ELLIE Macnamara sounds a little lost and faraway. “Anxiety is something I will always battle,” says Macnamara, one half of sister acoustic duo Heathers. “I have learned to deal with it. But every day I need to keep my focus. It never goes away.”
Heathers became an overnight sensation with their song ‘Remember When’ soundtracking a Bord Fáilte ad in 2010. Ironically, Ellie and her twin Louise were going through a tough period. The added pressure of a hit record did not help. From a certain perspective it was the worst that could happen.
“One of our friends passed away. We were coping with that. I was dealing with anxiety. And I had a big decision: whether to leave college and focus on Heathers or finish my degree [she ultimately opted to commit to the band]. A lot was occurring simultaneously and it was hard.”
Part of her anxiousness stemmed from a dread of the spotlight.
“We get really nervous before performing,” she says. “No matter how big or small the gig we experience huge nerves. The good news is that we are there to support one another. If we didn’t feel nervous we probably wouldn’t play terribly well. It’s all tied up in it.”
The twins poured their traumas into their second album, 2012’s Kingdom. It was a glossy affair recorded in a swanky London studio after they signed to Warner Music. In the moment their heads were spinning slightly. You can hear it in their songs, says Ellie.
“A lot of very sad events were happening — it was gruelling. Listening to that record, I think you can tell it comes from a dark place. However, it is ultimately uplifting. We wouldn’t have written that LP if we hadn’t experienced what we did. It is good that positives can result from a difficult experience.”
There was a curious postscript to the story. After hearing Kingdom, representatives of superstar deckspinner and producer David Guetta reach out: would the sisters be interested in writing songs with the world’s biggest DJ in mind? They weren’t sure if it was a prank or a genuine request.
“Writing songs for other people is a pursuit we follow in our downtime. We have a publishing deal with Universal Music. After we signed, they said writing was an avenue we could explore. It’s an ongoing dialogue with David Guetta — if we come up with something we think they might be interested in, then we’ll show it to them.”
The sisters, from Blackrock in Dublin, were still in school when they released their 2007 debut album, Here, Not There. During holidays they toured North America, returning several years later for an Irish-themed pre-Oscars bash attended by Steven Spielberg and Lost creator, Star Wars director JJ Abrams. Looking back, it is slightly disconcerting to recall all that they have accomplished.
She remembers the shock her parents experienced on being told Ellie and her sister were going to spend their summer holidays crossing America in a tour bus (in reality, a beat-up van). Mum and dad came around and were completely supportive. Initially they were, as you might imagine, stunned. “We were 17 and said we wanted to go and tour the US. They were taken aback. It isn’t what you expect,” she says.
Through it all they have always been there for each other. As twins, people sometimes mix them up. In fact, they have very different personalities, which means there are occasional disagreements on the road.
However, they know they can depend absolutely on one another for support. Few of their friends have gone through what they have and that has made them stronger.
“After ‘Remember When’, especially, a lot of doors opened,” says Ellie. “It began to go crazy. The gigs were bigger and bigger — there were way more opportunities. I look back and it seems insane, the amount of amazing things we’ve had an opportunity to do. You stop and think about it and are enormously grateful.”
One source of contention is the alleged similarity between Heathers and Canadian twins Tegan and Sara. As with the Dublin twins, Tegan and Sara specialise in bittersweet acoustic pop, splashed in harmonies and heartache. Initially, Heathers were compared endlessly to the duo — a cause of confusion given that, at the time, they were only vaguely aware of Tegan and Sara’s music. &Heathers musical icons belonged to an earlier generation — they adored Fleetwood Mac and Bob Dylan. Tegan and Sara were barely on their radar. Still, Heathers feel they have progressed dramatically as songwriters. “We were exposed to a whole new set of influences,” says Macnamara. “The stuff we are listening now to compared to when we were 17 is very different. We’ve also matured as people, gone through a lot of life experiences. It is all reflected in the music.”
They’ve just returned from promoting Kingdom in America and are on a writing retreat in Clare.
“It’s early days in America. However, it seems to be proceeding well. We played at [Austin industry shindig] South By South West which was mad but very enjoyable. Generally America has been good to us: the audiences are similar to those in Ireland and the responses are quite positive.
“We’re pottering away, thinking towards the next collection of songs.... We are simply trying out ideas, seeing where it takes us. That’s what we do.”