Band To Watch: New Pagans
Northern Ireland is about as punk as a locale can be. Decades of conflict and political turbulence has resulted in a cultural climate highly receptive to angst. Terri Hooley, godfather of the alternative scene in NI, once remarked: “New York has the bands, London has the clothes, but Belfast has the reason.”
But, until recently, there has been a distinct dearth of female voices within Belfast’s vibrant alternative scene. New Pagans’ lyricist and frontwoman Lyndsey McDougall recalls being an art student and aspiring musician in Belfast in the early 2000s. Across the water in England, singer-songwriters like Laura Marling were making waves, but McDougall was adamant. She wanted to be in a band: “I always loved local bands, and I hated the idea of doing it on my own.” Sadly, she was quickly discouraged by the Belfast scene: “Local bands weren’t really interested in working with me — it seemed like there were only boys in bands in Belfast. So I kind of gave up.”
It’s a shame — in the early 2000s, young, progressive Northern Irish women had plenty to be angry about. Abortion services were effectively banned. Equal marriage felt like an impossibility. A highly politicized culture and the enduring stronghold of Evangelicalism and the Catholic Church had bubbled up into a toxic undercurrent of misogyny and machismo which still endures today.
Things are getting better, slowly. Reproductive rights and equal marriage were both legalized by Westminster, in a heady few months between late 2019 and early 2020. In Dublin, female-fronted bands like Pillow Queens are forging explicitly queer Irish identities, and in Belfast, vibrant female- and non-binary-fronted punk outfits like Problem Patterns and Gender Chores are beginning to do the same. These days, McDougall has less patience for endless, boring bands of boys: “To be honest, I am so sick of young, male bands who look like they don’t care about anything. I think it’s because major labels are still run by men. So they want to promote these young men who are essentially made in their own image.”
McDougall was 32 by the time she formed New Pagans, a propulsive indie-rock outfit, whose sound flits deftly between several sub-genres of indie rock: Pixies’ loud-quiet-loud structure, tight pop-punk melodies, and McDougall’s dexterous voice, as capable of sweetness as it is of a snarl.
It’s remarkable that New Pagans’ songs are so literate in indie rock history. McDougall was raised in a religious household and rarely got to hear secular music. She listened to Pixies and the Smashing Pumpkins under the cover of night, knowing that her parents would throw out her CDs if they found them: “I don’t think it was necessarily a bad thing, or that it came from a bad place — I think it can make music even more appealing.” A sense of latent religiosity wends its way through New Pagans’ debut album, The Seed, The Vessel, The Roots And All. The album — which combines six tracks from last year’s Glacial Erratic EP with five new ones — has a brooding, gothic palette, teeming with reference to saints and sinners, blood and tears, and various strains of nebulous wickedness.
This is most apparent on its Sonic Youth-informed closing track “Christian Boys,” inspired by an affair a friend of McDougall’s had, with a much older man, a Christian leader in Northern Ireland. “It just made me so angry — he was in a position of power and she was a very vulnerable, young woman at the time,” McDougall explains. “He definitely took advantage of her, and of the situation, and in the end, decided it was her fault, and that she was the sinner, leading the Christian man astray. I just realized that I’d heard that story so many times, from so many women, and that we’re all scared to talk about it. I’m sure that that song has offended some people, but equally, people have gotten in contact to say that it’s really helped them. This conversation needs to happen.”
The result is liberating, rather than downbeat. “Christian Boys” is a huge, airy track, a sonic middle finger that finds McDougall calling out, “I am not your guilt after all/ I’m not your sin anymore!” over a panoramic guitar line. Her refrain of “Christian boys are the worst I know” is a mantra for all Irish women who are sick of having to spend their lives navigating hypocrisy and shame.
Telling the stories of silenced women is a preoccupation for McDougall. Her PhD research focuses on the lives of women artists, embroiderers who made intricate, masterful textiles on behalf of churches in Britain and Ireland, and whose names have been lost to history. Her research interests have inspired two tracks on New Pagans’ debut. One, “Lily Yeats,” is a glittering riposte to a patriarchal establishment that conceals women’s history and artistic contributions. The track is inspired by the woman better known as W.B. Yeats’ sister, an embroiderer who established a small printing press.
The other, “Yellow Room,” is inspired by Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s iconic short story, The Yellow Wallpaper. Published in 1892, it follows a young mother, suffering from postnatal depression, whose physician husband locks her in her room for months on end, as a rest cure. As the days go by, the woman develops an obsession with the garish wallpaper in her bedroom. Her grip on reality loosens, and she eventually tears at the wallpaper, in a fit of mania. “Yellow Room” starts off slow and simmering, with McDougall describing the narrator “trapped in a yellow haze” and “creeping in the morning light,” the tension rising, before driving guitars reach a similar state of sonic agitation.
The inspiration for “Yellow Room” was partially drawn from real life. When the song was written, Northern Ireland had no maternal mental health units, which means mothers suffering from postnatal depression or psychosis must be separated from their babies to receive treatment. Thankfully, in the time since the song’s release last September, health minister Robin Swann has announced an investment in maternal mental health services. “I’m not saying that it was the result of our track,” notes McDougall. “But I think lots of voices spoke up at once.”
Motherhood is particularly important to McDougall. Alongside fronting New Pagans, her academic research and teaching, she’s also a mother to two toddlers. “Harbour,” the band’s new single out today, recounts a time when news of McDougall’s pregnancy threatened to scupper New Pagans’ future: “I got pregnant a few months after starting New Pagans, and [her husband] Cahir [O’Doherty]’s first reaction was, ‘We can’t do the band.’ And I said, ‘Oh, we will, I’ll do both!'” “Harbour” is from the Rosemary’s Baby school of maternal art: “It’s very visceral, it’s about the feeling of growing another human in your body, and trying to be realistic about it. Like, this is really annoying, but it’s also amazing.” The song is one of the lightest on the record, its downbeat verses (“You make me feel sick/ I’m tired, I’m weak/ I concede myself to you”) resolving in a luminous pop-punk chorus.
McDougall is candid about the difficulties of juggling making art with motherhood. When we speak, she tells me that, at the start of the pandemic, she had to move her family into her parents’ house, as O’Doherty lost his job touring with Frank Turner overnight. She’s remarkably chipper about the situation — she recounts her daily routine of dancing around the kitchen to the Killers with her two toddlers, in an effort to stay sane during lockdown monotony. New Pagans’ new music, she thinks, will be inspired by the sense of optimism they’ve worked hard at fostering during the pandemic. “I think the songs we’ve written in lockdown are basically pop songs — obviously they’ll be delivered in a dark, New Pagans way, but I think everyone needs to feel uplifted right now.” Setting up a home studio has allowed the band to be more ambitious with their sound; McDougall says the songs they’re writing for future releases test the limits of her vocals: “I’m really going to have to step up my singing game!”
She’s optimistic about things in Northern Ireland, too. While she has legitimate gripes with the place, she acknowledges that it’s great for inspiration: “It feels very much like the Bible Belt of Great Britain — politically and socially. But it means there’s always going to be stuff for me to write about.” Beyond the social context, it seems that the dramatic Northern Irish landscape has worked its way into New Pagans’ songs. McDougall’s lyrics have a folk-horror richness, full of reference to a beautiful, imposing landscape: icy waves and jagged rocks, heather and urchins, soil and moss. The Glacial Erratic EP is named after the ancient standing stones which are dotted along the shores of Strangford Lough, near McDougall’s hometown. With a smile, McDougall sums it up: “Northern Ireland is such a unique, strange little place — full of wonder, but at the same time, things happen here that you wouldn’t believe.”
The Seed, The Vessel, The Roots And All is out 3/19 on Big Scary Monsters. Pre-order it here.