A guide to surviving school and rediscovering Ireland with the Heathers

DURING THE last winter Ireland experienced some of the harshest weather in living memory. Last November excessive flooding devastated the west and southwest of the country. Galway, Clare and Cork were among the worst affected areas.

Then in December/January came The Big Freeze as persistent snowfall and icy conditions brought the country to a virtual standstill. Meanwhile, our Minister in charge of getting things moving again was away sunning himself in Malta.

By spring time the sense of anger and outrage had somewhat dissipated but the need to get away from troubles and strife and escape to somewhere different was still strong amongst the Irish populace. In April the national tourism authority, Failte Ireland, sponsored a hugely successful ‘The Fun Starts Here’ series of advertisements on television, cinema and radio and people began to re-discover what is good about this island of ours. The theme song to the advert was ‘Remember When’ by Irish acoustic duo Heathers and it instantly became a hit with listeners.

Heathers are harmonic twin sisters Louise and Ellie McNamara from Blackrock, Co. Dublin. They have been performing and singing together since childhood and initially only started the band to entertain each other. It was while watching the 1989 hit black comedy film Heathers (which features a character named Heather McNamara ) that they decided upon on a band name. “We were both big fans of that film and so we decided to name our band after it” Ellie McNamara says “We were completely inspired by the characters and the whole sense of it”

The rising Irish duo takes to the stage at Roisin Dubh next Friday August 27 at 9pm.

The McNamara sisters speak with a pronounced South Dublin accent and at times it feels as though I am interviewing fictional rugger bugger Ross O’Carroll-Kelly. However, as their surname suggests, their origins lie much further west in the musical Mecca of Clare. “Our Dad is from Clare and a lot of our relations on his side still live there” Ellie says “Since we were very small we were aware that our parents listened to trad music and I suppose there’s a small bit of the tradition in our music. Neither of us plays any traditional instruments but we were down in Clare pretty regularly and were influenced by the craftsmanship of traditional music. At gatherings everybody would be singing and we would come from a very musical family. There’s myself and Louise and our brother is in loads of bands too. There’s a big connection to music”

It was during the summer of 2007 that Ellie and Louise began composing their own songs and playing them to family and close friends. They were busy preparing for their Leaving Cert and so didn’t have time to think about making an album and gigging. “We’ve always really just played our music for ourselves and our friends,” they say. “Some of our best musical experiences have been playing to a few people we know at a house show. We wrote a couple of songs together but we didn’t really think about recording them or anything. I think we’d only played ,like, two actual gigs when we were asked by an American band to release some songs on the label that they owned. ‘Remember When’ was probably the second last song we wrote before recording the album. We didn’t think that it would be a hit or anything”

Ellie and Louise were days away from their mocks when they were putting the finishing touches to their debut album Here, Not There. It was recorded at The Hive Studios in Kilcoole, Co. Wicklow, between the 16th and 21st February 2008. Songs such as ‘Reading In The Dark’, ‘What’s Your Damage?’ and ‘Remember When’ were recorded and mixed by Eoin Whitfield at lightning speed and then it was time for the McNamaras to concentrate on their studies. “At the time we were recording the album we were still in school and the sense of ‘escape’ was very much on our minds” Ellie says. “Even though it’s over two years ago since we wrote the songs it is only now that they’re coming to fruition. Some of the themes of the songs aren’t really still relevant to us. We were 17 when we wrote ‘Remember When’ and we’re 20 now – but we still love singing them. I suppose now the songs have different interpretations to them.”

The chorus of ‘Remember When’ has the McNamara sisters lamenting “I need to go, I need to get away from everything/ I’ll have to run to get away from here/ I need to get away/ Just for a while.’ Having completed their Leaving Certificate they did ‘get away’ when they were chosen as one of five acts to perform at the CMJ Music Marathon in New York. In recent years Irish singer-songwriters such as Damien Rice and Glen Hansard have had considerable success in the US but Ellie and Louise don’t quite see them in that league just yet. “It’s incredible how people like Glen Hansard and Paddy Casey and Damien have gone on from Ireland” Ellie says “Though it was never a thing with us that we wanted to achieve what they’ve achieved. We’ve been in school and now we’re in college and we’ve so many things going on that we haven’t really had time to take stock. I mean it was surreal to be standing next to Snow Patrol and Paolo Nutini at the Arthur’s Day photo call recently because we admire them greatly.”

Throughout this month and next month Heathers will be supporting Nutini in the UK and Ireland. They will also be performing at the Rose of Tralee Festival and Electric Picnic. In between all that they will be in Galway for one night only. “The amount of people who have heard our song and been introduced to our music through the Discover Ireland advert has been amazing,” Ellie enthuses. “We’ve been able to do a lot more tours and we’ve seen a lot more of the country than we would have if it wasn’t for the song. To be honest, though, I still can’t understand why people even like our music. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if people eventually got fed up with hearing ‘Remember When’ all the time. It’s had its time.”

At the moment Heathers are working on their second album and the songs are going to be very different from the late teen exams blues of ‘Here, Not There’. “We’re in France at the moment doing a bit of writing” the singer says “There’s a certain amount of pressure because of how well ‘Remember When’ has done. Ultimately, though, if we’re not happy with the songs then we’re not going to want to play them. We’ll stay true to what we know is best.”

Tickets available from Roisin Dubh and Zhivago Records

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