Pillow Queens on the thriving Irish scene, literary inspirations, and their vulnerable third album 'Name Your Sorrow'

Interview Pillow Queens: “This album is very much about stages of grief - each stage is worthwhile and important in its own right, even if the feeling is irrational”

Ahead of the arrival of Pillow Queens’ recently released LP ‘Name Your Sorrow’, we caught up with Pamela Connolly and Cathy McGuinness to get a deeper insight into the quartet’s triumphant third outing.

Kick-started by 2020’s ‘In Waiting’, Pillow Queens’ rapid ascent out of their native Ireland and onto the global stage saw them blaze a trail for the national scene (fellow Dubliners Sprints have paid homage to their cultural importance), and 2022 sophomore effort ‘Leave The Light On’ only added fuel to the already-raging fire. Now, with their widescreen third album ‘Name Your Sorrow’, the quartet have - to paraphrase DIY’s recent LP review - once again proved themselves as some of the best songwriters going.

To mark the record’s release last week, the band’s Pamela Connolly (lead vocals, guitar, bass) and Cathy McGuinness (vocals, lead guitar) shared bit more about ‘Name Your Sorrow”s conception, influences, and cathartic personal significance.

Over the past few years, there’s been a long-overdue rise in profile for Irish artists - how do you feel about where Ireland’s music scene is at now? How much has changed (or not)?

Pamela: The Irish music scene right now is unbelievable. We’re lucky enough to know that the talent has always been here, but right now it’s rightfully spilling over into international spheres. Within Ireland it still feels like a tight knit community amongst artists, but I suppose the change is knowing that touring around the world is not an outlandish prospect. There’s still a lot of work to do within Ireland when it comes to cherishing the wonderful art this scene makes and the rise in profile sort of holds up a mirror to that.

Cathy: There are also a lot of initiatives that are making music more accessible and touring more feasible - Culture Ireland and Music from Ireland have been an amazing support to us and our peers, allowing us to travel far and wide! We have many wonderful people working very hard behind the scenes to make Irish music thrive. The music has always been here, but the visibility hasn't. We can thank the likes of Ireland Music Week and the many other supports available to us.

Lyrically, ‘Name Your Sorrow’ sees you be more direct - and therefore arguably more vulnerable - than ever before. Can you tell us a bit more about the experience of negotiating these new modes of emotional expression?

Pamela: To us, our output over the years has always been quite heartfelt, but this record definitely peels away a lot of the metaphors we used to express that. It doesn’t take much to dissect the meanings and intentions of these songs, because they are quite direct and vulnerable. There has been and probably will always be a fear when it comes to being so emotionally blunt, but amongst ourselves there is a complete comfort. Obviously showing that rawness en masse does feel a little uncomfortable, but I think it’ll make the songs reach people on a more emotional level.

You’ve mentioned that Atlantis - a poem by Eavan Boland - was a point of inspiration for this record. What other literary or non-musical touchstones fed into its creation?

Pamela: The Eavan Boland reference actually came after the fact. When we’d completed the record we’d been discussing names and we wanted something that encapsulated its whole feeling. A friend of ours showed us the Atlantis poem, and it felt like we’d had it with us for the entirety of making 'Name Your Sorrow' - it just read like what the album felt like to us, so we decided to take inspiration for its name from that. Littered around the record are also references to Greek mythology, like in 'Like a Lesson' and 'Love II'. There's also a line from A Grief Observed by T.S Eliot that inspired a part of 'Blew Up The World'.

Cathy: The story of the The Loneliest Whale [from the new documentary The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52] is one that inspired me throughout this record. The account of this whale is so heartbreaking - just roaming, unable to find companionship because it communicates at a different frequency. It is so devastating and profound, and maybe something everyone can relate to from time to time. Visually and sonically, I imagined Blue 52 throughout this record - particularly in 'February 8th' - trying to emulate the sound of that communication. I also liked to imagine that Blue found moments of companionship, a reprieve from the lonely journey. I hope you can hear those moments too!

“There has been and probably will always be a fear when it comes to being so emotionally blunt, but amongst ourselves there is a complete comfort.” - Pamela Connolly

Can you tell us a bit more about the significance of February 8th (the date the record’s opening track is named after)?

'February 8th' was first demoed on this date. While that might not seem very profound on the offset, we felt it actually embodied the song very well when we thought about renaming it. This particular day in February was quite wet and cold and windowless, and the record has immense moments of that ‘winter’ feeling.

Pillow Queens are still a staunchly live band, but on these tracks you’ve leaned more into the expansiveness of a studio sound, introducing a grand piano and harmonica (among other things) to proceedings. Did this feel like a significant change to make? What effect do you think this has had on ‘Name Your Sorrow’ as a whole?

Pamela: For us our live show is hugely important, and I suppose in the past we’ve been reluctant to add things we couldn’t replicate live. Although, I think we found over the years that that can be quite restrictive when you’re recording and in such a creative zone. We’ve also realized that we’re more capable than we give ourselves credit for, so we’re more open to accepting the challenge of recreating these things live.

Cathy: This record was very much written with the intention of making a cohesive piece of work. The most important thing was to support the songs as best we could - we even discussed the addition of brass at one point! Generally, I like to keep things as true to our live sound in the studio as we can, but on this occasion I very much felt 'we can always adapt songs later if we need to'. Capturing what these songs are and being empathetic to them was paramount to the process for me.

How are you hoping these new tracks will translate to a live setting and integrate into your setlist on your upcoming tour of the UK and Ireland?

Pamela: We’re actually still in the process of figuring all that out. These songs are still so fresh to us, so we probably need to curb our enthusiasm when it comes to wanting to play them all and remember this is album number three! It’s exciting though, to see how these songs can be interlaced with our previous back catalogue.

Cathy: I really believe these songs will lend themselves very well to a live setting - they might just be a little rougher around the edges than the record. While 'Name Your Sorrow' is new and slightly different to our older albums, it's still very much Pillow Queens.

Though ‘Name Your Sorrow’ deals with heartbreak, loss, and our often complex relationships with personal identity, there’s a throughline of finding the light amidst the darkness, and sourcing strength from painful experiences. What have you learnt from making this album, both collectively and individually?

Pamela: I think maybe a lot of the lessons learned might be realised after the album is out, but I’d like to think that the vulnerability of this record will connect with people, and that [it's taught me] not to fear that in future.

Cathy: For me, this album is very much about stages of grief. Each stage is worthwhile and important in its own right, even if the feeling is irrational or not quite how you feel at your core. Feeling the feeling is important; you have to let it breathe. There are moments in that journey that are, like you say, light amidst the darkness. Those moments are joyous and a breath of fresh air.

'Name Your Sorrow' is out now via Royal Mountain Records. Pillow Queens are set to tour the UK and Ireland this summer; find out more here.

Tags: Pillow Queens, Features, Interviews

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