The Staves – Interview – 2015

Three young and beautiful sisters, called Emily, Camilla and Jessica, who can sing like angels, and write memorable, easy-on-the-ear songs, all set within a broad-brushed indie-folk palette. How could this not work? Well, it did. And it's not taken them very long to become established, on the verge of releasing their second album, If I Was, and with a sold out UK tour just in the bag, including a date at London's Hackney Empire…

It was less than five years ago that they first came to note, as singers, servicing the needs of others, including the Welsh master Tom Jones, on his Praise and Blame album of 2010. They released a couple of low key recordings – the Facing West EP and Live at Cecil Sharp House – before major label giant Atlantic snapped them up in 2011, releasing the Mexico and The Motherlode EPs, followed by the rapturously received debut album Dead & Born & Grown in 2012.
On a visit to their record label in London, Emily, Camilla and Jessica Stavely-Taylor are busy with all things Staves… "Yeah, we're sorting out some artwork, getting the website up to scratch, scheming new plans!"  say the eldest sibling Emily. Have you come up with any today? "Oooo, that would telling! There is alway a hair-brained plot in the pipeline. Whether they come to fruition is another matter…"
It's been three years since the debut album, a period of time spent mainly travelling and touring. Life has obviously changed for them, but they've been enjoying a relatively quiet period following the recording of the album, and just prior to the UK tour, which is when we talked. So, how is If I Was different from Dead & Born & Grown. "I feel it's as different as we are, if that makes any sense? Before our first album even came out, we had finished it a year and half before it was released. Our lives have changed a lot, we are more immersed in the music world in a way we weren't for the first one. The first album involved our chlldhoods, everything up to that point."
Even though it seems, with hindsight, rather obvious why The Staves should be so popular, you still have to work hard to get to any level of success, even if that was not really the plan in the first place… "We did our first show about ten years ago, when I was 20 and Camilla (the youngest) was 14. We were singing open mics for maybe six months, or a year before that. We were always on an even ground. It didn't matter who was older or younger, when we were singing together, everyone was equal. It feels like we've been singing for ever! It's weird, the age difference. When she was 10 and I was 16, it was 'get out of my room' and all that stuff, but we have always been really really close, especially when we could start wearing each other's clothes and going out for pints together."

And singing together… The Staves, whilst being somewhat lumped in with the nu-folk likes of Fleet Foxes and the Mumfords, were doing their harmony thing when it was still largely unfashionable. "We were lucky; the place (The Horns pub) that we started was the only place in Watford where you could go for music. Watford High Street is basically Wetherspoons', Walkabouts', Yates'… If you don't want to go out and get hammered, there isn't much to do, apart from this one pub, which is open doors to everyone… there are ancient people there, there's underage kids trying to sneak in, there's a whole mess of people there, and everyone is there because they want to hear live music and to be in a nice atmosphere where everyone is cool. We really liked that, that's how our parents' parties were when we were kids… it would be our parents, and their mates, and all their kids, and their friends. It would be a mix of people, singing Bob Dylan and The Band, and by the end of the night, we got the red wine and the guitars out… The Eagles, and all that stuff. It felt good to us. The crowd (at the open mics) were always appreciative and encouraging of new acts; it was a safe place to start, with all our mates… we were quite lucky. It wasn't like: 'is anyone going to boo us, or talk over us'. It was quite respectful.
"It was a very gradual process; when we first started gigging, I was at university in Manchester, the girls were both at home in Watford, both at school. So, whenever I was at home on holidays we would play a gig, usually in Watford. This was in the Myspace days, people would start to ask us to come and play in London, or a different part of Watford… things just went from there. Sometimes we would support some of our friends, who were in bands, in different places. And then we would tour, supporting people, saying, 'we'll do backing voices for you if you let us open the show'. Kinda bartering like that. People liked us doing backing vocals, so it was an easy trade off.
"Then there was an Island Records showcase, to celebrate their 50th anniversary. In fact, Ed Sheeran performed at that as well. We both ended up signing for Atlantic… but, anyway! Through them, we started talking, going to meetings, and they put us in touch with our dream producer at the time, who was Ethan (Johns). One of the guys from Island said: 'What's the dream, girls'? 'To make a record with Ethan Johns'! we said. So, when we got to meet him, he asked us to sing backing vocals for a Tom Jones album he was working on, which we did. We then played him our stuff. He said he loved it and wanted to produce our album. We did some cheap labour for the Tom Jones album, and he gave us a call…  Then we met his Dad, Glyn, and he said he'd like to produce the album, too. So we had these two producers, father and son, willing to work on our album.
"Oh man, it was weird. It was time when we were listening to lots of albums, and looking at all these covers, and his name kept cropping up; Ben Kweller, the early Kings of Leon albums, Ryan Adams stuff, Ray Lamontagne, Laura Marling… This guy is the best, these are the albums we love, they are so amazing, they sound so real. And his Dad came across us independently. Totally true," claims Emily. "He came up to us at this showcase we did in London, and he said I'm a retired record producer, you won't know who I am, but my son is a producer, he would love you. His name is Ethan Johns. 'So, that means you're Glyn Johns!? Yes, we do know who you are!'
"They got their heads together, and both had a very strong reaction to our music and Glyn said, 'Well, you've dragged me out of retirement, and me and Ethan want to make a go of this together. Mad, really."
But we had no manager, no record label, and we were just gigging for fun. So, it was then we started going around the labels thinking maybe we should take it seriously. We were introduced to Atlantic Records, we played them a few songs, and they offered us a deal on the spot, and a contract arrived on the desk just a couple of days later. It was a good deal, and we signed it."
And so, with a largely stripped back acoustic backing, Dead & Born & Grown was the perfect introduction to The Staves, a threesome of singers who had learnt their craft by singing, largely accompanied by only a guitar or ukulele. The first time I saw The Staves was when they were still relatively unknown, just singers with a guitar, and supporting Michael Kiwanuka on tour. It was one of those special nights, where the support became almost as big an attraction as the headliner, such was the anticipation, and such was their ability – and let's not pretend, their physical presence – that it was one of those you-could-hear-a-pin-drop type occasions. Emily remembers it well… "That was a really good show; it was a tiny stage (Komedia's downstairs room), and Michael had his back to the audience…
"The first album we recorded was very much live, basically with an acoustic, or a harmonium, all really cool. We didn't worry about how we would do it live, we'd worry about that later… just reach for the stars, and yeah, go nuts! It was a lot of fun. The first record was an honest representation of where we were at that stage."

If I Was, while still heavily featuring their incredibly heartfelt singing, is a much more complex, ambitious, nuanced and textured affair, but produced in a way that befits their relatively straight forward songwriting… "This record feels rather more like who we are now as individuals," say Emily. "Sonically, we are more confident. We went in there feeling bolder, and feeling free and uninhibited. I think it comes through.
"We didn't have firm intentions to make a proper recording," says Emily. "We toured with Justin (Vernon) and Bon Iver, and something just clicked. We are huge fans of their music, and they seemed to be so complimentary of ours. When we toured together, we would stay up late, drink beer and play songs after a show. Justin said, 'next time you get a break from the road, you have to come to the house. We've got a studio'. All the guys said, 'Yeah, you have to go. It's awesome'! So, we did. We had a two week period off the road. We didn't tell anyone at the label, we didn't want the pressure… 'Oh, you're going to Justin Vernon's? Can we hear what you're going to do'? We didn't want any of that stuff, we thought we might just end up being drunk for two weeks…
Produced by Justin Vernon at his April Base studios, in Wisconsin, If I Was takes the initial blueprint of Dead & Born & Grown and adds plenty of depth to those already untouchable harmonies. Along with Justin's band members, The Staves visited Wisconsin five times.
"As soon as we got there, these songs just came out – I don't know how to explain it – they just poured out of us, in a way that had never happened before. It was the most intensely creative period of our lives, and it was so exciting.
"On tour, we can't, or couldn't do it (write songs)… You have to focus so hard on touring, and looking after yourself and putting on a really good show each night. There is no time or headspace or energy, to do any of that stuff. Some people manage , and I take my hat off to them.
"Justin is such an amazing facilitator and a source of relentless enthusiasm and energy. Being somewhere where you are completely unknown, where no one knows where you are, and there is no pressure. We were completely secluded and free to do what we wanted and not worry about it. That was huge. Also, we hadn't created anything for so long, we'd been on the road and touring, which we love, and we hadn't written a song for maybe a year, so it was all these pent up up ideas, notes scribbled in the back of vans… It needed that space to come out. It wasn't until the end of the second visit, where we'd made quite a few demos, and Justin was like: 'Hey, I think we're making an album. Can I produce it'? 'I think you are, mate'! So, we just went from there."
For his part, Justin has said about the experience: "On a serious level, you meet a lot of cool people in music, but it's really rare when you locate people that feel like extremely important to what you're going to be and that's what it feels like with The Staves…"
With the three sisters all singing, playing and writing (although Emily claims she is the "least instrumentally talented"), how do they go about writing a song? "It's really different for every song. Sometimes it's just Jess playing around with some chords, maybe for a year, two, five… Suddenly, one day, it will explode into a song… someone comes up with a chord, a melody, a lyric, and by the time you finish you can't easily pick apart who has come up with what idea. Other times, one of us will have written an almost completely finished song, and then when that is played to the group, it'll change, people will start singing along, bits are erased, bits multiplied. It's really different for each song. Some are very personal, solitary works, and some are really collaborative. Some take years, some take an afternoon!


How do you deal with any perceived problems of quality? "It doesn't happen very often. Maybe I just got lucky to have such talented sisters. I hardly ever don't like something they have come up with. I think if something isn't working, then we all feel it… It's a compromise, like any kind of relationship. We are well versed in it now."
Still, ever since The Staves started to really take off in 2011/12, their life has been turned upside down in many respects, particularly with regards to relationships, and this is reflected in many of the lyrics on If I Was. "Because we're touring so much, relationships have changed… That is definitely part of it, yeah. The new album is our musings from the back of the van. When you are driving for two days to get out of Texas, you have quite a while to sit and think about your life, and what the hell you are doing. Yeah, relationships break down, and change, and you become estranged from people. What does a relationship mean if you're not ever there, not together? What does that mean? How can you be friends with someone when you are missing every landmark occasion in their life, and they have no idea about your day-to-day life? How can you stay close and honest with these people when you are so tired? I don't know. So many detours…
"There are other things on the album: how can you be an individual in a group, how do you get your voice heard in a family group? How can we be individual and not just be lumped in as 'the girls', just one collective identity? A lot of it was just trying to find and give ourselves space and to be more accommodating of our individual needs within the music. Ultimately, it's a hopeful record, although there are definitely some heartbreaks, and anger, and letting go of anger, in there."
I guess you don't see much of Watford anymore…. "We still 'live' in Watford, but haven't played there for ages. We keep trying to find a place to do it. We can't believe how difficult it is. It's on our we-have-to-do-this list!
Jeff Hemmings