“I swore to myself I wasn’t going to be a musician,” laughs Lily Sturt-Bolshaw. This promise didn’t last long. Now, Sturt-Bolshaw and Amy Illingworth front the hypnotizing dream folk band Sunflower Thieves. After years of performing together, from covering songs in their local pub to touring across the country, Sunflower Thieves has become a testament to the duo’s long-standing friendship, ever-growing influences, and personal introspection.
“I didn’t study music until after I’d left sixth form because I didn’t think it could come of anything,” Illingworth explains, recalling her academic introduction to music. “You’re always told it’s not going to be more than a hobby, or you’re treated like it’s a hobby because you play for free and you do it because you enjoy it.” It wasn’t until the release of their single “Heavy Weight” that things began to take on a new meaning for her. Acting as a catalyst, the melodic release began to turn the cogs: “I thought oh, people actually like this and we really like it. We made something we’re proud of, and people are taking interest and we’re getting opportunities out of it.”
Part of that gradual appreciation has been a consequence of the reactions Sunflower Thieves have been met with. After moving to Leeds from the East Midlands, the band embraced the local scene, enthusing about its “community feel” and the appreciation shown by revered venues, such as Oporto and Hyde Park Book Club. But, establishing themselves in this creative space also came with several concerns: “We did a headline show at Oporto last year and that was one of the first times we’ve seen our Leeds community and friends be like, ‘that was actually really good.’ And we’re like yeah, we are good,” says Illingworth. “Like you finally see it,” adds Sturt-Bolshaw.
Being taken seriously has been an ongoing issue for Sunflower Thieves, which has only recently begun to shift. Despite working from a DIY position - writing, producing, and promoting themselves - and honing in on a unique and evocative sound, their presence in a male-dominated industry brings with it some of the ongoing issues faced frequently by female-identifying acts. Being a producer and live sound engineer, despite both having been studied in-depth and her areas of expertise, is a realm where Sturt-Bolshaw is still met with some prejudice: “I feel like it is more of a battle being a woman,” she reflects. “If you’re a man and you’re mediocre in sound [engineering], it’s considered more acceptable. I feel like men can be more like, ‘oh yeah, but you’re a woman so are you any good?’” In efforts to combat this, Sunflower Thieves try to promote and collaborate with other women, empowering those in the local community. “I think as a project, we just try to channel things that we value -- we collaborate with a lot of independent creatives, and also standing next to women in music,” adds Illingworth.
Whilst Sunflower Thieves are now at the heart of the Leeds music scene, the duo knew each other long before. “I know my Grandma once picked me up from nursery and you didn’t see her because you didn’t have your glasses on at the time. And my Grandma was like “Lily!” and you just ran straight past her,” laughs Illingworth as the pair think back to when they first met. With their friendship cemented from childhood, both girls grew closer through music, later having attended Leeds College of Music, though at different times. Their latest single “Hide and Seek” draws on these earlier memories. Recorded on a secluded trip to Norfolk, where they passed time with “card games, board games and listening to old music” (and wine, of course), the nostalgic single is a portal to childhood, and both the comfort and retrospection that accompany it.
This tight-knight bond is constitutive to their creative process, too. With years of friendship comes an open dialect, and both creatives balance out each other. “You know when you’re working with someone that you don’t know very well and you don’t want to offend them, and you almost want to please them -- well, we don’t really do that,” says Illingworth. “Which is nice, like we won’t fall out about it, which is very beneficial with being comfortable with someone.” Unsurprisingly, they’ve been depicted as a ‘soulful sisterhood’ -- both their voices and creative vision compelling and in sync.
Like other things, they also share influences. After months of being compared to First Aid Kit in their early days of open mics, the duo finally listened, and inspired, began to occasionally cover the Swedish indie folk duo. Whilst Sturt-Bolshaw grew up on the eclectic taste of her musician parents, Illingworth was more oriented to folk, recalling how she’d be with her “brothers in the backseat of the car with a blanket, listening to whatever CDs on at the time” whilst attending folk gigs her family gravitated towards. However, both shared a love for Lucy Rose. Enamoured whilst they were younger, Illingworth and Sturt-Bolshaw became inspired by her songwriting -- now writing their own songs influenced by “personal experiences, and people that we know’s experiences that we’ve resonated with.”
“In the last year we’ve achieved more than we thought we would in lots of ways, and every now and then something just takes you by surprise and you’re like oh, so that’s why we’re doing this,” Illingworth reflects. “We were included in the long list for Glastonbury this year which was very cool. You’ve got to be able to let yourself get excited sometimes.”
With three years having passed since their debut EP Hold The Storm, Sunflower Thieves are perpetually pushing forwards, gearing towards more singles, festival performances as they return, and (eventually) gigs again.
Whilst live shows are on pause, you can catch more of Sunflower Thieves' content by supprting the Patreon that they regularly post on.