Through death, depression and diabetes Haim just keep getting stronger. With that difficult second album out the way – and an even more difficult couple of years personally behind them – the Cali sisters are back with a load of new tunes, a ripped-up rule book and a determination to do things their way. Charlotte Gunn meets the band in LA and finds that if you’re going to throw Haim lemons, you better get ready for a whole lot of lemonade. PICTURES: Drew Escriva
“I’ve been binge watching a lot of Love Island lately…”
Alana – AKA Baby Haim – is doing her best British accent.
“I keep saying things are GAWJUS and WELL NICE. ISN’T HE GAWWWWWWJUS. The other day I even said to my sisters, ‘Guys, should I get eyelash extensions?’ And they were like, ‘You have to stop watching that’.
We are sat around in a little home studio in the back of a very unassuming bungalow in Echo Park, Los Angeles with the sisters Haim: Este, Danielle and Alana. The house belongs to Rostam Batmanglij of Vampire Weekend fame, a long-term friend and collaborator. It’s also where the band recorded a large chunk of their soon-to-be three albums and where Danielle even lived for a time with her partner and the band’s producer, Ariel Rechtshaid. The place has history. “Can you feel the good juju?” Asks Este.
D’you know what, I think maybe I can.
“I hope that Ariel or Rostam will never leave any of these places because otherwise we’ll have to go somewhere new and I DON’T like it.” Alana pulls a fake strop.
“We like familiarity as you can tell” Este, the eldest of the three sisters and the band’s bass player, deadpans.
“Yeah and I think it’s a comfort thing”, Alana adds. “Like, creatively we can open up more in spaces that are more familiar to us. Going somewhere new freaks me the fuck out. I like feeling like home.”
Home – and family – are pretty important to Haim. Born and raised in the San Fernando Valley just outside of LA, the sisters haven’t flown far from the nest. Their first foray into music was as family covers band RockinHaim with mum on guitar and dad on drums. Ditching the ‘rents a little later – and by way of all-girl pop band Valli Girls for Danielle and Este – Haim was formed in 2007 playing their first gig at famed Jewish LA eatery, Canter’s Deli.
“I think I’ve only just realised how important Canter’s is.” says Alana. “Obviously, our first show was at Canter’s. We’ve thrown parties at Canter’s. We shot the video for ‘Summer Girl’ at Canter’s. We’d go there growing up and have chocolate Rugelach and Matzah ball soup and it’s the best.”
‘Summer Girl’, released in July, is the first new Haim music since 2017’s ‘Something To Tell You’ – the difficult second album, in more ways than one – took four years to create. After the immense success of their first record, ‘Days Are Gone’, the band caught some flack for waiting so long to release new music, but the truth is, things were going on behind the scenes. Ariel, Danielle’s boyfriend and the band’s producer, had been diagnosed with testicular cancer (he’s now cancer-free) and while the sisters supported him through that battle, everything else had to wait.
‘Summer Girl’ was a song that Danielle originally wrote around the time of Ariel’s diagnosis. She told fans on Instagram back in July, that it was about being his “light, when he was feeling dark, his hope when he felt hopeless”. It’s a different sound for the sisters, impossibly catchy in a lo-fi pop way. The wonky bassline is reminiscent of Lou Reed’s ‘Walk on the Wild Side’, so much so, they credited him on the song.
“I was in the shower and just remembered this song and got it up on my phone.” Danielle explains. “I took the song to Rostam because I felt weird showing it to Ariel and he immediately loved it. I had the bassline and he started putting these Lou Reed strings on it and I was like, ‘This is really sounding like it. Is it ok?’ And we were like, ‘Fuck it, we love Lou Reed, why not just go for it rather than be scared of it,’ which is something that maybe we wouldn’t have done before.”
“The whole mantra of this record is about being fearless and not holding yourself back” Alana chips in, “I feel like there are so many times when there’s that voice in your head going. ‘Be scared, be scared, stop, stop, stop,’ and with this record, we’ve shut that thing off so if one of us is like that, I have two sisters who say, ‘Keep going’.”
But despite Summer Girl’s upbeat vibe and “doot doot” chorus, being someone’s rock through something as terrifying as cancer can take its toll.
“I’m happy that I could try to be [upbeat] for Ariel,” says Danielle. “But yeah, I think, although I can’t really attribute it to one specific thing because there was a lot going on, dealing with that… it’s really hard.”
Danielle found herself, in the months after the band finished touring, falling into a dark depression, “waking up everyday and not feeling like doing anything at all”. But whereas some people might struggle on in silence for a long time, nothing goes unnoticed in this family. Este and Alana knew something wasn’t right with their sister.
“They helped me a lot’, Danielle says, looking at her siblings. “I knew I had to write but I couldn’t get myself to do it. I wanted to but I was just in such a dark place. So they were like, ‘Dude, you’ve got to get back in the studio, you’ve got to get your Garage Band out,’ – because that’s how we write – ‘Get your drum machines and we’re going to write a song a day, starting now. And it doesn’t matter what you write, just write it. Just don’t think about it, don’t judge it. Just write. And you’re going to therapy.’”
“Because we can’t do it without her, you know?” Este says, smiling. “When one piece of the puzzle doesn’t fit, it doesn’t work, so as sisters, when Alana and I saw Danielle struggling, we said, ‘It’s time to step in’.”
Which brings us to Haim’s latest single, ‘Now I’m In It’, released on October 30. Unlike ‘Summer Girl’, it’s got that distinctly ‘Haim-y’ sound. The video sees Danielle trudge through a day in a fog before collapsing, only to be stretchered to safety by her sisters. It’s not hard to get the reference.
“A lot of people think it’s about a relationship, but it’s about a relationship with myself,” says Danielle. “It wasn’t until I faced depression full on and was like, ‘OK, this is happening to me,’ that I felt like I could come out of it and that’s what ‘Now I’m In It’ is about. The bridge is, ‘It took me so long to fall, now I’m in it/Now I’m in it” and at that point, I think everything started coming together and we started writing and I started feeling better and I kind of got out of it but it wasn’t until I was like in it, and accepted that I was in it, that I was able to get my shit together.”
“You truly need to be able to recognise the beast in order to slay the beast,” adds Este.
Last year, Haim fired their booking agent after discovering that a male band at the same level as them at a festival was getting paid 10 times more than they were. It was a bold move that made a do-not-fuck-with-us statement to the world.
“The biggest issue with that,” says Danielle, “was our agent at the time booked us and the band. That is the part that we couldn’t wrap our heads around. How is that cool? That you book both bands and this band is getting 10 times as much as we are? We just couldn’t believe it, that’s why we had to make the decision.”
Este adds, “We had an inkling and we did some digging. We’re Nancy Drews. Give a mouse a cookie, give ‘em a little bit, and they’re going to explore and find out.”
It’s a shame that it takes bold statements like this to start to build a more balanced music industry but all hail the people making them. Haim know, better than most, how tough it is to be taken seriously as a woman in music, particularly rock music.
“People give us backhanded compliments, like, ‘Oh, wow, you can really play,'” says Alana. “It’s like, ‘What? What the fuck else would I be doing?’”
“Yeah, and some people have a very distinct image of what a girl rock band should be,” adds Danielle, “And – I don’t think we have to – but I don’t think we necessarily fit that box. People just don’t take us seriously.”
Este: “At the end of the day, if you’re really going to pass judgement on me and my musicianship I’ll go head to head with any fucking bass player out there, if you really want to challenge me. I’d challenge Nile Rogers to a bass off, but he’s really nice.”
Alana: “I love you. I think you’re an amazing bass player. But I don’t think that’s a fight you want to get into.”
Este: “I just mean, I’m not scared. What I’m trying to say here… OK, I don’t want to challenge the legend that is Nile Rogers.”
Danielle: “Please, for my sake.”
Este: “But what I’m trying to say is that I’m not scared. I know that I’m fucking good.”
Unsurprisingly, Haim surround themselves with strong women in music. Last year they embarked on their biggest tour to date, with Lizzo in the support slot.
“I fucking love Lizzo, she has the best vibe on tour. That energy!” says Alana, who found the prospect of following the ‘Good As Hell’ singer on stage every night a little daunting.
The beauty of going on tour with other women is that you get to share stories and band together and lift each other up.” adds Este. “Lizzo is super familial too, like, her sister will come on tour and we met her mom at [New York venue] Radio City. She loves her family just as much as we love our family. So that was really cool to see her hang out and interact with her sister. Her sister is exactly like Lizzo.”
Haim are frequent collaborators with other artists. Growing up in the often male-dominated circuit of jam sessions – drop-ins for musicians to create together – they’d often find themselves excluded, with nobody wanting to hand the guitar to the bunch of girls. But in recent years, they’ve created their own inclusive circles to move in, most recently working with the likes of Charli XCX and Clairo.
I do feel like that women are making the best alternative rock music right now which is really fucking cool,” says Danielle. “I think it’s the most interesting and from our point of view, it’s so important. I love Big Thief, I love Mitski, Weyes Blood, Soccer Mommy, Clairo: there’s so many.”
For album number three, and with their new-found give-no-fucks attitude, Haim are doing everything a little bit differently. Rather than wait until they have a full album, they are writing and releasing music as it comes to them. ‘Summer Girl’ was the first, and the band had written, recorded it and shot a video before their label even had a whiff that they were back in the studio. Do they worry that working like that will leave them with something a little disparate at the end?
Danielle: “I’m really trying not to care about it. On our first album we didn’t care about it but with the second album we wanted to come out with this classic ‘body of work’ because releasing music for everyone has changed with streaming so we thought, why not just do that.”
Alana: “We still are an album band. Obviously, like, we’ll always be an album band. I love putting on albums. I love holding a vinyl that has a complete story to it and there will be an album, obviously, but for right now we’re just having fun.”
At the time of writing, the band had completed four tracks. ‘Summer Girl’ and ‘Now I’m In It’, which you’ve heard by now, ‘The Steps’ which follows the wonky-pop vibe of ‘Summer Girl’ a little more, and the heart-wrenchingly beautiful ‘Hallelujah’ which sees the sisters take a verse each, tackling something personal to them: that they’ve survived with the help of their sisters.
For Este, that struggle is her Type 1 diabetes. Diagnosed relatively late at age 14, the condition which, in this instance, is asymptomatic, requires daily balancing of insulin levels – something made slightly easier by modern technological developments, but especially difficult when you’re on the road for long periods of time.
“I have this thing in my arm that measures my insulin levels and if they drop below a certain level, it sets off a submarine-like alarm on my phone and on Dan and Alana’s, too. I call them my Diabetes Cops. I often wake up at 3am to a chain of missed calls from one of them going: ‘Dude, you need to drink some OJ.'”
Talk turns to Alana’s verse on ‘Hallelujah’, which addresses the death of her best friend Sammy in a fatal car accident when she was 21.
“It happened fucking overnight,” says Alana. “She was my world. And I left two weeks later to go on tour and I didn’t really have time to grieve and now I think coming home and made me realise I was burying a lot of shit for a long time.”
The youngest sister starts to cry.
“I was too scared to write about it, but my friend Tobias Jesso Jr. encouraged me to. I was singing my verse and I literally couldn’t even get it out. The chorus is, ‘Why me/how did I get this Hallelujah,’ and I always think that’s such a funny thing to say because it’s like usually like [whiny voice] ‘Why me, whyyyyy.’ But it’s like, ‘Why me, what the fuck in my past lives did I do to get to this part where I have these two fucking humans as my family? I am so fucking lucky because when Sammy passed away, I wasn’t alone, because I had them and if I didn’t have them and I was alone dealing with it, I wouldn’t have survived.”
I look around and Danielle and Este also have tears silently streaming down their cheeks. When one of Haim hurt, they all hurt.
After some face-wiping and protests about it wanting it to be a “happy interview”, the sisters are quickly joking again, talking about why they love London so much (“I just think the idea of the sun coming out and going to the pub and drinking is so sick)”, and giving NME tips for what to see in LA during our stay.
I feel like I’ve had the whole Haim experience: they’ve laughed, they’ve cried, they’ve got pissed off at the bullshit they have to face at work just for having vaginas, and through all their individual struggles and stories, the one thing that is apparent is what a unit they really are.
“Don’t get me wrong”, Alana quips, “it’s not the fucking Partridge Family. They ‘DO MY HEAD IN’ if we’re going to talk about British lingo. But also we’ve gone through so much. ‘Hallelujah’ isn’t a sad song. It’s a song about being thankful for the people that love you. What I learned from my whole experience is that you never know what’s going to happen in life and the people that love you deserve to be told all the time: like, thank you for being there for me, for being my friend, for being my sister. I don’t want there to ever go a day when the people that I love so much don’t know that I love them.”
Us Brits might pass it off as American schmaltz, but if we all had a Haim-like unit around us, maybe we’d all be be as unfuckable-with as this fearless band of sisters. On whatever schedule they decide to employ, you should look forward to what’s next. It’s undoubtedly going to be GAWJUS.
Stylist: Rebecca Grice
Hair: Candice Birns
Makeup: Miriam Nechterlein
Photographer: Drew Escriva
Custom L. A. ROXX
Custom a-morir studio
Este’s shoes: BY FAR and WANDLER