The Visceral Power of the Haim Sisters
We hung out with Haim to chat astrology, being embraced in London and how old heartbreak shaped their second album.
I hear them before I see them. The voices of Este, Danielle and Alana Haim drifting down the corridor of the Ace Hotel in Shoreditch, their LA accents blending and bouncing off the walls, punctuated with laughter and getting louder as my feet pad down the patterned carpet towards them.
When I swing open the glass door of their hotel room, they all stand up in unison and come bounding towards me. "We're huggers, don't be alarmed," says Alana, throwing her small arms around my shoulders. "How do you like your coffee?" interjects Danielle, picking up a mug from a table in the corner of the room and heaping two spoonfuls into it, before pushing some mini croissants my way. "Shall we take a seat?" drawls Este, smiling and plonking herself back down onto a leather sofa, her two younger sisters swiftly following suit; three fresh-faced Californian girls beneath a rectangular window of grey London sky.
I'm not sure what I expected Haim to be like in person, but they're remarkably energetic for a band who have been working nonstop for literally years. Even long before their 2013 debut album Days Are Gone they were recording and touring in various guises, including a folk cover band called Rockinhaim which was fronted by their parents, and briefly, for the two eldest, a manufactured tween-pop group named Valli Girls who were signed to Columbia. But they don't seem outwardly jaded or even fatigued by their never-ending schedule, nor their relatively recent success.
"Did you not see that there are three separate limos outside? This is the closest we've been in months," jokes Este, raising one eyebrow when I tell her my observation. Of all three of them, Este is the driest and funniest, often delivering one liners in her deep Cally drawl. Danielle – who is wearing a fitted tartan suit with flared trousers – doesn't say as much as the other two, but she has a quiet confidence, and when she speaks she retains eye contact throughout, her words slow and considered. Alana is friendly and excitable, constantly talking over her sisters to explain things in a more dramatic, animated way. Watching them interact, you can tell they are close in the way only sisters can be. They finish each other's sentences and know what the other one is going to say before they've even had a chance to open their mouth.
The first time I saw Haim live was in 2013 when they supported Ellie Goulding at the Roundhouse. I couldn't tell you anything about Goulding's performance because it wasn't particularly memorable – apart from the fact she was wearing pale pink cornrows – but Haim's was electric especially for a then-unknown band. Coming out in an assortment of black leather jackets and cowboy boots, wielding classic guitars and snarling faces, they charged through songs that sat somewhere between a poppier Fleetwood Mac and a rawer Shania Twain. Within the grubby confines of Camden Town, their presence felt both incongruous and exhilarating.
As it turns out, they'd been playing shows in LA for years before then, as both Haim and Rockinhaim, but no one seemed to care until they arrived in London – perhaps because, as such an intrinsically LA band, they seemed like more of a "novelty" over here. "This was the birthplace of us pretty much," Alana says, gesturing out the window towards the city below, "because nobody fucking cared about us in the US. We were playing in LA for so long, all the time, but it was here that we got signed first, and then afterwards America was like 'okay, fine.'" Danielle tells me it was a trend they were happy to join. "Growing up in America, you always hear about American bands breaking in the UK," she explains, "A lot of our favourite bands are some of those – The Strokes, even Tom Petty and Kings of Leon – so we feel really lucky to now be one of them, I guess – a group who came from America and were embraced here first."
From the outset, Haim are sonically extremely American. They sound like the effervescent opening credits of every 1980s high school teen movie you watched and wished you were in as a kid. They sound like a long drive between the palm trees of Hollywood in a convertible with the roof rolled down. They sound like smoking a blunt on someone's front porch when the sun starts to dip and turns everything pastel-coloured. Their songs feel like all your lost three-month flings, and the smells of all their t shirts. They're romantic and cinematic in a way that can only come fully-formed from the West Coast – splashes of pop sheen, but without being too sickly or clinical; tinges of melancholia, but without the bleakness present in the music of colder, faster cities.
This is a style which bloomed on their first record, and has endured into their second – Something to Tell You – which is out later this week. It's taken four years for Haim to deliver this follow-up LP, but to them, it simply acts as an extension of what they have already done. "My passport has more stamps in it – that's pretty much all that's changed," Alana tells me when I ask them how things are different now, both personally and musically. "I think what I realised is that the way we wrote songs for the first record is the way that we write for this record. There was no discussion of 'what do we want for this?' it was more like 'let's just write some songs!" Este chimes in, "But also, after coming off tour for three years, we felt on fire as a band... it's not that we weren't the first time, but I think we just wanted to capture the essence of us playing live a little more on this record. That feels like the only difference."
Listening to both albums side by side, though, there is a different energy that's subtle but palpable. For one, Something to Tell You is more skeletal, less jubilant than their first record, and woven throughout it is the unmistakable echo of heartbreak. " Gave you my love, thought I could trust you / you let me down at every turn," sings Danielle on "Right Now", her voice both disappointed and triumphant, a small sprinkling of cymbals and piano keys resting in the background.
Each song feels as though it's directed towards a lover during the various hopeful and painful stages of the parting process in a way that sounds almost conceptual. "I mean, everything has tinges of all three of us in each song," says Alana, when I ask if the album zeroed in on a certain situation, "all three of us are three years apart so we all are going through the same things at different ages…" Danielle leans across her sister, continuing "...but I also think that as songwriters, at least for us, we can pull emotions that might have been from three or five years ago. I can channel that energy, and those emotions, and put it back into the song.'"
Danielle tells me that it's not hard to write such intensely personal songs between three people when you're sisters. "It's a very mystical thing," she says, describing their writing process. "A lot of what we write is very instinctual. Sometimes it'll be just a sound that we like, or we'll come up with a phrase that will fit the melody. It's fortunate that we're sisters so we're all coming from the same place. We're all going through different things but we're always talking about our feelings with each other too because we're sisters, so it's just a lot of different experiences and I guess each song is a little different."
Haim are so easy to talk to that most serious conversations end up derailing into different subjects entirely, from food (Danielle is hands down the best cook and makes all their breakfasts on tour) to movies (Este's favourite pastime is watching horror movies alone at her local cinema, much to the confusion of her sisters) to astrology (Alana is a sagittarius, Este is a pisces and Danielle is an aquarius, which makes total sense if you're into that sort of thing). When I tell them that I'm a Libra, Alana screams "My first boyfriend was a Libra!" and when I tell them that I think English breakfasts are overrated they look genuinely shocked, with Este yelling "But beans! Toast! Roast tomato!"
What's clear is that they possess a pure, vibrant pop energy that bleeds into every crevice of their music, even when they're singing about a relationship breakdown or the miscommunication of unrequited love. The more skeptical among us might point to this inherently uplifting sound and general wholesomeness as a lack of depth, or, as Duncan Cooper pointed out in a 2013 cover feature for The Fader, a sign that Haim are "the prototypical millennial band, their image simultaneously conservative but liberal, safe but dangerous."
But we're way past the point of shutting down pop music for being simplistic or even formulaic, because sometimes the simplest sounds wind up being the most visceral – and that's the point, isn't it? As for the Haim sisters themselves, they show no sign of attempting to be anything they're not, or feeling lacklustre about an industry they've always been a part of. "This shit never, ever gets old," Alana says, almost bouncing on the sofa, her legs waving in front of her. "It's a very surreal experience," adds Danielle. "But it definitely hasn't been lost on us, to this day. It's still the same feeling. It's still magic."
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'Something to Tell You' will be out on July 7 and is available to pre-order here.
(Lead image courtesy of PR)