Words: Katie Gartland
Photography: Faolan Carey
Styling: Sarah Austin
Clothing: The Harlequin, Indigo & Cloth
Following the announcement of this year’s Choice Music Prize nominees, we are revisiting our archives and dusting off some of our favourite features with the selected acts.
Pillow Queens’ resilience in the midst of the pandemic was admirable. Receiving widespread critical acclaim and later an American television debut on the James Corden show is no mean feat for an act that usually revels in the live arena. This willingness to adapt and ability to connect on record makes the four-piece a shoe-in for the top prize. We spoke to Pillow Queens about their enchanting new record and defying the odds.
I spoke to Pillow Queens two weeks before the album launch in Workman’s. Like many others, I hadn’t been to Workman’s since before the pandemic. It was lovely to see, but quite weird to be in a nightclub during the day.
Walking up Wellington Quay, as I wondered how exactly I’d get inside the ten foot handle-less double doors Pam popped her head out. Pam, Pillow Queen’s lead singer, said she thought she heard me outside. We walked through the lonely corridors of Workman’s into the back room with the stage – the room I fondly remember screeching Fleetwood Mac on karaoke with my friends on Sunday nights.
Seeing the venue so empty and quiet was a bit sad. Pam, Cathay and I sat at the back of the hall on a small round table waiting for Sarah and Rachel to return from a local café. Our chats echoed around the wide room. The girls arrived back after a couple of minutes with a range of pastries and coffee for their breakfast.
They nibbled on their croissants while discussing how they procured their hangovers the night before. Since forming Pillow Queens, the girls had been gigging continuously across the country. ‘In Waiting’ was a product of their time spent in between concerts. They joked about the religious imagery that unintentionally streamed through the songs. “It’s in our vernacular and we refuse to take it out,” laughed Pam.
Bits and pieces of the album came together over time. “We wanted it to be a little bit more nuanced but still big and a bit of a shock to the system,” Pam said, reaching up to adjust her short, dark hair.
Soon a coherent sound and style began to take shape in the album. They’d each written separate songs each one shared similar musical elements and timbre. This was because the girls are so close, they spend a lot of time together, Pam explained.
“We lead very similar lifestyles, our music tastes relate to each other, our experiences relate to each other. We’re all in the same bubble.”
Though I had never met Pillow Queens, speaking to them reminded me of chatting with my own sisters – the way they talked over each other and amongst themselves, sharing anecdotes, slagging each other and laughing forgivingly.
‘In Waiting’ couldn’t have come at a better time for the band. The album was mostly finished just before the pandemic hit. They were kept busy over lockdown with the final mastering and admin. Creating their own production company meant spending lockdown doing a lot of paperwork to get their “ducks in a row”. Though they were heartbroken to miss out on this year’s festival season, they acknowledged how lucky they were to get time to complete and release ‘In Waiting’. They reminisced over festivals-past and lamented their Saturday night spot on what would have been this year’s All Together Now.
If we had even a fraction of the support we have there [UK] we could probably tour the country several times a year,”Pam, Pillow Queens
‘Holy Show’, one of the album’s most prominent and emotive singles, has been in the band’s repertoire since their formation in 2016. It was performed at Pillow Queens’ first gig, which took place in Whelan’s. “‘Holy Show’ almost didn’t make it onto the album. It was a song that we had for a long time,” Pam explained. After receiving a review for the gig, stating the last song was a “shit show” instead of a ‘Holy Show’, the track fell by the wayside. It’s a relief that the band’s manager was stubborn about recording the song for the album. The music video to accompany it, directed by Kate Dolan, follows two young women on a road trip. Beautiful shots and lighting run through the video. These were inspired by the cover of ‘In Waiting’, photographed by Faolán Carey (who did the shots for this feature). It would’ve been an awful shame if that song had been omitted – I’ve been listening to it on repeat since it came out.
There’s definitely a genre bias over here. There’s a huge focus on what’s selling tickets in the 3Arena so it’s mainly major label pop acts that get playedSarah, Pillow Queens
In June, Pillow Queens took part in Irish Women in Harmony, a collective of female artists from across the country. Over 40 women recorded a version of The Cranberries’ ‘Dreams’ remotely. The girls praised RuthAnne, the organiser and producer of the collective. They spoke about her meticulous detail in the musical arrangement and organisation of ‘Dreams’. The song was in support of Safe Ireland, a charity helping women and children in domestic abuse situations.
“I think that’s what made us do it, I think it was important for everybody. Especially with the statistics over lockdown,” Cathy acknowledged.
I asked Pillow Queens if they had seen June’s Gender Disparity Report and I was met with a cacophony of groans. If you missed it, the Report published the statistics of radio plays by gender. The results were abysmal. 98FM and Today FM played female artists less than 10% than their male counterparts. FM104 gave no airtime to Irish female artists at all.
“I was just so pissed off flicking through the pie charts,” Rachel said after taking a sip of coffee. A chart of each radio station showed the amount of time they had given to male and female artists. Only one of Ireland’s radio stations had 50/50 representation; Radio 1.
They agreed that Irish radio has not only a gender bias it has a genre bias, too. Most Irish radio plays pop music.
“There’s definitely a genre bias over here. There’s a huge focus on what’s selling tickets in the 3Arena so it’s mainly major label pop acts that get played here,” Sarah explained. She went on to point out the key difference between Irish and British radio. Pillow Queens are more popular on British Radio due to the UK’s wide range of stations playing a variety of genres.
She said that a male band in the same genre as Pillow Queens would get the same amount of radio play at home as the band does.
“If we had even a fraction of the support we have there [UK] we could probably tour the country several times a year,” Pam added.
Since releasing their album, Pillow Queens have optimistically announced a tour in Ireland and the UK for early next year but they’re not naive about its prospects. The future of the live music scene is looking fairly unstable until we see a vaccine for Covid-19. However, a couple of days before our chat, Workman’s had hosted a socially-distanced concert for 50 people in the very room in which we were sitting. Each small table was still perfectly placed two metres apart around the room. It looked like Workman’s was trying to emulate a primary school classroom.
“I would feel weird about playing this set-up because I think we really thrive off the energy of an audience,” Rachel said gesturing to the empty room. The girls spoke in trepidation about touring during the pandemic, the financial loss that could be made by gigging to socially-distanced audiences.
They spoke about their favourite venues across the country, including DeBarra’s of Clonakilty. Pam highlighted the instability acts face when announcing gigs during the pandemic and the economic investment in gigging that many bands can’t afford. After a short pause for thought, all of us began to laugh at the dark route the conversation had taken. “Sorry we’re bumming everyone out today,” Pam grinned.
Pillow Queens have been finding their way through the Irish music scene since 2016. ‘In Waiting’ has cemented their talent, musical skill and knack for emotive lyrics. We look forward to seeing them on stage next year and hope their tour goes ahead as planned.
Big thanks to Indigo & Cloth and The Harlequin for providing us with garments for this shoot. Support Irish retailers this Christmas.