The recent Epix docu-series “Laurel Canyon” made music fans nostalgic for the Los Angeles rock enclaves of the 1960s and early ’70s, but three sisters who were raised just over the hill from that glen stand poised to inherit the mantle of queens of L.A. rock.
“We grew up along Laurel Canyon on the Valley side, north of Ventura [Boulevard], in a city called Valley Village, which we affectionately call Valley Vill-ahh-ge, to make it a little more chic,” says Este Haim, 34, the eldest of the trio. “And we were, what, three or four exits away from Hollywood? But it still felt really far away. When I got my license, and got a car with a sunroof and a f–ked-up CD player with my bat mitzvah and chore money, I would get Danielle and Alana and drive over Laurel Canyon to get to the Roxy and Troubadour. And in our new song ‘Los Angeles,’ we talk about going over Laurel and speeding down Crescent Heights.”
But, adds Alana, the youngest, at 28, “in a weird twist of events, that song is not even really about our love for L.A. It’s about us falling out of love with it.”
Out of love with the city, maybe, but not with the anti-elitist cachet that now comes with being from the SFV — even if all three sisters have emigrated southeast to Silver Lake or Los Feliz. “I’ll never let go of my 818 area code,” declares Alana. “It won’t happen, ever.”
Haim is in fact one of the twin titans of modern Valley pride, the other being Paul Thomas Anderson — the mega-fan who, not coincidentally, has directed several of the band’s videos and shot the cover photo for their new album. (“We’re very lucky that we can even touch the hem of his garment,” says Este, still a fan after years of collaboration.) To find some other devotees of the 8-year-old group, you need only look at the famous faces — like Childish Gambino, Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig, Charli XCX and Emma Stone — that show up amid anonymous fans in a crowdsourced video released last year for the sisterhood-celebrating “Hallelujah.”
Celebrity credentials aside, that outside-looking-in feeling of growing up on the wrongish side of the Hollywood Hills — “suburban angst,” as Danielle, 31, plainly calls it — surely was part of what drove the Haim sisters to develop a we-try-harder ethos as well as serious playing, writing and production chops. Possibly adding to their underdog vigor: They constitute an all-female groups in an era when, oddly, evolutionary musical forces seem to be producing fewer of them than ever — not just “girl bands” but bands, period.
Which brings us to the name of their third album (out June 26): “Women in Music Pt. III.” You wouldn’t be wrong to find a tongue-in-cheek aspect to the title, or to its cover art, which portrays the sisters behind the counter at their beloved Canter’s Deli on Fairfax, posing in front of a sea of sausages. But they’re also capable of some fierceness on the subject of the gender divide, as they demonstrate in an unusually raw song called “Man From the Magazine,” which ends on a bitter see-you-next-Tuesday punchline that touches on the offensive questions male journalists might ask (“Do you make the same faces in bed?” — a question once proffered in an interview to Este, a demonstrative stage performer), or just dumb ones, such as “What it’s like to be …?”
“We would get asked that every single interview,” says Danielle. “We haven’t gotten asked the question this record cycle, which is also another reason why we wanted to call the album ‘Women in Music.’ So it’s actually great.”
Danielle, who writes the majority of the lyrics, sings most of the lead vocals and co-produces the albums, considers the title “mostly funny. But we also thought, ‘Why don’t we just put it into our music and tell our fans some of the experiences that we’ve had?’” — including a verse about the hassles and preconceptions women face going into guitar shops.
“Listen, there are some great music shops — there’s a store here called Old Style Guitar Shop that’s great,” says Danielle (who toured as a guitarist and drummer with Jenny Lewis and Julian Casablancas before officially forming Haim with her sisters in 2012). “But growing up, being young women musicians, going into the conglomerate shops, it was always just a really s–tty experience. We were met with the obvious, ‘Oh, are you buying something for your boyfriend?’ or, ‘Oh, here’s a great starter, like, Squire.’”
Adds Este: “Honestly, even now, going into that special store which shall not be named, we get the same thing, except we’re old enough to just give it an eye roll.”
Also these days, odds are that the sisters might be recognized, thwarting any chauvinist clerk’s assumptions they’re newbies. The trio quickly rose to national renown upon releasing its 2013 debut, “Days Are Gone.” They parlayed a 2015 stint opening in arenas and stadiums for Taylor Swift, along with the release of 2017’s “Something to Tell You,” into headlining tours where future stars like Lizzo were the opening acts. In 2018, a triumphant Coachella mainstage performance was followed by a cathartic hometown headlining show at the Greek Theatre that sold out in a day — and counts as a career high point for the women from the other side of the observatory.
Fans who didn’t make it to the shows were transfixed by music videos from a group that’s made the best use of them by anyone since the golden age of OK Go. No Rube Goldbergian contraptions or stop-motion gimmicks are necessary, though, to pique interest in the Haim sisters: Their best videos, historically, have had them walking, whether it was the “Want You Back” clip in which they stroll down a strangely deserted Ventura Boulevard at the magic hour, or the recent Anderson-directed “Summer Girl” that comically depicts the liberating peeling off of endless layers of clothing while they stroll past L.A. landmarks like the New Beverly Cinema, Bookstar in Studio City or, of course, Canter’s (site of their first backroom gig, where they were paid in matzo ball soup).
“Honestly, I never thought that a thing that I do every day — walk — would make such an impact on people, but I guess we’re super good at walking,” deadpans Alana. “And we’re from Los Angeles, so that’s an oxymoron. No one does that here — songs have been written about such things,” she says (alluding to Missing Persons’ KROQ classic “Walking in L.A.”). Thanks to Haim, there may be a whole flyover nation that has mistakenly come to think of Los Angeles as a pedestrian town.
When it came time to make a video for the single “I Know Alone,” the COVID-19 pandemic quarantine had begun, and thus … public streets weren’t an option. So they put together a brilliant dance clip that was shot in one take in a backyard, with the sisters remotely directed and choreographed. “Things were changing so rapidly, it was scary,” admits Alana. “It was really hard to be creative because of just the stress of what was happening. And obviously we had other dreams for the music video for ‘I Know Alone.’ But it was actually kind of a weird gift, because we really needed a task during this quarantine, to take us out of our computers and off our phones.” (Although they did incorporate a mimed phone-scrolling motion as a dance move.)
More recently, they’ve held several Zoom dance classes for fans looking to learn the choreography. “We always loved to dance,” says Este. “We get it from our mom. She wasn’t a professional, but she knew how to cut a rug. And we’ve been asked for years, ‘Can you do a tutorial of the “If I Could Change Your Mind” dance or “A Little of Your Love”?’ and we’d always been too embarrassed. We’re not dance teachers. But during this quarantine we thought we could do something that would just get us, and whoever wants to join us, off their couch. We don’t know what the f–k we’re doing, and I’m really out of breath during the warmup, but we have a really good time.”
The Haim sisters are clearly comfortable taking the piss out of themselves, be it with their wry dance moves or the bathrobe-clad selfies they put up on Instagram that come close to being warts-and-all, like the one where Este correlated the number of zit-cream spots on her chest (three) to the days remaining till their next single. Recent social media posts reminiscing about attending the Met Gala in 2016 featured a photo with a caption that established just what a historic moment that was: “First time wearing gowns.”
Yet there’s always been serious intent beyond the surface irreverence — as their subsequent move toward posting Black Lives Matter links instead of dance instructions has indicated — and the music itself has always been utterly sober, in contrast to their off-the-record image. That continues with most of the songs on “Women in Music Pt. III” (with the noted exception of the booty-call-themed R&B outlier “3 A.M.”).
“WIMPIII,” as it’s known in short, is a welcome quarantine album not for how it will get fans off the couch — though there’s some of that — but for how it mirrors the feelings of isolation many listeners will be able to identify with in mid-2020. “I Know Alone” is a title that speaks volumes all by itself, and beyond the similarly self-explanatory title of “I’ve Been Down,” there are lyrics like “And I’ve been watching too much TV / Looking up at the ceiling / It’s been making me feel creepy / I’m just trying to shake this feeling.” The difficulty of communicating with significant others — something that may seem peculiarly acute when relationships are being hashed out over FaceTime or Zoom — might be summed up in a line from “The Steps”: “Do you understand you don’t understand me?”
Many of these songs were born out of a dark time that befell all three women after they returned from their last tour in 2018. Danielle’s boyfriend and the group’s co-producer, Ariel Rechtshaid, was fighting cancer. Este continued to grapple with her long-standing Type 1 diabetes. And Alana had lost one of her best friends in a car accident immediately before going out on tour, something she hadn’t processed and grieved until coming off the road. All were dealing with a postpartum, post-tour letdown that allowed them their first downtime since the group started. These are the sorts of circumstances that led to lines like: “It takes all that I got not to f–k this up, so let me know if I’m not alone.”
“We’re self-aware enough to know that sometimes we’re not the best at communicating,” says Este. “It’s this weird dichotomy that we tend to tell each other everything, and then wear the emotions of each other. So when one of us is feeling glum or blue, the other two tend to join that person in their loneliness. If I know that, do I really want to divulge how I’m feeling, if I know that my family is going to feel that way too? For me, at least, it was a big push and pull: I wanted to be able to share my experience, but was also conscious that my sisters were not feeling in the best headspace. We are so close, but we still felt lonely and isolated at the same time.”
Yet when it came to recording, joy returned in a big way. Danielle says, “It was the most fun we’ve had making an album, and the most spontaneously that we’ve ever made music. This is my favorite album we’ve made, and I hope that people can hear that confidence. We wrote a lot of these songs in this dark place, but we had this lightness making the recorded music — I mean, it’s bizarre.”
Rechtshaid, the Grammy-winning producer best known for his work with Vampire Weekend before coming on board as Haim’s co-producer midway through the group’s first album (and who became Danielle’s S.O. much later), is struck by the directness of the new material. “I wouldn’t say that the lyrics were in the foreground of Haim’s music historically,” he says. “And what I thought about the lyrics on this record, knowing them as well as I do and knowing Danielle as well as I do, I was like, ‘Holy s–t. She’s really nailing it,’” he says. “On songs like ‘I’ve Been Down’ and ‘Man From a Magazine,’ it was just like, wow, that’s exactly her, and it’s coming out in song form, which is rare, to have that much honesty from a lyrical standpoint where there is no persona. And because the lyrics were so much more direct and provocative in a way, or just speaking to you so much more clearly, I think that made it easier to kind of stop sooner on the production.”
Haim has always sounded like more of a rock band onstage while opting for a sleek pop sophistication on its albums, but “WIMPIII” leaves more rawness in the baking — especially when Danielle is playing an old-school drum kit — although the group hasn’t shied completely away from programming. Haim’s ultimate inattention to the constraints of genre ensures a combination of tenderly sung pop balladry, playful R&B beats and odd hip-hop touches alongside psychedelic guitar freakouts and crisp snare kicks.
“They grew up in the late ’90s and 2000s, so they’re a product of that era of music, which is the Outkasts and Pharrells,” Rechtshaid notes. “I don’t think they grew up with any sort of idea of a rock band can only be this. They came up as those lines were melting culturally.” Nowadays, they’re equally likely to talk about their love for Soccer Mommy or Weyes Blood as their reverence for ladies from the other side of the canyon like Joni Mitchell.
Look at their Instagram comments and you’ll see pleas for more of the Zoom dance classes. But their performance prowess and studio savvy doesn’t go unnoticed when requests are coming up, either. Take the fan who recently posted: “I’d love to see a lesson from Danielle on the killer riff in ‘My Song 5’ [ a song from Haim’s debut album that featured A$AP Ferg on the remix]. I’ve trying to learn it and am having a devil of a time making the slides between the 3rd and 5th frets sound ‘legato.’ I believe that for last 3 slides you are plucking on 5, sliding to 3 without another pluck on 3 (?), then a pull off from 3 to get the low E, but I can’t for the life of me figure out how you are making the 3 prior slides from 3 to 5 legato. Please help an old fart out.” Take that, Guitar Center greeters.
Este (who has a degree in ethnomusicology) can usually be found on bass, Alana plays guitar and keyboards and, like all three sisters, Danielle is a multi-instrumentalist, usually sticking to guitar on stage but focusing at least as much on another role on record. “So much of what makes Haim unique is the drums,” says Rostam Batmanglij, who co-produces the records with Danielle and Rechtshaid. “A year ago when Danielle brought me ‘Summer Girl’ to produce she had an idea for what the drums should be like. That inspired me to add the sax part. From there I think we started to craft the palette of the album.” But turning the guitars back up, when appropriate, was key, too. “I always loved when their songs had guitar solos,” Batmanglij says, “so on this album as a producer I was really pushing for more of those.”
Says Danielle: “Kate Bush, when I listen to her stuff, it still sounds next level, and her love of productionis so inspiring. We were super-inspired by her and more late ‘80s sounds with our first album. Maybe on our last album, we were a little bit more into kind of a dryer ‘70s kind of sound. And on this record… Our mom’s favorite, favorite, favorite, favorite artist is Bonnie Raitt, and the ‘Nick of Time’ album is so amazing — that drum sound, I love to talk about that big, roomy, ’90s drum sound. Also, ‘Wildflowers’ by (Tom) Petty: those drums were what I was kind of obsessed with on this album… that sonic landscape.”
Says Batmanglij, “I think there is a sweet spot for them where a song is a great song that anyone can love — but also inspires kids to pick up an instrument and learn how to play it, and specifically to master the hardest parts of the song. There are layers to their appeal, and I think that’s really special. …. I think they have an incredible presence live and a musicality both on stage and in the studio that I can’t think of many other artists matching. They remind me of Fleetwood Mac, in that I think they will be a band that successive generations discover and rediscover.”
Another significant layer, though, is their utter unpretentiousness, which can make it easy to not closely track just how accomplished and sophisticated their brand of pop — or omni-rock, or whatever you want to call it — really is. Stevie Nicks and company would surely approve of their skills, but they might cock their heads at just how un-image-conscious the sisters are. When the question came up of whether they would require a “glam squad” for a recent photo shoot, laughter ensued.
“Actually, I will say, if I get anything out of this quarantine, I like maybe kind of know how to put makeup on now,” says Alana. “Like, maybe. I’m good at walking. I’m not good at makeup. We were never a makeup family. It’s not like my mom ever was like, ‘Okay, this is how…’ My mom doesn’t even wear makeup now..”
Adds Este, “Also, mom never was like, ‘This is how you shave your legs.’ That was a huge guessing game for each of us.”
“I don’t think it’s a surprise, but beauty was not at the forefront for us,” Alana chuckles. “There are some photos of me from early Haim that I’m like, ‘What? What is going on?’ Early Haim was before like the YouTube makeup craze. But now I think we’re like semi-okay at it — which is kind of pushing it. But our fans are used to seeing us look like s–t.”
Humility becomes them. “It’s definitely not like a ‘we made it,’ but there are specific moments that are more just, ‘Holy s–t, — did not think we would get here.’ The Greek was one of them. For years, we used to play the Troubadour for, like, three people. We opened up for every band. We opened for a f–king Harry Potter band. The Remus Lupins! I wonder where they are now.” (Sadly, that group’s last Twitter entry was in 2013.)
The sisterhood factor was surely a factor in ascending to L.A. emblems instead of going the way of all muggles. To that point, Este cites the song “Leaning on You” as the one on the new album she connects with most.
“I’m very lucky that I have two siblings that are also my best friends,” she says. “I’m pretty independent, but there’s definitely times when, as a Type 1 diabetic, I feel like a lot of people who aren’t in my family don’t necessarily understand what I go through. It’s a 24-hour job you can’t clock out of. And I think Danielle and Alana really are my rock. It gets scary, man. Diabetes is not a f–king joke. Especially in the rock world. You know, sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. It’s hard to be a diabetic and live up to those expectations.”
Chimes in Alana: “Technically you are sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll, because your drugs are your insulin.”
“That’s true. I do technically take drugs,” agrees Este, reconnecting with previous generations of Angeleno rockers after all. “But I think that’s the reason why we decided to form a band together,” she adds. “Because we had such s–tty experiences playing in bands with other people that weren’t each other. And we do have a theory also that our grandma is clairvoyant, so it might’ve been passed down from generation to generation. There’s a telepathy that doesn’t happen if you’re not a sister.”