Seattle/Los Angeles-based producer and musician Steven James Aguilar releases his superb and poignant new album, Kissing Teeth, under his musical moniker of Heatmaps. Four years in the making, the ten heartfelt chapters on this incredible album find their roots in the uncertainty, loss and eventual resilience that accompany significant and unanticipated life events. "It's kind of a heavy record, but I think there's a lot of hope in there," reflects Steven. "I hope it can be a comfort to other people who experienced loss in the last year." The album's opening track, "Keep Changing," establishes the tone and atmosphere, by affirming and reassuring the listener that there are no hard-and-fast guides to making life decisions. We each have our own unique circumstances that nudge us one way or another. "Did you meet all your quarantine goals?" Steven questions. "Me either. And it's fine. You're fine. Keep changing. Or don't!"
It was in early 2019 that I discovered Let It All In, Steven's impressive debut album. It introduced me to his solid songwriting, unfeigned lyrics, and soothing, captivating vocals - all wrapped up in a clean, refreshing and well-balanced alternative/indie folk soundscape. As Steven began setting his sights on the next Heatmaps album, he took a step back to contemplate a centralized theme. He comments, "I wanted a little more cohesion than my last record, Let It All In, which was essentially a set of cleaned up demos." About halfway into the four-year period during which Kissing Teeth was created, Steven and his wife made the difficult decision to end their relationship after almost 12 years of marriage. "The record explores the grief that comes with monumental change like that," Steven remarks. "I finished 90% of the record before moving back to Seattle from Los Angeles in March 2020, a week before the world shut down. Kissing Teeth is a collection of short stories with the theme that sometimes in relationships, we come to a place where we recognize our efforts at kindness as being hurtful to the other person. It's the epiphany that sometimes letting go is a great act of love."
While the lyrics are earnest and the sentiment is deep, the overall vibe of Kissing Teeth is not overly somber by any means. There are sparkles and bursts of hope, excitement and positivity that are prevalent in the overall vibe and tempo. Upbeat songs like "Sleepless," "Another Door Opens" and "I'm Terrified (It's Kind of Exciting)" exemplify the fresh and forward-looking aspects of Kissing Teeth. In fact, Steven's take on parting ways is refreshing, healthy and unbiased - a perspective I believe will resonate with a lot of people. Steven explains, "I had observed that the social norm/stereotype when men write breakup songs is that they often have a common theme of 'please take me back, I can't live without you.' The social norm for breakup songs written by women is that they tend to have the theme of 'I never want to see you again, I can't believe I wasted my time.'" He continues, "I really wanted to write a different take, because neither felt true for me. I didn't feel bitter or angry. I just felt grief at the loss of a relationship that was really loving and good for as long as it lasted."
Kissing Teeth has already yielded several outstanding singles ("Sleepless," "Michael," "I'm Terrified (It's Kind of Exciting)" and "Keep Changing"), but every track is a gem in its own right. My personal favorites include "Easy Shape," "Another Door Opens" and "Michael." Kissing Teeth is an inspiring, heartfelt indie folk journey that soothes the restless soul and reminds the listener that all will be fine in good time.
With Kissing Teeth, Steven worked with Jeff Pianki as his co-producer, collaborator and confidant. "Jeff Pianki co-produced the record with me - he was the person I would show my new songs to, and who encouraged me throughout the project, even though he wasn't necessarily present for all of it (he also co-wrote the song "No Time Left"). I couldn't have made it without his contributions." The album also features guest vocals from Denison Witmer, Abigail Platter, Erik Walters (Silver Torches), Charlie Brand (Miniature Tigers), and J.P. Welsh (Fuller). Core band members included drummer James McAlister (Taylor Swift, The National), guitarist Harrison Whitford (Phoebe Bridgers, Matt Berninger), drummer/ percussionist/synth player Sean Lane (Ann Wilson, Pedro the Lion), Jeff Pianki on piano and organ, along with Steven on bass, acoustic guitar and a handful of other instruments.
Finally, we leave you with the official music video for single and opening track, "Keep Changing." Featuring vintage stock footage by Mario Parussini and edited by Steven James Aguilar, the images weave together glimpses of beaches, balloons, roadside scenery and driving in an engaging visual collage.