Pillow Queens: ‘If I saw a band like us onstage, I’d be obsessed’
These four Irish women play loud, scruffy, smart lo-fi tunes, and their gimmick-free, authentic approach is gaining them something money can’t buy – fans
At the end of a conversation over pints and pizza with Pillow Queens, they reflect, for just a beat, on whether the band has any particular mantra. Then, in unison, sing, “Sisterly love forever!”
Whatever the emerging musical zeitgeist is, it always tends to be something that goes against current cultural trends. Right now, it doesn’t feel as if there’s much room for guitar bands. But underneath the music industry’s glut of solo (aka cheaper-to-fund) artists dominating the pop-electronic-hip-hop spectrum lurk bands such as Pillow Queens, plugging away, and accumulating something that money can’t buy: fans.
Rachel Lyons (drums, vocals, from Kill, Co Kildare), Cathy McGuinness (guitar, vocals, from Arklow, Co Wicklow), Pamela Connolly (bass, guitar, lead vocals, from Donaghmede in Dublin) and Sarah Corcoran (guitar, bass, lead vocals, from Finglas in Dublin) arrive to a pub smoking area, lugging gear, a few days after a triumphant appearance on the main stage at Body & Soul.
Pillow Queens write charmingly scruffy and smart tunes, and perform them with vigour. On record, their songs’ lo-fi qualities belie a brilliant catchiness and emotional depth. Live, they’re lovable, unaffected, loud. They are gimmick-free, hardworking and with an authenticity marketeers would kill for, and there’s a purity to their breezy modus operandi: write good songs, play them well, have fun, and enjoy the opportunities such endeavours are now bringing.
An EP in 2016, Calm Girls (a joke about their collective anxiety) gave them an instant anthem, Rats, as good a rock song as any that has come out of Ireland this decade. After the fingers-in-the-air audience-built call and response of Rats came Wonderboys, illustrating where Pillow Queens’ brilliance lies: it’s in the space between tender and tough, knowing and naive, wry and goofy, ironic and straight-up.
An EP in 2018, State of the State, presented an indie-pop banger, Favourite, recalling aspects of ’90s rock – Weezer, Superchunk – that you didn’t realise you missed. “My favourite song of the year, by a mile,” James Vincent McMorrow tweeted in March.
Their first gig was as low-key as you can get, a fundraiser for rescue dogs in Bello Bar in Portobello, Dublin 8, in December 2016. On arrival, however, the stairs down into the basement venue was jammed, with people turned away from the sold-out show. The word of mouth was instant. “I had no idea why we sold out the first gig,” Connolly says, “Even before we played, we had already been booked to play Ones To Watch [a Whelan’s showcase]. Nobody had watched us yet, so we didn’t know we were ones to watch. We got that, and after that we said ‘yes’ to everything.”
“Yes to everything” now sees them in and around the 40- to 50-gig mark over the year and a half they’ve existed as a band. As the rumblings of approval from bookers and labels grew, and the industry presence at their gigs increased, a manager came along in the form of drummer James Byrne (ex-Villagers, Soak), who owns the Any Other City label and also manages Girl Band.
Pillow Queens supported Pussy Riot in the Button Factory, Future Islands in Donnybrook stadium, played the IMRO room at Other Voices in Dingle, and the Other Voices stage at Electric Picnic, and a show in the IFI. They’ve done two UK tours, and their summer schedule includes shows at Latitude in England, Knockanstockan in Wicklow, and Another Love Story in Meath.
Before Pillow Queens, Connolly played in bands including Mothers and Fathers and The Trouble Is, “The Trouble Is broke up for strange reasons,” she offers, “We went to Ayia Napa, and when we came home we just weren’t a band anymore.”
McGuinness played in a band called Bear Plays Spoons. “We just liked partying too much, so it never transpired into anything meaningful.” Corcoran was in a band called Kate’s Party. “We did some gigging, some UK tours, that kind of thing. We’d been playing together since we were 18, 19, and it just wasn’t relatable to us anymore.”
Lyons was in a band called The Skuts. Before Corcoran knew Lyons, she had The Skuts’ songs on her iPod after discovering them on a hard-drive Connolly loaned her, “I thought, girls playing rock music, this is so hot! Also you’d done an L Word [the landmark TV series about the lives of mostly lesbian women in Los Angeles] theme song cover or something?”
Lyons wracks her brains, “No, the song was called Carmen, and it was about Carmen from The L Word.” Connolly laughs: “Super gay stuff.” Lyons concurs: “We were very gay. I think that lasted for a year and a half and we broke up. I didn’t do anything until this band. There was a nine- or 10-year gap. I’m the least experienced when it comes to bands, really.”
At Body & Soul, the audience was dominated by young women. Later in the festival, Connolly performed with the queer performance troupe (and underground queer cabaret night of the same name) Glitterhole. The band embraces its queerness. “If I could rewind 10 years, and if I saw a band like us on stage, I would be obsessed,” Lyons says.
Corcoran says the idea of representation means a lot to the band, “For people to be able to see themselves in you, in your performance, that’s important. Relatability is important . . . When we were growing up, obviously there were women to look up to, but they were so inaccessible. They were on this other level. They weren’t me. They weren’t experiencing the same thing as me. They were famous people.”
Lyons agrees, “Like going to an Uh Huh Her gig.”
“In my head, they were rich people who lived in LA,” Corcoran says. “You’re not going to bump into Leisha Hailey [Uh Huh Her band member who also played Alice Pieszecki in The L Word] at Spinster [a raucous queer women’s night in Temple Bar]. In fairness she was in The George.
I know what we’re doing is great, now it’s time to show everyone else that it’s great
“But I think my first interaction with that [relatable representation] was with Heathers.” Everyone in the band nods in agreement. “Two women on stage, doing what they’re doing. They were part of a scene in America all of a sudden. They went out and they toured. They just did so much, and they did it themselves. They were somebody I could go up to in a smoking area going, ‘Hi, I play gigs now, what do you think of that?’ And they were like ‘do it!’ That’s so cool. I think we do that to people now. People come up to us and say ‘I’d love to be in a band,’ and we say, ‘do it, be in a band, let’s play a gig together.’ It normalises it all. It’s not a million miles away from anyone. You can do it.”
On that can-do attitude, the band agrees that Corcoran is the one who gives them momentum. “I don’t think we’d be where we are now if she didn’t have a jetpack on being like, ‘we’re going to get this,’” Connolly says of Corcoran, “When we started the band – myself and Sarah – we weren’t even a band. We were sitting in the apartment not even fully having any songs, and Sarah was like, ‘I think we can play Electric Picnic this year.’”
Corcoran says she had a definite idea of the direction she wanted to pursue, “that the band needed to be a certain outfit made up of certain talented people. I feel like I was lucky enough to be paired with these guys, so I suddenly had something that I was able to drive. I know what we’re doing is great, now it’s time to show everyone else that it’s great. I was saying that we could do a UK tour even though we were only four months old.”
That confidence was born out of the instant chemistry Corcoran felt when they were in a room together for the first time, “I was just watching it going ‘woah, this is cool’.” Lyons was the last to join the band. “This last year and a half has been a whirlwind for me,” she says. “My personal development has been massive . . . I’m doing what I’ve wanted to do since I was a teenager. I’ve also learned to work with other people in a different kind of environment. You have to listen to people, they have to listen to you, and you have to give them a part of you, because we’re all emotional wrecks.” She pauses. “Mostly me.”
Connolly is seen as the peacemaker in the band. During moments where people may be “overwhelmed and tensions are high”, McGuinness says, “Pamela will be super chill and she’ll come back at a more logical time and say ‘this is what I think’.” Connolly’s humour, Corcoran says, tends to diffuse situations. “Pamela will say something and you can’t help but laugh.”
If there’s something bad happening in society, it can create good music, good art, good comedy, but does that justify the bad things that are happening?
McGuinness’s technical abilities are lauded by her bandmates. “She’s the one that guides and encourages our musical abilities,” Connolly says. “She is so technically talented. You give her the bare bones of a song and suddenly she hears things that we wouldn’t be able to hear, and makes it.” Lyons concurs: “She brings on those sick riffs!”
Pillow Queens had their formative artistic years during a period of national discombobulation and economic turmoil, and they are suspicious of a so-called national “recovery”.
“Progress is for the rich,” Corcoran says, “It’s for people who are already experiencing advantage, then experiencing further advantage.”
“Underground scenes are class,” Connolly says, “but I’d hate to think that they’re happening because things are really bad. Like, there’s a cool squat gig happening. This is great! It’s full of art! But it’s also full of people who can’t afford to live anywhere, and are squatting, and are probably going to get kicked out in the next few days, you know? If there’s something bad happening in society, it can create good music, good art, good comedy, but does that justify the bad things that are happening?”
One of their best shows so far, they think, was a gig in Finsbury in London. The band had a lot of friends in the audience, peers who emigrated when the recession hit. Corcoran felt the emotion of “singing songs about all your friends emigrating, and that feeling of being left behind, and you’re seeing those people sing those songs back to you . . . Sometimes it can feel like a feeling of persistence, and it can feel that you’re striving, that you’re saying ‘no, I’m not going away, I’m going to stay here and make something work.’ Then sometimes it can feel like maybe I missed the boat with regards to emigration. Maybe that would have been the right thing to do . . But when we go touring or play a festival abroad it’s like, no, I stayed here, I made something work for me. And there’s something really powerful in that.”
Right now, Pillow Queens want to get to the point where they have cider as well as beer on whatever rider turns up backstage. The low-key ambition hides a steelier drive, a clarity of thought the band has with regards to knowing that success is there for the taking if they keep grafting, and, crucially an ability to write songs that with time, practice, and going up a level production-wise have the potential to be absolute belters.
“I quit my job a year and a half ago to start a band because I was like ‘fuck this, I cant do this anymore’,” Connolly says. “That was my reaction to everything that was going on. I had a nine-to-five but I couldn’t afford to pay rent, I wasn’t doing what I wanted, I was literally just working to get money. I pushed it away to make music. That has benefited me greatly, but it also hasn’t at the same time. I’m still broke. I think a lot of other people are like that. They’re making music out of their emotions towards their situations. They’re probably in a position where they feel helpless and think ‘why the fuck not make art?’ Do whatever the fuck you want.”
Pillow Queens play various dates across Ireland in July and August. pillowqueens.com