The Staves: ‘They wanted us to be these sad, frail girls with long wavy hair’
The Staves: ‘They wanted us to be these sad, frail girls with long wavy hair’
n the third track of The Staves’ new album Good Woman, youngest member Camilla produces a manic yawp of a noise with a guitar that sounds like latex on metal. It’s loud and brash and certainly not something you’d expect of the three sisters who are best known for their soothing acoustic ditties and transportative three-part harmonies. “I f***ing love it,” Jessica, the middle Stave, grins. She straightens her arms out beyond the screen. “It’s nice to be able to stretch out and feel the limits of where you can go with a song.”
Together, they are a riot: they put on funny voices (posh accents, cockney impersonations, California surfer dude drawls) and talk with their hands. And they talk a lot, although shockingly never over one another. Instead, they throw the conversation back and forth in a seamless rally, like watching three-person tennis.
Being in-sync has always been their calling card. Since their 2012 debut album Dead & Born & Grown, buzz around The Staves has been centred on the trio’s ability to braid their silken voices into one crystalline harmony. On Good Woman, that braid frays at the edges. Their sound – which is so pretty at times that it can feel prim – comes undone. It also feels reminiscent of who the sisters are in reality. “Life’s too short to f*** about,” Jessica says. “We’ve gotten older and we’ve reached a point where we want to say how we feel and –”
“We aren’t afraid to say it,” Camilla concludes.
Their message is clear – and loud. The making of the album’s eponymous track saw the women scream the lyrics “I’m a good woman” over and over, louder and louder in a barn. Camilla wrote the song when she was living in the States. Her sisters had flown home to the UK and she was in a bad relationship. “I’d got to a point where I was being made to feel like I wasn’t enough,” she recalls. “I was being told all these things that I should be doing to be considered a ‘good woman’: that I should carry my own s*** and their s*** and not complain.”
She realised that the feeling was familiar, something that she – and women in general – have been told their entire lives: “That we’re the caregivers for f***ing everyone, as well as ourselves.” Jessica and Emily nod in unison. “It’s about coming to the conclusion that I’m a good woman because I say I am,” she declares.
It’s a hard-won attitude though. The Staves have been writing music since Camilla was a young teen, but still the band has had to face the trials and tribulations of being so-called “women in music”. The critical success of their second album If I Was – which was produced together with fellow musician and good pal Justin Vernon (aka Bon Iver) while they were living in his Minnesota cabin – was soured by music journalists who would repeatedly ask if Vernon had co-written the songs. He hadn’t. “On one hand, they might’ve been asking an innocent question,” Jessica rationalises with a frown, “but on the other hand, they’re attributing a woman’s achievement down to a man.” It happens a lot, Emily says. The trio lets out a collective groan, harmonising across the little digital boxes they each occupy on my screen: “Goddddd.”
“It’s a good example of: Is that sexism? I don’t know,” Emily says with a shrug. The eldest Stave is the quietest, choosing moments to speak only when she feels particularly impassioned – or when she has a cracking joke to say. “You can’t prove it, but you get this nagging feeling that it probably wouldn’t be asked if we were men.” It’s a similar sentiment to that of HAIM’s Women In Music album last year – sick of being asked the wrong questions, women musicians are demanding the respect that’s due.
Speaking about the casual sexism they continue to encounter, The Staves sound exasperated. There are feelings of that on the new record too, as if the three women have grown tired of biting their tongues and bending to fit boxes prescribed to them by people who are not them. One is the folk box. “The F word,” jokes Camilla, before quickly clarifying: “Not that that realm is in any way negative.”
“We never listened to folk music,” Jessica says. “Anyone who knows us would never think of us in that way.” They’re right, there is a distinct way that people think about The Staves: silken hair, soft skin, dreamy voices, prairie dresses. The public perception around the band has been nothing short of myth building. “They wanted us to be these sad, frail girls with long wavy hair,” says Camilla, the only sister with locks long enough to fit the bill. Photoshoot moodboards and video treatments would reference The Virgin Suicides ad nauseam; Sofia Coppola’s cult film about the so sad, so pretty Lisbon sisters is a cultural touchstone for depictions of girlish sisterhood. Meanwhile, Camilla played her first gig aged 14 with a pint in her hand the whole time. “We’re sisters and we harmonise, I think it was easy to make assumptions and people stuck to them regardless of what they heard. They’d already made up their mind on who we are.”
Minds can be changed, though, and Good Woman might do the trick. Together with Grammy-winning producer John Congleton (who has worked with Phoebe Bridgers, Angel Olsen and the band’s favourite Sharon Van Etten), the album dips a toe into the pool of production possibilities, or “the wizpottery of the studio”, as Emily calls it, to produce a sound that is “not a typical Stave song – whatever that may be”.
The new album took more than three years to create – an extended period that a couple of “choice arseholes” took to mean that The Staves had lost their shine. But the truth is that they were going through a lot: in summer 2018, the sisters unexpectedly lost their mum just two weeks after the death of their grandmother. Within a month, Camilla had broken up with her long-term partner (the same one she scolds on that third track, called “Careful, Kid”) and moved back home to England. The trio initially carried on trying to make music because they had thought “that’s what our mum would have wanted” but then decided to set the tools down for what ended up being a couple of years. Eventually recording the album was a recovery process of its own; the songs spilled out mostly fully formed. “When that happens, I think that’s a sign that there was really some stuff that needed to come out,” Camilla says.
The transition back into music wasn’t without difficulty, though. “If you’re sitting with a group of songs for too long, you can lose sight of what anything is. Like s***, is this even good?” Camilla says. Such crises in confidence are universal but as Jessica points out, they seem to hit deeper in female artists. “You’re often apologising for occupying space. Other musicians who are dudes have this feeling of ‘I deserve to be here’,” she explains. “I don’t think women naturally take that approach.”
Good Woman is all about switching gears. Historically, the band have appeared on their album art only as blurry silhouettes or not at all, but on this latest record they are impossible to miss. Three heads stacked haphazardly on top of one another; three simpatico faces looking out. They are keen to take up more space this time.
They aren’t the same person, they assure me, but The Staves seem as close to one entity as three people can be. Over lockdown, the women have been chatting on the phone non-stop, standard procedure with your best friends (“I’m embarrassed to call them that because it’s so…” Emily puts a finger down her throat and feigns a violent gag). She goes on to gush about the Staveley-Taylor sisterhood, until Jessica – in classic middle-sibling fashion – interrupts: “Well, they say familiarity breeds contempt.”
“Amen,” says Camilla, laughing. “Can you end the article with that?”
And I will, if only to dial up my own sisters whom I’ve very suddenly begun to miss.