Dublin’s Pillow Queens are often talked about as a band brimming with positivity but, when NME joins half of the band on Zoom to talk about their debut album ‘In Waiting’, they’re feeling less sunny than you might expect. “I’m not feeling too fresh today,” singer, guitarist and bassist Sarah Corcoran sighs, recalling the night before spent in “back-to-back” pubs as they entertained various members of the press. “We may as well go hard though.”
Going hard is something she, drummer Rachel Lyons – who’s also on the call, sat in a darkened room, hoodie pulled over her head – lead guitarist Cathy McGuinness and vocalist, guitarist and bassist Pamela Connelly have made their speciality since forming the band in 2016. They tour hard, play hard and work hard, still juggling day jobs so they can afford to survive and do the thing they love.
“There’s one time that really sticks out in my memory,” Corcoran says, prefacing a story that will make you exhausted just listening to it. Booked solid with their own UK tour, Irish support dates with Two Door Cinema Club and a trip to New York, the multi-instrumentalist still fitted in shifts at her events job back in Dublin between shows. “I had to get a really early morning flight home from Scotland so that I could work all day then play with Two Door Cinema Club,” she explains, noting she repeated that cycle of travel, work and performance for three days before heading off to the States. It’s no wonder that she says she’s the most well-rested she’s been now gigs are off the table.
All of the four-piece’s tireless work over the last four years has seen them grow into a force to be reckoned with, gradually progressing from the promise of early EPs ‘Calm Girls’ (2016) and ‘State Of The State’ (2018). ‘In Waiting’ bears all the hallmarks the band showed on those first releases – surging, infectious indie melodies, big gang vocals and, yes, that current of positivity – but feels more fully realised and accomplished than ever.
When they were making the album, the group’s focus was on how the songs would translate live. “We were definitely thinking about playing bigger stages, bigger audiences, new audiences, new countries,” says Corcoran. The pandemic, though, has forced them to look at the record from a new angle and, subsequently, consider themselves as more than a live band.
“We have to focus more on what the spirit of the album is more than just its energy,” she explains. “What’s the passion behind it? We’ve realised it’s actually a thoughtful piece of work – it’s not just leaning on the live buzz, it does work in a more intimate setting.”
Although that might not have been clear to Pillow Queens themselves before touring came to a halt, it will be immediately obvious to anyone who presses play on ‘In Waiting’. It’s a record that ushers you in with its rousing energy but then keeps you hooked with poetic, intriguing lyricism and exhilarating, bright sounds. When you dig into deeper, it unveils a host of thought-provoking subjects to occupy your mind.
On the ‘90s-tinged ‘Handsome Wife’, they commit to their own way of living, free from society’s expectations of growing up and settling down. “My sister is gay and she’s married to her wife and they have a beautiful baby together,” explains Corcoran. “They have a car, house, full-time jobs, all the rest. It’s a really traditional household despite the fact they’re gay and I’m like, ‘Should I be more like that? Why am I in a band? I should have a real job’.”
“It is a real job!” interjects Lyons. When her bandmate retorts that it would pay money if it was, she concedes, but adds with a groan: “Real jobs are boring.”
The gradually building ‘Holy Show’ tells a story of regret and insecurity, its chorus asking: “If you remember a thing about it/Tell me that it’s not that bad”. For its video, the band worked with director Kate Dolan to create visuals that take back the depiction of queer women in pop culture from the male gaze. “It’s so rare to see that [story] directed by a queer woman from a queer woman’s perspective,” says Corcoran. “There are tiny snippets of that music video that’s like a look and it’s so familiar – you’ve had the look, you’ve given the look, but it’s like ‘Oh my god, I’ve never seen that look on TV before ever’.”
Although their songs aren’t politically outspoken, Pillow Queens say their existence as a band has been “subconsciously” effected by forming in a time of great change in Irish society. In 2015, the country held a referendum that resulted in same-sex marriage being legalised, while protests demanding the repeal of an abortion ban grew until the law was changed in 2018.
Corcoran remembers it as a gateway for Ireland’s young people who weren’t previously “massively engaged in politics”, while Lyons campaigned for the marriage referendum. “I wouldn’t say I’m very political,” the drummer says. “Sometimes I’m terrible but those social issues you just didn’t have to think about it – it was like, ‘We all have a voice and we’re going to use it’.”
The band put that statement quite literally into action earlier this year when they joined the Irish Women In Harmony project, covering The Cranberries’ ‘Dreams’ to raise money for domestic abuse charity SafeIreland. It’s the kind of thing they say they’d like to do more of in the future too. “It would be amazing if we could,” says Corcoran, noting the band have a history of doing charity gigs. “It’s just about having that wider audience you can reach.”
In the meantime, after heading back to bed to nurse their hangovers, Pillow Queens are looking forward to a time when they can get back on the road. “There’s loads of places we haven’t yet gone that we’d love to go and there’s loads of artists we’d love to tour with,” Corcoran says. When that time eventually comes, expect the group to do what they do best and go very hard.
Pillow Queens’ debut album ‘In Waiting’ is out now. Pictures by Faolan Carey