Interview The Staves: ‘Everything’s Come Full Circle’

Anna Byrne asks the sisters all about their debut album, ‘Dead & Born & Grown’.

The Staves - an acoustic folk trio, made up of sisters Camilla, Emily and Jessica - have had quite a year. After two critically acclaimed EPs (‘Mexico’ and ‘The Motherlode’), collaborations with Tom Jones and Fionn Regan, and a tour supporting the Civil Wars, the girls are getting ready to release their debut album ‘Dead & Born & Grown’, produced by father son production dream team Glyn and Ethan Johns. On the first morning of their European tour supporting Bon Iver, DIY chats to Jessica about the new album and life on the road.

The forthcoming album will be your third release in a year. Were your two EPs this year run-ups to ‘Dead & Born & Grown’?
Yeah, I definitely see it that way. We decided to put some songs from the EPs on the album, so it’s all very much part of one body of work.

What’s the story behind the album title?
It’s the title of one of the songs on the album, which was basically the first song we ever wrote. It has a special place for us and we felt that, as it’s our debut album, it’s everything from that song up until now. The sentiment behind that song is that everything’s come full circle, that all things must come to pass.

What was preparing a full-length album like in comparison to short EPs?
It was a very different process. Obviously it takes more time, and the more time you spend on it, the more intense it can get. You know, it’s like if you’re doing a painting and you have to go to the other side of the room to look at it properly - sometimes it can be like that in the studio. It’s nice when you do an EP, because you focus on it for a few days and then it’s done.
We did our EPs and album in different places around London, and every studio has a different vibe. The album was recorded at British Grove in Chiswick; it’s a small studio with only one live room. It’s owned by Mark Knopfler and it’s invite-only, but Mark knows Ethan and Glyn Johns, so that’s how we got in.

What was your writing process like for this album, given your hectic touring schedule?
We haven’t really found out our way of songwriting yet. We’re not sure of where it is we need to be and what the circumstances need to be for it to happen. That creates a bit of a gamble – we might write a song today, we might not. The songs on the album have all been written in quite different circumstances. Being on the road makes it hard to write songs and we’ve been on the road most of this year, and a lot of last year too. It does mean that it maintains a sense of… not magic, but mystery, because when a song comes out, it feels like it was meant to be and you didn’t force it.

Father/son production team Ethan and Glyn Johns were on board for this album. What was it like to work with them?
It was exciting, and not really intimidating because they’re very personable people - they’re really friendly and welcoming. We’d met them before we went into the studio, so it wasn’t a weird thing where you turn up and you don’t know them; we’d formed a relationship with them and already got to know them. They bring a classic sound. They’ve done quite a lot of different stuff from one another. Glyn, having done the records he did back in the ‘70s with The Who and Zeppelin, carved out a cool sound. Ethan’s followed on from that and done some really cool stuff, like Kings Of Leon’s earlier stuff. They’re not too polished, they use tape, they value old-fashioned recording style. Things take longer, well, they can take longer, but they’re not really bothered about that. It’s quite rare.

And did that suit The Staves’ style?
Yeah, it suited us. We wanted a no-frills approach to it, we didn’t want loads of reverb on our voices, we didn’t want to make everything over-produced. There’s always a temptation to coat everything in millions of layers of instruments and sounds; we didn’t want that and they didn’t either. We basically did the whole album live, save a few overdubs here and there. A lot of producers don’t want to work in that way, because you might have to keep doing the song the whole way through to get it right - you need one perfect take. It worked really well for us, obviously, ‘cause we’re pros! No, I’m only joking, but it did suit us.

What’s the general plan for the album and next year?
We’re just going to tour it for the time being. We have four days off at the end of this tour [with Bon Iver], and then we have our own headline tour in the UK to promote it. I think that takes us to Christmas, when we’re going to do some gigs in India, which I’m really looking forward to. After New Year, I guess there will be lots more touring. It seems to be the right thing for us to do, getting experience from going out there, gigging and meeting people, instead of relying on radio play.

And how do you feel about being on the road so much?
We all really, really love it; we have the most fun on tour, and we function the best on tour. It becomes a bit of a routine. It always feels like a kind of a school trip where you get in a van, and there’s a sense of mystery. Because we’re three sisters, sometimes it has that sense of being a family holiday where we pack into the back seat and drive our parents mad. Well, we have a tour manager now who we can drive mad instead!

You’ve toured with some pretty big names, including The Civil Wars in America. What was the reception like over there compared to the UK?
The reception over there was really good. It felt like quite an instant response in America, maybe more so than in the UK. Having always been in the UK and always gigged there, just going over to the States for the first time was really special. On that tour with the Civil Wars at the beginning of this year, we gigged around the south a lot and there’s a real sense of warmth and hospitality in the people down there. We were living the dream and it was great. Obviously we know that it can’t and won’t always be that great, but we’ve done three tours in America now, and the crowds are always brilliant.

As three sisters, did you discover your musicality more or less simultaneously? How did you come to form a band?
It was a pretty natural progression. There were no expectations on any of us to do anything apart from just get through school, which I guess is what most parents want. Music was just part of all of our lives. Our parents were big fans of having music in the house, singing and playing guitar. We’d always sung from a really young age, had lots of instruments, so it was a pretty natural process for all of us. Being different ages, we were at different stages in our lives. The eldest goes to uni and comes back and then the second one goes – we were going through different things. It was always something that we’d do when we were together, and we started performing locally in Watford, in small pubs and stuff. Then I guess it was only a couple of years ago that we took it a bit more seriously, and we started to not do anything else and we sort of thought, ‘OK, let’s make a go of it.’

How different do you think your style would be without one another?
I don’t know. I think… I don’t know actually. I can’t imagine, just speaking personally, my style being wildly different. You never know. It’s good having three people there because you can always kind of eradicate any cheesy or shitty elements, so if I didn’t have them as a sounding board then maybe I’d be rubbish. Or maybe I’d be amazing! Shit. Too late now.

Name a song in the world you wish you’d written.
Hmmmm, well, I don’t have a favourite song. I go in and out of different songs and think, ‘Ah, that’s my favourite song, but then it changes.’ Helplessly Hoping by Crosby, Stills and Nash is one of my favourite songs; we used to sing that a lot as a three when we were younger. Or Vincent by Don McLean. What a lovely man.

The Staves’ debut album ‘Dead & Born & Grown’ will be released on 12th November via Atlantic. They’ll play Wembley Arena tonight (8th November) with Bon Iver.

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