Now They’re In It: HAIM Interviewed

"I feel like what I really wanted to achieve was to really open up and be a bit more forthcoming with my feelings and emotions..."

Haim are the gang everyone wants to join, but the sisters have an air of unknowability – has foregoing an album to go song-by-song let them open up like never before?

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It’s a dismal Wednesday morning in Kings Cross – it’s raining incessantly and the bedraggled tourists criss-crossing Euston Road all have faces like thunder. But as I walk into the hotel suite to meet Haim, the clouds start to part as though the LA girls have arranged for the sun to make an appearance just for me. Though they’re dressed in autumnal darks and complaining gently about the cold, their energy seems to embody the shine of their hometown.

“I know I’m biased,” Este Haim is proclaiming, “but I think LA has the best food in America.”

The thing that’s prompted this sweeping statement is the fact that LA bars serve really good tacos. In New York it’s all about hot dogs and pizza, but the West Coast has tacos on lock. You can’t get good tacos in London, really, I tell her and she looks shocked.

“Where do you go for tacos then?” Alana chimes in.

Umm… There’s this place called Breddos…

A frown.

“Breddos… are they bread tacos?”

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This is a typical back and forth quizzing from the sisters Haim. From the moment you meet them – Este, the oldest with the astonishing eyebrows and unforgettable ‘bass face’, Danielle, the lead vocalist, and Alana, the baby of the trio – make you feel like part of the gang. There are compliments thrown about my shoes, tea being made and Alana, wrapped in a huge woolen coat and buzzed by the sun slowly creeping out shouting, “I want to go to the pub!” But once we sit down and get chatting, facing the three women looking at me with bright, open faces is nerve-wracking. They seem so completely sure of themselves, it’s like staring up at a sheer wall, trying to find a way in. Tea made, faces arranged pleasantly, they’re done with their opening jokes and ready to talk business.

Unusually for Haim, the business we’re here to talk about isn’t an album. It’s not even an EP. It’s not really anything, they say, apart from a handful of songs they were excited to put out, songs that tumbled out of them in mere hours. The new music feels as relaxed as the new release schedule. Their previous work – namely their debut album ‘Days Are Gone’ and 2017’s follow-up, ‘Something To Tell You’ – came with a chin-jutting potency, an air of constant grind and justification for their place at rock’s adult table. But the new music feels much more lithe and limber.

The Lou Reed-referencing ‘Summer Girl’, which is a sweet, warm breeze of a song, has a lightness of touch that suggests a band luxuriating after working damn hard to get here. That’s partly because it is: they spent their first two albums striving for perfection, but now knob-twiddling and overthinking is out, intuition and speed is in.

“I feel like before it was like we have to get the right sounding drums, we have to make sure that the bass sounds good,” Alana explains. “Obviously we’re always going to think about that, but now part of the process is like, okay, we’re not going to spend too much time on it.”

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With the pressure of perfection suddenly off them, writing and recording has been a lot of fun. Danielle leans forward to shore up what Alana has said, as she and Este will throughout our hour together – the sisters don’t talk over each other much, but Alana tends to react fast while her older sisters agree and elaborate.

“We’ve never really thought about things that way before,” she says. “We’re usually super honed in on making it sound a certain way, or pushing to make it sound better. But with ‘Summer Girl’, that wasn’t the case at all. We were like, ‘Okay, sounds good. Sounds inspired. Let’s just put it out.’ It was inspiring for us to release like that.”

Este sums it up succinctly: “I think it’s almost the quintessential question as an artist. It’s like, when do you know when something’s done?”

The freshness of putting a song out into the world when it’s done instead of two years later along with an entire album was refreshing and reinvigorating. Though as listeners we’ve had music streaming for years, the traditional label-run industry is only just starting to catch up to the nimble new way of working that digital platforms allow. Ariana Grande famously threw off the shackles of the album cycle this time last year by releasing ‘thank u next’ just six months after her long-awaited full length, ‘Sweetener’, was out. Charli XCX has been working this way for years, forgoing label-sanctioned albums for quicker mixtapes that give her the freedom to make and release music that feels like ‘now’.

“It’s so much easier now to [put songs out as and when] – there’s not as much red tape,” Alana added. “We didn’t even tell our management or label; we were just like, ‘We’re going to do this thing and put it out.’ It’s been a really, really fun process to just be like, it is what it is.”

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It also means they can try stuff out without having to commit to a sound. Though ‘Something To Tell You’ was cohesively a Haim album, all empowering sisterhood lyrics, self-assured guitar lines and war-like drums, it lacked something that was present in their debut and threatened to tip into saminess. Some of the hunger was gone. But these new songs trip easily from the synthy dream-pop of ‘Now I’m In It’ to the fuzzy buzzy ’70s-inflected ‘Summer Girl’ to the jangly ’60s inspired ‘The Steps’. On an album, these might have felt like non sequiturs, but as standalone singles, they’re an indicator of a band feeling its way into a new direction, perhaps even an indication that they’re ready to let go of the rockstar narrative and take their rightful place as a pop band.

In particular, it was nerve-wracking playing ‘Now I’m In It’ to their friends. If it wasn’t for Danielle’s voice you might not even place it as a Haim song, all reverby vocals and ghostly, Savage Garden-indebted swoons. Driving ’80s bass and programmed drums are a far cry from the classic rock the sisters have always been drawn to.

“The scary thing when you have people you really, really trust, you know they’re going give you the real deal, right? And I remember playing it for one of my friends in particular and being like, ‘Oh my god, I’m so scared…’” Danielle cringes remembering (he loved it, by the way). “I automatically know the things that I don’t like or like, ‘Oh wait, you know what? That was bad’, but when someone’s in the room listening to it all the things that maybe have been hidden deep in your brain about maybe you should change come out super quickly.”

“And we hardly ever play people our shit,” Alana puts in. “But we love the stuff that we’re doing now. And we’re really excited about it! And, you know, we just wanted it to come out.”

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Though they have the feel of a breezy, comfortable band, these new songs have their roots in something far heavier. Before the last album was finished, Danielle’s partner, the musician and producer Ariel Rechstaidt who has worked with the band for years, found out he had testicular cancer. He’s now in remission, but during the time when he was battling the illness, work for Haim ground to a halt and his health took priority. Though they prefer to be a bit ambiguous about their songs, they released ‘Summer Girl’ with a lot of context about its backstory.

“When we were coming out with our second album, a lot of the questions were about why it’s taken a long time,” Danielle recalls. “And it wasn’t my place to be like, ‘Yeah, well, my boyfriend was battling cancer.’ It was such a huge part of my life and our life as a band, I think we wanted to have a tribute to him.”

The song was borne out of Danielle trying to not only care for him but assure him their relationship was more than simply care-giver and patient. “The tears behind your dark sunglasses / The fears inside your heart as deep as gashes / You walk beside me, not behind me / Feel my unconditional love,” she sings as a saxophone noodles about behind her, somehow hopeful and mournful all at once.

Another of the untethered songs that Haim have released in 2019 also deals with a very difficult time in their life. ‘Hallelujah’ is an astonishing ballad with a verse in the middle that completely took me aback the first time I heard it. Written and sung by Alana to deal, finally, with the loss of her best friend and performed with an unpolished sincerity, it’s clearly something she’s wanted and needed to work through for a long time.

“I feel like what I really wanted to achieve was to really open up and be a bit more forthcoming with my feelings and emotions,” she says, really, properly serious for a minute. “It’s going to be so hard for me to sing live.”

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Two weeks before Haim went out on their first tour, her best friend, Sammy, passed away in a tragic and avoidable accident – she was being driven by a drunk driver who crashed the car.

“In a weird way I dealt with it kind of passively – like, I’m leaving this and I’m just not going to think about it and hopefully when I come home it won’t hurt as much.” But, of course, that was “not fucking happening”, she laughs sadly.

“It follows you wherever you go. It’s such a fucking open wound that I carry around every fucking day and it’s been, what, seven, eight years?”

It’s hard for her to talk about, let alone sing, and she still thinks even now, “Will it heal?” The act of writing Hallelujah helped, and “it’s not going to bring her back, but having a part of her with me on tour… it does help.”

Songwriting, as the cliche goes, is like therapy. The upshot of all this emotional upheaval and easy new ways of working is that each Haim feels much more comfortable in their skin. That doesn’t mean they’re getting too boring – the conversation quickly moves on to Halloween costumes, party planning, Este’s love of scary movies and Danielle’s eerie ability to write lyrics that somehow end up coming true – but the Haim wall seems to have gone up again.

Through these songs, maybe, just maybe, there’s a chink of light shining through.

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Words: Kate Solomon
Photography: Keith Oshiro
Fashion: Rebecca Grice
Creative Direction: Rob Meyers

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