- 22 Mar 21
Lyndsey McDougall, lead singer of Belfast rock outfit New Pagans, gets candid about the inspirations for the group’s stunning, politically-minded debut album.
Lyndsey McDougall is just after walking in her front door when I call to interrupt her morning. It seems she has a million things going on at once: her band’s debut album is a month shy of release, while the musician is simultaneously working on her PhD thesis, raising her two children (with husband and bandmate Cahir O’Doherty), and crafting gorgeous embroidery.
Busy though she may be, lockdown 3.0 has rendered the artist and scholar a bit unmotivated. “And I’m usually a very motivated person,” she remarks. “I think over the last few weeks it’s been really difficult. I miss emotional interaction with people outside my immediate family.”
Her two little ones aren’t at school age yet – “which is probably a good thing,” she laughs.
The aforementioned PhD is based on Lyndsey’s second passion.
“I’m looking at embroidery in masonic lodges and churches across Ireland,” she explains, “discussing women’s roles in organisations through their embroidery work. It’s really interesting, I do love it. But it’s just finding the time to write it.
“Sometimes when you’re in the middle of it, you forget what it was ever about. It’s sort of like not being able to see the woods from the trees. It’s intense, and you’re working with something so obscure – that nobody else in the world really should have found before. So you kind of feel alone a lot of the time. But like with everything, you just have to keep going, keep focused, because being creative and writing while stressed is very hard.”
If one were allowed to submit songs as part of their PhD, nobody would question Lyndsey’s level of creativity. On the band’s debut, The Seed, The Vessel, The Roots And All, is a gritty post-punk tune dedicated to famous embroiderer Lily Yeats.
“I wrote that in my first year,” Lyndsey recalls. “I hadn’t really read up about Irish embroidery, I didn’t know anything about it apart from techniques. When I started the PhD, I started reading about the Donegal Industrial Fund and all of these philanthropic embroidery workshops that were set up by women, for other Irish women to make some money after the Famine.
“Because of Lily Yeats’ name, and the relationship to her famous brothers, she and her sister Elizabeth set up the Cuala Press [a private arts and crafts press, unique in that it was the only one in Ireland run and staffed by women].
“They were pretty famous in their day, but historically you’re taught about the male side of the Yeats family, not the female side. I thought her name was a really good way of getting people interested in looking at how women are often forgotten in history and written out of it. That’s what the song is about – trying to refocus and re-write history a bit so that it can be inclusive.”
What’s interesting about Lily Yeats is that she took something historically designed to keep women occupied and indoors and turned it into a way to be economically independent.
“And that happened across the arts and crafts sector in Ireland,” Lyndsey agrees. “Irish arts and crafts are really interesting, because the industry is marked by women stepping up to help other women less fortunate than them, especially in the rural communities in Donegal. Embroidery was really used to generate income.
“And it wasn’t just pocket money. There’s even records of embroidery money being used to send entire families to America to start a new life. As you can see, I do like talking about it!”
New Pagans aren’t strangers to using historical figures and moments to inform their songwriting. Another track on their album, ‘The Yellow Room’, is a raucous offering that references The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
“My friend had given me a copy of it, and I read it just after I had my little girl,” Lyndsey says of the 1892 short story. “You spend a lot of time up at night. Your whole world is topsy-turvy, because you’ve got this newborn who needs you every hour for food. I was up one night and it was 4am, and I picked it up because I had always meant to read it.
“It encapsulated those days after giving birth, even if you’re not struggling with post-natal depression. You just feel different, and your whole world has changed. I saw little insights in it that reminded me of what I was going through. But I didn’t quite understand it, and I had to read different interpretations afterwards. It’s a really strong piece of feminist literature. Shortly after I read it, we wrote that song.”
New Pagans decided the release campaign around ‘The Yellow Room’ should raise awareness about postnatal depression in Northern Ireland.
“We don’t have any support or specialists for women who are suffering from postnatal depression,” Lyndsey says. “We wanted the campaign to highlight how neglected Northern Ireland can be, politically and socially, because of its situation.
“Recently, we got some good news from Robin Swann, the Health Minister, and he is going to invest some money into that area. That’s not just because of us, it’s because of other people rallying around and saying ‘this isn’t good enough, women in Northern Ireland need to be just as important as women in the rest of Ireland, and the UK.”
New Pagans seem to find purpose and drive by discussing these hard-to-approach topics. Another track on the album, ‘Christian Boys’, reflects a story about one of Lyndsey’s friends, who told her about a Christian leader in Northern Ireland with whom she had been having an affair, just before he got married to his virgin bride.
Shocking, indeed, but what is more disturbing is that Lyndsey’s friend’s story wasn’t the first of its kind to emerge. When these men were confronted, they all stated that the women were to blame, that they were the sinners and had led the Christian men astray.
“I was brought up in the Protestant community, and Cahir was brought up in the Catholic community,” Lyndsey says. “We discuss the differences quite often, but there are a lot of similarities, too. The Protestant side of things is actually even more scary, sometimes. It’s nearly like the Bible Belt of Great Britain and Ireland.
“It’s so entwined in our politics as well, it’s impossible to break out. And in our education system, it’s very difficult to have an education that isn’t religious in some way. It’s kind of scary, if you don’t want your kids to be indoctrinated.”
Are they concerned about their children being educated in that kind of system?
“Yes, we are slightly worried,” Lyndsey admits. “We just have to trust that we should be able to talk about all religions, and they will learn that, and we’ll discuss it with them and let them make up their own minds. But it is a bizarre situation to be in.
“For me, there should be a complete separation between the State and the Church, and there just isn’t in Ireland.
“The song was written after my friend told me this story about what she was going through with this Christian man. I was like, ‘this is horrific, why is this allowed to happen?’ When it’s something hidden and covered up, that’s where it gets seedy - when you lie to everybody about what’s actually going on. We tried to comment on the greater issue, the hypocrisy of the whole thing.”
Although the song could be applied to different denominations, Lyndsey stresses it was more focused on her experiences being brought up Protestant.
“I was writing from my perspective,” she says. “The reason I felt I could write about it was because I’d been brought up in that kind of environment, so I felt like I had the right to say something. I couldn’t comment on other religions, but I can comment on what my experience has been and what I’ve watched my friends go through, so it is very personal. We should be allowed to talk about it, but there’s definitely a fear around speaking out.”
Has Lyndsey seen a shift in the past few years around the culture of denial and secrecy?
“I think people are getting called out,” she says cautiously. “You’d hope, but I think it will take a while before we can actually see if any of that culture has been changed.”
• The Seed, The Vessel, The Roots And All is out now.