For the inaugural ‘Extraordinary Women’ profile, I couldn’t be more privileged to speak with Ellie and Louise Macnamara of the incredible Irish pop-duo, ‘Heathers’.
I distinctly remember the release of their first album ‘Here, Not There’. It was the soundtrack to my Leaving Cert and I’ve been a huge fan ever since.
Their music has been featured in the most expensive advertisement ever made by The Irish Tourist Board, they are ambassadors and speak openly about mental health but underneath it all, they are two extraordinary different women who have inspired an entire generation.
When people think of ‘Heathers’, they often think of you as a ‘unit’. Perhaps this is because you are twins but undoubtedly you are very different. How do you compare as people and as musicians?
Louise: Personality wise, we have a lot in common. We’ve grown up together, we have the same taste in music and we’re very close to each other but we both have our own lives; we live separately, we have our own group of friends.
Ellie: Louise is the organised twin and I’m probably the most unorganised person that you’ll ever meet. She even carries my passport when we’re going to the airport because I basically forget everything… but as Louise said, we are definitely quite similar but we do live apart and have different friends but I think that’s really important to us to have our own identity. Particularly as twins because people can often see you as one unit and one person so it is something that we deliberately try and achieve. You know, we spend so much time together and we work together, it’s really important that we have our own space, if that makes sense.
Absolutely. I’m the eldest of five children and for two of my sisters, there’s only eighteen months between them but from looking at them, you would think that they were identical twins. Natasha’s the older of the two and both she and Niamh attending the same primary school but when Niamh started, the Principal completely forgot Natasha’s name and both of them became ‘Niamh Burke’.
Ellie & Louise: Oh no!
Louise: Oh God.
Ellie: That’s terrible!
Yes, and when an announcement came over the intercom, if the Principal asked for Niamh to come down to the office, Natasha would have to explain to her teacher that there was a possibility the Principal was actually looking for her. Natasha used to be really upset by it because she was in the school first and was the only Natasha in the school too. So, from their experience I can somewhat relate to how it feels to being seen as a ‘unit’.
Ellie & Louise: That’s really awful, your poor sisters!
Thankfully, they survived and will be a little embarrassed that I told both you and the internet that story. Straight after your Leaving Cert, you both wanted to be archaeologists but then pursued different courses. Ellie, you studied primary school teaching, was it important that you didn’t study music? Louise, you studied music technology, did that imprint or influence on your music and how you made music?
Louise: I think for me personally, studying music was something that I really wanted to do. Before that, I had huge dreams of being an archaeologist, until I realised that it wasn’t exactly like Indiana Jones. So, I went and studied music technology and I think it was a great benefit to me. When we started Heathers, everything was on two guitars and that was all I really knew. We grew up playing piano, so I had experience of that too but I didn’t know much more than that. Through the course, I became really interested in recording, using mini keyboards and synths and grew an interest in the production side of making music too. It had a huge influence as now when we’re writing, we can record our own stuff and almost challenge ourselves a little more and practice different techniques in writing too.
Did it give you more independence and control of your music too?
Louise & Ellie: Exactly, yes.
Ellie: And then for me, I think as much as Louise wanted to do music technology to gain more experience and skills musically, at the same time I think we both chose areas of study that we were interested in completely separate to music in terms of a career. At the time, we weren’t doing Heathers full-time and we didn’t really know where it was going to go. We wanted it to be full-time in the future but our course choices were primarily based on our interests. For me, originally I did French and Ancient History in Trinity, I didn’t like it and then went to do Primary School Teaching which I actually didn’t end up finishing. Louise had finished college, I hadn’t and we decided that we were going to record our second album over in London so I had to decide whether or not I wanted to defer college or to follow music and I decided to go to London but it was a massive, massive decision for me to make. Music has always been our first love and when an opportunity like that came up, it was a bit of a no-brainer.
Louise, when you were studying music technology, your first album had already been released. Was there any pressure on you from the fact that you were an established musician, when you went to college to study music, from fellow students and lecturers alike?
Louise: Em, not really. I think people might have known I was in Heathers but I didn’t really talk to them about it. I prefer not to, how would you word that…?
Ellie: You’re quite modest.
Louise: Yeah, I guess you could say that I’m quite modest. I kind of just kept the whole ‘I’m in a band’ thing to myself. I don’t think I felt much pressure at all.
Another person who appears to be quite modest is Hozier and I know that you’re both huge fans of him but how would you describe the Irish music landscape and how do you see yourselves fitting into that?
Ellie: The Irish music scene is absolutely incredible, there are so many bands coming out of Ireland at the moment and doing really well, much like Hozier. Who else?
Louise: Le Galaxie, Daithí.
Ellie: There’s so many and Irish bands are so supportive of one another. Recently, we were at SXSW in Texas and Hozier and a few other Irish bands were over. Who else went?
Nialler9 was over there too, if I remember correctly.
Ellie: Yes he was and everyone is just really supportive of each other. In terms of where we fit in to the Irish music scene, I think that we are quite different and always have been. That’s only my own opinion though but I think it’s because our music is somewhere in the middle of pop and alternative, we are somewhat different. In the Irish music scene though, so many of the musicians and bands have their own sound and style, we are all quite unique in a sense.
That must be handy in the sense that no one is then trying to steal another’s audience?
Ellie & Louise: (laugh – but not uncontrollably) Exactly!
Louise: I think it’s so great to see so many Irish acts go abroad and do really well.
I agree, I think around the world if people were to describe Irish music they may define it in the traditional sense which is both extremely important and valid but it’s amazing to see the variety of Irish music today beginning to infiltrate that definition.
On a different topic though, if you look at the role of women in the music industry not just in Ireland but from a global perspective, it’s often viewed under a microscope. Beyoncé has been named Time’s Most Influential and last week people were talking about Robyn’s return to music but have you ever felt that being women has had any impact on your success, challenges or achievements within the industry?
Louise: I think when we started Heathers, I found it quite frustrating at times that when we would show up to a venue, people would think ‘oh they’re just two little girls with deep voices and guitars, they don’t need sound-checks’. I felt it was quite male-dominated when we started but maybe it was just the gigs that we were playing. I think now though, there are so many strong female-fronted bands or artists coming out doing really well, it’s really exciting. Ellie have you anything to add?
Ellie: I definitely agree with you. When we first started Heathers, we were quite folk-ey and acoustic but even now when people hear our music and they see that we are female, I think sometimes they can be quite taken back. They don’t really expect it but I think it really helps that at the moment if you look at the music industry, it’s really dominated by strong women such as Beyoncé, Robyn, HAIM and Janelle Monae. It’s a really different mix of music too; no two artists are producing the same sort of sound. There’s a really strong female presence in the music industry today and without doubt, that’s helping us too.
Speaking of women then, the people who are being interviewed for this blog series would undoubtedly be those who I deem to be inspiring and extraordinary but who would you define as extraordinary?
Louise: I would start off with our Mum; she’s amazing, has worked so hard and continued to do so to give us the lives that we have today. I just can’t believe that she gave birth to twins! She would be top of my list of extraordinary women.
Ellie: This might sound a little bit ridiculous but Beyoncé is someone who we both quite look up to. She’s a very hard-working, strong woman who puts everything into her music and is a business woman along with being a musican. I think she’s a great role model for young girls growing up as a pop star but also as a person with a really strong work ethic and huge dedication.
Louise: Beyoncé is a hero of both of ours and I am constantly having debates with people over the fact that they think she’s very boring, in her lyrics she doesn’t give too much away.
Ellie: She is someone who always looks perfect and I think that there are different ways in how you can present yourself as a public person; you can either give every single part of yourself, both good and bad or others, like Beyoncé in my opinion, always look, sing and dance amazing but she works extremely hard and gets the image of herself she wants to present to the public out there. There’s a slight mystery surrounding her too.
She’s very much in control of her own brand and she orchestrates that.
Ellie: Exactly. Some people think that’s boring a perhaps a little safe in the sense that she’s perfect all of the time but what I see, as you said, is that’s she’s in control of her own brand, she’s very strong but I think it’s great to see a female in control of her own career. Especially as when she started out with Destiny’s Child it would have been a time where record labels had complete control over everything that you did. To see Beyoncé develop from that into who she is today, I think it’s very inspiring.
Exactly, likewise I’m always defending Victoria Beckham; she was my favourite of the Spice Girls but I’m very much aware that she was the one who probably found singing and dancing more of a challenge and now today, she owns one of the biggest fashion empires in the world.
Ellie & Louise: Exactly!
Last year, you were huge supporters of Cycle Against Suicide, which stemmed from your track ‘Forget Me Knots’, you featured on Bressie’s album ‘Simple Things’ but what do you think needs to be done to completely vanquish the stigma attached to suicide or is that really just a dream?
Ellie: I think unfortunately, there is probably always going to be some sort of stigma attached to mental health and suicide but projects such as Cycle Against Suicide and the album that we did with Bressie are raising awareness of mental health. The best thing that people can do is to talk, for it to become something that people aren’t scared to discuss especially in places such as schools. That’s why Louise and I feel so strongly about Cycle Against Suicide and when Jim Breen came to us and asked us to lend our support and if he could use our song ‘Forget Me Knots’, it was something we really wanted to become involved with. I just think it’s amazing that they’re stopping off in schools every day, speaking to hundreds of thousands of kids and teenagers – it’s fantastic. To answer your question though, I think there’s always going to be a stigma attached but talking about it, creating an awareness of it, it’s always going to help and is the most important thing to.
I think one of the most amazing things that projects such as Cycle Against Suicide have done is that they have started a conversation, whether that’s in schools or at home.
Ellie: Exactly, one thing that Louise and I noticed after we got involved last year, was that we were quite regularly having conversations about suicide and mental health. Me personally, I have battled with anxiety and panic attacks and I spoke to my friends about it, which probably wasn’t something that I would have done before and suddenly with this conversation you find out things about friends and family that you never knew before. I think it’s great!
I completely agree. In a professional capacity, you’ve toured the world, you were at SXSW, you performed at the Oscar Wilde party in Hollywood, you’ve collaborated with Maria Doyle Kennedy but what are your highlights of your career thus far?
Ellie: For me, the Oscar Wilde party was absolutely incredible. We met and played in front of people such as Stephen Spielberg and JJ Abrams and it was just one of those really surreal moments as we grew up watching Spielberg movies and ‘Lost’ which was made by JJ Abrams. To be standing next to them, talking to them or to have them watching you play your music is a moment that I will never forget.
Louise: I think that there are so many things, from playing on the Late Late Show, which is something that we have done a couple of times now and maybe we take it for granted slightly but growing up, it was something that we would have dreamed of doing. We’ve headlined the Academy twice; I think we even sold it out. Playing to a group of people, no matter how big or small, if people are singing along and enjoying our music, it’s an incredible experience. People coming up after a show saying to use that they like our music; it means the world to us. That’s definitely a big highlight but we’re just back from the States where we were releasing our album. While we were there we performed on VH1, which is hosted by Nick Lachay, who was on ‘Newlyweds’ with Jessica Simpson. It was in the old TRL studio which overlooks Times Square and we grew up watching TRL with… what’s his name?
Ellie: Carson, Carson Daly.
Louise: Is that him?
Ellie: I think so.
Louise: Anyway, that’s something that we never thought would ever to do and to meet Nick Lachay was pretty hilarious. Amazing but hilarious and very surreal! The week after that we were in LA and we went to the MTV Movie Awards. Again, that was something that we always hoped that we would one day get to go to but to actually be there, it was very surreal. Myself and Ellie were just sitting there thinking ‘What is happening?!’
Amazing, what’s on your professional and personal bucket-list for the remainder of the year then?
Louise: Well, we are writing our third album at the minute. One of the main aims for the year is to finish that, it’s something that we’re really excited about and having lots of fun doing. What else?
Ellie: One thing that I really want to do is learn to drive this summer. I keep saying summer, is it summer already?
It’s May, so I think so! Which is scary as we currently have torrential rain and I’m dressed in sunglasses and flip-flops.
Ellie & Louise: Oh no, is it May already?! It’s absolutely gorgeous here.
Louise: But yeah, we really want to collaborate with some interesting people and find the right producer for the album. Plus, we’re really excited to get back into studio and record it. On the bucket-list, I would like to play Coachella next year and both of us really want to go to Japan. What else, Ellie?
Ellie: Not really. We’re very boring, aren’t we?! Pfft.
Not at all. I know last year, there was talk of you collaborating with Calvin Harris, I think, is there any update on that?
Louise: It was actually David Guetta…
*More than a tad mortified*
Louise: …but I would love to work with Calvin. That would be on the bucket list.
I was actually really impressed with Rita Ora’s new single which he produced.
Ellie: Yes! I absolutely love it.
Louise: It took me a while to get into it but I can’t stop listening to it now.
It turns out that dating a DJ is pretty good for your career.
Ellie: Yes. Right that’s exactly what we need, we need to hook up with a DJ.
If you had to collaborate with a DJ, which one would you choose?
Ellie: Em. Who’s my favourite DJ? You know what, I really love Disclosure at the moment.
And they’re brothers. You could work with that!
Ellie: They’re brothers, we’re sisters!
Louise: Heathers and Disclosure. It has a ring to it!
A huge thank you to Ellie and Louise for being incredible, and dare I say, extraordinary interviewees. Thank you also to Brian! If you would like to hear more from Heathers, which of course you would, you can find them on Facebook, Twitter and Soundcloud.
Interview originally published May 9, 2014