“We’re All a Part of a Club Now”: The Chicks and Haim, Part Two

By
Photography Robin Harper

Published July 28, 2020

The last time The Chicks released an album, George W. Bush was president, The Da Vinci Code was number one at the box office, and they were known as The Dixie Chicks. The album was called Taking the Long Way, a Grammy-winning blockbuster that topped both country and pop charts, and was defiant proof that Natalie Maines, Emily Strayer, and Martie Maguire no longer needed the country music establishment that had largely abandoned them after they spoke out against Bush and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. At that point, The Chicks—who recently changed their name in the wake of a national reckoning with racism—were successful enough that they never needed to make another album. Except that they did. The trio had one more record left on their contract with Sony, which meant that after a 14-year hiatus that included several tours and collaborations (with the likes of Taylor Swift and Beyoncé), they reunited to make Gaslighter, a record that’s at once vintage Chicks and something wholly new. With the help of the producer Jack Antonoff, Gaslighter combines the band’s trademark harmonizing and bluegrass-tinged instrumentals with big-top pop flourishes and festival-ready hooks. A few weeks back, The Chicks interviewed the rock trio Haim for their new album, Women in Music Pt. III. For part-two of their conversation, Haim returned the favor.—BEN BARNA 

DANIELLE HAIM: First of all, your album is amazing.

NATALIE MAINES: Thank you.

ALANA HAIM: Does it feel crazy to put out a record and not go on the road?

NATALIE: That part sucks.

EMILY STRAYER: That’s the big payoff and then when it doesn’t happen, it sucks. But we definitely want the music out there, so it didn’t really change our decision.

ESTE HAIM: We felt the same way.

DANIELLE: Not being on the road, it does feel like you’re in a weird vacuum. It’s like, “Did it happen?”

ALANA: We’re so obsessed with your record. When did the bulk of the writing happen?

DANIELLE: And what was the process like?

NATALIE: Initially, we thought we were going to go the pop, hip-hop route and create the tracks as we went along. We had an appointment with a new producer every day or two. And then it got hard to open up like that to all of these brand new strangers.

ESTE: I can relate.

NATALIE: I had already known Jack [Antonoff] a bit, and knew that we had that session coming up. And I told Martie and Emily, “You guys are going to love him. We’ll probably just want to do the rest of the record with him. You’re going to like him that much.” And I was right. In the past, we did a lot of pre-production and we’d write songs around a couple of guitars. I don’t think I could ever go back to that. It’s so much easier to have a track being built at the same time.

DANIELLE: Your rhythm is incredible. Is that something that you’re conscious of when it comes to melody?

NATALIE: For sure. I probably didn’t start listening to lyrics until I was, like, 25 years old.

ALANA: I relate so hard to that.

NATALIE: It was all just about melody and feel. Someone just playing a couple of different notes on a synth opens up the melodies. I just thought the creativity flowed a lot faster on this.

EMILY: We would get stuck in ruts. We’d kind of go back to our same patterns, both instrumentally and vocally. And so, when you write this way, it’s just like, “Well, how about this, or how about that?” And it was really easy to imagine different things on the same day that you’re writing the song, and then you eventually decide which path to go down. There’s too much pressure to be like, “Okay, this has got to be the day, because it cost X amount to get this track today.” I’m sure we burned way too much money in other ways, just talking and drinking wine in the studio.

MARTIE MAGUIRE: Some days we got absolutely nothing in a 12-hour day.

ALANA: You kind of need those days in the studio. There are days when I’m like, “There’s no way we’re fucking doing anything today. We can try all we want, but anything we do today is not going to make it on the record.”

ESTE: When I’m in the studio, I feel like I’m in full-blown stressed Este mode.

NATALIE: Really?

ESTE: Yes! I’m a perfectionist to a fault. If I can’t get a bass part, or if I’m not playing what I’m hearing, I’m like, “I’m a complete charlatan! I’m an imposter! I quit the band!”

EMILY: I don’t think we hold ourselves to such high standards!

NATALIE: I always figure we’ll just lay it down and fix it later.

ALANA: When you guys were starting, was it like, “Okay, we’re going to make another record”? Or did you guys dip your toes in at first?

NATALIE: We knew we wanted to make a record because we only had one more to turn into Sony.

EMILY: Only other musicians can appreciate that.

DANIELLE: When we start writing an album, there’s no grand idea, like, “This is what it’s going to be about.” We just kind of chip away at writing songs and then something starts to form. Does that ring true for you guys?

NATALIE: This time, I actually had a lot of ideas and lyrics written down in a book. It was kind of my therapy, going through a divorce. I definitely had a lot more things I wanted to hit on, but I don’t think we were like, “We’re going to write one for the girls and then we’re going to write a protest song.”

MARTIE: We have a lot of relationship baggage between the three of us. And I do remember on that 11th day of writing relationship songs, we were like, “Let’s write about something else. You probably don’t want to hear about our emotional baggage relating to men today.” I think there was a conscious effort to not just be doom and gloom about relationships.

NATALIE: I feel like on the albums before, life was too good. There wasn’t a lot to write about. So I’d write about other people’s lives or make up a character and write about a make-believe life. But the music I like the most is very raw and in your face.

DANIELLE: I heard that you guys write in journals.

NATALIE: I do. [To Emily] You take your notes on your phone.

EMILY: I don’t do it all the time, but if we’re about to do an album, I’ll just start jotting things down.

DANIELLE: One friend that we have in common is Stevie Nicks. Because I usually write on my phone too, her big advice to us was, “You need to write in journals.” What inspired you guys to cover “Landslide”?

NATALIE: After I had my son Slade, I really heard the words and understood what she was talking about, because I felt like I was getting older, too. I felt more connected to that song. We knew at that time that we were doing an acoustic sort of bluegrass record and I liked taking more pop-sounding songs and making them into bluegrass.

EMILY: It was a daunting task, I have to say, to cover a song like that. Because we were doing it bluegrass, I felt like, “Okay, this is a totally different lane that we’re in.”

ESTE: I heard through the grapevine that this record was going to be all covers. Is that true?

NATALIE: When we first heard we only had one album left to turn in, I was like, “Oh my god, guys, we’ll do a Patty Griffin covers album. We’ll have it done in two weeks and be free agents!” And then we read the fine print on the contract and it said we weren’t allowed to do that.

ESTE: How many songs do you guys think you wrote for the record?

EMILY: We finished 13 songs. We had a lot of starts, but we abandoned ship.

DANIELLE: How do you guys know when you have a song that you want to put on the album?

NATALIE: I feel like we can tell if it’s good enough to continue. I’m not one to finish the task just because it’s the task. If it seems like torture, or I can’t picture myself singing it or emoting it, or selling it, I can’t even bring myself to finish it.

ESTE: Just give me a second, I’m writing this down for further Haim sessions.

NATALIE: Do you feel like you’ve left songs on the table that could have been great?

ALANA: There have been demos where we’re like, “What? This is the worst thing we’ve ever done in our whole lives!” And then, like, three years later, we’re like, “Whoa, we were super hard on ourselves! It wasn’t that terrible.”

ESTE: I like to text Danielle and Alana tapes of demos from, like, 2009 just to see their reactions.

ALANA: They’re all so emo.

ESTE: They were direct rip-offs of Kings of Leon.

ALANA: This is a really random question but I’ve had this moment with my sisters, where I look around and I’m like, “We’re doing it! We’re a band! We’re on stage!” Playing Glastonbury for the first time, I feel like reality hit me. Have you guys had that moment?

EMILY: For sure! Things happened really fast once we had our first single on the radio. We were playing shows way above our comfort zone. We were on the George Strait stadium tour, and we put on so much sparkly eye shadow. We were getting glitter in our eyeballs. Natalie had spiky hair, and I just remember being like, “Oh my god, we’re on a big stage—you’ve got to wear more makeup!”

MARTIE: Is that back when we would wear boas?

NATALIE: Yeah!

EMILY: But it was a “pinch me” moment.

NATALIE: Our favorite street to shop on was Melrose.

ESTE: I used to work at Wasteland on Melrose. I wonder if you guys ever came by.

EMILY: Oh, we’d go to Wasteland.

ESTE: If you guys came into Wasteland, there’s no way you would have not remembered, because I would have had a full-blown existential breakdown.

ALANA: Do you guys remember your first headlining tour?

NATALIE: Yeah, that was the Fly tour. The inside picture of the Fly album was us coming out of the zipper on the panel. The first set up was a big blue-jean curtain. It looked like a pair of pants. And then all the lights would go out—everybody’s going crazy, and you hear a zipper sound effect, and the zipper would come down, the curtain would split, and there we would be!

MARTIE: We would come through the crotch of the jeans!

ALANA: That’s the most epic shit I’ve ever heard!

DANIELLE: Don’t be surprised if we steal that.

NATALIE: We’d have a big giant Fly blimp that flew around the arena and would shit merchandise on people.

ALANA: Stealing! You guys were on the same bus on that tour, I’m assuming.

EMILY: Yes!

NATALIE: Wasn’t that the tour where I designed the bus? We had three bedrooms, and an aisle down the left side. I was in the first room.

EMILY: I was in the middle, and Martie got the back because she didn’t have a dog, so she got the biggest room.

MARTIE: I think we flipped for it, though.

EMILY: I thought it was because we brought our dogs.

MARTIE: Natalie’s dog would come and sit in my room.

ESTE: That must have been so fun.

ALANA: Who was the messiest on the bus?

NATALIE: We’re all really clean.

ALANA: Wow. So I’m just all on my own.

EMILY: I probably have the most shit that I just carry around for no reason. I’m kind of a bag lady.

ALANA: What’s one thing you can’t live without on tour?

MARTIE: Like a product or like wine?

ALANA: Literally anything.

MARTIE: Wine.

NATALIE: Tequila.

ALANA: Wine.

ESTE: Wine.

DANIELLE: Tequila.

ALANA: I wish we drank on the road in the earlier days. This tour, we’re going to be drinking on the road. I remember being so scared of being sick. I think we were playing our first really big New York show, and we decided, “You guys, we’re going to take a whiskey and go on stage, it’s going to be amazing!” I feel like it had a placebo effect. I looked at my hands and I was like, “I don’t remember anything.” I think I freaked out because I was like, “Oh my god, I drank! I drank and now I don’t remember anything!”

MARTIE: It’s all in your head.

ALANA: Now I’m fully functioning. I can drink before the tour, but yeah, wine is definitely a thing that needs to happen on the road. I wrote this question down and I’m going to just read it verbatim: Did you guys always harmonize like angels?

NATALIE: The harmonies always come easy but on this album we tried to not go to our normal harmony. Also, to not always feel like we all three have to be so equal on everything. It was like, “Maybe this song just calls for harmony on the last chorus.”

EMILY: We’re really breaking the walls down.

MARTIE: I drive my kids crazy in the car because I can’t listen to music where I know the melody without taking the third above. They’re like, “Stop, you’re ruining the song! Stop singing harmony!” My mind goes to that third above.

ALANA: I was a late bloomer in harmony. We would all be in the car driving, and Este and Danielle were naturally good at it, and I couldn’t figure it out. It was a really big thing for me. I was like, “Oh my god, do I not belong in this family?”

ESTE: You’re the best harmonizer out of all three, Alana.

ALANA: But it took me a long time. As a child, I was like, “Why do Este and Danielle know how to do this? I don’t know how to do this.” I was super competitive and it really fucked me up.

EMILY: What I love about your harmonies is that you hear each individual voice. We can blend too much sometimes, because Martie and I have a certain timbre in our voice that just naturally becomes this pillow around Natalie.

ALANA: What’s your least favorite part of making a record? Ours is mixing.

NATALIE: I hate it.

EMILY: You get sick of your own songs for a period of time.

ESTE: I think our first experience getting a song professionally mixed, we had a mixer who was some hoity-toity mixer, who shall not be named. I don’t even think we ended up using his mix, but at the time—

NATALIE: Can you tell us the initials just in case when we might know them?

ALANA: We’ll text it to you.

NATALIE: Is it a New York mixer or L.A. mixer?

MARTIE: Natalie!

EMILY: She’s not going to leave it alone.

ESTE: Basically, this mixer was like, “I’m not doing any more revisions.”

ALANA And then he just quit.

NATALIE: I was excited this time to hear the first mix of something, because I do enjoy hearing somebody’s take. And sometimes they pick out the right things and sometimes they don’t.

DANIELLE: I think on our first album, we were so protective of every choice.

ALANA: “How dare you take down that high hat beat!”

NATALIE: In the beginning, all our notes were probably like, “More me! More me!”

ALANA: When you guys were coming up, was there an artist who took you under their wing? Our first tour was with Florence and the Machine, and she championed us, which was a huge turning point in our career. Was there anyone who really pushed you up and made you feel confident?

EMILY: Sheryl Crow.

NATALIE: We were on Lilith Fair together, and she was the first person to really talk to us. Not talk to us, but come to our dressing room and say, “You guys want to go out tonight?”

MARTIE: Nat, tell the story about Sheryl. We went to this club, and we were playing truth or dare.

NATALIE: It was our first time out with her.

MARTIE: She was a huge star already.

EMILY: Nobody knew who we were.

NATALIE: I dared her to go to the bathroom and come out with toilet paper dragging out of her pants. She did it. She walked all the way across that club with complete confidence.

MARTIE: That’s when we knew she was awesome.

ALANA: One day I will have that confidence. We’re not fun at all.

ESTE: We’re excited if there’s Jenga at a bar.

EMILY: Most of these stories are 20 years old. Since we’ve had kids, we’re not as crazy.

NATALIE: We are fun, I will say.

MARTIE: We would physically wrestle on the road early on, but now we’re so old we’re worried about breaking a hip. We’re tight with you guys now, so you might be in the inner circle of knowing our wrestling names.

ESTE: Who was the best wrestler?

NATALIE: Martie.

MARTIE: Emily, you have to be the strongest, though.

EMILY: But I don’t have the instinct you have.

NATALIE: Martie would just go for the leg, take you down.

ESTE: Did you guys play the record for your kids when it was done?

MARTIE: He had to hear it, yeah.

NATALIE: My kids have not heard it. They’ve only heard “Gaslighter,” and then Slade, my oldest, recorded me for our live TV performance stuff. So he’s heard four songs.

EMILY: Julianna has heard it but only because I didn’t trust my ears for the test pressing of the vinyl.

DANIELLE: Does she listen to a lot of vinyl?

EMILY: She loves it, yeah.

ESTE: Cool kid. I think once one of us has a kid, it’s going to open the floodgates for all of us.

DANIELLE: I have no idea when I’m going to have kids. That’s so not in my thoughts.

NATALIE: Wait as long as you can. It’s good until one reaches 5, and then you don’t feel like you can drag them around all the time. They have their own little lives. So if you want to keep touring…

ESTE: The struggle I have is that I love what I do so much, and I love my life the way that it is, but I’m the most maternal bitch on the block.

ALANA: Honestly, it’s like I get a call from my grandma every week, being like “Where are my great-grandchildren?” It’s not even my parents.

NATALIE: I can’t think of a lot of female artists who’ve had kids and didn’t tone down their career a lot. I think it’s easier for the men, because they go out and tour and the moms are taking care of everything. You got to get that husband who wants to be a stay-at-home dad.

ALANA: How are you guys going to celebrate when your record comes out?

EMILY: We have a Zoom happy hour with fans.

ESTE: Can we join?

EMILY: Absolutely! What did you all do?

ALANA: We drank a lot of tequila, and went live on Instagram. Not the best idea. I bought this one bottle of special tequila that I cannot afford, but I was like, “When the record is out, we’re just going to fucking drink this tequila. When we opened the bottle, it felt like the heavens had opened up.

EMILY: I might copy that.

ALANA: But it was gone in an hour.

NATALIE Way to go!

ALANA: It was a great way to just get super fucked up.

ESTE: It’s different from how we would normally celebrate, and how you would normally celebrate, but again—you guys are doing a great service to the world by birthing this record into it.

EMILY: It does feel good to give it to your fans, especially right now. Just to hand it over and not have the expectation that it’s going to do everything it might have done, and to be okay with that.

ALANA: We’re all part of a club now, like we all put out records during this time. We’re all going to get shirts that say, “We put out records during a pandemic, yay!”

NATALIE: All the chicks who have been brave enough to do it.