.

Q: “Born Again” represents feeling weighed down by the past, yet summons the courage for strength and hope in the future. How did writing this track help you feel rejuvenated?
A: When it was the winter semester of my sophomore year, I came back after spending my fall semester because of COVID in Spain. It was totally different, and I was no longer an athlete. I was living alone, and I had started a new life. It was time to try new things, and I joined The Michigan Daily. I started writing for the campus culture beat … and I took it more on the art route, and I liked to review exhibits and freeform [things]. One of the first articles I wrote was a review and interview of Remember Me As Holy by Lily Talmers. That album … changed my life, and it came to me when I needed it to come. It ripped me open, but then it reconstructed me. It’s, to this day, one of my favorite albums ever.

I was in New York in late February of that year, and when I came back, I was on the plane. When I landed in Detroit after listening to Lily’s album for the entirety of the trip. … I had just put out my first EP, the one that’s titled Pieces, and I thought, “How the heck can Lily Talmers write that way?” Between the time when I landed and got off the plane, I asked myself, “How would Lily write a song?” I put myself in her shoes, and ultimately it’s far off from what she would have written, but I wrote the entirety of “Born Again” in those five minutes on the plane. It was there, and it had to be written down. In the following weeks, I put in the melody, and then it started taking shape.

Q: What was it like to collaborate with Lily Talmers on “Born Again?” How did she help shape that track?
A: [As for Lily], I was a fan before I was a friend. But the [following] fall, she came back, although she had graduated, to live in Ann Arbor. We had coffee one day, and I said, “I have this song, and it’s ultimately like an ode to you. Would you be open to being on it?” And she said yes, and I played her the song and sent her a demo. She came back and said, “I changed the verse, and I added a verse,” and she made it hers. In the middle of it, when Lily’s verse comes in, it’s a different tempo, and it’s a different vibe … it’s her.

It was so incredible to record that … and I was the luckiest girl because I had an incredible band. They were so giving from the beginning … and caring about my ideas and generous with theirs. We recorded “Born Again” live in the studio, and it was a one-take thing. That’s how “Born Again” came to be, which, to this day, is a dream come true. This album is a memory box of my time in Ann Arbor and who I was during college. It’s sweet to have this to remember my time at Michigan, and having Lily on it is like the cherry on top. It’s a wonderful way of closing that chapter.

Q: You started recording the eight tracks for How Did This Get So Heavy? at U-M’s Duderstadt  Center recording studio in 2021. How did the songs evolve over the next two-and-a-half years with producer Samuel Uribe Botero and other collaborators?
A: Sam and I met in April of 2021. In May of 2021, he and I started doing rough demos of four songs in his home studio. In the fall [of 2021], we recorded “Coffee Turned Cold” almost entirely, and that’s when I met Tyler Thenstedt—he plays bass. We did a very baseline recording of “Things Unsaid,” and it almost got stripped to its core, and we redid drums and a lot of things.

It wasn’t until early 2022 that we met Casey [Cheatham] and we formed a band, Cece and The Crawlers. We were performing for the sake of performing and having a lot of fun. But in the studio—because we were a solid four-piece—we were able to rehearse … which made things sound more intentional and deliberate. All of the songs were recorded at the Duderstadt; the ones we recorded at Sam’s were preliminary demos. Some finishing touches were done at Sam’s [home studio].

Q: Collectively, how did Tyler Thenstedt (bass, electric guitar), Casey Cheatham (drums), Lucas Tittle (violin), Micah Martin Huisman (cello), Eli Heinen (trombone), Ryan Venora (trumpet), Rik Mack (slide guitar), Kaysen Chown (violin), and Betty Gibbs (piano) help elevate their respective tracks on How Did This Get So Heavy?
A: I couldn’t have been put in a better place where I’m in my junior year and in the middle of the Ann Arbor music scene, which is so vital and vibrant. I could dare to want to have a trombone, cello, and violin because there were so many people who were willing to be on my record. Because of the nature of being a student, we’re more willing to give our time, work, and talent to the making of something.

This album, I owe it to my friends and everyone that made it possible. I’m not a musician, but I’m a songwriter, I’m a singer, and I’m a self-taught piano and guitar player. This truly was an exercise of patience from the musician's side of things. We found a way, a dynamic via reference tracks, and said things like, “Why don’t we play the guitar like Bon Iver does in this song? Or how about the drums in this Sufjan Stevens [song]?” We understood each other ultimately … and the organicism of saying, “Take the liberty of this feeling and do with it what you want.” I could lead it or give them melodic ideas, but it was also beautiful to see the input of everyone and their style in making the songs their own. It’s an album that goes beyond me.

Q: You mentioned earlier that you’re recording new material. How is that material taking shape now?
A: Right now, I’ve only been working on one song. It’s the most intimate, raw, and heartbreaking song that I’ve written because it’s ultimately about my homeland and missing my roots … and about feeling if I went back it wouldn’t take me in the way that I would want it to take me in and that I belonged.

It’s still in the raw stages of the song, but it has a waltzy rhythm. I’m recording with Palmer Nix, and the music I’m doing right now and going forward is leaning more toward synths, pads, and drums. It’s like Sylvan Esso, Bon Iver, and artists that use modulations of instruments and vocoders. The next project, whether it’s a few singles or a whole album, will lean more toward experimental and electronic music.

Lori Stratton is a library technician, writer for Pulp, and writer and editor of strattonsetlist.com.

➥ "The Fine Art of Music: Cece June's lovely, emotional songs are the result of listening and looking" [Pulp, June 14, 2022]