Beyond California

Hitting the road with the sisters from Haim

By / February 2013

When it comes to travel, few people have better stories than musicians. Sometimes these tales come out in stage patter, as a sort of amuse-bouche before the main course, as bands banter about a song’s genesis or share a memory from the last time they played that city. But not everyone can be Bruce, and stories pile up, whether or not they get told.

The best stories often come from the road, as the survival of most artists comes from touring. Every day bands emerge from the garage, the basement, or the studio, pile into a van, tour bus, or plane, and ramble on like thousands of bands before them. California girls go to Hackney, a Buenos Aires quartet touches down in Istanbul, Hampshire boys end up in Omaha, and in the time before load-in and after the encore, they occupy a different world, one flush with strangers who react to music in different ways.

This column is a place for musicians — a different one each month — and their music. It’s a place to tell their stories from the road, on and off the stage, a way of turning a rear-view mirror to the world speeding past their window. First up: Haim.

These three sisters from California churn out a mix of 80’s dream pop, R&B, and straight rock and roll. On a raucous run of 2012 dates through the UK — including shows with Florence and the Machine at the O2 arena — Haim stole British hearts on their first headlining tour, earning critical and popular praise and ending the year by topping the BBC’s prestigious “Sound of 2013” list.

“I had never been to the UK up until eight months ago,” said Este, older sister to Danielle and Alana. “But now it’s our home away from home. Whenever we land at Heathrow, we say, ‘It’s good to be home.’”

Now on the verge of a short tour with Mumford and Sons, a headline show in Washington, D.C., and the release of the Falling EP on April 1st, Este and the girls say they are hungry for more time on tour. “There is motivation for finishing this record,” said Este. “We want to travel; we want to see the world. Some people think traveling is a chore, I think it’s the most leisurely thing ever.”

Blame the parents, specifically the father, for the sisters’ desire to get up in the air and see new places. “They don’t make them like Moti Haim anymore,” says Este. Moti (short for Mordechai) and his wife Donna Haim raised three daughters in the San Fernando Valley, but when Este was born, Moti had a tough decision to make.

“My dad had his pilot license,” said Este. “And he and six of his buddies, who loved flying, had bought a Cessna together. But we were lower middle-class and they had nothing. So when I was born, his friends said, ‘Look, let’s sell the airplane so you can buy a condo for your family.’ And that’s what they did. All my dad had was this airplane, and turned it into a condo. That’s my dream, to make enough money so my dad can get his airplane back.”

Along with a home, Moti and Donna gave their daughters a love for music. They taught the girls to play  from the time they could hold instruments. The family even formed a covers band, Rockinhaim, with Moti playing drums and Donna fronting the vocals. On breaks from school, the Haim family was out playing California state fairs.

After school, the girls kept playing. Este went to UCLA and studied ethnomusicology, focusing on Brazilian music. Danielle played guitar and percussion in Cee-Lo Green, Julian Casablanca and Jenny Lewis’s bands.

“We’d never gotten to travel except for Danielle,” said Este. “She had kind of seen the world before she turned 20. I’m studying and she was getting to see the places I was learning about. All I wanted to do was go to Brazil, and of course she goes. And once she got back, we realized, ok we’ve got to do this for real. It’s all or nothing.”

In March of 2012, after playing together as a band for six years, Haim finally released their first EP, “Forever.” A record deal followed, as did adoring fans and the chance to travel. “We started in Reykjavik, Iceland — one of the first times I’ve ever seen a real snowfall,” said Este. “We had some of the most amazing shows, and then came Amsterdam, Brussels, Cologne, Paris and Berlin.”

Each foreign gig was something of a surprise. The girls never quite knew what they were going to find. “We played one show where everyone was standing in silence,” said Este. “When we have shows, I tend to stir things up. I like to have a dialectical relationship with my audience. I like it. I don’t think there should be a wall between audience and artist. You’re there together.”

The UK proved more than willing to be there together with the girls from the San Fernando Valley. “We played Scotland, Manchester, and all the cities in the UK around London,” said Este. “UK fans were so incredibly amazing and they made signs of us and it was so unexpected and crazy. Things got a little emotional. Our whole thing is we write songs and think ‘How cool would it be if we played a show and the audience sang these lyrics back to us? How cool would that be?’”

And then it happened. They were playing a show at a joint called Dingwalls in London’s eclectic Camden neighborhood. The crowd knew the words. The people were singing along. Nights like that have forever endeared the sisters to London.

“In London, everything is so close,” said Este. “So many nights where we’d start out in Central London and then we’d go somewhere like Joe’s, this place you go when no one really knows where to go. It’s solid and plays good music, so we’d go there and dance the night away. Someone would be like ‘Let’s go do karaoke.’ So we’d go to this place called the Birdcage and do karaoke till four in the morning, and then you find a falafel shop that’s opened 24 hours a day and you get falafel that of course has French fries in it and tons of tahini sauce. You go to bed at six in the morning and you’re up at 10 to record… London never sleeps.”

Este says the tour only whet their appetite for the road. The supporting tour with Mumford and Sons will only last a few dates, but as Haim tries to wrap up their first full-length album, it’s with a clear view to where their music might take them.

“I want to go to Brazil,” said Este. “I want to go to Rio and not just for Carnival. I want to play drums in samba school and see the country and everything it has to offer. It seems like the most magical place. It’s a dream of mine.” 


Nathan Martin, formerly a reporter in Mississippi and an editor at the Washington Post Express, produced and wrote for Bill Bennett before taking a position at an educational technology company. Fleetwood Mac currently sits at the top of his concert bucket list.