Pillow Queens lead singer Sarah Corcoran told David Hennessy about the hardships of growing up gay in Catholic Ireland, why Ireland should be championing its own talent and why there’s no reason they can’t be a worldwide success.
When Pillow Queens first formed in Dublin, it was just after Ireland had legalised gay marriage – a significant moment for all the members of the band.
In their music the band draw upon their shared experiences of growing up gay in an Ireland that disapproved -officially, at least.
Lead singer and guitarist Sarah Corcoran told us that growing up gay meant the hurt of realising that ‘Catholicism didn’t want us.’
But that referendum result was a revelation – no one cared what anyone did behind closed doors.
Sarah told The Irish World: “We all had a good relationship with Catholicism when we were kids.
“Three of us went to Catholic school and there were always really good associations with that: your Communion and your Confirmation were these big celebrations.
“You think when you grow up, you’re going to get married in a church and everyone’s really happy.
“Then you become a teenager and you start seeing things in yourself that the Church doesn’t agree with and you are dealing with that conflict – something that has always been such a positive force in your life is suddenly not. ‘Alright, okay. That’s a bit s*** but fair enough. That’s disappointing but it’s okay, it’s fine’.
“None of us harbour any hate around it or anything like that.
“It’s a big loss. You just don’t have that part of your life anymore.
“I internalised so much of that and only realised when gay marriage was legalised in Ireland, most people think being gay is fine. Nobody is looking at me like, ‘Oh God, who’s your wan?’’
“Before that, I just assumed people wouldn’t like that part of me and I’ve been out and proud for years.
“(But) if I was going into a job interview or anything like that, I would be trying to act straighter than I am just because I would assume it wouldn’t play in my favour if I came across gay.
“That comes from that Catholic guilt.”
Themes like religion and identity are addressed in the band’s just released debut album, In Waiting.
“We can’t get away from that.
“Yeah, definitely after we recorded, we listened back to the songs and were like, ‘Jesus, we talk about God a lot’. “There’s so many religious things running through it and at no point did we sit down and say, ‘Let’s make a record and reference religion in probably every song’. But it just happened. It’s so bizarre.”
Pillow Queens’ melodic indie rock can be raucous, but it works because of the emotional core to their songs. Since their first EP Calm Girls in 2016, the band have addressed issues like sexuality and the struggles of everyday life with songs like Gay Girls, Handsome Wife and Holy Show earning them a huge following.
“It’s a whirlwind, we’ve never slowed down.
“Since we started the band, we have always talked about THE ALBUM. Hopefully there will be more than one, but this has been what we have been working towards. It has always been the album.
“They’re being shipped on Monday. We will actually get to have them in our hands. I can’t wait for that.
“We started the band in late 2016. It was probably November when the four of us were in a room for the first time together.
“We had a gig booked before we even had a drummer and then Rachel came into the room and we were like, ‘Do you want to be in the band because we have a gig booked in two weeks?’And she was like, ‘Yeah’.
“We played the gig and then it just never stopped from then. We have just been gigging, writing, touring, recording constantly since we started.
“We had to make a conscious decision to say, ‘Okay, to record this album, we’re going to need to take time off so that’s what we did at the end of last year’.”
The album would have been sooner, but they got an offer they couldn’t refuse.
“We had intended to record last Spring (but) a UK and Europe support tour with SOAK popped up.
“You have this opportunity to play in these venues you have never played in before, in countries you’ve never been to before with one of your favourite bands…you’re obviously going to take the opportunity so we were like, ‘Yeah, f*** the album. We’re going on tour instead’. It was great.
“We’ve grown as a band. Everything we’ve released before – a demo and an EP- were both quite scrappy in how they were put together, or even just our musical ability, I guess, on those records.
“We’re definitely writing better songs, bigger songs with the idea in our minds, ‘We’ll probably play these in bigger venues than we thought we would play.
“When we were writing the other songs we were like, ‘We’ll probably perform these in the back of a pub, and nobody will be listening’.
“Now we’ve had the opportunity to play big festival stages, support slots in stadiums – BIG venues, so we’re writing songs that will suit those venues.”
Of course, there’s not much possibility of playing one of those big venues in the foreseeable future while Covid-19 restrictions are in place.
She laughs: “It is a pity but eventually when we can, these songs will sound really good.
“This year was going to be all live music. We were a week from going to South by Southwest (SxSW) when lockdown came in in Austin (Texas) and then in Dublin, so it was cancelled.
“That was just the start of it. We had allthe summer festivals booked. We had a tour to coincide with the release of the album. Everything just had to go on hold.
“It was definitely devastating atthe beginning (but)it was devastating for everybody. We are lucky that we can still release it because I would hate to sit on it.
“It’s been an unexpected year for everyone.”
They used their unexpected free time constructively and joined RuthAnne, Erica Coady and many others on the charity single Dreams by Irish Women in Harmony in aid of Safe Ireland.
“They both (RuthAnne and Erica) messaged us on Instagram separately just saying, ‘We’re doing this thing and we think it is really important because…’
“There had been a few really big events in Irish media that just weren’t including women and it was really notice able and also some really scary figures coming back from domestic abuse charities that numbers were rising and rising during lockdown.
“That was really scary. When it was mentioned we were going to be supporting that charity I was like, ‘Okay absolutely. There is no reason not to do this’.
“At the time we had no idea that they’d gotten such an incredible array of talent(Caroline Corr, Una Healy, Moya Brennan, Lisa Hannigan, Imelda May and Emma Langford among many others) involved until we saw the video.”
“(It was) ‘Oh my God, it’s this person. Oh my God, it’s that person’. It was so, so cool.
“And then it’s like, ‘We’re getting featured on this’. ‘We have passed a million streams’, ‘We’re getting t-shirts made up’. It was this huge, huge thing.
“We had no idea that it was going to be that. We just thought, ‘Yeah, of course, we will contribute to this’.”
A report that was published just prior to the single showed that Irish women were not being played on Irish radio, something Irish Women in Harmony wanted to address.
“Unless you’re looking at figures in front of you, you can speculate.
“You can say, ‘Okay, there’s not that many women on radio but then how many women are actually making music compared to men?’
“You can make up as many reasons or excuses as you want but once you’re presented with the data you’re like, ‘Okay, can’t really argue with that’.
“They’re just not getting played and overwhelmingly so.
“It’s such a shame because from the Irish Women in Harmony group alone, I think there’s 45 artists on that who are incredible.
“I can think of another 20 Irish female acts who weren’t on Irish Women in Harmony who are also amazing.
“There are so many out there so why are they not on the radio? It’s confusing to me.
“Obviously, Irish Women in Harmony got really good radio play – but you don’t want that to be the end of it, ‘Okay, we’ve ticked the box. We played the song and now we can go back to playing Niall Horan again’.”
But is it not the case that Ireland hasn’t produced a female star in stature to rival the current fame of Dermot Kennedy and Hozier for some decades now?
“Orla Gartland doing amazing. She’s got a huge, huge online following, really die-hard fans.
“She can’t tweet anything without it just going viral.
“Her streaming numbers are huge, her gigs sell out allthe time – but Irish radio all but ignores her.
“It’s insane. She should be a household name.”
Originally from Dublin, Orla – who has often featured in the Irish World – relocated to London for precisely that reason, to find a more level playing field.
“It’s a shame that anyone would have to do that. Ireland should just be championing its own talent.”
It is an uncertain time for musicians and everyone in the creative arts in Ireland at the moment. The Arts Minister Heather Humphreys caused outrage when she suggested in August that musicians should re-skill as waiters or bartenders or other jobs or in tech.
“I think everyone’s a little bit heartbroken. The government is ignoring music as an industry.
“About those comments by Humphreys about performers re-skilling and getting another job – no, this is what we do. We’re passionate about it. We’re good at it. We’ve proven that we are consistent with it. There’s no reason that we should have to go and get another job.
“The government should be putting together a plan of action as to how it is going to support its artists, especially a country that prides itself so much on its creatives.
“You can’t go anywhere without an Irish tour guide talking about how, ‘Oscar Wilde wrote this up here and he used to live here. He sneezed on that statue once’.
“And yet artists don’t get any support so there’s not going to be another generation of that
because they’re all working in tech.”
The band has staged its own political protests about Direct Provision by emblazoning the
exhortation ‘End DP’ on their guitars. Sarah feels two of Ireland’s greatest present day injustices- Direct Provision and homelessness -have faded into the background because of the pandemic.
“It is so disappointing. Even with Covid, the response from the government has been, ‘House parties and young people are the problem’.
“They have no problem with overcrowded Direct Provision centres.
“They have no problem with homeless hostels that aren’t being given the support that they need.
“These are environments that definitely could be really difficult to deal with Covid in.
“They are just putting the blame on a tiny minority of people having parties while they can go off and have a golf session in the country because they’re the ruling class and they’ll do what they want.
“It’s very frustrating. They’re blindfolded to real issues in the country that can be fixed and should be the priority and they’re not being prioritised at all.”
But Sarah is encouraged by the growing awareness that Direct Provision is an inhumane way to treat refugees and asylum seekers. Three years ago, many people she spoke to would not have known what it was, now she sees people wearing ‘End DP’ t-shirts.
“Once people realise what it is and how disgracefully inhumane it is, they start shouting about it.
“That’s what we need. Then it will have to be a priority.”
She agrees it is a modern day Magdalene Laundries scandal in that nobody is doing anything to help people who are being mistreated: “Exactly, it’s kind of this thing of, ‘We know it’s happening. Why are we not doing anything about it?’
“Reading history books, we would have been like, ‘If you all knew about it, why was it allowed exist? Why was it open? Why was it being funded?’ Now the exact same thing is happening.”
Two of the band’s singles, Handsome Wife and Holy Show, have been especially well received.
“The response has been amazing. People have said really, really nice things.
“We were a little bit worried because the sound is a bit different to what we’ve done before. We were like, ‘We hope you still like us after you hear this’.
“It feels like people who listen to us are growing with us. We’re going through the same experiences and navigating the same challenges.
“I think people are relating to that so they’re still relating to the songs in the same way they ever did.
“There’s themes like love, and lust, and loss, and desire. Those very human things that you just can’t help but write about.”
Sarah is teased by the rest of the band for a quote she gave in another interview in which she said ‘There’s no reason we can’t be worldwide superstars’.
“They have been taking the p**s out of me so much. They’re just like, ‘Okay, Sarah. Relax’. But I think there was context to that. I do believe that. There is no reason. We’ve put the work in. The quality is there.
“Worse bands have been worldwide successes in the past. There’s no reason we can’t be.
“If there was a boy band equivalent to us, they would probably be worldwide successes so there’s no reason that we can’t be.
“That may have been where I was coming from.”
In Waiting by Pillow Queens is out now.
For more information, click here.