Louise Macphail and Kristin McFadden don’t so much finish each other’s sentences, as pick up seamlessly with a new thought where the other left off. Speaking to them both is like speaking to one.
This has been a hallmark of the pair’s songwriting and musical output as Prima Queen, their elegant indie-rock outfit formed after Kristin – originally from Chicago – made her way over to a course in London where she met Louise, originally from Bristol.
As though struck by a music-loving cupid – and hitting it off after Louise’s insistence that Kristin would join her on her musical venture, latching onto her like a kid choosing their friend on the first day of school – the pair have been creative soulmates ever since, penning dreamy tunes that have a deft storytelling prowess. It’s not without irony that among the many rich tunes they’ve released to date is ‘Butter Knife’ – an apt metaphor for how their songs slice into your soul with warmth.
And having toured with fellow female-fronted outfits The Big Moon and it-band Wet Leg last year, Prima Queen are riding a crest of ever-flourishing guitar music that’s paired with a feminine touch and lullaby-like harmonies.
The pair are in such red-hot form in fact, having also recently played Austin’s SXSW Festival, that they were recently whittled-down from thousands of entries to be selected for Glastonbury’s Emerging Talent Competition.
And with a new EP, Not The Baby, out now, we speak to Louise and Kristin, about how Prima Queen formed as a band, their mammoth touring efforts and their love of service stations – especially new ones.
Louise, Kristin, how was South by Southwest?
Louise: It was probably the best week ever… I had a lot of expectations that were quite high and was worried it wouldn’t match, but all my expectations were met.
Kristin: Obviously, I’m American and that was the first American show we played. It’d been a long time of us dreaming about playing in America, so it was really special. We did about seven shows in four days so there was a lot of running around, it was quite full-on.
L: We had a pool that we swam in, and drank lots of margaritas, the cowboy stuff. And there were so many people playing. Every time you went to see who was playing it was quite overwhelming.
You’re from Chicago, Kristin, as you mentioned; and you’re from Bristol, Louise. So how on earth did you both meet and form Prima Queen?
K: I was actually at Uni in America. I wanted to study abroad and come to London. I took a semester off and enrolled on a course here, and that’s where I met Louise.
L: I was on this course, and I’d been really wanting to be in a band. We were both doing our own singer-songwriter thing, both played guitar and sang. But I wanted to start a band and just couldn’t really find anyone to start one with – or tried and failed. Then I was told Kristen was coming, and I decided she was going to be in my band.
You knew the moment you met her?
L: Yeah, I called my mum outside after I met [Louise], and said, “I’ve met her and I’m going to ask her [to be in my band] and it’s going to be good.” My mum said, “Be chill” and reminded me how I always used to ask people to be my friend in the playground.
K: [Louise] was smiling at me when I walked in, and instantly just said, “Do you want to be in my band?”
That’s not intense at all…
K: No, I loved it.
L: It’s a weird one thinking you’re going to be in a band and write songs together; I feel like to have a musical partnership with someone you have to connect in a special way. It’s hard to find that – probably harder than finding a lover.
Well it comes across that you’re a great creative match in your music. Your songs are very harmonious – so much so, they even come across like a solo artist at times. What’s the typical writing process that allows you to achieve that?
K: I think it’s so harmonious because we’ve spent so much time writing together, and we’ve both figured out what the Prima Queen sound is. But our usual process is we just bring ideas to each other and help each other finish the story and song – because we’re best friends and know everything about each other.
L: It might sound like a solo artist because when we started writing, we felt this pressure to write as one. For all the songs, we would sing either in unison or harmony and it would be both of us; but we are both separate individuals, so it’s good to be able to tell our separate stories, but together.
K: When we stopped trying to be one – when it became both of us – it almost became neither of us. So we just switch off between lead singing so that one person just supports the other person’s story, and then it can be more genuine. But some people can’t tell our voices apart.
Your lyricism manages to be very precise. One line that sticks out on your EP’s final track ‘Hydroplane’, for instance: “Listening to something cool like a new Justin Timberlake CD”. It struck me by its relatability – so how do you both come to those very precise, picture-painting lyrics…
L: That’s a line I wasn’t sure about, that’s interesting you picked that one out.
K: Well, it’s just true. Me and my sister got the new Justin Timberlake CD and I remember listening to it in the car with her and feeling so cool; we have a big age gap and when you’re young, it was just so cool listening to what my sister likes. But it’s funny looking back and it’s Justin Timberlake, which is not that cool.
L: I guess we go into the details because in general everything’s very true. For those stories that you remember and want to write a song about, you usually remember those tiny details. That’s what makes you remember a song, because it feels more authentic than if you’re just talking more generally – and it brings someone in.
K: A lot of times those specifics can be metaphors for larger ideas. In that lyric, it’s just a CD but it’s representing how your older siblings can make you feel cool.
You mentioned it a bit, but what’s ‘Hydroplane’ about?
K: It’s about a lot of things. It’s about my relationship with my sister, and my family. It’s about living in another country from my family and feeling confused and messy about that, and not knowing if I’ll ever live in the same country as them again; about looking back into the past and seeing how you’ve changed and then realising you’re never going to be that same person ever again. And how that’s okay, but also really weird.
The EP, Not The Baby, was produced in Bristol by Ali Chant. Was that a good place for you to be, Louise, going back to Bristol where you’re originally from?
L: It was really nice. [Ali’s] studio just happened to be a ten-minute walk from my mum’s house, so it felt like we were on a little retreat. We would have long days in the studio and then would go home and have nice food and watch Grey’s Anatomy. It wasn’t that rock n’ roll.
L: Harmonies are obviously a really important part of our music, but we’ve always recorded before with a lead vocal and then added the BVs [backing vocals] after. He was really focused on getting an emotional performance, so we would sing at the same time. And before we even started recording, we spent a long time with the band figuring it all out and playing live.
K: Ali didn’t want us to do it too many takes. He didn’t want us to overdo it. He would cut us off after about four times.
Last year was pretty immense for you: touring with Wet Leg and The Big Moon. What did you take from those experiences as a band?
L: It’s amazing touring with lots of different bands and getting an insight into how they work.
K: Just building a really nice fan base as well has been great, because people will come back to our gigs; at our headline show at the end of the year, people were saying they saw us play elsewhere. It’s nice to have that organic following that have seen you and are true music fans because they’re going to see these other bands we’ve been on tour with. So we’re just able to share those fans–
L: Steal them–
K: And meet all these really lovely people that come back to shows every time.
With that growing fanbase, how do you asses where you’re at as a band now?
L: It changes every day. One day we think we’re absolute babies; then you talk to someone else and think it’s going great.
K: I think once we do a full album that’ll feel really good. But we’ve also been writing together for a while, chipping away at it, so it feels like we’ve come a long way from there.
L: We’ve also felt the difference between doing a support tour where nobody knows you, and you have to win people over; and then it was so cool doing our headline tour and being like–
K: People came for us.
How was that headline tour for you? It included a Lexington gig which sold out months in advance…
L: It was so fun, especially London. Because we hadn’t done a headline gig in so long, we thought no one was going to come, so it was a very big surprise.
K: Louise’s dad could even get a ticket–
L: He did come, but he said, ‘I’m going to bring loads of my friends’, and I said, ‘It’s too late, Dad’. So when our Lafayette gig went on sale, he bought like 15 tickets.
No doubt he was at the front with all his mates… You’ve received some pretty strong praise beyond friends and family too. The Guardian described you as “transatlantic indie stars” and The Independent called you “a remarkable new band in the making”. John Kennedy on Radio X even said you were “a Lennon-McCartney for the 21st century”–
L: We liked that one.
What do you make of reading and hearing those words?
K: It’s surreal.
L: When [John Kennedy] said that, that was the nicest thing anyone had ever said. We wanted to get it framed. We really like him.
I’m sure. Does it ever feel too surreal sometimes?
L: It does, but I think any musician or artist is constantly plagued with self-doubt. You write a song and think it’s rubbish, then every now and then someone says something like [John Kennedy] and you take it.
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K: It’s that thing where 100 people can tell you that you did well and then one person says one little thing and you think you’re shit – that they’re right and everyone else is lying.
L: When we first started, I would read everything anyone said about us, but now I don’t really… I remember reading a review by this one random newspaper, and it wasn’t that nice a review, but I’d really enjoyed the gig. I thought just because one old man didn’t like it, that shouldn’t make me feel rubbish. I think it’s good to go off your feelings rather than reading someone else’s review.
Reviewers can almost forget that what they might write might be someone’s first impression of a band…
L: I think about this a lot because when I was 15, I became a reviewer for this magazine just to get free tickets. I could barely write. I wouldn’t even really think about what I was saying, and I think about if those bands read that… I didn’t know what I was talking about, I was just trying to fill up the wordcount.
Well reviewers, for better or worse, will be able to head down to a number of your show dates later this month. Are you fully versed in life on tour now?
K: Last year really prepped us for that. Now we’re so excited. We love being on the road and we get really sad when we have to come home usually. We love service stations–
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L: Love them; we love going to a new service station. We’ve got great neck pillows now. We bought them for each other for Christmas.
That’s very down-to-earth of you. Are you like that naturally or are you now demanding a kitted-out tour bus?
K: I think we’re quite down-to-earth, but also sometimes we think it would be nice to have a bit more luxury. Because we’ve done it for quite a while, I think any pieces of luxury – like staying in a hotel rather than on a friend’s floor – is awesome. It doesn’t take much for us to feel like we’re taken care of.
Well that’ll be cheap for management… How ambitious are you guys?
K: Really ambitious.
L: But we also really want to enjoy the journey as well.
And what does that ambition entail? What’s the end-goal you want to reach?
K: We want to make a living doing music, which is really hard.
L: And do really big tours, and sell them out, and headline things.
K: Grammys would be nice.
L: Yeah, we want it all.
We mentioned your tour support with Wet Leg, and The Big Moon – both impressive, female-led guitar groups. Do you feel like you’re part of a female-led guitar moment in music? Or do you think that’s a media-imposed oversimplification?
L: I think when we were starting, we had this idea of what music we wanted to make, but there wasn’t actually loads of it around; we were trying to describe this rock-guitar driven music with feminine harmonies, and there wasn’t much of it – and now there is.
K: Yeah, I definitely think it is a movement. And it’s my favorite music. Women are leading the way. It’s awesome.
And what else is next for you following the release of this EP?
K: We’re working on an album.
L: We’ve got a whiteboard over there [pointing] that we’ve just got, ready to write on. We’ve got lots of songs that we’re trying to figure out what will be on the album.
It’s the Prima Queen mastermind plan…
Not The Baby is out now via Big Indie Records.
Prima Queen will be heading out on tour across the UK this month, which you can see here for dates.