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Sister Act: How Haim Found Their Way Back With ‘Something to Tell You’

The close-knit siblings came out of the San Fernando Valley to make a killer debut and win over Taylor Swift and U2. Now, can they top themselves?

The close-knit siblings came out of the San Fernando Valley to make a killer debut and win over Taylor Swift and U2. Now, can they top themselves?

One recent evening, Danielle Haim faced a microphone, coaxed a shivering two-note riff from her Gibson SG and tried not to think about Liza Minnelli and the Pet Shop Boys, who were staring at her, in extreme close-up, from a framed poster on the wall. The poster was goofy; the track she was recording was anything but. “I say goodbye to love again/In loneliness my only friend,” she sang, loading the words with an audible ache.

Danielle fronts the rock band Haim, which she formed 11 years ago with her sisters, Este (bass, vocals, percussion) and Alana (guitar, vocals, keyboards, the occasional cowbell). At first, the trio jammed in their parents’ living room in California’s San Fernando Valley, later booking gigs around town for ever-growing crowds. The band’s killer debut, 2013’s Days Are Gone, made Haim stars. Taylor Swift is a friend. U2 recently invited them to their studio in Malibu to toss around ideas for new music.

But on the April night that 
Danielle recorded “Night So 
Long,” their long-awaited
 second album, Something 
to Tell You, released July 7th, remained unfinished. She
 was at the hillside house
 she shares in an L.A. East
side neighbourhood with her
 boyfriend, Ariel Rechtshaid, 
trying to nail down the song.
 Rechtshaid is a gifted producer who’s helped craft
 music for Usher, Vampire
 Weekend and Adele, among
 others, and he’s worked with
 Haim since 2012. The couple 
were in their ground-floor 
studio, a cozy space that’s
 filled with gear and mid-
century furniture. Danielle wrote “Night So Long” when Haim were on tour. The lyrics grapple with paradoxical feelings of loneliness that can creep up amid the frenzy of performing nightly for thousands of strangers. “That song came about from being completely alone, with a guitar in a room,” Danielle recalls a week later. “When we get to play every night, we feel so fucking lucky. But it’s isolating too.”

Haim are rock classicists in certain ways (playing their instruments, writing their songs, straight-up shredding live), but they’ve also helped to redefine what, exactly, the term “rock band” can mean these days: opening stadium shows for Swift (they say her crowds showed them love, despite, or because of, the raucous jam that closed the band’s set each night); collaborating on an EDM single with Calvin Harris; enlisting A$AP Ferg for a remix of a song they wrote under the influence of Timbaland.

The sisters grew up listening to tons of different artists, but it was acts like Sly and the Family Stone, Talking Heads and the Gipsy Kings (their dad kept a Latin-music station locked on the car-stereo presets) that taught them bands could pack dance floors. Haim specialise in an uptempo, syncopated sound that pulls together 808 beats and disco guitars; New Wave riffs and roaring solos that wouldn’t be out of place in an Eagles encore; sunstruck Fleetwood Mac harmonies; and Bootsy Collins–indebted slap bass.

“Night So Long” was an outlier – melancholy, sparse, slow – and Haim weren’t sure how to make it work. “The more we fussed with it, the less impactful it got,” says Alana, sitting beside Este, a few feet from Danielle. At last, they struck upon a solution: They kept it ultra-minimal, but Rechtshaid busted out a “room-simulating” gizmo from the Eighties called a Quantec QRS, which he bought online from a guy in Germany. He used it to slather thick reverb over Danielle’s guitar. Now the song sounded austere and massive at once. “It feels like a hymn,” Danielle says. Haim play a rough mix for me, and it’s a knockout. When it’s done, Este, perched on the edge of a low-slung armchair, asks, “Did that give you the feels?”

Breakthroughs take patience. Haim know this well – it took them seven years to put out their debut, after all, refining songs, playing them live, gauging crowd reactions, refining further. “If someone else wrote our songs instead of us, we’d be quicker,” Alana says. “We go over every single sound, every single beat,” Este adds. I wonder if Haim ever worried, as the years since their debut went by, that people would forget them. They shake their heads. “Maybe we would have been worried,” Alana says, “if we didn’t think we were making awesome shit.”

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The sisters at Disneyland, 1996. They got their start playing in a family band called Rockinhaim.

The pleasure Haim take in one another’s company is abundant, unself-conscious and contagious. While one sister talks, the others will watch, smile and take control of the sentence before passing it back. As they listen to songs, they air-drum elaborately. Danielle, 28, is slightly more reserved than her sisters. Este, 31, has a quick wit and a sardonic sense of humour. Alana, 25, is the chattiest, and the most effusive. All three winningly blur the line between dorky and cool: When they are trying to summon forth the name of a Cat Stevens track that inspired them, they all hum the melody and, when Este finally shouts “Peace Train!” she and Danielle press their index fingers together and say, “Bloop.” At one point, we’re sitting in Danielle’s living room when Rechtshaid strides rapidly through the door, surprising us. “You just totally Kramered that entrance, dude!” Alana cries out. “What’s up, Kramer?” says Este. Rechtshaid shakes his head: It’s his place, but it’s as if he’s barged into a private clubhouse.

It’s a beautiful L.A. afternoon. Danielle is rocking a vintage Oakland Raiders T-shirt under a chunky blazer. Alana is in a tattered T-shirt with John Belushi’s face on the front. Este is wearing a crescent-moon necklace that Stevie Nicks – a big Haim fan – gave each sister as a gift. “She took us to Moonshadows,” Danielle says, “this restaurant in Malibu, and was like, ‘This is where we used to hang out,’ telling us stories about Don Henley and stuff.”

Last year, Haim got word that another iconic California artist wanted to meet them. “Our friend was at this party, and Paul Thomas Anderson was there too, talking about how he really liked ‘these girls who play rock music and come from the Valley,'” Alana says. The director asked the friend to pass Haim his e-mail. Soon, they found themselves over for dinner with Anderson and his wife, Maya Rudolph (“One of the funniest people on the planet,” says Este). Anderson said he wanted to shoot something with them. “It was like, ‘Uh, you could shoot us on an iPhone for an hour if you want,'” Alana says.

Last November, Anderson dropped in as Haim laid down preliminary tracks at a Valley recording studio called Valentine. The studio had mostly ceased operations in the Seventies and was frozen in time, from the equipment down to the “vintage porn magazines lying around,” Alana recalls. As Haim worked out arrangements on the fly, Anderson circled with a film camera. “In the room, it looked like nothing,” says Rechtshaid, “and we were like, ‘Uh, is this working out?'” “He was like, ‘Yeah, got it, perfect,'” Alana says. “And when we saw the dailies, we were like, ‘Eureka!'” Haim decided to use clips from this impromptu session – Danielle behind a drum kit, banging out a monster beat; the trio feeling their way through a rough version of a pining song called “Right Now” – to promote Something to Tell You.

It turned out they had another connection to Anderson: He also grew up in the Valley, and their mother, Donna, was his elementary-school art teacher. “She told us he was a really talented kid,” Alana says, “but really hyperactive, and that she tied him to his chair with yarn once, to get him to sit still.” She cracks up. “This was back in the day – not legal now!”

When they told Anderson, “He showed us this painting of the mountain from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. He was like, ‘I love your mom – I painted this with her.'” “We have that Valley kinship with him,” Danielle says. Este nods: “The connection is deep.”

Haim’s Valley roots are central to their self-conception. Their mom moved from Pennsylvania to California in her twenties, landing a teaching job and falling in love with Haim’s dad, Mordechai, a professional soccer player in his native Israel who now works in real estate. The parents enlisted the girls to play in a family band called Rockinhaim – street fairs, classic-rock covers – teaching them to play the drums before anything else, which helps explain Haim’s emphasis on rhythm and grooves today. For all their success, they describe their lives in Los Angeles as exceedingly low-key. Alana just got an Amazon Prime account and has been binging documentaries. Danielle likes to stay in and cook. Este’s favourite pastime is to go see horror movies by herself or “watch MasterChef Junior and cry at these little kids.” 

The Valley remains an object of derision in L.A.: a déclassé zone, the stereo type goes, full of Clueless-style uptalkers, chain stores and porno shoots. Haim felt this snobbery firsthand growing up. Some dude at a party once asked Este for her number, and she made it as far as “818” – the Valley area code – before he cut her off and said, “I’m sorry, but I don’t date 818.” (“You know what?” Alana says, laughing. “It’s his loss.”) By contrast, Haim refer to the Valley as “Great One Eight.” Danielle and Alana now have homes on the east side of L.A., which they are quick to note is a short ride on the 101 from their folks. Este has a place “10 minutes from our parents’ house,” she says, not to mention in the same neighbourhood as Anderson’s childhood home: “I’m never leaving the Valley, dude.”

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The next morning, Haim pile into a booth at Du-par’s, a diner in Studio City where they’ve been eating since they were kids. “This place feels like home,” Alana says, gesturing at the floral-print carpet and up at the Nineties-office-style drop ceiling. They recommend the pancakes, but order eggs – it’s Passover, and as Jews, they can’t eat leavened bread. In a few hours they’re due at a nearby rehearsal space – they’ve got some still-unannounced shows coming up shortly, with a summer tour to follow.

They’re psyched to get back out and play. Days Are Gone sold 90,000 copies in its first week, and Haim went on the road for the better part of two years. They headlined their own tours, and supported not only Swift, but also Rihanna and Florence and the Machine, growing accustomed to filling huge rooms with a fat, swaggering sound. In October 2014, on a break from touring, “We went right back into writing for the next album,” Danielle says. “We didn’t want to take any time off. But nothing really stuck.” Alana explains the difficulty this way: “All we knew for two years was wake up, soundcheck, play the show, go to sleep and fit in a slice of pizza at some point. We needed to turn our brains from touring brains back to writing brains. When we came home, we literally got off the bus, took a nap and went right into the studio.” “Which was our parents’ living room,” Danielle clarifies. “For four months, we tried to bang out songs, trying to write something every day. …” “But we were really hard on ourselves,” Alana interjects. Danielle continues, “We’d write things, but it would always be like …” “Is that good?” Este finishes, scrunching up her nose. Alana adds, “You get scared. Like, ‘Can we do this again?'”

Their breakthrough was what Danielle refers to as “a homework assignment. We got a call to write a song for Trainwreck” – the Amy Schumer movie – “and we were like, ‘Let’s see if we can do it.'” “Suddenly, there wasn’t this daunting, abstract, second-record weight hanging over us,” Alana recalls. “It was, ‘You have a week.'” They came up with a bright, bouncy jam called “Little of Your Love,” and even though the Trainwreck people didn’t go for it, Haim were stoked all the same. “We got back to just ‘write how you’re feeling,'” Alana says. “After that, we wrote hundreds of songs. It was like vomit.”

They decided that rather than trying to overhaul the sleek but sinewy sound they’d minted on Days Are Gone, they’d dive deeper into it. They put somewhat less emphasis this time around on studio fuckery, Danielle says, focusing more on sturdy songcraft. But the album is full of ear candy – weird, processed vocals; beats that mix electronic and acoustic; and other sonic doodads that Rechtshaid describes, self-deprecatingly, as “production bullshit.” (Dev Hynes and Rostam Batmanglij also helped on a few tracks.)

With their buddy Taylor Swift in Hawaii, 2015.

The solitary origins of “Night So Long” notwithstanding, the Haim sisters prefer working out songs “in the room, together,” says Este. Alana says that “the bulk of our songs start with a track – drums, a piano,” that they rough out and record into GarageBand. Sometimes, Danielle adds, “it’s a riff, or a word or a phrase, and we build off that.”

In several of the lyrics on Something to Tell You, Danielle swings from regret to recrimination. “I was too proud to say I was wrong,” she apologises on the lead single, “I Want You Back,” adding later, “I’ll give you all the love I never gave you before I left you.” On “Right Now,” though, she sings, “You had me hanging on a dream you never believed.” When I ask what experiences such lyrics draw upon, she says their connection to actual relationships of hers isn’t always direct, and that she is “a little uncomfortable” discussing her personal life publicly. “If I’m feeling some type of way and we start to write,” she adds, “I don’t fully understand my feelings until the song’s done and out in the world. That’s how it was with the last album. I think I’m gonna start to figure out what a lot of these new songs mean in two months, or something.”

But in the case of “Right Now,” Alana says there’s no ambiguity: She sees it as an ode to boss-ass bitchness. “I grew up listening to Tom Petty’s ‘You Got Lucky,’ where the whole theme is, ‘You’re lucky to be with me,'” says Alana. “I never really heard a song that said that from a woman’s perspective. Being a woman in a power position and dating someone, in my experience, is hard. You need a man who’s strong enough, to paraphrase Sheryl Crow.”

Danielle adds, “We deal with that a lot – not even in dating, but just being the chairwomen of our company. Asserting our power – sometimes it’s tough.”

“I’ve been called ‘entourage’ at festivals,” Alana says, dousing her eggs in Cholula hot sauce. “I got on a golf cart this one time and the guy said, ‘Miss, get off.’ I said, ‘I play in Haim.’ He said, ‘Never heard of you, please get off.'” She shakes her head, still irked by the memory. “Is that how you look at me, for real? I couldn’t possibly be playing – I must be someone’s girlfriend.”

Then she grins. “I was like, ‘I’m wearing puppy pajamas, bruh. You don’t wanna fuck with me!'”

From issue #789 (August 2017), available now.