Irish punks New Pagans on darning, domesticity and Derek Jarman: ‘Home is an extension of your art’ | Music
Lyndsey McDougall, the singer of Belfast alt-punk band New Pagans, has spent years studying embroidery crafted by Irish women through the 19th and 20th centuries as part of research for her PhD. Through hours spent in the archives at museums and libraries examining centuries-old pieces, McDougall came to understand that the needlework told stories: of mothers raising funds for their families to emigrate and wives creating the material culture for their community’s organisations – and of women flexing their skills for their fellow craftspeople.
McDougall’s study came out of her own practice of making needlework with the same techniques and materials that women would have used 200 years ago. She says it bears a lineage of agency and expression for Irish women, who have long used the craft to articulate themselves and their values. “I don’t have to overthink it, I just make,” she says over the phone from Belfast. “It’s a similar experience that you get when you’re on stage playing music. You go into this zone of just enjoying it and your body takes over.”
These lessons are at the heart of New Pagans’ second album, Making Circles of Our Own. While the band’s debut LP The Seed, the Vessel, the Roots and All dealt with the long shadow of McDougall’s strict Christian upbringing and her new experience of motherhood, she has returned reinvigorated and hopeful, finding power in the cross-sections of family, art and agency as experienced by women and mothers. This album, she says, “is more about how you go away as a mum, and how that relationship can change, or how you feel a wee bit of guilt sometimes being in a band and being a mother,” says McDougall. “Like all working mums and dads, I suppose.”
You can hear that energy in the record. McDougall’s cutting, chipped-crystal vocal lines are carried atop the band’s organised cacophony: a post-punk, indie-arena-rock hybrid that smashes Pixies into Alvvays into Bloc Party. Paramore-worthy opener and single Better People rides the anxious edge of joy and clarity, a spacious, open field of ripping guitars and crashing drums. McDougall and her partner, Pagans guitarist and producer Cahir O’Doherty, were renting a flat in Belfast with their two children when the pandemic ripped away O’Doherty’s source of income as a crew member with Frank Turner’s touring staff. The family of four moved in with McDougall’s parents on the rural coast south-east of Belfast, and began to write their new record. “We found real shelter and I’ll always be thankful for that,” she says.
Making Circles of Our Own was composed remotely, with the band – McDougall, O’Doherty, bassist Claire Miskimmin, guitarist Allan McGreevy, and drummer Conor McAuley – swapping demos and ideas before O’Doherty laid the groundwork for the tracks. McDougall then took these frameworks and worked out melodies and lyrics, with O’Doherty serving as editor. The intimacy behind its creation was key to how it turned out, says McDougall. “It’s very hopeful because even in that moment, I could be thankful that I had parents that could help us and I was thankful for the time with Cahir and to write songs. A lot of good stuff came out of a not so good situation.”
The circumstances inspired McDougall to fill her typically sharp, witty writing with overt references to under-celebrated artists, tracing the rich creativity and identities that can be found in what we refer to as home life. The tense, machinelike thrash of There We Are John studies the optimism and magic of the garden maintained by the late English film-maker Derek Jarman at his home in Kent during the HIV-Aids crisis. “That was another domestic space that was made into art,” says McDougall. “That’s definitely a thing I’m obsessed with: making your home not just beautiful, but also an extension of your practice as an artist.”
One of McDougall’s key character studies comes in the form of Karin Bergöö Larsson, a Swedish weaver, textile designer and artist. Larsson’s home design, which was credited with defining a new Swedish style of interiors, served as the subject of many of her painter husband Carl Larsson’s works. Carl was revered for his art, while Karin’s role – cultivating Carl’s now famous scenes of hearth and home – was dismissed as simply domestic rather than artistic. Karin Was Not a Rebel is a heated response to a slight lodged against Karin – one that gave the song its title.
“She was in a domestic setting and created art in this everyday space with everyday objects,” says McDougall. “I have this real desire to make a home, a place that’s my own. That’s not less of an art than a painting itself. I don’t want to forget that.”