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Sex, Bono and depression: How Haim embraced chaos and made their most revealing album yet

Mikael Wood, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

In a normal world, the sisters of Haim would be looking forward to doing what they love more than anything else.

The Los Angeles trio's new album, "Women in Music Pt. III," is set to come out June 26, after which Danielle, Este and Alana Haim were planning to hit the road as they have for years.

"Touring for me is weirdly like a significant other," said Este, 34, who plays bass in the group that evolved out of a family band the siblings performed in with their parents. It's getting back home that's tough -- the sudden loss of purpose and identity that Este said feels every time like a breakup.

Haim ventures deep into that recurring post-tour malaise on "Women in Music Pt. III," which also closely tracks Danielle's worries regarding her boyfriend's recent bout with cancer. "It was kind of all coming down on me," said the 31-year-old guitarist and drummer.

Yet for all the heaviness of its themes, the resulting collection of "emotional bops," as guitarist Alana, 28, described them, is no downer. Full of juicy grooves, propulsive riffs and Danielle's coolly sensual lead vocals, Haim's third LP seems certain to buoy listeners in this strange season when, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, the sisters won't even get the chance to experience the high before the low.

"The thought of not being able to play -- it's heartbreaking," Este said in a video conference with Danielle and Alana, each from her own home. (A type 1 diabetic, Este said she's been especially serious about maintaining quarantine -- so much so, she joked, that she'd recently "burned my face doing a DIY face mask.")

"I keep looking through old tour videos and old photos like a total psychopath," she added.

Haim's preoccupation with live performance -- with the whatever-happens energy of being onstage -- signals the band's status as a sort of bridge between rock 'n' roll's past and the pop present. Proudly skilled instrumentalists who aren't opposed to employing the modern studio tricks at their disposal, the women are as admired by veterans like Stevie Nicks and U2 as they are by younger stars such as Taylor Swift, who several years ago took the group on the road as an opening act.

Indeed, the buzz around Haim's friendship with Swift -- along with the slick textures of the band's previous album, 2017's "Something to Tell You" -- led to speculation that Haim might itself be due for a Top 40 breakthrough. That never quite happened, though you can hear traces of the sisters' funky rhythms and percussive vocal delivery in music by Swift and Selena Gomez.

On the new record, "it feels to me that they've kind of come back to the alternative world" where Haim started out, said Lisa Worden, who oversees alternative programming for the radio conglomerate iHeartMedia. But even within the alternative space, Haim's earnest devotion to the classic-rock ethos embodied by the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac makes it an outlier: the rare act capable of speaking to millennial women in language comprehensible by aging dads.

"We've always carved our own path," Alana said as her sisters nodded in agreement inside their respective Zoom windows. "And we've always prided ourselves on that."

For "Women in Music Pt. III," which Danielle co-produced with longtime collaborators Ariel Rechtshaid (with whom she lives) and Rostam Batmanglij (formerly of Vampire Weekend), Haim set out to capture a distinct live-in-a-room vibe that partly represented a pendulum swing back from the busier arrangements on "Something to Tell You."

"But also, we're a girl band in rock 'n' roll, and we haven't always been taken seriously," Danielle said. Last month, she was asked by the BBC to record a guitar tutorial for "The Steps," a deliciously fuzzed-out rock tune from the new album with echoes of Thin Lizzy. "And the first thing I thought about -- because it's a very simple riff -- were all the comments: 'This is guitar for 5-year-olds,'" she said, imagining the condescending remarks with a put-on sneer.

"Why do I go there?" She laughed. "I did the tutorial anyway. But that's why we named the album 'Women in Music Pt. III'" -- to goof on anyone still getting accustomed to such an idea -- "and why we have sausages around our heads" on the album's cover, which has the sisters posing behind the counter at Canter's Deli, where they played their first show with their parents in 2000.

"Man from the music shop / I drove too far / For you to hand me that starter guitar," Danielle sings over distorted acoustic strums in "Man From the Magazine," "'Hey girl, why don't you play a few bars?' / Oh, what's left to prove?"

As that lyric suggests, the record isn't a shred-a-thon; it's not trying to knock anybody out with its technical mastery. But there's a matter-of-fact quality to the playing in tracks like the driving "Up From a Dream" and the tender "Gasoline" that reflects the sisters' two decades of musical experience. They're not hiding behind anything; in fact, their goal in these songs was an emotional directness in contrast with the often-guarded musings in Haim's early music. ("You know I'm bad at communication/ It's the hardest thing for me to do," Danielle sang in "The Wire," from the band's 2013 debut, "Days Are Gone.")

Some of their lodestars were the Beatles' "White Album," Fleetwood Mac's "Tusk" and David Bowie's "Low" -- "albums that seemed maybe a little underdone at the time," Rechtshaid said. "We were being less precious to deliver the journey that Danielle was going through."

Having finished touring behind "Something to Tell You" -- including gigs at Coachella and New York's Radio City Music Hall -- Danielle said she felt "disconnected from what was going on with my friends" in LA; Rechtshaid's diagnosis with testicular cancer only added to her distress. Her first reaction, she recalled, was to check out until the depression passed.

"But then my therapist was like, 'You need to keep working -- that's what makes you happy.'"

So she began writing about what she was feeling, beginning with "Summer Girl," a tender but anxious pledge of support to Rechtshaid that quotes the saxophone lick and the doo-doo-doo vocal refrain from Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side." Batmanglij said the bulk of the song came together faster than anything he'd previously worked on with Haim, though they were briefly stymied by the bridge; they sent it to Bono, who'd previously expressed an interest in working with Haim, to see if he had any ideas.

 

The U2 frontman didn't end up contributing to "Summer Girl," Batmanglij said, but his enthusiastic response inspired the group to finish it, which then triggered a dozen other songs to "start spilling out," as Rechtshaid put it. They included "Los Angeles," a scrappy ska tune about speeding aimlessly down Crescent Heights Boulevard, and the strutting "I've Been Down," in which Danielle sings, "I'm waking up at night/ Tick-tock killing time/ A little moonlight coming through the blinds/ The love of my life sleeping by my side/ But I'm still down."

"What she's saying in that song -- I mean, I know her so well, so I'm like, 'Wow, you nailed it,'" said Rechtshaid, who's now cancer-free. "I've never heard Danielle connect so well lyrically."

When widespread stay-at-home orders came down in March, Haim pushed the album from an initial April 24 release to later in the summer before finally settling on the date next month. "It feels like we've gotten into a little bit of the new normal with the quarantine," Danielle said. "And we really want it to be out for the summer." With concerts off the table, they've been building toward the release with remote performances on late-night TV and weekly dance classes the sisters are teaching on Zoom.

And as they did on "Something to Tell You," they recruited director Paul Thomas Anderson -- a fellow native of the San Fernando Valley -- to make a series of music videos for tracks from "Women in Music Pt. III." Among them are "Summer Girl," which follows the sisters as they stroll through several LA landmarks, including Canter's and the New Beverly Cinema; together with the music that so vividly expresses an Angeleno's crisis of direction, the clip can remind you of Issa Rae's "Insecure."

Yet to see it now is also to feel a pang for a city in shutdown. Asked how they think the pandemic might affect their hometown in the long term, the Haim sisters said they feared that members of the creative middle class -- the session musicians and lighting designers that they grew up around in Valley Village -- would no longer be able to afford to live here.

Their parents, when they weren't leading their daughters in classic rock and soul covers, sold real estate in the Valley. "But their clients weren't rock stars," Danielle said. "It was, like, the drummer from Dishwalla."

As kids, the sisters were supported at home as they pursued music; Danielle and Este briefly played in a pre-fab pop group called the Valli Girls that scored a spot on the "Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants" soundtrack. The three formed Haim around 2007, but the band took a few years to get going as Este studied ethnomusicology at UCLA and Danielle toured as a drummer with Julian Casablancas and Jenny Lewis. (She still freelances on occasion, turning up last year on albums by Vampire Weekend and Clairo.)

Today the women say they run Haim as a strict democracy. "We always check with each other on everything -- even Instagram posts," Danielle said.

"I definitely come up with the really funny captions," Este said. "That's what I bring to the band."

Yet Danielle, once known as the trio's most retiring member, seems to be stepping into a newly forward role as the band's frontwoman: Several times in our talk, Este and Alana deferred to their sister in answering a question, and on the album Danielle owns her sexuality in a way that feels fresh for her.

"You and I don't have to meet/ But it's fun to think we could/ On the screen and in my jeans/ Just make me feel good," she sings over a throbbing R&B beat in "3 A.M." Then there's the video for "The Steps," in which she saunters into a bathroom in her underwear.

"This is where I get off the call," Este said with a laugh when the women were asked about the clip. "Hmm, I don't know," Danielle added. "Maybe I was more shy about that stuff in the past. But I think in general everyone's like, 'Free the nipple.'"

"Why not?" Este asked. "But can I say that the bigger news is that Danielle is actually talking on this record cycle?"

"It just comes down to us being the most confident we've ever been with our music," said Danielle. "And about how we look."

Has that sense of liberation helped ease the disquiet that led Danielle to Haim's new songs -- and which the pandemic threatens to extend as it keeps the band offstage?

"Not necessarily," she replied. "But this album is an embrace of the chaos."

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