Skins and blisters
IN THE SPRING of 2007, Ellie and Louise Macnamara carried their friend who was ill with cancer up Killiney Hill in her wheelchair for her makeshift festival ‘Eclectic Picnic’. They followed the sound of music up steps lit with torches, although later they’d learn there was an easier way to get to the clearing in the woods they were looking for.
That night, around a fire with friends and glo sticks, saw the sisters’ first public performance together. They played three songs, and a friend held the fret board of Louise’s guitar throughout because she forgot a capo. Afterwards, a friend asked them to play his 18th-birthday party in Dublin’s Lower Deck two weeks later. They accepted the offer but in the meantime needed a name. Sitting on their bed in Louise’s bedroom one day, a Heathers DVD stuck out of the shelf. “Why don’t you just call yourselves ‘Heathers’?” their brother Martin said. “‘Ellie Louise’ sounds shite.”
IT’S THE SUMMER of 2012 and on an overcast Saturday afternoon, Louise and Ellie are on Newstalk with Síle Seoige. She welcomes them to the studio. “Thanks for having us,” they say in unison. The Macnamara twins, 22, say a lot of things in unison.
The Seoige interview is taking place the day before Heathers head to Áras an Uachtaráin to play one of the President’s garden parties. Even in the bloody Newstalk ad breaks, Remember When blares out over the Discover Ireland ad, a song that gave them the curious sort of fame that soundtracking a heavy-rotation ad campaign does. Their second album, Kingdom (the title refers to the search for a utopia of sorts) is in the can, an entirely different beast to the debut, recorded in London with Max Dingel, the engineer on The Killers’ Sam’s Town and Glasvegas’s debut, and the co-producer of White Lies’s two albums.
Here, Not There did well, but you couldn’t help but think it would have been a complete smash with a few quid chucked at it. Songs such as Honey Please?, Margie, Reading in the Dark and Fire Ants are sublime, even though the recordings never truly got them beyond sounding like demos. But the thing is, Ellie and Louise can do something that no amount of production can conjure. They can do something that surpasses an amazing image, or an army of stylists or a marketing budget the size of a Pacific island’s GDP. They can write songs.
Killer songs. David Guetta’s people and other people’s people have been picking up the phone enquiring about these two girls who’ve just written Forget Me Knots, the indie earworm of the summer. An electricity surrounds them when they play now, and not just because of the full band they’ve incorporated. There’s a feeling that these two young slow burners are about to set the place alight.
Electricity is something that eluded Heathers in those early days.
Gigs were done on spec in abandoned spaces, they worked with what they had. That inventive attitude was learned in a place down the coast from Killiney, Paddy’s Hall in Greystones. From first to third year, Ellie and Louise had a rough time in school at Rockford Manor. They were shy. They found it hard to make friends. Ellie says she wasn’t sure if she was happy. Louise says she didn’t fit in. The main source of solace was the school choir where they learned about harmonies. Louise moved school to New Park in Blackrock. When they started going to DIY gigs in Paddy’s Hall (a venue subsequently bulldozed to make way for apartments), things changed.
“These gigs in Paddy’s Hall completely changed our lives,” Ellie says. “It was kind of like ‘okay, this is what I’ve liked all along and this is now something for me to do and I enjoy it and I don’t feel like “what am I doing” or “who are these people I’m hanging out with”. And we made friends.”
WALKING INTO THEold graveyard in Deansgrange where Heathers did their first-ever interview for a friend’s zine, not out of any creepy tendencies, but just to find somewhere quiet in a nondescript suburb made up of roads to Dún Laoghaire and Blackrock and car dealerships, they chat about Paddy’s Hall. “Growing up, I would have dreamt a lot, thinking ‘I’d love to be in a band or do something with music’, but then you think that to do that you have to get a massive record deal or something, that it’s not really achievable,” says Louise. “But when we started to go to these DIY gigs, we could see that, you know, you can do it all yourself and you don’t have to take that route.”
Heathers came from a punk scene, and share that genre’s sense of community, solidarity and friendship. They also listened to a lot of punk growing up – alongside Paul Simon’s Graceland which was on constant rotation. “We were going to see all these bands play, and our brother’s bands play. Nine Lives, Kid Blunt, Almost Cliché, Scavengers . . . All our friends were in these bands.” Ellie interrupts. “Did we say Disco Traitor?” “Disco Traitor! Louise exclaims, and the both burst out laughing at some unexpressed memory.
Initially, they were just spectators. “I haven’t even ever said this to anyone, but I remember when we were 16 and we started going to those gigs and stuff we didn’t really have that many friends, everyone just saw us as Martin’s sisters,” says Ellie. “That’s all we were.
“That’s what people would call us. ‘Are Martin’s sisters here?’ ‘There’s Martin’s sisters’. And we didn’t really have many friends at school. It was kind of a crap time. We started writing songs, and that was our thing. Everyone else used to go out and drink in fields and go to Bondi Beach Club . But then it was weird, because obviously when we started writing music and we were Heathers. We weren’t just Martin’s sisters anymore.”
THE HIDEAWAY INDeansgrange is home to Dylan Haskins, a friend of Ellie and Louise who turned his nondescript suburban gaff into an all-ages social space for gigs. “We recorded our very first demo there,” says Louise, standing outside. “That was probably in 2007 with Reuben Teskey and Dylan in Dylan’s bedroom.” The Hideaway was where Calvin Johnson, Ghost Mice, Defiance, Hurray For Humans and countless others played, a natural progression from Paddy’s Hall, and something people still miss.
Heathers’ second-ever gig was with Ghost Mice, a folk-punk duo from Indiana, one of whom, Chris Clavin, runs Plan-It-X Records. Heathers only had five songs at the time, but Clavin asked them if they wanted to record an album for his label, and Haskins would put it out on his new imprint Hideaway Records.
“I suppose at the time we were probably like ‘Oh my god this is so hard, we have to come up with five more songs’,” says Louise. “But thinking back on it, it came together at lot easier than the second album came together. And it was probably because we were together in the same house all the time, on the same schedules. We were doing the Leaving Cert and it was an escape from studying.”
SECOND TIME AROUND,the pressures loomed slightly larger. With Louise studying in Maynooth and Ellie studying in Froebel, they couldn’t just knock into each other’s bedrooms to run over chords or lyrics. It had been four years since their debut album, and studio dates booked in London were looming on their calendar. They changed their approach to writing, with Louise putting stuff down in Garageband and Ellie working on lyrics and both of them working on melodies and harmonies.
There was, however, one song that they sat down and wrote together – Forget Me Knots. Sitting at her desk in her bedroom, Louise pauses to talk about it. “Basically two years ago, one of my closest friends in school committed suicide. We wrote this song for her. I think depression – there’s such a stigma attached to it these days with young people and all. People feel like they can’t talk to anyone. If you go to the States, everyone has their shrink and it’s all totally fine and talked about.
Ellie feels that in the years since they wrote the first album, “there has been a certain element of darkness in our lives”. She talks about friends going through tough times, suffering from depression maybe. She doesn’t want people listening to the song and thinking it’s a cheesy pop number. “It’s so much more than that. People obviously don’t know that because we don’t talk about it that much.”
Heathers start to smirk at the suggestion that their lyrics are nostalgia-obsessed. “We’re such weirdos,” laughs Ellie. But it’s true. Escapism, loneliness and nostalgia are the three pillars of their prose. “I’ve always kind of been like that,” says Ellie, recounting a conversation she recently had. “Remember when we were younger, thinking back to the summer and it was always sunny, and there were always ice cream vans everywhere, and everyone was wearing shorts all the time. There’s some kind of nice thing associated with the past.”
Louise generated a word cloud of lyrics from the new album when they were in London. The most common words were alone, run away, get away. Alone was the most frequent word in the whole thing. I don’t know, it’s a bit strange . . . When I’m writing music, I sing the first words that come into my head. And I don’t know what is wrong with me, but the most common one all the time is ‘run away’. I must have something going on in my head, some underlying problem! Anyway, it’s always quite dark lyrics that come into my head. Sometimes they stick.”
WHEN THEY WERE 17,the pair played in Voodoo in Dublin, hiding in the toilets all night until it was time to go on stage because they were underage, but that second gig with Ghost Mice was at the abandoned tearooms on Killiney Beach. They climb in through the window and remember the show. “Everyone had to climb in through this window and I remember loads of people were there. It was pretty dangerous because the whole place was boarded up,” says Louise. Ellie remembers the room was full, with people watching from outside too. It was an acoustic gigs.
Other times with full bands, someone would organise a generator. “After Paddy’s Hall was shut down – this was before the Hideaway as well – there was nowhere really to have gigs,” says Ellie.
Louise agrees, climbing down the steps, “It was just about going to places like Killiney Hill and here. You wouldn’t really be disturbed or anything or disturbing anyone. I don’t know, those years were also years we were underage so we couldn’t go to bars, so we just hung out in places like this and put on gigs.
There weren’t much community spaces you could put on gigs without ‘you had to finish at this time, and you have to do this’. So it was here. Good times.”
They look out to the sea and nod. In unison.
* Kingdom is out now