Sister act extraordinaire The Staves released their third album If I Was last year to massive critical acclaim. This album signaled a change in direction for the band, who, as eldest of the three members Emily told me, were able to increase their “sonic palette” by working with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon in his home studio in Wisconsin. I was interested in what informed this change in sound.
“You can only make something with what you’ve got around you. What we had when we were recording with Ethan and Glyn [Johns, their previous producers] was tape machines, analogue mixing desks, real instruments; Harmoniums and Wurlitzers and a nice live room, so we came out with a live sound and there wasn’t a reverb on vocals or any trickery at all. But for this one we went up to [Justin’s] studio, and he knows a lot about electronic music. He has a lot of synths and they’re very good, and so with the toolbox we had there, we were just kind of playing and he started playing on our songs and it was like ‘Fuck I would never have thought of that and yes it’s great.’”
“There was a moment, when I thought ‘Oh shit, people are going to get angry it’s not folk – whatever that is”
With no real idea for an album in mind, the band escaped to the isolation of Vernon’s studio April Base to “hang out and drink a bunch of beer”, and the album kind of happened by accident. “It wasn’t until the 2nd or 3rd trip out there that [Justin] was like ‘We’re starting to make an album now, can I produce it?’” Emily suggested that the band’s close relationship with Vernon, who is a massive fan of The Staves, was incredibly important in the making of If I Was. “I think his friendship has been a huge part of his work as a producer, because he’s so enthusiastic and so supportive. To have someone there that really believes in your music and in your ability to reach for the sky was incredibly motivating and freeing, and allowed us to be brave and take risks. He’ll never ever laugh at you, it’s never stupid, if you fail it won’t ever be a failure it’ll be a learning curve or whatever. We had to get it wrong in order to get it right, and that was a really important part of making this record and taking some of the chances that we did.”
And these chances paid off. If I Was is a masterclass in creating a personal, moving album, and challenging the labels prescribed to you by fans and critics alike. “There was a moment,” Emily tells me, “when I thought ‘Oh shit, people are going to get angry it’s not folk’ (whatever that is), but they didn’t. Still, the heart of the music is our songs, our harmonies, our voices, and that kind of carries through. I feel liberated from the fan’s reactions to the album which was so positive; it makes me think they’re up for coming along and hearing where we go to next.”
Certainly, at the heart of The Staves are their incredible harmonies, which seem to transcend any that came before them. With voices like that, however, it’s possible that the musicianship and lyrics are overshadowed. Emily agreed: “Sometimes people say ‘Oh that’s mine and my boyfriend’s favourite song, that’s our song, it’s so beautiful,’ and I’m like really? Jesus, weird couple song. But they just heard a sweet sound and went there. But, whatever people choose to take from music, it’s not my place to berate them, but yes, sometimes perhaps our songwriting sits behind our singing. But hopefully that won’t always be the case.”
I was eager to find out how the band decides to split the singing between them. After initially telling me they “wrestle” for lines, Emily told me that it’s all about what feels natural. “I think the starting point is probably who’s written that part, or who’s had the greatest emotional investment in the creating of the song. That’s generally it, but sometimes it’s a song Jess had written but when Millie sang it, it sounded different, or you heard the lyrics more, or felt a certain way, and you thought that felt better.”
But with the band comprising of three sisters, one would think there would be an awkward point where the lyrics become too personal. Are any topics taboo? “I don’t think so, that I’m aware of, but I wonder how deep self-censorship goes. I think we don’t always have to talk about what things mean. There are things all of us have written where it’s like ‘Ok, I don’t know what situation specifically that’s relating to, but it’s clear you feel that way and I don’t want to pry into details behind that because it’s enough that you’ve sung it to me.’ We respect each other’s privacy like that.”
“Graceland by Paul Simon makes me cry my eyes out.”
Before the making of If I Was, the band were touring relentlessly for years, which took its toll on them. “It’s a strange thing,” Emily told me, “because if you’re not energized and well rested then life on the road can become miserable; you’re not discovering the songs fresh every night and feeling them and enjoying them, you’re just going through the routine.” After a relatively long break from touring – barring a brief stint supporting Florence and The Machine, who saw them at Glastonbury and got them on the road with her – the band are ready to get back out there for their autumn tour.
But what do people get from seeing them live that they can’t get from the album? “It’s a different reading of the songs, and it’s different every night to a small or greater extent. You get the air literally moving from us to you and it’s a huge thing. Actually being there when someone’s singing is always more powerful.” Support for this tour comes from Gabriel Rios, who sent the band his music and was invited along. “Sometimes artists are put together by booking agents because it makes sense and that can be fine, but it’s really nice if you have something to do with it yourself.”
To finish up the interview, I asked Emily what record she would tell someone with limited time left to listen to before it’s too late. After telling me off for leaving this question until last (and for generally being so mean), she decided on Graceland by Paul Simon, “which makes me cry my eyes out.” She should know something about that with some of the tracks in her back catalogue. After this tour, The Staves plan on going away, putting pen to paper, and “seeing what comes up”. After the incredible effort of If I Was, I can’t wait to see where they go to next.
The Staves play Bristol’s Colston Hall with support from Gabriel Rios on 7 November, buy tickets here.
Feature Image Credit: Lomography