When the subject of women in Irish music arises, the conversation tends to go one of two ways. The first displays a dissatisfaction with representation in the mainstream – see the Why Not Her? gender disparity reports for a grim (but somewhat improving) state of affairs in radio. The other, more enjoyable direction, is of gushing fandom about the country’s seemingly unending list of talented, driven women. Pillow Queens tend to dominate this latter topic.
Of course, bringing up women’s enduring marginalisation is not an ideal way to open a review of any album. Pillow Queens’ members are musicians, after all, minus the female prefix. But the context of Pillow Queen’s sharp rise to stardom – echoed too in the trajectory of CMAT whose ‘refreshingly authentic’ album was reviewed in this journal recently – is a beacon of hope for women in the Irish scene, on both sides of the stage.
The band made its first appearance on The Late Late Show back in 2021, but it wasn’t Ryan Tubridy’s dulcet tones uttering ‘Ladies and Gentlemen… Pillow Queens!’ but his state-side counterpart, James Corden. That Pillow Queens performed on American late-night television before Ireland’s is telling; such disparities between listener trends and mainstream offerings are common here (though in fairness to RTÉ, they did manage to book CMAT weeks before her album hit the number one spot).
Pillow Queens are Pamela Connolly, Sarah Corcoran, Cathy McGuinness and Rachel Lyons, four women from Dublin who played their first gig to raise money for an animal shelter, whose break out single celebrated ‘Gay Girls’, and who have secured playlist spots on the likes of 6 Music.
The music did the talking, as well as brilliantly rendered and emotive music videos for songs like ‘Handsome Wife’ (directed by Kate Dolan) and ‘Liffey’ (directed by David Balfe). Their sound hit a sweet spot between American slacker-rock and distinctly Irish accented vocals, singing about queerness without being camp; they made, essentially, serious indie rock music.
Leave The Light On, the band’s second offering, is no great departure; fuzzy guitars and anthemic vocal lines endure here – just try to get the ‘all of the time’ refrain from ‘Be By Your Side’ out of your head – while leaning further into their distinctive mood. It’s one concerned with memory, longing, womanhood and occasionally, romance.
Connolly’s vocals have never been better, or more diverse. She plays with light and darkness in her delivery, sometimes dominating and powerful, other times a delicate whisper. Corcoran’s turn on the beautiful ‘House That Sailed Away’ is tender: ‘I’m making friends and I like what I offer’ she croons with quiet confidence.
Otherwise, they’re ‘wasting away, cooking meals for a sore heart’ (‘House That Sailed Away’), addressing women with no financial freedom (‘No Good Woman’), and ‘having such an awful time’ (‘My Body Moves’). Their lyrics are thoughtful, while every one of the band’s musical decisions manage to sound fully intuitive.
Slow burner ‘Delivered’, with its hypnotising repetition, showcases one of the band’s main strengths: writing anthemic hooks that burrow their way into your subconscious like wellness mantras or prayers – remember the ‘gay-ay girls’ refrain in that early single for probably the best example of this effect. Repeat a phrase like ‘I’ve been delivered’ as much as they do and its meaning starts to change, the words oscillating between essence and nothingness – stick with it though, and the effect is transcendent.
That’s the overall effect of this album; this is music that is less concerned with whiplashing dynamics or overzealous instrumentals but with curating a distinctive mood and exploring every avenue within it. Sometimes it’s an anthemic cry, others a soft affirmation. What is clear is that the band’s musical impulses align with an audience of queer people who want to see people like them represented in indie rock spaces, with women who crave serious guitar music played by other women, with Irish audiences who respond to thoughtful, observant songwriting.
Leave The Light On is another success in the Pillow Queens story, along with sold-out dates across America, tote bags and t-shirts branded with the band’s name spotted in venues across Ireland, critical acclaim across the board for both their albums and live shows, and even a mural of the band cropping up on the wall of a cash-and-carry in Dublin. Their rapid ascent is justified by their musicianship, songwriting and performance skills. Long may they reign.
Leave the Light On is released on Royal Mountain Records. To purchase a copy on vinyl or CD, visit https://pillowqueens.com/shop/pre-orders/.
Published on 7 April 2022
Andrea Cleary is a freelance music and culture writer based in Dublin.