Pillow Queens: ‘We’re better on a big stage because we already think we’re famous’

Pillow Queens: 'An antidote to people who are up their own holes'
With their debut album 'In Waiting', the Dublin band’s world is about to get bigger

At a rehearsal space in Dublin’s north inner city, a fire alarm has gone off, prompting girl band Pillow Queens and others to mill around outside. After workmen on the roof earn a bollocking for aimlessly throwing debris into a skip below, without much care for the fact that they could literally fracture the skulls of some of the most talented musical prospects to emerge from Ireland in recent years, the bands go back inside.

Pillow Queens are Rachel Lyons (drums), Cathy McGuinness (guitar), Sarah Corcoran (vocals, guitar, bass) and Pamela Connolly (vocals, guitar, bass). Back in the small rehearsal room, where a framed photo of the band rests on a couch and cans of Coca-Cola lay on the floor, Corcoran is dealing with electric shocks from her microphone, a sensation she compares to plucking hair.

“I think we deserve a PA that doesn’t shock us,” McGuinness decides.

“We definitely deserve it,” Connolly agrees, “but we can’t afford it.”

“We need to prioritise our safety,” McGuinness says.

“Nah,” Connolly says, “let’s go for dinner instead.”

Pillow Queens: ‘A breath of fresh air for dykes in Ireland’
Pillow Queens: ‘A breath of fresh air for dykes in Ireland’
They’re the real deal. They will have really intense superfans

The band launches into the song Brothers. “There goes the man I wanna be/ I love my brothers and my brothers love me.” In this small room, the context of the pandemic evaporates as they play their songs to, with and for each other. At 5pm, the outside world comes calling. Lyons has a date in the Big Romance pub on Parnell Street, and leaves on her bike.

Pillow Queens’ first gig was famously a sold-out show in Bello Bar in Portobello, Dublin 8, in December 2016. For their next show, at the Hut in Phibsborough, they got new haircuts for the occasion. “We all looked like scallions,” Corcoran recalls, “dressed up for our big gay night out. I think I was wearing fake tan and everything. Going all in. Probably wearing something sparkly.”

Less than four years later, the band skipped along an upward trajectory, playing sold-out shows in Dublin, doing circuits of the UK, building crowds at festivals, touring with Soak around Europe and, crucially, amassing a fervent fanbase. 

Their music began as scrappy, charming, punk-ish fuzzy pop, with melodies and chorus that begged to be hollered back to the band as they traversed the stages of dive bars, venues and festivals. But there was something bigger rumbling underneath, and a sense that, given the opportunity, the expansiveness of their songwriting could be unlocked, and the nostalgic tenderness and ennui within that sound would flood out to fill whatever space was made available – the bigger the better.

'Every song is brilliant ... There are things you can’t explain about why a band is special. They have a few of them, bizarrely'

With their debut album, In Waiting, that’s exactly what has happened. Early in lockdown, when they hosted a listening party over Zoom for their fans to decide on the album’s track listing, jaws literally dropped open as people heard certain songs for the first time. In that moment, a couple of hundred heads on screens closing their eyes and taking in the ambitious, immersive sound the album offers, there was a sense of a collective pride emanating from the community of fans Pillow Queens has built.

Tommy McLaughlin (Villagers, Soak), produced the album. He’s a minimalist talker, with a tendency to place words in sentences slowly and delicately like Scrabble tiles. His home in northwest Donegal is on the same site as his music studio, Attica, out the front of which a band was kicking a football around. As we finished up our conversation, he referenced the special kind of fandom energy one of the most revered bands in rock history created.

“I remember when Nirvana came out, being obsessed. I kind of miss that. You think, ‘I don’t think I’ll ever feel that about a new band again’. I’d love to go back and get it. But they’re that band. They’re the real deal. They will have really intense superfans.”

From his perspective, “It’s all the songwriting . . . Every song is brilliant . . . There are things you can’t explain about why a band is special. They have a few of them, bizarrely.”

McLaughlin says In Waiting is one of the two best albums he’s ever produced, the other being Ailbhe Reddy’s debut album, Personal History, which is out next week. 

Pillow Queens
Pillow Queens

Pillow Queens really announced themselves with the 2017 three-track EP Calm Girls, made up of Rats, Olive and Wonderboys. Peter Ashmore recorded their first two EPs. “Genuine” is the word he keeps repeating when it comes to the band. He had been in bands with Connolly previously. “She’s one of the most loving people,” he says of Connolly, “She’s also hilarious. She’s definitely the funniest person I know. She’s such a softie, like. I love her like she’s me sister.”

'They were such a breath of fresh air for dykes in Ireland. It’s mad to think how much we needed them and didn’t know'

Rats was an instant anthem – just add sweat. A fierce debate (“Rats in!” “Rats out!”) accompanied Pillow Queens floating that idea that it might be left off the album. In some ways, it feels like a song that grounds the band, harking back to their roots (think Fight Like Apes’ Lend Me Your Face, or And So I Watch You From Afar’s Set Guitars to Kill). In the end, they left it off. One person’s anchor is another’s millstone, and Pillow Queens seemed ready to move beyond their beginnings.

Ultimately, while Rats may have been a calling card, the roots of contemporary Pillow Queens are probably lodged in Wonderboys. It’s a song that allows for space, a space that with this band is often filled with contemplation, reflection, the kind of songs that stare out over the low walls of suburban estates, that crunch along frozen football pitches, that light cigarettes late night in supermarket carparks, that don’t know if they’ve made the right decision, that wonder whether there’s a place for them in a contemporary Ireland that can often, paradoxically, feel in opposition to the social progress that helped form it.

Pillow Queens
Pillow Queens
I think they’re an antidote to people who are up their own holes

State of the State was an excellent EP that also felt like an expunging of the jauntier edges of their music. “I think they were such a breath of fresh air for dykes in Ireland. It’s mad to think how much we needed them and didn’t know,” says Lisa Connell, managing editor of Gay Community News (GCN). That publication championed Pillow Queens from the outset, including, famously, putting them on the cover in period costume as a tribute to the Yorgos Lanthimos film The Favourite, when their song Favourite was released.

“Watching them really quickly go from a cute grungy, punky outfit to a band, it seemed like we watched that metamorphosis happen really fast. I went to gigs of theirs at the Hut and Other Voices, maybe a year apart, and the difference was immeasurable. Same heart, but sonically so much more sophisticated.”

The director Kate Dolan has made several music videos for the band, including Gay Girls, an anthem that featured a video of young girls having a ball on their Communion day.

“I think they’re an antidote to people who are up their own holes,” she says of the band. “They’re so genuine and they don’t really have any airs or graces.” Their music, she says, “takes you back, or brings you to a memory”.

This sense of the emotional state Pillow Queens’ music creates comes up again and again.

“It definitely puts you in a place when you listen to it,” McLoughlin says. “A lot of that is Pam’s voice.” Connolly’s voice is an instrument that joins a loose pantheon of Dublin contemporaries – Damien Dempsey, Radie Peat, Grian Chatten – whose vocals are completely undeniable. Her voice cuts a desire path through tracks, striding intentionally forward and pulling the songs along with it. In directness and impact, it’s a voice that has as much in common with David Balfe and Mango as it does with Heathers and Lisa O’Neill. 

'They know it not just about writing songs, it’s also about spending a lot of time creating a sonic landscape for that song to live in'

Throughout the album, religious themes repeat. The record opens with a church-sounding organ. There are tracks called Holy Show and Child of Prague. “Obviously it’s an experience thing – referencing how you saw the world and the effect that the church has had on your life,” Connolly says over pizza in the Circular pub in Rialto in Dublin 8. “But I also think it’s a language thing, for me anyway. Biblical references and biblical language are kind of beautiful.”

Connolly’s grandmother had a grotto to Mary in her back garden. McGuinness studied theology in college. “I have a huge fascination with religion, while also realising how detrimental it has been to me and our country and many people’s lives.”

Connolly says a gig that changed her was Sufjan Stevens’s Age of Adz tour at the Olympia in Dublin. For McGuinness, it was Green Day at the Ambassador. Lyons feels formed by queer clubs and warehouse parties and years of attending Electric Picnic with a crew of queer women known on the scene as The Animal Collective. Corcoran was hooked into the DIY punk scene that in part orientated around the Hideaway in Deansgrange in Dublin as a teenager.

For Lyons, certain records from her teenage years still strongly resonate, particularly Gemma Hayes’ Night on My Side.

“It’s a very sweet feeling to know songs have resonated with other musicians,” Hayes said when contacted to chat about Pillow Queens’ fandom of her music, “probably because they know it not just about writing songs, it’s also about spending a lot of time creating a sonic landscape for that song to live in and to be realised in the best way. So it’s a buzz when another artist or band points to your work and says: I feel that and it resonates with me.

“I like this band a lot in so many ways. I really wish them all the very best on their massive adventure.” 

The constant circling back to this idea of evocation is the indescribable magic that both lurks in and dominates Pillow Queens’ music. The album closes with Donaghmede. It’s a track that doesn’t so much cause goosebumps as yank them to the surface. Connolly’s voice plunges the listener into a particular state: home, childhood, loneliness, loss, comfort, escape, place. The heaviness of McGuinness’s guitar, along with the thumping bass and drums, are all-encompassing.

“When you listen to us you get a sense of something. I don’t know what it is,” Connolly says. The album is full to the brim of this kind of magic, better to listen to than talk about. 

With a tour booked for spring, when Lyons imagines herself on stage now, just about to play, it’s always in “a shitty dive bar. Those are the best shows,” she says, sitting in Lucky’s bar on Meath Street in Dublin 8.

Corcoran shakes her head. “I think we perform better on a big stage. We’re better on a big stage because we already think that we’re f***ing famous.” On that point, Lyons can’t help but agree.

Corcoran puts her hands in the air to amplify the drama. “We get on a big stage and it’s like: finally, the world has come to meet us.”