In an almost-empty room on the top floor of the Triskel Church, one of the most beautiful artistic places in the City, Heathers are in deep contemplation. The question has just been asked of whether there is any need to worry about the lack of Irish female artists creating excitement in the music scene and, due to its serious nature, a moment is needed. Finally, after some hesitation, Ellie MacNamara, one half of the twin songwriting duo, looks up and passionately answers.
“I think that there’s a lot more amazing female musicians out at the moment, like Wyvern Lingo, Roisin O, Soak…” and almost instantly, as though defending her sister from a viscous attack, Louise MacNamara sits forward excitedly, adding: “I think there’s a lot more. I mean, look at Bitch Falcon, I think there’s just more and more female artists – Orla Gartland as well, of course, -it’s just amazing to see so much brilliant female musicians in Ireland.” And though they may sometimes be forgotten, when the sisters look at each other, smiling, it’s clear why they are leading the charge.
Heathers are an acoustic pop duo hailing from Blackrock in Dublin. The twin sisters, Louise and Ellie, began writing at the age of 17, in an attempt to follow in the steps of friends and other local musicians who were putting on shows and releasing albums at the time. “We come from quite a musical family,” Louise explains; “we would have had a lot of family gatherings where everyone would have had to get up and sing something, and we both started playing piano growing up and were always singing; but we didn’t start writing music until we were 17. And we started going to kinda ‘DIY’ pub gigs in Co. Wicklow, in Greystones, when we were 15, and the people that we met there were all in bands, writing their own music, putting on their own gigs and releasing their own music.” Looking back on it, she remembers: “I think that I wrote a verse or a chorus, went into Ellie and said: ‘I wrote this, can you add some harmony to it or what do you think?’ and that’s sort of where it started.”
The girls, however, were slow to believe that they could become musicians full-time, and Ellie admits that it took a big break to realise it was possible; “I don’t think it was until, like, a year or two years later,” Ellie recalls. “One of our songs, Remember When, was picked up by Fáilte Ireland for their campaign – the Discover Ireland campaign – and I don’t think it was until then that we realized that ‘Oh wait; people might actually like the songs that we’re writing’.” The ad was the most expensive the Irish Tourism board had ever made, and the commercial and the song accompanying it was shown throughout Ireland and across the world. Heathers truly were inescapable, even though many had no idea who they were.
Although the two sisters are very close, it was sometimes difficult for Lousie, when writing the lyrics, to be able to show her sister everything that was going on in her mind. “We used to write completely in metaphors,” Louise admits, “and I think that was because we were quite nervous and insecure teenagers and shy and didn’t necessarily want to tell it exactly as it is.” Ellie supports her, saying: “- but it’s kind of nice to be able to use figurative language and metaphors to make your lyrics more interesting, in a way, and the balance [between figurative and literal language] makes people think more.” When beginning to write music, the girls were signed almost immediately, and at one stage were juggling writing their debut album and studying for the Leaving Certificate. Instead of going out every weekend, the girls created a balance of studying, writing and going to local gigs. “I don’t know how we did it,” Ellie remembers, almost in amazement, “but it helped us to do the studying as well, because I think it was about having that balance and being able to have an outlet and then get back to it.”
When the two finally got to college, both getting their first choice of Music Technology in Maynooth (Louise) and Primary School Teaching (Ellie), the difficulty of cramming for exams and touring at the same time didn’t get any easier. Looking back on that time, both remember it as being quite difficult and Louise even remembers having to miss exams to make shows, apart from one particular show. “I remember when we were meant to play The Great Escape in Brighton and it was all set up but I couldn’t go because it was my finals in third year.” Ellie remembers as recently as last year, when she was on teaching practice, having to “finish school and go straight to RTE or like… or over to London”.
Throughout the band’s history, there has been a custom of leaving listeners go a long time without a new album, with four years between their first and second album, and unfortunately that doesn’t seem to be changing. When asked why there was such a long time between albums, they admitted to it being a combination of a number of factors. “We originally released [debut album, ‘Here, Not There’] in Ireland first on our DIY label in 2008, the year we did our leaving cert, and then played dates two summers in a row and during college and in those two years we… we got approached for the song to be on the Discover Ireland ad, so we ended up re-releasing it. It made sense for us to re-release it. We set up our own record label, and we started releasing it through other labels in the UK and in the States and everything, so we ended up kinda releasing it twice, touring it in Ireland then ended up touring it in the States, toured it in the UK.” Rethinking it, Louise also states that “we both find it difficult to write on the road: we kinda need to be in the right headspace. That’s basically what happened, we were so busy with touring that we didn’t get a lot of writing done and we had to then come home and write another album, and it took a while.” When asked about when to expect a third album, the girls were coy, not wanting to set themselves a deadline, but saying that “we will, I’d say, put out another album soon. But for the time being…”
While Heathers have proved very successful, sold a lot of albums and played hundreds of gigs across the world, for every success story there is more than one sad ending, and last week started with the news of the breakup of one of Ireland’s most promising bands, Fighting Like Apes. The sisters were shocked to hear the news but were, unfortunately, not surprised. When asked about the struggles that independent artists go through to survive, a familiar perpetrator constantly emerges. “Number one, which is what [Fighting Like Apes] said, was Spotify and not making money. I mean, a lot of Irish bands nowadays have to have other jobs because it’s very difficult to sustain yourself.”
“It’s very difficult to make money off Spotify, it’s very difficult to make money off touring, there are lots of expenses and stuff, whether it’s flights, accommodation, paying musicians or whatever. Luckily for us, our main source of income is Sync (A music license paid to artists to use their songs on advertisements or TV shows), Discover Ireland would be an example of that: songs placed on TV shows and stuff in the States, and then writing for ads kinda specifically, that’s been our kind of lifesaver.” Ellie chimes in: “Money is so important in life, we all need it to kind of get by and that can have a physical effect on what your band can do – but it can also cause rifts. It’s important to see that being in a band or whatever, or being a musician is kind of like, even between us, there’s a relationship that needs to be nurtured and that can cause rifts.”
The girls have been doing press all day, but even as the interview closes, they are laughing, smiling and sharing stories about life on the road, in the studio, what they get to during their breaks and how they were once asked to write songs for David Guetta. Finally, I ask what they’re big aims for the future are, in the next two to three years. “We’re hopefully going to head over to the states next year,” Louise replies, excitedly, genuinely looking forward to the adventure. “I would love to tour a lot more, to head over to Asia. I would also love to play the Olympia in Dublin.” And with that, I leave the girls to pack up their guitars and hit the road again, leading the frontline once more for independent musicians and giving hope to all who need it.