Entertainment & Arts

The Staves: 'Recording with Bon Iver gave us cabin fever'

The Staves Image copyright Record label
Image caption The Staves (left-right): Emily, Camilla and Jessica Staveley-Taylor

Folk trio The Staves swapped Watford for Wisconsin to record their second album with Bon Iver's Justin Vernon.

Snowed in and isolated, they "went a bit mental" and started having fantasies about peanut butter cookies and [TV game show] Catchphrase host Roy Walker.

But amidst the madness they recorded an album, If I Was, that is both evocative and elegiac.

"We think it paid off," the band tell the BBC.

Image copyright Record label
Image caption The band's new album has received a clutch of four-star reviews

It's November 2013 and The Staves are playing the last show of their tour, after three long years on the road.

They're in high spirits, joking with the audience and riffing on the Neighbours theme tune. And when the three sisters huddle around a microphone for the soaring capella intro to Wisely And Slow, a reverent hush falls over the Shepherds Bush Empire.

The band's dovetailing harmonies have never sounded better. So it's a surprise to learn they're feeling jaded.

"Playing those songs," Emily Staveley-Taylor says after the show, "is like having sex with someone you've fallen out of love with."

Image caption Mumford and Sons asked The Staves to sing backing vocals when they headlined Glastonbury in 2013

Reminded of this comment 14 months later, the band fall about laughing.

"Why has it always got to be about sex, Emmy?" teases her younger sister, Jessica.

Emily defends herself: "That wasn't really a reflection on the set we were playing. It's more about the imbalance we were experiencing at the time.

"If you're just touring, and that's all you're doing for years, you start to think: 'What am I even doing this for? I'm just repeating myself.'"

"It gets to a point where it feels like it's unfair on an audience," adds Camilla, the youngest of the Staveley-Taylors.

"But it's the same if you're stuck in the studio, creating and creating for no purpose," Emily decides.

"You need both, you need harmony. And when one is out of balance it gets like: 'Argh, I can't do this any more. My brain needs to be somewhere else - having sex with someone new.'"

Snowed in

So, shortly after that farewell show, the band decamped to Wisconsin to work up some new material.

Sitting at the mixing desk was folk-pop troubadour Justin Vernon - who they'd befriended while on tour with Bon Iver.

Image copyright Record label / YouTube
Image caption Justin Vernon (right) has a studio in the annex to his house, hidden away in the wilderness of Wisconsin

"We didn't even tell the label at first," says Emily, "in case they were like: 'Can you get him to duet with you?'"

Tentative in the beginning, the sessions saw the band spread their wings - experimenting with new studio techniques and pushing the limits of their songwriting.

Many of the new songs were just fragments - "little nuggets of ideas," Camilla says - which the band had to mould into fully-formed tunes.

Steady, for example, was a Frankenstein's monster, stitched together from one of Jessica's melodies and a chorus Camilla had been knocking around for more than a year. But, rewritten in the studio, it become one of the album's stand-out tracks.

"It was a nice moment when they both fused," recalls Jessica. "It was like: 'I think this is legal!'"

The mournful No Me, No You, No More, on the other hand, saw the band discarding the simple, guitar-and-vocal arrangements of their first record.

"We'd originally written that song on acoustic guitar and it was much faster, like the hamster song," says Jessica, not entirely seriously.

"When we approached it again, we took the guitar off and sampled our voices doing these slow hums that go throughout the whole thing."

"It suddenly made a lot more sense. It matched the sentiment."

"It says a lot about Justin that we felt comfortable for him to be there while we were just making stuff up," says Camilla. "We're normally very private about that sort of stuff. We'd never play an unfinished song to someone else."

Image copyright Record label / YouTube
Image caption 'Justin doesn't live in a town where there are, like, streets you can walk around,' says Jessica

If the sessions sound idyllic, they weren't without incident.

Vernon's April Base studio is located in a ranch-style house, nestled at the end of a long driveway lined with cherry trees, just outside the city of Eau Claire.

"It's in the middle of nowhere," says Jessica. "You couldn't leave."

"Eventually, everyone goes a bit mental," adds Emily.

"Even going to the supermarket was like: 'Me, me, me! I'll come with you to the supermarket. I want to get out!'" says Jessica.

"Then it's like [whispering conspiratorially]: 'Where are the others? Oh my God, they've gone to Walmart. Do you think they'll come back with cookies?'" says Emily.

"Sometimes you do think: 'Have we lost the plot?'"

The isolation paid off, though. Multi-layered and structurally complex, The Staves' second album - If I Was - is a genuine evolution.

Single Black And White is strident and sonorous; while the Beatlesesque Teeth White carouses around a choppy guitar groove.

Vernon contributes vocals to the seductive Make It Holy; while lead single Blood I Bled blossoms from its lo-fi intro into a glorious, string-drenched coda.

"It's cinematic - like Disney," says Camilla. "And the clouds part and the angels come down and they're all playing the song."

Rock stories

To the relief of their tour drummer Cyrus - who once fell asleep during a lull in the band's set - the album is also much more percussive.

Camilla even broke her first pair of drumsticks while recording Steady, which she had framed and hung on the wall.

Image copyright Record label / YouTube
Image caption Harmonies were recorded in real time, rather than isolating each vocal performance

Steady also features one of the album's more esoteric instruments.

"There's a beat running through it that comes from my necklace," says Jessica.

"I wear it every day and I just tapped it - like that."

Emily picks up the story, assuming the voice of a wizened old rocker, talking to a BBC Four documentary crew.

"Everyone could hear it. And I was like: 'What is that?'

"And she'd been wearing this great thing, you know? Just unconsciously tapping it.

"And that is what you hear on the record.

"'...And the pizza guy was Bob Dylan,'" laughs Camilla, who observes: "It's so hard to talk about these things without sounding like an idiot."

The Staves' easy-going sense of humour is exactly what you'd expect from a tight-knit family, and they're beginning to let it show in their music videos, too.

Image copyright Record label
Image caption Black And White marks is a departure from the band's performance-led videos

For their current single, Black And White, the sisters were pimped and crimped until they resembled the staff of a 1980s TV newsroom.

As the video begins, a female newsreader is informed her co-presenter - who happens to be her husband - is having an affair with the weathergirl; and the drama plays out as the news bulletin is broadcast live.

"There was so much hairspray," says Camilla. "So much."

"They kept changing my hairstyle as the day progressed," adds Jessica, who plays the seductive meteorologist.

"After eight hours, I'd been in the chair four times. And every time they were like, 'I think it should be a bit bigger'. By the end, it was literally a huge crown of hair that was cemented in place."

Camilla adds: "We wanted the video to be a bit kitsch while mirroring the sentiment of the song, which is frustration and a good healthy dose of anger."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Justin Vernon joined the band onstage at the Hackney Empire at the end of their recent tour

But the video could have been very different if the band had got their way.

"We had an idea ages ago that we wanted to do a video based on Catchphrase," laughs Camilla.

"And we're pretty sure we saw Roy Walker in an Irish bar at JFK," Emily adds, enthusiastically. "He was ruddy faced. And he had a bright red nose."

"And he was carrying a big briefcase," Camilla notes. "He looked like he was selling cleaning products.

"We therefore assumed we could afford him to be in the video. We were genuinely going: 'Should we approach him?'"

Sadly, the sisters chickened out of accosting the Irish TV host (or, more likely, his ruddy-faced lookalike) - but the video concept refuses to die.

"I want to state for the record that this is our idea, and it's not an idea that's off the table," says Emily.

"If anyone copies it… I want you to know it is copyrighted and I will hunt you down."

The Staves' album, If I Was, is released on Monday, 23 March on Atlantic Records.

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