Sister Ray’s New Record Lit Up Pillow Queens’ Jesus Kink

Ella Coyes and Pamela Connolly talk their fondness for religious imagery as lapsed Catholics, their songwriting processes, and more.

Pamela Connolly is a lead vocalist and multi-instrumentalist for the Dublin-based indie rock band Pillow Queens; Ella Coyes is a Toronto-based artist who performs as Sister Ray. Pillow Queens’ Leave the Light On came out last month, and Sister Ray’s Communion is out this Friday, so to celebrate, the Royal Mountain Records labelmates hopped on a Zoom call to catch up about it all.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Pamela Connolly: Ever since I got home, I’ve been cycling every day, just because I felt like my muscles were going to jelly. But I’ve been cycling to your song “Crucified,” and it just makes me feel weird! It’s really, really good. 

Ella Coyes: Nice, thanks.

Pamela: I’d like to actually hear more about that song, personally.

Ella: When I started doing Sister Ray, I was playing improvised shows. So I would just play for half an hour, and that was how I started writing that song. And it took me probably four or five years to finish that song. Like, I finished it while we were making the record. I don’t know if you have this, but that’s my favorite song of my songs. I love that song.

Pamela: If it took you that long, do you find that when you listen to that song, it’s like glimpses of different times? Or is it all, you know exactly what it’s about? Because I definitely have songs where I’m like, “Well, I wrote some of it at this point and some of it at that point,” and they’re like different scenes in an expansive situation.

Ella: Yeah, that song for me is like a trilogy. It feels like it has fully three separate chapters. They’re definitely three very different parts, but they all really feel like they go together. Because the whole song is about one thing — it’s about starting to be with somebody in a really plain way, as opposed to starting to be with somebody new, but it maybe not being great, but loving being there. Like It’s not good, but you really want to be there.

Pamela: I’s such a very vivid thing, the imagery in it.There’s like obviously the imagery like being crucified…

Ella: Yes, the imagery there is I’m really talking about just being in someone’s bedroom for the first time, and being like, Wow, weird, what is this thing here? And then I guess being in it, and then the last part I wrote about the same relationship, but it was two years after it was over. I also loved the imagery of being crucified. But I also feel like that does hit really hard for the Catholics. 

Pamela: Yeah, it really lit up my Jesus kink. [Laughs.]

Ella: Yeah, we’ve all got it. 

Pamela: I knew immediately — I hadn’t even listened to the song yet, and I was like, I think I’m going to like this one.

Ella: Yeah. There’s there’s some imagery across the whole record with that. It’s funny, because I’m not Catholic anymore, but I didn’t have a terrible experience or anything like that. But I also didn’t have a good experience, and I don’t practice anymore.

Pamela: Yeah, I’d actually be the same. I was worried, because the girls were just like, “Maybe talk about religion or something,” and I was like, “But what if [Ella] had a really bad experience and I can’t relate to that?” So I think we’re going to be in tune with each other on this one.

Ella: Like it’s kind of, I don’t know how you feel about it, but in a lot of ways it’s fond for me. I like it. Not totally, but the imagery is so… I don’t know, what a wild place to go a couple of times a week, to a crazy, beautiful church with crazy stained glass, and also just such intense stuff in your face at the same time when you go. It’s like, what is that? Stained glass and then just, like, a dude.

Pamela: A dude who’s dying. I mean, obviously, I don’t want to make fun of it, but it’s so metal.

Ella: [Laughs.] Definitely. 

Pamela: I feel like my experiences with religion weren’t like wholly bad or good. I wouldn’t practice anymore, but would I be able to say in the future that that would not be something that I’d go toward? I have no idea. Because I don’t come from a particularly religious family, but I come from a religious society. I feel like when I was younger, I was just like, Oh, talking to god is great, isn’t it? It’s lovely, he’s like your best friend, and you can just talk to him whenever you want. And then obviously with the queer thing, you feel a bit weird about it then. But I don’t think if you’re queer, you can’t have that kind of thing… 

But I definitely really like the imagery and the words and like just the stories as well, really, I find personally helped me with songwriting. Because it’s like a little tool to explain something. You’re just like, What biblical story is going to help me explain how much I fancy this person? [Laughs.]

Ella: Exactly. That’s the that’s the through route. Do you find that like those themes make it into your songwriting?

Pamela: Yeah, a lot. And I think a lot with the new record as well — a lot of people are like, “Oh, you’re still referencing religion.” I was like, “We’re not referencing religion.” Maybe on the first record, but I don’t think I’m ever going to not use biblical imagery in my music. It just feels good to do it. Even in stuff I’d done when I was younger, it was still there. And I think it always will be. I think it just makes things really beautiful.

I was listening to “Good News” as well — when I hear it in other people’s music, it’s just so beautifully familiar, you know? It doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. Unfortunately, sometimes it is. But it’s just a really cool thing to to have the ability to do, you know?

Ella: Yeah. I also wonder — I think a lot of the music that I grew up with that had any religious reference in it was a lot of the time and a very anti- or kind of rebellious thing. I feel like a lot of the time I hear an assumption that maybe my feelings are really negative towards it or something.

Pamela: I get that as well. It’s not untrue — unfortunately, grew up in a society that was just so tainted by it. It was hard to see the positives, but I’d be lying to say it was all negative for me. A lot of people have asked me, “Has anybody ever given you any backlash for referencing religious things in your in your music, like being offended by it?” And I was like, “Never, ever, ever is it my intention to offend, especially when it comes to religion.” It’s a real big pet peeve of mine when that kind of thing happens. I’m not here for disrespecting people’s beliefs, even if I don’t hold them myself. But we do find that it’s just assumed [we’re] completely negative, but it’s more middle of the road.

Ella: Yeah. I’m not trying to be like, fuck this.

Pamela: Yeah. I’m going to Mass tomorrow! [Laughs.] 

Ella: Are you really?

Pamela: Yeah, my nephew is being christened. Obviously I’m not going to take the communion, but I’ll reject Satan.

Ella: Yeah, sometimes you gotta, for the family. 

Pamela: You gotta reject Satan.

Ella: So do you guys write together?

Pamela: It’s changed over the past couple of years. We’d never worked with each other musically before, even though we all kind of knew each other separately, and we were all coming from different circumstances. We were very stuck in how we wrote, so it was all very much like, “Hey, I have the bare bones of this, let’s work on it.” But with the new record, it was a lot more collaborative, a lot more like, “I have a chorus for that song, if you think you need a chorus for it.” Stuff like that that I never thought I would be able to do. 

Because it’s kind of hard — if you’re writing with people, you feel like, What if we’re not on the same page and the song is just going to be like two separate songs, completely different things. But we kind of luck out that, while we’re all very different, we are also very similar and have similar experiences. So it’s not too hard to get in the same groove. And that might even change some more. We get asked a lot about how we write, and it’s fluid now, at this point, which is good.

Ella: That’s so cool. I just have so many questions about this, because I literally never do it, and I’ve especially not ever lyrically collaborated.

Pamela: I mean, we haven’t lyrically collaborated on an entire piece. But we’ve done it like, “I’m going to just riff over here lyrically.” I can’t imagine doing that, but I wouldn’t take it off the table. But I was of the same mind when we started doing it. I was like, Oh god, this is terrifying. But a lot of it just kind of came about really naturally. It’s really cool, because whenever we were recording a lot of stuff beforehand, I was just like, “I haven’t finished it, I need to do another verse, there’s nothing there.” Because I don’t write lyrics first, I focus on melody. That’s that’s the thing I care about the most and I just fit things in. So a lot of demos that we have, it’s just me going, [sings gibberish]. But I’m just like, I’ll get to the words, and the words will come. What about you? Do you like you start with lyrics? 

Ella: I think most of my songs start with one sentence of it all and I’m like, That was good. Now I need to write the rest of the song because that part was good.

Pamela: And just build the song around the sentence. Yeah, I get that.

Ella: Yeah. So it’s hard to say which one comes first because, I think I’ll sing one line like, Woah, yes, that was right. OK, we’re going to set that one and then we’ll just build around that. But I think I will do lyrics a lot of the time.

Pamela: I don’t know if you’re aware when you’re doing it, but in your songs, the way you fit words into melodies, I really, really like. The shape of it is quite enjoyable to hear. It always reminds me — because I remember years ago, there was a Jay-Z interview and he was talking about how he fits his lyrics, like musically into the beat, and I’m just like, That is so important. So whenever I hear it in other people’s music, I’m just like, Yes, that’s great.

Ella: When you’re doing the melody, do you have an idea of the cadence of the words that you want to use? Or are there musical words that come to mind when you’re working on those melodies?

Pamela: Yeah. Obviously you have placeholder lyrics and stuff that are just words that fit really well into the melody, and a lot of the time they stay because I’m just like, Well, I’m just going to have to work around this word because it just sounds beautiful with this melody, and I’m going to have to come up with a couple of lines that it makes sense. It’s weird — at the time, things like that don’t mean anything, and then in the next stage of the songwriting process, you’re like, Oh, those lyrics that just meant nothing are really strong here and are conveying a lot, and doing what they should be doing lyrically. What are the chances, you know?

Ella: Yeah. Is there a song on this record that really happened with?

Pamela: I would say a lot of “My Body Moves.” Most of those lyrics were all placeholder, and then they just started to just make sense.

Do you ever write a song and you have maybe an idea what it’s about, but sometimes not really, and then you look back and you’re like, I think I predicted something?

Ella: Yes. Or they’ll really change — like I feel like I’m still learning a lot from them. But a lot of the time it does really end up making sense. It’ll take a long time sometimes for like, That really makes sense to me now. Did you find playing them on the road, like just playing so much that any of them [made more sense to you]?

Pamela: Yeah, “Delivered” especially. That is one that I was like, I think I predicted something. Genuinely after a while, I was like, Am I a witch?

Ella: It’s so funny, because I think about music and it just seems so magical to me. Even when I do it, I’m like, This is fake magic and I just don’t understand how this happens. I’ll write a whole song and be like, I know what this is about. A lot of the time, it’s very explicitly about my real life. I’m really talking about something that I actually experienced. And then two years later, I’m like, This is crazy. What does this mean? Maybe I don’t feel like I predict things, but like I knew something. Like I had a sense.

Pamela: Yeah. You’re sensing something that you’re like, Oh, I really didn’t think I was aware of that at that time, but clearly there was something going on. I do look back on some songs sometime and just feel like, Oh, my god. Even just in a really dumb way of just being like, Man, those are some big ass words I was using. Where did that come from. [Laughs.] 

Ella: Something I’ve really found with both of the Pillow Queens records is that I really like listening to them all the way through. 

Pamela: Oh, cool. 

Ella: It’s like ice cream music. I don’t really always listen to music like that, to be honest, but I really love listening to them as records. They feel so sonically dense, especially this last one. When I listen to it, I’m like, Oh, my god, this is so thick and I want to listen to the whole thing. I love being in that universe. It’s so interesting that that was where the songwriting went. I love all the guitar sounds so much, also. It’s awesome.

Pamela: Oh, that’s embarrassing. [Laughs.] Yeah, I mean, I love the guitar sound on both of those records. Cathy [McGuiness] and the producer that we work with, Tommy McLaughlin — what they can come up with is very magical. Cathy has the biggest job, honestly, just coming up with fucking unreal guitar parts. So a lot of the time in the studio is watching Cathy do what she does. And I just remember, it might have been for “House That Sailed Away” — she does this riff in the chorus, and she did it just off the cuff, and I remember just looking at Sarah [Corcoran] and being like, “I think I’ve just fallen in love with Cathy.” [Laughs.] 

Ella: Do you switch around when you’re making the record, as well, instrumentally?

Pamela: If I’m playing bass on the stage, I probably did the bass for the record. That’s not true for “Well Kept Wife,” though. I just said to Sarah, “I think you could be more Sarah if I’m just doing that little bass bit.” Because Sarah on stage is just very impactful. Her stage presence is huge. Even if it’s at that point I’m singing a song, just to my left. I know she’s giving life. She’s flailing around and just living. 

Ella: I really enjoy watching all of you so much. Watching you sing is extremely powerful. There were a couple of moments when I saw you guys in Toronto that were really… I make a lot of sounds when I watch shows, and I think it’s probably really annoying for whoever is standing beside me, but you would sing something and I’d be like, [yells in excitement.] I guess that’s something that I love about the record — there are these places where it really pierces and signifies that we’re in this world with you. There are moments of sharpness and they feel really firm to me, really planted and confident, even though they’re so intense. 

Pamela: Thank you. I mean, I know that personally in real life, I find I’m a bit anal retentive. Feelings are… I’m just very Irish about it, if you know what I mean. I have been told, and I know myself, that the most emotional you would ever see me would be on stage. It’s a huge release, and that’s why I love playing live.I mean, I don’t flop around too much. I wish I did, I just I’m terrified I’m going to roll on my ankle or something. But you get to at least put on a lot of passion, where normally I wouldn’t do that. My brother always mentions, “You make so many weird faces when you sing.” It’s like, those are my emotions!

Ella: It’s so good!

Pamela: Do you find when you’re performing that you’re just like, fuck it, I’m just going to put my heart completely on my sleeve?

Ella: Yeah. I think it’s probably the part I’ve done the most — I’ve played so many shows. When I was younger, I think starting when I was 15, I was just like, This is all I want to do. So it’s where I feel just the most comfortable, both free and really firmly planted at the same time. I don’t know if it’s because it’s this thing where [I have] a lot of anxiety before, and then immediately the sound comes out of my mouth and I’m like, OK, cool, this will happen again. I can keep doing this

I feel that way about songs too — I’ll finish writing a song and then I’ll be like, Can I ever do this ever again? I think I just used up all that I had. Even though I do it all the time, it feels like such an elusive thing. 

Pamela: Every time you’re not on the stage, you can’t imagine doing that. And then suddenly you’re there and it’s like… well, it sounds stupid, but like something else takes over.

Ella: I don’t know what happens. I truly don’t know.

Pamela: You just feel the music, man. [Laughs.] 

Ella: [Laughs.] That’s my motto, for sure. 

Pillow Queens is a Dublin-based indie rock band. Their latest record, Leave the Light On, is out now on Royal Mountain Records.