Contributor Sarah Hughes sat down with Camilla Staveley-Taylor of The Staves ahead of their UK tour to talk about songwriting, sisterhood and working with Bon Iver.
When did you and your sisters start singing and performing together?
We did our first gig, I was fourteen at the time so that would be like twelve years ago… We always sang together and I don’t really remember a time when we didn’t – it’s not like one day we sat down together and were like, “we should start to learn to sing and do harmonies”… we always did and always enjoyed it. Then eventually our mate was like, ‘Oh! You should do an open mic night!’… We went down to our local and enjoyed it, and then ended up doing a gig. It’s been a very gradual thing, there’s not been any kind of masterplan – we’ve just kind of taken things as they come. Gradually we started to gig more and get asked to do gigs, and then it got to a point where we were gigging so much that we couldn’t really hold down normal jobs anymore. And then we were like, “Oh well I guess this our job now?”
When it comes to songwriting and lyrics do you and your sisters each write and combine your own songs or do you write together?
It’s kind of both, there’s no set way that things happen. Sometimes, one of us will have written basically a whole song, then it’s a matter of bringing it to the table and making last minute tweaks and arranging harmonies. We see how we want to record it and inevitably it changes in that process. Other times it’s an idea that someone has, something they want to write about and we all sit down together and write it from the beginning to end, all together. So it depends on what it’s about, and what kind of vibes everyone’s in… It really varies song to song.
Do you guys ever argue about what makes it on to the album?
Oh yeah, there’s arguments and stuff! Its great being in a band with your sisters because you’re all really good mates and love each other… We do all have quite different ideas sometimes and it can be troublesome trying to make an album! We’ve got quite good at compromising with each other and trying to make decisions quickly… there’s three people who have to decide on it, and it has to be fair. If it was more of a dictatorship it would be a lot quicker and easier, but you have to be fair.
If I Was has a bolder tone than Dead & Born & Grown, what kind of elements came into play when creating it?
We started [If I Was] a couple of years ago… After our first album we toured for a couple of years and it was really intense and really long and very tiring. It was great and we loved it, but it got to a point where we hadn’t been home very much at all… you start to go a little bit crazy and just really want to be able to create something new again. When you’re touring your life kind of changes without you, whether it’s your relationships, your home life, whatever. We’d just got to a point where we really needed to create something so we went to Justin’s house (Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon) – he invited us out there to just kind of chill and try things out, and it just so happens that the ideas that what we came out with was different sounding. And I guess it marked that we’d changed a bit as people and kind of grown up a bit in the however many years it had been since we wrote the songs for our first album. We really wanted to experiment, with electronic music, different ways of layering vocals; it’s a testament to how comfortable we felt in the studio with those people, to try all that stuff, and it has led to a far bolder, bigger sound. After a few years of touring and setting up, you do want to take it to the next level and be like, ‘I wanna put strings on it and just like layer our voices a thousand times’. So yeah – that was where that came from.
Did being in Wisconsin play a role in the songwriting?
It wasn’t intentionally about the place we were staying, but I think it must have influenced it a little bit, being in a place that’s covered in a s***load of snow. When you’re trapped inside with a bunch of people you form strong bonds very soon, and it’s an intense thing writing music together – you get to know each other very quickly very well. I think that the weather and the place and the fact it’s in the middle of nowhere… intensified that. And we watched a lot of Twin Peaks together, which would have definitely influenced some things. Yeah, it must have crept in.
Songs like America offer a dreamy depiction of travelling; did being on tour impact your new album?
Definitely. [The album’s] not about just one thing, but the running theme is being on the road and everything that entails… but it’s not just like ‘Oh I’m driving loads and here’s a diner’. Things happen on the road and you have a lot of time to think about things and think about life. It’s a weird life, you’re just living out of a suitcase and when you get home none of your friends really understand because it’s not the life they’re used to… you just talk to them about how you’re tired. And they ask ‘How did the tour go?’ and you say ‘It was brilliant’, but you can’t really talk about it properly. It’s hard to keep up relationships, you can get lonely… you can have the best times and the worst times basically. It’s a magnified life. Travelling between both of the albums really informed loads in terms of the songwriting.
There’s a sense of heartache in songs like Damn it All and Sadness Don’t Own Me, did you feel like off the back of the success of Dead & Born & Grown that you had the confidence as a band to sing about these things more directly?
I think growing up and becoming more confident in the kind of writer or artist that you want to be only comes with experience, so yes, we felt we had toured and written enough to have more confidence, to be more direct. And it’s a bit hard if it’s sad things that you’re singing about or if your hearts broken… sometimes it is hard to say it in quite an obvious way, it’s almost easier to hide it in metaphors or skirt around it.
Do you feel like being in a band with your sisters helps bring that out rather than singing with a band you weren’t related to?
It really helps having these people that you’ve known all your life and know you inside out… it makes it a little easier because a lot of the time if you’ve written a song or had an idea for a song [and]… you sing these lyrics, they know everything that’s going on in your life. So you don’t have to say, ‘well this lyric specifically means this or this song is about this’, because they already know. It takes away a little bit of potential difficulty
Is there any music you were listening to when creating If I Was, particularly in songs like Black and White which really stand out on the album?
I can’t really remember what I was listening to. I think I was enjoying experimenting with garageband, enjoying layering things up by myself and not having to explain an idea to someone else. It started out like that, and yeah, I guess [Black and White] is more of an angry song. There’s quite a bit of anger in this record, and sometimes the only way to express it properly is to make something that little bit louder and a little bit more ‘speechy’.
How was playing at Glastonbury?
This would have been our third time playing and man, Glastonbury is just the king of festivals; it’s ridiculous, it’s just so f****** big and yet it doesn’t feel overwhelming. There’s something for everyone. It was really really fun and really great. We were playing the Park Stage which is such a nice area and the line-up was great and we got to stick around for a bit and see some of it. Everyone’s so up for it in the audience too.
Is there any method to your songwriting or do you each have individual ways of working it out?
I think between the three of us we are slightly different. Jess is quite a melody-driven writer, she’ll start with playing the piano or the guitar and the words will be born out of that. I’m definitely more of an **** and write lyrics out of that, [I] have a notepad with me all the time and write down things: phrases, words, single words – anything. I like to write A Capella at first but it really does vary, and when you’re going to the studio and you start to kind of embark on that writing, everything gets blown so wide open, you just write in completely different ways, I feel like everyone had just fallen in love with that, using the studio as a writing tool, that was really great for us.
Was Justin Vernon a producer who got involved in the songwriting process, or did he let you run with it?
C: It was more like [he was] creating the right vibe and the right environment for us to write, he didn’t write any of the songs with us but production and writing can be kind of intertwined. You write a song and it can change so much in the production of it, and the feeling of it can change so much. I wouldn’t say he wrote with us, but he made us feel completely at ease and completely comfortable, to have someone else be in the room when we’re discussing lyrics – we had never done that before. We never would have shown anything to anyone before so that was a really big thing for us, it was just the ultimate vibe – he’s a Vibe King to us.
Do you think The Staves will return to Ireland?
C: Aw I’d like to, we love it there so much. I don’t know of anything in the pipelines, but I f****** hope we are… We’re always worried whenever we play over there, we always say ‘Some of the best gigs I think we’ve ever had have been in Ireland’ and you can see people in the audience be like ‘Aw they f****** say that everywhere they go’, but it’s literally true, you guys are the best audiences.
S: If you could sum up the mood of If I Was?
C: That’s a good question. I don’t know how happy I am with this description – it’s a quite a sad album, that deals with a lot of thorny things and hard things and lots of sadness. Ultimately it’s a very hopeful album… about new beginnings and dealing with things that have happened in a way that you can try and use them to make you stronger rather than destroy you. It meant the world to create, I’d say it is a hopeful album.
S: Finally, would you have any advice for young songwriters who would like to make it?
C: Ooh, I think my advice would be just don’t wait around for someone else. I think do as much as you can by yourself and enjoy it because that’s quite precious. Write as much as you can by yourself as if you’re never gonna get discovered. Just carry on writing and singing at any old gigs, and forging your path…. that is the best preparation in the world.