We love Heathers

Heathers dublin

Overachievement doesn’t even come close to describing the level of success that Ellie and Louise MacNamara, twin sisters from Blackrock, have encountered since forming Heathers just two years ago. While most people would have been content to study for their Leaving Cert, the pair started a band, gigged extensively, released their debut album and were asked to do a US tour, and all this before their exams even started.  

Now, with the Leaving Cert behind them, the twins have collaborated with Super Extra Bonus Party, supported Kimya Dawson, and played a string of gigs including Hard Working Class Heroes festival and the Music from Ireland showcase in Canada. They’re also about to embark on their second US tour in June. Not a bad year’s work, by any means. Ellie, over a cup of tea in Waterstones, explains how it all began: “It started off when Louise came into my room one day with a song and asked me to put harmonies to it: I did, it worked, so we put it up on Myspace and people reacted well to it – mostly our friends really – and it kind of took off from there. Also at that time we’d go to gigs regularly and a lot of our friends would have been in bands as well, so it wasn’t something out of the ordinary for us to do, I suppose, but it wasn’t serious at all at first, it was just messing around, but it just got more and more serious.”

Things certainly progressed rapidly for Heathers. Their first public performance started humbly enough – on Killiney Hill, in the woods, in the dark, in front of their friends – but soon after, when they played at a friend’s birthday party, they were spotted by Chris Johnston from Ghost Mice, who asked the girls if they’d be interested in releasing an album as a split release with his label, Planet X Records and the Irish label Hideaway Records, run by Dylan Haskins. They agreed, and began writing songs seriously. Ellie describes the process: “It was quite tough because we were doing our Leaving Cert at the same time, so it was a bit of pressure… I think the album came out two weeks before the Leaving Cert. I remember the weekend we released it: on the Friday we had our album launch in Eamonn Dorans, on Saturday we did an instore in Road Records and on the Sunday we went to see Bruce Springsteen. Then we had about a week to study before the Leaving Cert started, it was something crazy like that.”

It all sounds unbelievably stressful. Ellie agrees: “It was, but at the same time I think playing music and writing music was our relaxing time, away from the exams. That said, even now when we’re writing new songs we’ve been finding it kind of tough, and I think maybe the pressure helped us to write the stuff – I think we might write better under pressure than not under pressure!”

Heathers’ album, “Here, Not There”, showcases their distinctive sound, as their songs are built almost exclusively from the duo’s vocal harmonies, accompanied by Louise on an acoustic guitar. When it comes to writing songs, they tend to collaborate throughout, as Ellie explains: “Firstly, Louise would write something on the guitar and try to come up with a song. But basically we try to do everything together. We generally come up with the melody before we come up with the lyrics, which is kind of strange, but it just seems to be how it works for us… Then lyrics-wise, it depends, sometimes Louise will work harder on the melody and I’ll work on the lyrics, and that happens a lot of the time, or else we’ll both work on lyrics. It’s really half and half: we both do everything together.”

The twins recently expanded their songwriting experience when they collaborated on a song with Super Extra Bonus Party: “They came to us with the song – all the instrumental bits and everything which sounded absolutely incredible. And then we put a melody and lyrics on top of it and they helped us with some of that as well and went over to the house and recorded all of it and had so much fun, it was really cool. It was really fun to do that song, actually, because it’s quite different to what we’d usually do, so it was working on something new, but at the same time completely different. We’ve been going through a period of time recently when we’ve been finding it very stressful and a bit of pressure to write new stuff. So it was nice to be able to do something different and not have the pressure of having to write new stuff, just by ourselves.”

I can’t resist asking Ellie what it’s like being in a band with her twin. She seems pretty enthusiastic about the arrangement: “It’s really good in the way that we can be completely honest with each other and we’re not afraid to criticize each other. Also, in the fact that we’re sisters, we know each other really well and we’re so close that we know what we’re singing: it’s easier to sing together, it’s easier to discuss ideas and stuff like that, because we have kind of the same ideas and expectations of what we want our music to be like anyway. But then I suppose the bad side of it is that you get into huge fights sometimes. We just get really frustrated with each other because we’re with each other all the time. But then, also, it’s kind of handy because we get to practise whenever we want.”

Despite being so close, Ellie and Louise both chose to study different things, with Louise going to college in Maynooth and Ellie starting a course at Trinity, although she’s since changed her mind as to what course she wants to do, and is instead focusing on learning how to drive, and taking her Grade 8 piano exam: “ It’s good that we went to separate colleges, so we do have time away from each other, because all our friends are the same, but being in different colleges kind of gave us a bit of breathing space. But its nice being in a band with my sister, because as much as we do have our arguments and fights, we do get on really well.”

The twins aren’t the only musical members of their family. Their older brother is a member of the metal band Crowd Control, and Ellie describes him as a source of inspiration to them when they were growing up. Although Heathers are getting ready for their upcoming American tour, which they plan to follow with some dates in Ireland once they get back, they’re also working on getting some new songs written, as Ellie explains: “What we’d love to do is write a new album, but I think it will take a bit of time. We feel that there’s a lot more pressure on us now, not just from other people but from ourselves as well, because we always want to do our best and we’re very critical of ourselves.” Are the twins tempted to bring in some more instruments for the second album? “We’ve thought about it for some of our new stuff, to put in some drums to some of the new songs we’re writing. We had some cello on our first album so maybe we will, but at the same time we want to keep the rawness of just the two of us.” Still, as Ellie remarks, when describing the progress of her own driving lessons, a drummer who can drive would be quite welcome. Just remember, you heard it here first.

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