Ahead of their recent show at Bournemouth's Old Fire Station, Watford's The Staves sat down with Contactmusic's Jim Pusey to discuss working with Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, touring with Florence Welch, the best records of 2015, and bizarrely toothbrushes and tampons. Fresh from eating a Sunday lunch and accompanied by wine the Staveley-Taylor sisters; Jessica, Emily, and Camilla, seemed suitably relaxed to let their charm and humour shine through.
Contactmusic - You started in Watford playing in pubs. Did you have any idea that you'd be where you are now back then?
JS - Definitely not, no. It was very much for fun, obviously we're sisters, so we're close and enjoyed singing together. Our parents used to sing around the house, it was always something that was fun; I don't think we thought it would become a serious thing. It was a very slow process for it to become something more than just a hobby. Those first gigs in pubs in Watford were great. I think we learnt a lot from them, but it's been ten years since then, it took a long time for us to become a proper band.
CM - A lot of people when they are playing small venues like that never envisage taking it further. The success you've had will be an inspiration to some people, do you have advice for musicians that are just starting out?
CS - It's always hard to think of what you'd tell your younger self.
ES - You can only make the music that you think is really good, that's all you can do.
CS - Be as self-sufficient as you can. Carry on as if nothing is going to happen, but if you want to do that as your job, then try to work out how to do that with your best foot forward. Most importantly try to make music that you like, that's the biggest joy you can have as you move forward, and the joy can be sapped out sometimes.
ES - If you're left with music you weren't proud of, then what was the point in the first place.
CM - With anyone's first record, it represents material written over a very long period of time as an artist has developed. Songs on your debut (2012's Dead & Born & Grown) must date back to when you first started writing together. How long had some of them been in the pipeline for?
JS - The title track of Dead & Born & Grown was the first song that we wrote as The Staves I think. That's around nine years ago, so that's probably the oldest one. Songs like 'Facing West' and 'Mexico' we've been playing for a long time. Some were then written when we came to record the album in 2011.
ES - 'Wisely & Slow', 'Eagle Song', and the secret track were the last ones written in the studio. Overall it was a mixture of material.
JS - Your first album captures your whole life as a band in a way. It's everything from the very beginning, right up to writing in the studio. You can never really capture that again, unless you spend ten years making your second record. Our second album represents songs over two or three years, as opposed to ten the first time around. In a way that made If I Was a more focussed effort because it was written during a smaller period of time.
CS - I guess it also had more running themes, because those things have been going on in your life during that shorter span of time. As opposed to a general encapsulation of you as a person.
CM - That first album was a bold statement; it opens for just the first few minutes as acapella, focussing on your voices. Some of the instrumentation that's then introduced is really delicate. How much of that was guided by what you wanted? By what producers Glyn and Ethan Johns suggested?
JS - It was a mixture of ideas. We recorded everything live, so we came up with everything on the day. There were a few songs where we walked in with ideas, but we didn't do any pre-production. We went into the studio with a drummer and a bass player. Ethan played a lot of guitar, we were playing other instruments and singing, so we decided to record it as live which was dictated by the vibe in the room on the day.
CS - The whole live thing helps for it to be cohesive. We didn't do that many overdubs. There were a few here and there on certain songs, but that live feeling is really palpable on that album. That's a good thing because it was what we were used to, but also challenging because it's very limiting as to how you can arrange the songs. You're putting the constraints of a gig into the studio. Actually the joy of a studio is that it doesn't have to be that way. There is a magic feeling when you capture an amazing performance, the energy in the room, and all of that hippy stuff.
ES - Sonically we had the same vision. Of course we disagreed on various arrangements for specific songs, but we were all coming from the same direction. For the second album, with the experiences we'd had in-between, we felt we really wanted to experience what it was like to do it the other way. Let's just give ourselves loads of choice, loads of freedom, no boundaries, no rules, and whatever we've got to hand. Whether it's an electronic drumbeat or a synthesiser, strings, horns, tracking our voices fifty times, it was all on the table so that we could just see what happened. Different people, different songs, different vibes.
CM - So you go out on the road to tour the first record and you end up supporting Bon Iver. From there you visit Justin Vernon from the band at his April Base studio in Wisconsin to jam out some material. As I understand it you weren't intending to record anything, you were just there to hang out?
JS - It really was magical there. It's a really special place and there's such love and care there from Justin and the whole team. It really is a base for musicians and creative people.
ES - Kind of a sanctuary.
JS - I don't think we really realised it at the time how much we needed somewhere like that. It was the right climate for us to let out whatever we needed to. We had a few songs and a few ideas, because it wasn't a pressurised situation - "we're making a record with Justin Vernon from Bon Iver and it's going to be this thing, the label are putting in all this money" - instead it was a really casual affair. It was the right way to approach it because we felt very free and it was incredibly inspiring.
CS - That followed a point where we'd made the first album, which featured songs written over a number of years. We'd then toured for what felt like ages, and that experience really gave us a hunger to create something. I don't think we'd ever had that before, that feeling of: "oh my god I'm going to go insane if I don't write something or play something different to what I have been for the last few years". The experience makes you grow up a lot, and you change in quite a short space of time.
CM - The album documentary shows each of you growing in confidence while you were at April Base. What did Justin do to help you develop, or was it just a process of you being allowed to play in his toy box, so to speak?
JS - It was a real combination of us feeding off his enthusiasm and then coming up with our own ideas. It felt like a real partnership. He produced the second album If I Was, but it's not like he walked in and said: "here are the songs, here's my vision for it all, this is how I do things, and this is my sound". It's because he's not a traditional producer, he's an artist. It was a real collaboration. He's got loads of great gear in the studio and I remember a synth was the first thing that felt like quite a radical decision. Now we've been playing the songs on the road and we actually have a synth player, but at the time it felt like "is this legal? Is this cool?" Justin having a different way of viewing our songs really helped us to feel like we could try anything and that nothing was too weird. We never felt stupid if we suggested something different.
CM - It's unmistakably your record but you can hear Justin's fingerprints on the material. No one else sounds like that set of songs, because it's such an individual statement. What were you aiming for this time around? Your voices together are so distinctive.
ES - I don't think we had a statement of intent. The way the album developed was a series of trips to April Base, demos, writing, and drinking a lot of beer. On our third trip out there we realised we may have had enough material to make a cohesive body of work. So it's not like we sat down with the songs beforehand and thought about what we wanted to achieve. It was really a case of where are the songs leading you? Where do they need to go? I always think of it a bit like Curling.
You write the bones of a song and then you have to guess where it's going to go, and give it free rein to become what it needs to. You don't know if it's going to need to be acoustic, or acapella, or with a brass band. That's what's so exciting, it's a surprise. You create it and then can't control it. For us the harmonies are the things that come the easiest, the other stuff is what we really work at. So I don't think we've had a mission statement for our harmonies and singing as such, although we have been pushing ourselves to not go for the obvious choice that we'd naturally gravitate towards. Maybe we'll switch who is singing each part even if it's working, to get a different sound. Or we'll change the key or exercise restraint and strip it all back except for one particular section.
CM - How do you make that decision of who sings which part or takes the lead? Is that governed by who has written each particular song?
CS - Often it does work when it's the person who's come up with the initial idea for the song, or who has brought the bulk of it to the table. Often it feels natural that they would sing it. There definitely are other examples where this section is suited to Em, or Jess, it can vary. I think especially when it's really specific subject matter or very personal, it feels obvious that individual should be singing about it, and the rest of us become supportive in our backing roles, as cheesy as that might sound.
CM - Final question about April Base then, do you have a specific or fond memory of recording there?
JS - When we recorded the end section of 'Blood I Bled', which has loads of strings and horns. It's quite orchestral and we layered up something like 32 tracks. We'd just mixed that sound it was sounding great and we listened to the whole song start to finish as the sun was going down. There was this amazing pink sunset outside and all ten of us in the room stood with our arms around each other and watched the sun with tears streaming down our faces. We all felt like "f**king hell this sounds great, we've got strings".
ES - That was my memory as well, I'm getting a bit misty-eyed thinking about it.
CM - It's been a big year for you, especially with the positive reception the record has had. I'm sure you'll make a number of the end of year lists. What are your plans for next year though?
ES - As soon as it becomes 2016, it's last year's album in the record business world. I think what we've learnt is that balance is key. Too much of being on the road, too much of playing and playing the same material means that you're no longer discovering new things about the songs. You're just re-hashing a memory and it becomes weird. Too much of being stuck in a studio, writing and creating, but never sharing it can also send you into a weird spiral. So I think getting a balance between having some time off, writing, recording, and gigging is what we're striving for next year. We haven't been to The States on this album yet, so I imagine that'll feature pretty heavily early next year.
CS - The US and Canada will be really fun.
ES - We haven't had time to really think about it.
CM - Talking of end of year lists, are there any albums that have stuck in your memories?
JS - Sufjan Stevens' record Carrie & Lowell.
CS - It made me cry.
JS - It's a f**king beautiful album. Sufjan played it at a festival that Justin (Vernon) curated in his hometown of Eau Claire in Wisconsin. It's the first festival Sufjan had played in something like a decade, because he doesn't like playing outdoor shows, because it doesn't work as well.
ES - I'm with him on that.
JS - But he did it anyway, and I'd never seen him before. It was just phenomenal. There was a crescent moon in the sky as he was singing 'The Fourth Of July', that song just breaks my heart. The opening track has the same effect on me too (All three sisters then start singing 'Death With Dignity')
CS - I haven't listened to the whole album, because I've had real trouble just getting past that first song, oh my god, it just breaks my f**king heart.
JS - He's also really fit.
CS - Yeah.
JS - Everyone was like: "oh my god" (in a faux-American accent). So basically you're super talented, amazing, and you're gorgeous. So f**k you basically.
ES - (Laughs) He's had a pretty s**t life though, a troubled life, bless him. I'm also going to bring Tame Impala's album Currents into the mix, and Foals' What Went Down. Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly is also amazing.
JS - (Laughs).I prefer Lemar.
CM - You met Justin Vernon while you were touring and you ended up working with him in a studio, any plans to do something similar with Florence Welch, who you've been touring with recently?
ES - I wouldn't have thought so.
JS - We barely spoke to her, (laughs) she keep trying to speak to us and we kept telling her to go away. It was mad to be on such a big production, it was a big Pop production. Everyone was really cool, but you don't really see anyone. We said hi as she walked past a couple of times and she's very sweet, but didn't really get a chance to get to know her at all, which is a shame.
CS - Also I imagine it must be really weird as a touring situation, when you're the front woman and it's basically all eyes on you. Touring for her must be a completely different experience than for everyone else that's there. It must be quite isolating sometimes.
JS - We'd all be drinking after the shows with the band who were really cool. For her she can't do any of that. She has to take care of herself and probably has to plunge herself into an ice bath like Michael Flatley does after Lord Of The Dance. She works so hard running laps around the arena, so she is Florence and she is a, or the Machine too. So I don't think we'll do anything musical together, but her loss (laughs).
CM - You've been having lots of fun with your merchandise. I do love the 'Teeth White' toothbrush.
JS - Thank you, will the people buy it for £2 on our merch desk, will they f**k!
CS - People don't care about their teeth any more
CM - I also like the 'Cigarettes and Coffee' mug. What other quirky merch are you going to come up with?
ES - We already have guitar picks don't we?
CS - Bottle openers for drinking times. We were thinking of 'Blood I Bled' tampons (laughs) and plasters, but I think it was deemed too controversial.
ES - We were told by the powers that be that it was maybe not a good look, which I disagree with and I think we still should.
CS - We wanted to think of something humorous for each song, for example shining torches.
ES - 'Make It Holy' and little crucifixes with us on them.
CM - You could do a vinyl box set with a small trinket for each track.
ES - My worry is Jim, that if people aren't shelling out £2 for a bloody brilliant toothbrush, are they going to go with us if we start doing tampons? If you're sending out a vinyl box set, you're going to have to charge them £100, and you'll only ever make 10 of them as no-one's buying them.
CM - Bob Dylan's putting out 18 CD sets that cost £600.
ES - I would argue that there's a slight difference in fan base (laughs). He does alright in the UK. On a side note we have put out some new tracks lately. Some bonus stuff for the album and also an EP. Those tracks could just get lost, but I'm very proud of them. There's 'Train Tracks', a Bombay Bicycle Club cover version.
CM - A cover version of Bruce Springsteen's 'I'm On Fire' too. Why that song in particular?
CS - We're obsessed with the song, and we just started doing it live and in sessions and really enjoyed it. We did an album launch party in London and we played it in the encore. We also got Justin Vernon to sing on it too. We just really love it and thought it would be nice to record it.
ES - You can listen to those songs on Spotify or buy them on Itunes.
CS - I would say somehow you're going to enjoy it more if you pay money for it, thus paying us money for it. I think you're going to enjoy it more that way.
Don't forget to sign up to the mailing list to get the free EP
Life Is a Highway (From "Cars"/Official Video)
Kelli O'Hara "Wonderful Guy"