Sister trio Emily, Camilla and Jess Stavely-Taylor, collectively known as The Staves, have recently finished a tour supporting Florence and the Machine and released an extended version of their second album, If I Was. Their combination of impeccable harmonies and fantastic songwriting with subtle complexities is earning them an increasingly large fanbase. On the day before a headline UK tour begins, I spoke to Emily about omnichords and why hip-hop is the modern day version of folk music.
Hi, it’s Callum for Impact Magazine, is this a good time?
Yeah, great! How are you doing Callum?
I’m good thanks, how are you?
Yeah, not bad. I’m surrounded by all my clothes, trying to pack for this tour, so you’ll give me a break from the turmoil that is my life.
So, what have you been doing in the gap between supporting Florence and your headline tour?
We’ve been rehearsing for the new tour. We’ve got a couple of new songs, and we’ve got a violin player with us as well, which is exciting. It’s going to be great. What else have we been doing… God, it’s been non-stop! It’s been super busy, but I can’t remember anything that’s been about now.
Are these new songs the ones which were on the extended version of the album, or are they other new ones?
One is just a new song, which has never been heard by man nor beast, and one of them is on the bonus tracks.
So you’ve used the omnichord and harmonium and all that kind of stuff. What next?
I’ve been using different sort of sample pads for a while now, and I’ve just bought an OP1, which is an amazing, tiny little portable synth, which is great. It’s got loads of really cool sounds already on it but it’s really easy to sample things, so that’s been a great toy, which I’m sure will come in really handy for songwriting, as well as using it on stage, so that’s my new thing at the moment.
Do you see your music going more electronic in the future then?
I don’t really know, it kind of depends on the songs. Certain songs can handle that, and can benefit from that sort of sound, some songs are more suited to a garage rock sort of sound, and then more acoustic, sort of folky stuff. It all depends on the kind of stuff we start writing, but we certainly would be really open to that kind of things. We has synths, there was the Prophet on pretty much every song on the record, and then for the Blood I Bled EP a while ago, we produced that and we used sampled drums and things like that, I think we’re really interested in that sort of sound.
“At one point it was like ‘is this too Twin Peaks?’ and we kind of pulled it back…”
Which song would you say you’re closest to on each album?
The first album… I think ‘Eagle Song.’
That’s my favourite!
That’s my favourite too! It was written at a really special time, we’d just finished a tour in America where we went from Austin to Boston in these campervans, and right at the end we were in Woodstock, and we were all round this lake, and this eagle, was like the biggest thing I’ve ever seen, flew above us, and everyone stopped what they were doing. It was the most beautiful thing, and… I don’t know, a moment of true beauty, and we ended up writing that song around that and our whole experience of America thus far. It always makes me smile when we play that, and I really like songs that change rhythms and time signature as well.
Yes, I was going to ask about that!
Yeah, I love it, it starts off a waltz.
Then goes to 7/8 or something?
Yeah, that’s it. I like songs that have different sections in them. And from the second album I’m torn between ‘Steady’, which is a song of three parts really, which I really like, but I think ‘Damn It All’ is the one that I just love.
With all the tension and everything at the end of that.
Yeah, we were watching a lot of Twin Peaks at the time of recording that, and I think the first half is definitely an ode to David Lynch, sonically. At one point it was like ‘is this too Twin Peaks?’ and we kind of pulled it back. It was just a kind of improvisation, I think Jess’s vocals are just what was on the demo, she was just singing with no plan of what she was going to sing, and it just kind of came out. And the second half of it, I love that the tension grows. There’s no drums on the track at all, but it feels like there is, we don’t even sing loudly or anything, but it’s just this repetitive kind of… I don’t know, I love it. And when the horns come in it just… It makes me cry.
Yeah, I was going to ask you about the rhythms. Lots of people you might be compared to stick with 4/4 and simple rhythms and stuff, but there’s lots of times when there’s really interesting stuff going on in your work. What would you say the influence in that is?
Gosh, I don’t know. A part of it is just what feels fun and interesting. I’m not really sure where it comes from, I don’t think we’ve ever sat down and said ‘Oh, I love this time signature, let’s write a song like that’. But sometimes changing the rhythm really frees you up and opens up a different part of the song. If you hit a stumbling block in the writing process, it can be a tool to set you free to create the rest of it. Certainly with ‘No Me, No You, No More’, we started writing it, it was kind of guitar based, and we started putting banjo on it, and it became a country sort of jam… *acapellas a countryish version of the song*
I can’t imagine that.
I know, it’s really weird. We dismissed the song, really, because we were like ‘the heart, the lyrics aren’t coming through at all’, it’s like its two separate things. And then I think it was on the last day of recording, Justin said ‘just don’t play anything, we’ll just make a loop of your vocals (I think it was Millie’s), and just sing it, however you feel it needs to be sung, and just feel it and don’t tap your feet or think of any time at all’. And by doing that, it allowed the song to through and take shape, so sometimes it’s a vehicle.
I really love that song, how minimal it is.
Aw, thank you.
So, do you ever disagree when you’re writing songs?
Oh yeah, all the time! All the time. I think it’s what makes the songs stronger. We’ll always basically be pulling in the same direction, but there’ll be someone who thinks the chorus shouldn’t be repeated, or the sound is too cheesy, or no it’s cool, it’s vintage… Yeah, we disagree a lot, but I think it’s what helps us get better, and we push each other to reach further.
How was the Mitchelstown Caves gig? I’ve seen videos of it, and it looked so interesting.
Oh God, yeah! Yeah, that was mental. I mean, it was great fun, but I had no idea that caves were so humid. They’ve got 99% humidity or something insane down there. So it’s really weird, which makes sense because they’re damp and stuff, but I’d never thought about it before. So the instruments kept going out of tune and stuff, the wood changing shape and swelling, so that was a hurdle. But it was great! It’s wicked, I’d like to do a tour of caves. Great acoustics as well. I wouldn’t want to have a drum kit down there, but great for vocals.
Leading on from that, if you could play anywhere in the world, where would it be?
Oh man… I think there would be something really exciting about playing high up. I remember seeing The Beatles on the rooftop sort of thing, just shouting your music out with no boundaries. I’d love to play on top of a mountain or something like that. Maybe up in the Lake District, play on the top of Helvellyn.
That reminds me of a video you did of Eagle Song, in Cornwall was it?
Oh, yes! That was nice, just shouting whatever your message into the sea and your surroundings.
Do you have any stories from the Florence tour?
It feels like a lifetime ago now, it was only three weeks ago… Probably, but I don’t know if they’re publishable. My mind’s gone completely blank. There was a dead mouse in our dressing room, that’s about it.
As in, not Deadmau5 the musician, an actual dead mouse?
Seriously dead, literal mouse.
“I’d love to play on top of a mountain”
Is there anything you listen to that people would find surprising.
Probably.. I’ve been quite into the Kendrick Lamar album.
I think it’s incredible. Lyrically, the more time you give it, the more you get out of it. People talk about folk music a lot, and we were never brought up on folk music at all. But for my money, hip hop and rapping is modern folk music. It’s the voice of the underdog, and the people, and it’s political, and it’s intense, and it’s uncomfortable, and it makes you think, and it’s hilarious… The good stuff that is, not all of the stuff. Today I’m mainly listening to this John Wizards album, which is just insane music that makes you kind of do silly dances, it’s mental. I don’t know anything about this guy or where he’s from, or anything, but this record is amazing.
What’s the album called?
It just says John Wizards, and that’s it. It’s a white record sleeve, with a black and white weird picture on the front. It’s great, it’s really cool. The songs are called, like, ‘Tek Lek Schrempf’, ‘Lusaka By Night’, ‘Limpop’, ‘Muizenberg’. Weird stuff. I feel so sorry whoever has to type this up now.
I’ve got a friend who is a singer, who is wondering if you thought about releasing sheet music at any point.
I’ve never thought about that! I don’t think any of us can read music, so we’d have to get someone to do it for us. I don’t know, is there a market for that kind of stuff?
Well, there’s at least one person.
Yeah, why not!
Do you prefer the bigger gigs like the Florence tour, or the more intimate ones?
That’s a tough one, because I really love playing big venues. It’s so exciting, and there’s something about those cavernous spaces, and the audience is a good 20 feet away from you, so it’s easier to create the world of the music and fully submerge yourself within that, and everything is bigger, grander and more epic. But I have to say that gigs for your own crowd, who really care, you can’t do better than that, wherever it is. If that’s somewhere massive then great, but sometimes the smaller ones where you can see everyone’s eyeballs are the funniest and the best. You’re all really in the experience together, so I’ve kind of got one foot in each camp.
“But I have to say that gigs for your own crowd, who really care, you can’t do better than that, wherever it is”
Yeah, the first time I saw you was in the Bodega a few years ago, quite a small venue, and that was so special.
Oh wow, yeah, I remember that one! Yeah, I think it’s really nice to play those places. I always feel for the X-Factor people, who go straight to playing Wembley. You missed all of that? You don’t know how to connect with an audience, or let them in to your world. I think they’ve missed all the experiences that it’s all about, and gone straight to the bullshit.
Do your instruments have names?
No. Well, Millie used to have a guitar which was called Sweet Baby James, but I think that’s it. Fuck, we should get names for them! Yeah, I’m definitely going to start naming things.
Well, I might start calling the omnichord The Little Bastard. The mental little fiend. It forms weird circuits with me when I play it, sometimes it gives me electric shocks and things, so I might give it a really horrible name.
What’s your favourite book?
Ooh, my favourite book! My favourite book is called The Last Unicorn, by Peter S Beagle. It’s also a film, from the 60s I think. I love it, it’s so beautiful. It’s about unicorns, which is great, and love, and transformation, and it’s got wizards and stuff in it, it’s really cool.
Last question then: what is going to happen in the future?
Well, I wish I knew, that’s the million dollar question. Who knows? It’s a weird world and certainly a weird industry. None of us know how much time we’ve got, and we’re lucky not having to get other jobs for this long, so long may it continue. We’re certainly planning on making more music, and I imagine we’ll be touring for as long as people will come and see us.
Brilliant, that suits me! Well, thank you very much!
Thank you Callum, that was really nice.
Emily was speaking to Callum Martin – Moore
Image: Rory Grundy