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'We really felt on fire as a band': Haim shake off the shackles of the difficult second album

As they release new record ‘Something to Tell You’, the sisters discuss taking control of their sound, growing up in a musical family, and standing up to industry sexism 

Melena Ryzik
Tuesday 11 July 2017 13:07 BST
Haim (Columbia Records)

As a greeting, the Haim hug comes at you like a wave, fast and giddy. It’s a three-fer, embraces from each of the longhaired sisters, Alana, Danielle and Este, of this Los Angeles trio. They’ve descended on a Manhattan studio to record a version of their new single, “Want You Back”, for Spotify. Their hugs help set a familial tone, but their musicianship is pure pro.

In a Nineties flower-print dress and witchy boots, Este seizes a vintage bass. “Gotta warm up the phalanges,” she says, playing a few licks of the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army”. Her sisters, in classic rock tees (ZZ Top, Eurythmics) tucked into ripped jeans, join in but change the tune to Bjork’s “Earth Intruders”. “We are the Earth intruders, we are the sharpshooters,” they sing together, in quick harmony.

In Spotify’s office on a summer Friday, they soon get down to business, unpacking “Want You Back”, a regretful lover’s plea set against shimmery, hopeful instrumentation, from its layered production – softening the drums, adding and subtracting microphones. Shifting dynamics play a big part in the Haim sound. It was meant to be a short session; four hours later, the group are still here, perfecting.

Haim (it rhymes with time), emerged in 2013 with the critical favourite Days Are Gone, and quickly made their name as a potently dreamy, hooky California group, with a Hollywood-worthy back story – the sisters started performing as children, in a family act with their parents. Now they’re something that’s not as common as it used to be: a major label rock band that takes the idea of being a rock band quite seriously.

Haim's second album, ‘Something to Tell You’, is out now

While their vintage style made them fashion-world favourites (there are Pinterest boards devoted solely to their hair), their music bridged the mainstream – one song was featured in a Target commercial – and the realm of painstakingly-made, retro indie-rock. Soon they were opening for, and befriending, Taylor Swift, and receiving gifts of jewellery from Stevie Nicks, who anointed them as part of her sisterhood.

With a sophomore album, Something to Tell You, which came out Friday, Haim are aiming to show that they belongs there. Next to the pop goddesses who shuffle through songwriting teams and the hip-hop and EDM that dominates streaming services like Spotify, the group’s organic guitar-bass-drums-keys sound is anachronistic, and proudly so.

After nearly four years of worldwide touring, “we really felt on fire as a band”, Danielle says. She’s 28 and the lead vocalist and guitarist; Este, 31, is the bassist; and Alana, 25, plays keyboards, guitar and percussion (she’s nicknamed both Baby Haim and Merlin). When making the record, Danielle says, they wanted “a live, raw sound” that showed off their songwriting, which owes debts to Prince and Fleetwood Mac, Chaka Khan and the Eagles, Sixties girl groups and Nineties R&B, but is unmistakably the product of this sibling trinity.

“Each song has the same theme in three different perspectives, from three different women in three different parts of their lives,” Alana says. “This whole thing is 100 per cent us. We wrote every word, every –”

“Melody,” Danielle concludes, as Este nods in unison.

You can see their process in the lo-fi video for “Right Now”, shot by Paul Thomas Anderson. In dusky lighting, the trio is alone in a studio, Danielle at the piano. “Gave you my love, you gave me nothing,” she begins, and Este joins in for the chorus – “Now you’re saying you need me, right now” – then comes Alana, with the guitar peals, a counterpoint to the singer’s plaintiveness. It ends with Alana and Este pounding a syncopated rhythm on the drums; the chorus has grown less needy and more defiant.

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There was a similar evolution in the studio, says Ariel Rechtshaid, their producer, who also worked on Days Are Gone. That debut was developed over their years as an unknown band gigging around Los Angeles, but Something to Tell You came together in the moment, in sessions that started when they returned to their childhood home in the San Fernando Valley. Before they left to tour, they had all still been living there, with their parents. They have separate places now, nearby.

Rechtshaid, who has worked with artists from Adele to Usher, was impressed by Haim’s early shows, before they were even signed.

“I had never seen anything like that onstage before – the really unique synergy between the family members, but then also the level of shredding-ness,” he says. (Between the first and second Haim albums, he and Danielle began dating.)

“They really came to music from a very deep place,” he adds. “It just came in their DNA since birth.”

That’s thanks to their parents, who started their daughters’ musical education early: their mother, Donna, an art teacher turned real estate agent, taught them guitar, after their father, Moti, a real estate agent and former professional soccer player in his native Israel, started them on drums.

“We still have three drum sets set up in our living room,” Donna Haim says in a phone interview.

When the two youngest were still elementary-school age, Moti Haim came up with the idea to start Rockenhaim, a family band that played covers of classics like “Mustang Sally”. Their first gig was at Canter’s, the famed Los Angeles deli, where they were paid in matzo ball soup (a “win-win!” according to Este and Alana).

They played at street fairs and charity events, never for money; at home, they pretended to be the Spice Girls (two Sportys, and Este was Ginger) and dissected the classic rock songs and disco numbers their parents listened to.

“That’s how we figured out how to write music,” Alana says.

“And that’s how we learned how to jam, too,” Este adds.

In conversation, Alana is the most voluble and profane, Danielle the most precise and serious-minded and Este the most likely to throw on a funny voice. She also is prone to break into what’s known as “bass face”, a series of gloriously contorted expressions when she’s performing – but so, her sisters protest, do they, when they play their instruments. And it’s true: The finale of their recent set at Glastonbury was a maelstrom of weird grimaces and whirling, gold-tipped locks as they drummed in unison. And they’re effortlessly in sync in other ways, too.

“They can break out into three-part harmony truly naturally,” says Rostam Batmanglij of Vampire Weekend, who produced two tracks on Something to Tell You. “They don’t think about it. If one of them is singing something, they’ll arrange the parts just off the top of their heads, and I hadn’t really witnessed that from anyone that I’d worked with.”

Out of the studio, they split for what Alana calls “me time”. She bakes; Danielle cooks; Este goes to the movies solo. Conflicts happen, but rarely, Rechtshaid says.

“When they’re making music, they really become one-third of the same person,” he says. “There was never a point when Danielle and I were feeling different ways about the music and Alana and Este would get my back. With Haim, it’s them against me, or all of us together, harmoniously.”

(Though their songs are primarily about relationships, the sisters declined to speak in any detail about theirs. Rechtshaid says only that in production, he and Danielle are two equally obsessive artists, and if anything, “it’s sometimes hard to turn that part off and go back to being a normal couple”.)

In the Spotify studio, where they are cutting “Want You Back” with their keyboard player, Tommy King, and touring drummer, Jody Giachello, and “Night So Long”, a hymn-like Danielle solo, they geeked out over the vintage instruments and revealed the origins of their moves in the “Want You Back” video – “Mom dance, it’s the coolest,” Danielle says.

She brought rippling emotion to every take of her Spotify vocals, then went to the control booth to instruct the engineer.

“I think the snare doesn’t have to be that meaty,” she says. “It needs to be more snappy.” (Later, she replaced Giachello altogether, with a drum machine.)

“I’m kind of at that point where I know what I want, and I’m going to go out and get it,” she’d said earlier.

It was a hard-won attitude. Though Haim have been a professional band for over a decade, they still have to face the sexism rampant in the music industry. At a recent radio station visit, Alana recounts with an eye roll, she was told she didn’t have to put headphones on because, the DJ said, “I know you don’t want to mess up your hair”.

And then there are the countless clubs and green rooms that weren’t built with women in mind. “The amount of times I’ve had to pee in a urinal!” Alana says, cursing.

But, she continues, “Right now it really does feel like there’s this thing happening where I feel more confident than ever being in a band with women”.

“The more that girls start playing music, just going out there and not giving a f*** what other people say,” she adds, “that’s when everything is going to change.”

That self-assured vibe comes through in their own music, like in “Ready for You”, a bouncy, synthy come-on to a onetime lover.

“It stemmed from this drum beat and these chords that felt very immediate,” Danielle says, singing them. “At that point, we were just so confident in the record. This song is about knowing what you want –”

“And going after it,” Este says, “and not being apologetic about it.”

‘Something to Tell You’ is out now

© The New York Times

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