New Pagans
by Interviews

Irish indie-punks New Pagans are getting ready to release their excellent second album Making Circles of Our Own next week. The album sees the band exploring the music industry’s obsession with youth, the lives and works of artists throughout history, and the importance of hope with stellar musicianship and deep lyrics that are filled with imagery. Making Circles of Our Own will be out everywhere on February 17 via Big Scary Monsters and New Pagans will be touring the UK in March.

Punknews editor Em Moore caught up with lead vocalist Lyndsey McDougall over Zoom to talk about the new album, songwriting, embroidery, Irishness, and so much more. Read the interview below!

Making Circles of Our Own has a more hopeful feeling than your previous album The Seed, The Vessel, The Roots and All. What inspired this direction?

I think it’s a natural direction for me personally. In general, the lyrics of an album sort of move it in a direction and it just happened naturally. Maybe I was in a better position in my life or something, but the first album was my first-ever attempt at writing songs with the rest of the band. There was a lot of built-up anger from stuff from my childhood so it just all came out on that album and this album feels more like a reflection of who I am right now. I’m in my thirties and I’m a mother. It’s just a different thing even though there’s only been a couple of years between the two albums. I think the big difference is that all my teenage thoughts and all my twenty-year-old thoughts came out in the first album whereas now I’m like, “this is where I am now and this is what I want to talk about”.

Let go of all the angst.

Yeah! I think I’ve let go of a bit. There’s still a bit of angst because I’m still a bit angry about certain things but I think that initial teenage angst came out in that first album. [laughs] My mom has asked me questions about the first album and I’m like, “oh god I don’t want to talk about this!” because I’m way, way past it now. I think when you’re creating things you can tap into different periods of your life and that’s what happens unconsciously. I tapped into things that I hadn’t ever gotten to say as a teenager or in my twenties. So yeah, I think that’s what happened in the first one which is why there’s a difference.

This album takes its name from a line in your song “There We Are John”. Why did you choose these lyrics specifically for your title?

It happened the same way with The Seed, The Vessel, The Roots and All, that’s a line from “I Could Die”. I really struggle with naming the albums so what I usually do is I select a few lines out of it to try and see where it should go. For the first album and for the second album, Cahir [O'Doherty], our guitarist, picked out the lyrics that he thought were good for the title. As soon as he said “making circles of our own” I was like, “oh that makes complete sense with the whole theme of the album”. It’s hard sometimes when people ask you, “what is this about?” which seems like such a normal, easy thing answer but it’s actually not when you think about it when you’re in the middle of the forest of words and you can’t see what’s going on. I think sometimes people can help with that and I think that’s what happened on this occasion. He picked out that line and I was like, “yeah, that actually summarizes the whole thing really well”.

Everyone has their own relationship with the song too. It’s hard to explain like, “this is 100% what it’s about”.

Exactly! And it can change. I think what’s lovely about our songs is that you put them out and you put them on vinyl and you start to get the feedback from people about what they think the songs are about. That actually changes my perspective of the songs as well which is a really nice experience because sometimes I’m like, “oh yeah, it is about that!” or “maybe I was thinking about that when I was writing the song”. So, unconsciously all these things come to the surface which is a really, really interesting and insightful experience as a writer.

Is there one song in particular that you had that experience with?

For the last album, I think it was “Charlie Had The Face of A Saint” in a way because it didn’t mean anything. [laughs] I just collected words on buses, and then people just projected their own meaning onto that. I was just like, “oh yeah, it could mean that”. It was interesting. But for this album, it hasn’t really happened yet. I’m only starting to think about what other people might think of it or what they might think it means. This is the first interview that I’ve done for the album so it’ll be interesting to actually see how that develops, and how that changes.

How would you describe your songwriting process?

What happened this time was we wrote it towards the end of lockdown when everybody was just in their homes, and essentially that’s why we had time to write it. Cahir and I are together, so we were in lockdown together, and we just started writing. He wrote most of the music and I started writing lyrics over the top of it. We were in two different rooms in the same house and he would just give me the music and I would go and start writing some of the melodies, some of the lyrics. Then we would come back together and listen to what I’d done and work out it from there. So it’s a very collaborative thing between him and I. The rest of the band gave us some ideas as well. Claire [Miskimmin, bassist] sent a bass line that was really good so we were like, “yep, that’s the start of a song”. Conor [McAuley, drummer] had a drumbeat for “Process of Becoming”, so Cahir just wrote this whole thing around it. We wrote it in a couple of weeks as well. I was listening to Enya at the time. I was like, “who’s the biggest Irish artist? Enya! She has a castle. She’s the biggest Irish artist. I want a castle!” [laughs] I was like listening to her really late at night, the night before we wrote “Process of Becoming” and I was channeling her energy into that song. It’s slightly different in each case but it’s sort of like this pot of creative flow when it happens. We just interact with each other and change things. Each of those songs probably took a day to write, so at the end of the day, we had a song and we were so proud of it. We got into this really nice pattern of just being able to tap into our creative energy or creative juices or whatever and it was a unique experience. It was different from the last album when we could get into a band rehearsal space.

Was that a benefit or did it make writing more difficult?

I always write on my own anyway. I don’t like writing in a space with other people so in that sense it didn’t change for me. But it probably changed for Cahir where he couldn’t just be playing stuff and have the band interacting with him. I don’t think it’s better or worse. I think it evolved with us and it worked for this album for sure. I think that we will use that again if we can tap into that again in the future for other stuff. I think there’s this thing with creatives where sometimes you can’t get to the place where you can be creative. But if you know how to make the room, or the space that you’re in, or your head, get into that zone quickly, it’s a very good place to be. It’s a very good thing to be able to tap into.

What helps you tap into your creative zone?

This is so gothy right here [laughs] - I like to have a room that’s dark with candles lit. Sometimes completely dark where I’m just hearing the music so I’m not focused on any of my other senses, I’m just listening to the music. Then I just sing and record everything and then eventually I’ll listen back and hear something and go, “oh, that’s good, I can use that, I can repeat that”. I’ll just sing over the top of the music but it has to be somewhere where I feel like I’m on my own and I don’t feel like anyone is listening. It’s a private experience, I suppose.

Needles and thread are recurring images in Making Circles of Our Own and you’re doing your PhD on the history of Irish women’s embroidery as well as being a textile artist yourself. What do you find the connection is between making music and creating embroidery?

I think the connection is repeating something. Actually performing live is probably connected more to embroidery for me because when I make embroidery I go into this zone of not having to think about it, I just make. My subconscious takes over and my body is making and I’m not thinking about it, it’s just natural, it becomes intuitive. I think that’s what happens when you write songs and you practice them and you play them live. You get to a point on stage where you can really enjoy it and it’s really intuitive and your body is taken over. I hate to use the word “spiritual” but it is like a different place. You’re not overthinking it, you’re in the moment and enjoying it and it feels very authentic and real. It’s very hard to articulate, to be honest. Musicians call it the Flow where you’re in this flow of energy. For me, there’s a similarity to how I feel on stage. Once we get started I feel completely relaxed, like I can be myself onstage whereas I feel like I perform the rest of the time, sometimes just existing feels like a performance. And embroidery is the same. I just make it, I just do it and it’s very relaxing. Both of those things for me are very therapeutic and very relaxing which is good for your mental health so I recommend both of those things. I recommend finding something that you can do repetitively that helps you forget and is a thing you make with your hands or your voice or your instrument.

You did mention “Charlie Has the Face of A Saint” earlier. In the video for that there’s somebody walking around in a red shroud and in the video for “Better People” you carry a red banner that you made. Are they made out of the same cloth?

Yes, I think it probably is because I don’t have a lot of red material in my collection, I have a lot of white and cream material. I think it probably is but not intentionally. Claire is the force behind most of the videos and she will come up with a rough plan for filming. For those early videos like “Charlie” we literally just went out into the Irish landscape and made the videos together. It would go on intuitively as we went on with the day. We would just do different things. I would just put the thing over my head and go, “oh this is really good”. [laughs] So we just have some props and go with it. It seems to be kind of the theme of our lives like, “let’s see what happens but not plan it”. We’re not designers, it’s more of an art form, I suppose. We just enjoy the process. So the reasons behind it again come afterwards where Claire will be like, “oh this is why we did this”. We’ll analyze it and reflect on it after the fact.

That goes back to getting in the zone and just creating something.

Yeah! I made that banner the night before we did the video because they just mentioned, “oh, it would be quite nice to have a banner” and I was like, “right”. I had all of these bits of fabric and I appliquéd, attached them onto the red fabric and it worked really well. I was like, “this is good, this is great” and it kinda got everybody in the mood. It became a fundamental part of the video.

You really highlight the Irish landscape in your videos. In your opinion, where’s the most inspiring place in Ireland?

Well, it’s a place called Malin Head. It’s a really beautiful place in Donegal in the North of Ireland. It’s one of my favourite places and it’s Cahir’s favourite place as well. There’s a lovely book called Thin Places by an Irish writer called Kerri ní Dochartaigh. She talks about natural places which feel like there’s another world or a connection to another world in them. You feel different when you go there and there are a few places in Ireland like that but I think for us that place is Malin Head. I recommend that book as well if you’re interested in Irish history, Irish landscape, and nature. It’s a really good book.

The album cover features a black and white photo of someone being lowered to kiss the Blarney Stone along with a photo of a sheep’s head with stars stuck into it. What drew you to these images? What do they represent?

Claire does our artwork. She always says, “what do I do for the artwork?” and I go, “just listen to the album and respond to it but don’t overthink it”. So that’s what she did. I think she would probably be better to answer this, but for us, it just fit. It’s got that Irish connection and the superstition of the Blarney Stone. For me personally, when I looked at that image the first time I was like, “why is that man touching that woman?” It was a disturbing image initially but then you realize what it is and it makes sense. There’s something in that I suppose, I’m not sure actually what that means to me. But there was something about it that I really loved. I think it was that juxtaposition of it being a really innocent thing but it looks quite aggressive in some ways. I think probably, if anything, it’s about looking closer at the detail of anything before you make a judgment so hopefully, people do that with our songs. [laughs]

That’s funny because that’s the same thing that happened with me. I was like, “what is going on here?” then I looked closer and was like, “ohhh ok”.

Yeah. It’s ok when you know what you’re looking at, then you’re like, “it’s fine, it’s fine”. I think probably it’s good because we should take a closer inspection of a lot of things in our lives. There’s a lot of quick images on TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, whatever. You’re just constantly bombarded with things and you don’t have time to actually get obsessed with anything like the way we would’ve in the nineties or noughties. And that goes for bands as well. Take the time to listen to this album. If you don’t like it that’s ok but take some time. Hopefully, people will.

You have two songs on the album called “Karin Was Not A Rebel” and “There You Are John” that are about interior designer and artist Karin Bergoo Larsson and filmmaker, activist, and gardener Derek Jarman, respectively. Why did you choose to write about these people specifically?

Well, I really love Derek Jarman’s Prospect Cottage garden. I love gardening but I don’t own a garden. That’s partly to do with the fact that I’m a creative and I can’t afford a garden. I think Karin’s work, her beautiful domestic scenes were depicted in her husband, Carl Larsson’s paintings, and the fact that she’s sort of not as celebrated as he was bothered me. That really annoyed me so there’s a wee bit of anger in the song. When I discovered her work I was like, “why do I not know about this person?” IKEA quote her as somebody who inspired their whole aesthetic and look. She is a very important person in the history of interior design but it was her husband that painted her interiors and his paintings became famous so she’s sort of lost in that story a little bit sometimes. I think more and more she’s not. It’s a very interesting story and it’s mimicked throughout history in Ireland and everywhere. Where the women’s work or women’s art, when it’s domestic, can sometimes be undervalued in my opinion.

I think both of those people just represent that domestic theme for me. That longing to have a home that I own. In Ireland people still buy homes and they’re a bit obsessed with it. I think there’s a struggle for artists and creatives to accomplish that in their lives so it’s sort of talking about that for me as well. The songs are about a garden and about a home, these places that I imagine I’d love to own or have. I think it’s sort of a play on the sacrifice that creatives often make. There may not be much monetary value placed on their work but it’s about cultural value and all of that stuff. That’s probably all at play in my mind. I think that’s come out a little bit more as I get a bit older it becomes more difficult.

Your song “The State of My Love’s Desires” has been described as a “love song to Ireland”. What does being Irish mean to you?

It’s a love song to Ireland but it’s a wee bit angry too. People are really nice to guests or people that come to Ireland, to them they’re so lovely, but sometimes we’re not that nice to each other. What does being Irish mean to me? Well, I’ve thought about this quite a lot recently because I’m from Northern Ireland which is part of the UK but more and more I feel Irish full stop. For a long time, I wouldn’t have felt like I had the right to say I was Irish, I would’ve had to say I was Northern Irish, and now I feel like I can say that with some authority. A lot of political stuff going on there in my head. I think my search for Irishness and my understanding of it has changed in recent years and the acceptance that I do have the right to say that I’m Irish. I’m from this island and I don’t need any more justification than that.

Has working on your PhD helped with that?

Yes, I think it has. I’m looking at Irish embroidery but I’ve also looked at people like Lily Yeats and the Dun Emer Guild. I’ve looked at how Protestant women, which is what I would be considered from my background’s point of view, how they felt Irish and they claimed Irishness at that point in history during the Arts and Crafts movement. Also, embroidery was used by lots of different types of women on the island for philanthropic reasons. I think embroidery definitely connects me to Ireland in some way just through the process of making and using the same stitches and techniques as they did historically. It probably has changed my perspective on Ireland and the history that I was taught at school, it’s different than what I’m reading about now. I think the more you learn about somewhere, even the place where you’re from, it changes. That’s probably very natural for anybody when you look into the history of your place and sense of place.

How would you describe the punk and rock scenes in Belfast?

We don’t live in Belfast anymore but we try to get to as many shows as we can. Obviously, we’re part of the music scene there because we’re in New Pagans, which is brilliant. There are a few bands that I absolutely love. Probably Claire and I’s favourite band would be Problem Patterns. They’re amazing, they’re such good people. Anytime we get to play with them is brilliant. It’s a really healthy scene. Cherym is another one. They’re a brilliant band from Derry. Parker is another band from Derry. There’s lots going on in Belfast, lots of different genres and types of music. I think it’s a really healthy, vibrant community of musicians at the moment so it’s really exciting.

I love Problem Patterns!

They’re brilliant! They’re so good. [laughs]

You’ve mentioned being treated differently in the music industry because of your age, your gender, and the fact that some band members are parents and that’s something that you explore on this album. What changes do you want to see made to the industry to make it more inclusive?

Honestly, I think the attitude that you have to be 18 or 19 or 20 to be interesting or to have anything relevant to say is bizarre. There’s nobody saying that out loud but it’s a pattern that I’ve seen throughout my whole life. Especially with bands, it’s always young, young, young. Young bands are pushed. The industry is obsessed with it. I think there’s certainly a great deal of value in young musicians and young bands. There’s a freshness but I think we are missing out if we don’t include other people in that. That’s not just about age or gender or whatever it’s just about being inclusive of everyone. It should be on merit alone and not just dependent on your youth. It should be, “this band’s good enough, they’re really interesting, and they sound great! Let’s give them a chance”. But how that filters down, I’m not sure what the practicalities of that are. I think it’s a change in attitude would help but I don’t really have the answers to how it can change.

Is there anything that you’d like to see?

We toured with Skunk Anansie and they had a few members of the crew that were women which was really great to see because I think a lot of crew are very male-dominated and walking on stage and knowing that there’s just all these men around you can be really intimidating as a woman. It certainly is for me, it’s not for all women, everybody is different. I know that I feel more comfortable when there’s a mixed group of people so I love to see female crew members helping out at the venues. It’s a good feeling, I love that. So all of that stuff I think it starts there and filters down.

What are you listening to now?

I did think about this before I came on and this will probably shock you, well maybe a few of them will. Rosalía, I do love her new album. I’ve been listening to it a lot, although it was more of my spring/summer album. Quicksand, I’ve been listening to. The weird one, but I can’t stop listening to it, is Kacey Musgraves’ album. It’s weird, right? [laughs] The song “Slow Burn” is one of my favourite songs of last year so I’m analyzing myself as to why I loved it so much but I think it was her Glastonbury performance where was I like, “what is this? This is really good!” It’s more about the songwriting, I’m not really into country music but the song itself was really good. There’s a little mixed bag for you. [laughs] But historically, my favourite band is Sonic Youth and I love PJ Harvey. I think Björk and all of those people have inspired how I perform or write as well.

What’s next for New Pagans?

Well, the album comes out on the 17th so that’s exciting. It’ll be interesting to see how people respond to it. Then we have our UK tour in March and we’re hoping to go back to Europe toward the end of the year so we have a few things lined up but nothing confirmed so far. We’ve got a busy year ahead of us. We’re playing a few festivals in the summer and we’ll just see how people like the album and that’ll all depend on the future of New Pagans. [laughs]