Live4ever Interview: Pillow Queens at SXSW 2022

Pillow Queens with Live4ever @ SXSW 2022 (Photo: Paul Bachmann)

Pillow Queens with Live4ever @ SXSW 2022 (Photo: Paul Bachmann)

Click here to watch Live4ever’s exclusive SXSW interview with Pillow Queens on our official YouTube channel.

Amidst the lockdowns of 2020, September saw the release of Pillow Queens’ debut album In Waiting through their own label.

A collection of songs linked by an underlying message of inclusivity and unity, it received a warm response with an 8/10 review in the NME, 5/5 from The Irish Times, and made it onto numerous End Of Year lists.

Despite the accolades it’s human nature to doubt or to suffer from imposter syndrome, and the four-piece were no different.

“There was no gigs happening, we produced our first album and it had gone down really well, but when you can’t play the songs live it’s like, ‘do people really like this?’,” Pamela Connolly, lead vocalist, guitarist and bassist told Live4ever when we met with them at South by Southwest 2022. “You don’t know.”

“We didn’t have the benefit of touring the album so we couldn’t see physically see people reacting to it,” lead guitarist Cathy McGuinness added. “Is it being well-received or not?”

Any doubt that In Waiting had captured people’s imaginations were soon cast aside as the group were approached by independent label Royal Mountain Records and the publishing arm of the legendary Sub Pop.

“Getting emails from your manager saying Sub Pop Publishing want to sign a deal you’re like, ‘that’s got to be a prank!’,” Connolly said. “It just really helped us keep going.”

Indeed, despite working together for nearly a year it’s only recently that Pillow Queens have been able to meet their new associates. “We only met Royal Mountain in person on the UK tour in November and it was great.”

“The whole team are here (in Austin) so we’re getting to hang out with them, which is great. When we’re in LA next week, we’re getting to meet the Sub Pop team for the first time in person. It’s all really happening and it feels good!”

One can imagine. The Dubliners’ second effort, Leave The Light On, was released earlier in the month and has received an equally positive response, if not more so.

The atmospheric album alternates between slow-burning and euphoric while being largely introspective, another product of the situation in which it was written.

“This last album and experience of writing has been massively collaborative,” Sarah Corcoran, fellow lead vocalist and guitarist, explained.

“We’ve been experiencing a lot of the same things together so when we’re writing it’s a lot easier to be, ‘does that make sense? Is that what I mean?’, and to explain a feeling and put that into words.”

“The music bolsters that as well; you’ll say that, but then the music’s gonna do that, there’s going to be a duality going through it so that will explain that side of things…you’re encouraging each other.”

I can only speak for myself, but I definitely find lyric writing to be a cathartic experience. It’s definitely something that I’m doing for me, first and foremost. Processing experiences and writing about them. I’m not really thinking about the listener, I’m mainly thinking about the girls first.

“I’m just thinking about them and how they’re going to perceive it. Probably thinking about my experiences first, which does hark back to authenticity because you’re writing from the heart.

“That’s really earnest, but you do. If you don’t do that, it takes the authenticity away from it, especially if you’re thinking about radio or listeners or the industry as a whole. You need to separate that from the writing or it’s just crap.”

Although we all went through a shared experience during the lockdowns, the four girls who make up Pillow Queens have shared much else, including the misogyny that sadly comes with day-to-day life, let alone within the music industry.

Connolly explained that, although it’s not an issue they’ve had to manage too much, it’s still there: “It’s a lot to do with who you surround yourself with, and we’re very lucky with our team.”

“We don’t put ourselves in uncomfortable situations. As a whole, the music industry probably needs a bit of a refresh and we’re lucky that we exist in a small hole that’s encouraging.”

“Women in music are quite hyper-sexualised and critiqued more than their male counterparts. We sort of get away with that a little bit: our appearance is never commented on in reviews.”

“I remember there was a review of a female act in Ireland and, when they played, the whole review was commenting on their appearance and how they looked on stage.”

“There was nothing about the music. I think that’s where we need to change. It doesn’t matter what we look like, it doesn’t matter if you’re a woman or a man, or a queer woman or a man or somewhere in between…whatever. The focus is on the music.”

Corcoran elaborated that, although the group don’t regard themselves as spokespeople, they do share a sense of responsibility:

“We always say that we don’t have a manifesto, or sit down and say, ‘What’s this album going to be? What do we represent? Who are we now?’.”

“We have a lot of shared experiences and we live our days quite similar to each other. We end up being on the same page because we’re super-lucky. By default, we want to be authentic and there’s a relatability thing in there.”

“We don’t want people looking at us and being like, ‘oh, they’re only musicians because they’re different and they have all these different things that I don’t have’.”

“We want people to see it as a possibility, particularly young women and queer women. Just because most people you see on the front of music magazines are men and that’s always been the case. You don’t really see representation as a young non-man growing up.”

“I think it’s a perk as well,” Connolly added. “The core is that we just want to make good music, but it’s kind of a plus that, while we’re doing that thing of going towards our dreams of being in a band as a career, we also have that added thing of doing something that we’re almost unaware of.”

“People will see us and think it’s important, in a way. But I also think we’re living in a completely different time and it’s different to when we were younger. Representation is getting better by the year so eventually it will just be something we won’t even have to address or talk about.”

Representation has been a thread throughout the nascent career of Pillow Queens, even if their gestation was somewhat one-sided, as Corcoran explained:

“When we started the band, Pamela had stopped playing guitar music and was focusing on different projects, but I’d always been a massive fan of Pamela’s music.”

“We met when we were 17/18 and I just thought she was an incredible musician. We became friends after that and we ended up living together for a summer. I asked her at the start of our little lease; ‘do you wanna start a band with me?’, and she was like, ‘no, I don’t want to play guitar music anymore’.”

“It was pretty much (that) I just kept banging on her door and saying, ‘are you sure you don’t wanna start a band? I’ve got two guitars. We could do that right now!’.”

“She eventually caved and was like, ‘fine, I’ve got this demo, maybe we could work on that’. We started playing together and thought it was kind of cool. It just worked. From a friendship perspective, we were comfortable writing songs and working things out. We had very bare-bones demos at that point and we knew we had to recruit two talented people to join us!”

“We said in an ideal scenario we would like people who have the same experience as us but at the same time, our community is a queer community so it’s not something we had to try really hard to do,” Connolly added.

That’s what our circle consists of: other queer women and musicians. They’ve all known each other since they were teenagers so we didn’t have to look too far. We’d never had that experience of doing this. That’s not to say that our other experiences weren’t phenomenal as well, but we knew it was a rare thing and why not try to explore it? To be a queer women rock band.

‘We wanted to tour together with people with the same interests. That was a priority more than getting someone we knew who had accolades behind them or whatever. It was more that we wanted to tour as four friends who were passionate about what we were doing.”

“I think that, even if it wasn’t something we were considering, it would have ended up like this anyway,” Corcoran summarised, for which we should all be grateful.

The music industry is all the better for having a broader sphere of voices from across the spectrum, but the four-piece are aware enough to know that the bigger picture is largely out of their control. Better to focus on the immediate future and to be grateful for the opportunities that weren’t available not so long ago.

“When you tour, you make new fans. We missed that. We had an album, put it out and had the reach online, but we weren’t meeting people. We weren’t able to say, ‘come to our show,’ and then when people come, they’re a die-hard fan forever.”

“We’ve missed that, so we’re really excited to have that part.”

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