Haim: “I think women make the best rock music”

The sisters confront personal traumas on their poignant third album, a soothing manual for a world currently in flux

Back in the year 2000, the Haim sisters – Este, Danielle and Alana – played their first gig. This was way before they’d formed Haim, when they were still teens as part of a family band, Rockinhaim. The location of this exclusive debut performance? Celebrated Jewish eatery Canter’s Deli in Los Angeles’ Fairfax district. You could count the number of people in attendance on your fingers – a far cry from the packed-out shows they’re now used to — and they were paid for their troubles in homemade matzo ball soup.

Seven years later, the sisters struck out on their own by forming Haim – no parents allowed. Since then, they’ve toured internationally, headlined major festivals and had two Number One albums here in the UK. In fact, they’re so good that Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks suggested they all launch solo projects as she reckons they could all get into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame several times over as both a band and as solo musicians.

But all roads lead back to Canter’s, with the Jewish deli being a keystone of their latest album ‘Women in Music Pt. III’. Its artwork, shot by long-time collaborator and film director Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood, Boogie Nights), sees the sisters standing behind the Canter’s counter, a bevy of huge sausages hanging behind them.

Haim shot for NME
Credit: Drew Escriva

When the record was first announced in March, Haim wanted to pay homage to the location of their first gig by setting out on a “deli tour”, a string of last-minute shows held in actual delis across America. COVID-19 put an end to those plans after the band had played just two shows (in New York and Washington D.C.) as they flew home to California to self-isolate.

But even a global pandemic couldn’t stop them playing a special show at their beloved Canter’s to celebrate the release of ‘WIMPIII’, with thousands of fans tuning in digitally to watch a livestreamed performance by the trio. “We were always going to end at Canter’s,” Alana proudly tells NME over Zoom from Este’s L.A. pad. “It was super-fun, and not how I normally see Canter’s. Usually Canter’s is, like, bumping. There’s usually so many people in there!”

Despite the current global situation, Haim still have good reason to celebrate. Their third album sees the sisters at their very best, effortlessly flitting between genres with the deeply personal songs packing both emotional gut punches and hook-laden choruses. They get brilliantly creative, too: filled with wild experimentation, the record sees the band embrace country, jazz, R&B and even, at one point, UK garage. A glowing five-star review was the order of the day at NME.

Haim at the NME Awards 2018
Credit: Dean Chalkley

It’s been a hard-fought, joyous journey back to Canter’s for Haim. Their 2012 debut EP ‘Forever’ introduced them as a buzzy US prospect before debut album ‘Days Are Gone’ (2013) and its 2017 follow-up ‘Something To Tell You’ solidified the hype with tunes full of shimmering ‘90s synths, growling riffs and euphoric hooks. They went on to support Taylor Swift, The Killers and Rihanna on tour, and picked up four NME Awards and five cover features.

The release of this latest record has been a bumpy ride, though. Haim have been drip-feeding fans songs from the album since last July, the first being the Lou Reed-referencing, sax-sporting ‘Summer Girl’. The album was completed in January and was originally scheduled to be out in April before the coronavirus outbreak pushed it to June. A triumphant victory lap of festivals this summer, including a spot at Glastonbury’s 50th bash and a headline slot at Latitude Festival, has also been derailed due to the global pandemic.

“We were dealing with a very close family member being in the hospital with COVID, so it was a lot of emotions. We were being so consumed with that: it hits so close to home,” Danielle explains about their initial weeks in lockdown. “That’s when we pushed the album. We were dealing with that, and the album was the last thing on our mind.”

Haim on the cover of NME, Credit: Drew Escriva

When NME last spoke to Haim – for their November 2019 Big Read cover – they’d just released ‘Now I’m In It’, a song that sees Danielle candidly address her battle with depression. An accompanying video, which features Alana and Este carrying their sister to safety after she collapses, serves as a blatant visual metaphor for the support the sisters have always provided for one another.

The creation of ‘WIMPIII’ saw the band pull together more than ever, too. ‘Summer Girl’ was written by Danielle and was inspired by her partner and band producer Ariel Rechtshaid’s testicular cancer diagnosis. The song was created to show him that she was his “light, when he was feeling dark”.

Then came the tear-jerking ‘Hallelujah’, which sees each of the sisters discuss something deeply personal. For eldest sister Este, ‘Hallelujah’ talks about her struggle with Type 1 diabetes, which she was diagnosed with at 14. “When you’re so young, you don’t really think about your mortality,” she says. “I think about mortality more than anyone because it feels like… I don’t want to get too dark, but it sometimes feels like I’m not going to be around as long as I would like to be.

For Alana, the song vocalises the painful emotions of the death of her friend Sammy in a car accident when she was 21. “I met so many fans that said: ‘I felt exactly the same way that you felt, when you feel like your whole life is before it happened and after it happened’. That was so special to me,” she says of the reaction.

“I think about mortality often. Sometimes it feels like I’m not going to be around as long as I would like to be” – Este

The album is certainly a tribute to the difficult times that they’ve all been through. So what’s it like having all pulled together and got through it – only to emerge into the global trauma like the pandemic we’re experiencing now? The sisters, understandably, pause for thought.

“We were lucky that we have each other. We’re such a close-knit family in general,” Alana says. “And I think going through what we went through before we were making this record…”

“To be honest, we’re still going through it now. It hasn’t really stopped, you know,” Este interjects. The eldest and youngest sisters begin to finish each other’s sentences.

Alana: “Going through depression is a process — it doesn’t get cured overnight. You have to really work on yourself, you have to really check in with yourself constantly. Having a therapist is great…”

Este: “Being on an SSRI [Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor, a type of antidepressant] is great.”

Alana: “And to give yourself time. You might want to rush through things, but the second that you rush through it, it takes even more time because you have to go back.”

Este: “That’s what we realised: you can run away from the shit…”

Alana: “… But it’s still waiting for you when you get home.”

Haim performing live
Credit: Getty

The album’s raviest moment, ‘I Know Alone’, viscerally describes the depression the sisters have been through. “Been a couple days since I’ve been out,” Danielle begins before adding: “I don’t wanna give, I don’t wanna give too much / And I don’t wanna feel, I don’t wanna feel at all“.

“’I Know Alone’ is very like: ‘I’m alone, and I don’t want to talk to anyone. I want to be in this, and I want to feel this’,” says Danielle, hiding her head in her hands to emphasise the isolation she felt when writing it.

There are moments of optimism peppered throughout the album, though. If ‘I Know Alone’ was hiding your head in your hands, ‘I’ve Been Down’ is fighting your way out of the fog of depression with your head held high. “It was more…” Danielle begins, before starting to half-sing while punching imaginary demons out of the way: “‘I’m gonna get this out of this, get the fuck out of my way!’”

‘Leaning on You’, a lovely folk moment, sums up the tight bond that the three sisters share. Over jangling ‘70s guitars, the sisters sing in tight-knit harmonies with lyrics that’ll give you warm fuzzies: “You take care of us when I make it tough” and “So won’t you let me know / If I’m not alone / Leaning on you”.

Haim shot for NME
Credit: Drew Escriva

This album is emotionally direct, filled with deeply honest verses and a newfound sense of confidence – something that is mimicked in the band’s bold sonic evolution. Over the course of their career, Haim have collaborated with both indie heroes (Vampire Weekend, Primal Scream) and experimental pop stars (Charli XCX and mega-producer Calvin Harris). Their new album reflects this diversity in friends: take ‘I Know Alone’, a woozy floor-filler that boasts, unusually, a UK Garage beat.

“I was listening to the Trainspotting soundtrack and [Underworld’s] ‘Born Slippy’ in the whole week leading up to writing it,” Este says. “Since our first album, that song has always been something that we were obsessed with and referencing. We’ve watched so many festival performances of it,” Danielle adds.

They’re also unafraid to drop their superstar mates a line. In the early days of ‘Summer Girl’, producer Rostam Batmanglij (formerly of Vampire Weekend) persuaded the band to text Bono. They’d met only once previously after U2 based the guitar riff in their 2017 song ‘Lights of Home’ on the bassline from Haim’s tune ‘My Song 5′. His response? “He was super-nice about the song,” Danielle responds, coyly.

The other high-profile collaborator on the record is the aforementioned Oscar-nominated director Paul Thomas Anderson, who provided many of the visuals for ‘WIMPIII’ including the album artwork and music videos. Their long-standing creative partnership with Anderson – or PTA, as they call him – began when they were put in touch by a mutual friend, but they’d always been fans of his work — particularly as their mum used to teach him art.

When Haim first went to meet him, they decided beforehand they weren’t going to mention this connection in case they looked “crazy”. “When we met him, it was like word vomit. We were like…” Danielle begins, before Alana explodes: “OUR MOM TAUGHT YOU!”

PTA didn’t just remember Mumma-Haim: “He actually ran into his kid’s room and he had a painting that he had done with my mom. It’s so crazy!” says Danielle. Just another example of Haim bringing it full circle.

Haim performing live
Credit: Getty

Ten days later – and the Monday after ‘WIMPIII’ drops – we speak to Haim again. This time, they’re calling from their respective homes. It’s 10:30am L.A. time and Este’s enveloped in a fluffy duvet, topknot in and “drugstore readers” on.

“I still think that I have the residual effects from that one night,” Alana says of their post-deli release party celebrations. What did they do to celebrate? “We had donuts, and I drank a lot. It was donuts and tequila,” says Alana.

They say they’ve avoided reading the stellar reviews that the record has received, but are surprised that they’ve not yet heard from certain people about the album. “I’m waiting for a text from all the fucking dudes that I wrote about, but no one’s realised!” Alana jokes. “I’m waiting for this one specific ex to be like: ‘Hey man, what’s going on with ‘Another Try’?!”

Of the livestreamed show they played to celebrate the album’s release, Alana says: “We got to play some songs we haven’t played before live. It was like we got a little taste of the future. I have to be honest, it tasted pretty fucking sweet.”

Haim shot for NME
Credit: Drew Escriva

Although the future is uncertain, Haim are eagerly awaiting the moment they can head back on tour. “I would go on tour tomorrow,” Este says, before correcting herself. “I’d go on tour today after this Zoom call if I could, but I don’t want to do it if it’s not going to be safe for people.”

Disappointingly, this was set to be the summer when Haim truly ascended to many a music festival’s top table. Next Friday (July 17), they were meant to be headlining their first UK festival with a top spot on the bill at Latitude in Suffolk. “That’s honestly a dream: get me on that headlining spot, man. Give me that headlining spot!” Este yells.

With headlining festivals comes the discussion of gender balanced line-ups. British bands like Foals and The 1975 have said that they want to only play festivals with equal representation. Is it as much of a conversation in the US?

“I mean, it’s definitely one that we’ve been having with our agents,” answers Danielle. “It feels kind of like a slap in the face. I’m gonna mince who it was, but I saw some quote from a festival booker that was like: ‘There’s just not enough women.’ And it’s like, what are you fucking talking about?”

Haim have consistently lifted up other womxn in the music industry. Their Sister Sister Sister tour in support of ‘Something To Tell You’ featured only female support acts, bringing Lizzo, Maggie Rogers and Grace Carter on the road with them. In 2018, Haim fired their booking agent after discovering a male band at the same level on the line-up was getting paid 10 times more than what they were. Given that they’re so outspoken, would they ever consider including inclusivity riders in their contracts?

“I mean… it’s like all these festivals, it shouldn’t even be a question,” Alana says. “Why is it even a thing? Book women. Just do it.”

“It really is kind of laughable, right? That it’s even a thing. It’s crazy. I think women make the best rock music,” Este adds. “There, I said it!”

Huge Haim fan Stevie Nicks agrees. She threw down the gauntlet to the band by challenging them to get inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame not once, but twice.

“The fact that she supports us so much that she thinks we could be in the Hall of Fame not just once but twice is the biggest compliment,” Alana says. “She’s literally the best human on this planet. I mean, right now, we’re a band and who fucking knows what’s going to happen in the future. But, for now, I’m very happy in this band moment that we’re in.”

In the time that’s elapsed since we spoke for this feature, Haim have showed up in the Black Lives Matter protests in their hometown of L.A. Aside from marching, the band have donated the profits from their merch sales to BTFA – an organisation that helps black trans women in the arts.

“It was the most important thing to show up,” Alana says. “We needed to be there to march and demand change. It really did feel like being there that changes could be made, and they need to be made.”

Este adds: “I don’t think we could have looked at ourselves in the mirror in the morning if we didn’t go.”

Haim shot for NME
Credit: Drew Escriva

As our time together draws to a close, we look to the future of Haim: with touring not an option at the moment, what are the band going to do to fill the time? “I think the first thing I need to do, honestly, is clean my fucking house,” Alana jokes. “The first thing I said to Danielle when it came out in America at 9pm on Thursday was: ‘Well, I guess we gotta make another record!’”

‘Women in Music Pt. III’ brings Haim full-circle right back to their first show at Canter’s Deli in 2000. While they were infamously paid in matzo ball soup first time around, their most recent return to this old stomping ground comes with the honour of being one of the most influential bands on the planet, renowned for their no-fucks-given attitude, a desire to smash the patriarchal glass ceiling, and a seemingly endless capacity to continue evolving as artists. If this is what the first 20 years of Haim can bring, then the next two decades are going to be particularly special — see you back at Canter’s in 2040? Don’t hold back on the pickles.

Haim’s ‘Women in Music Pt. III’ is out now