My preconceptions about The Staves, three fine-featured, willowy sisters who made one of the most beautiful and delicate albums of 2012, are shattered the moment I walk into the room to an argument about biscuits.
“They’re not even Taste the Difference!” wails Emily Staveley-Taylor, pointing at a sorry-looking punnet of cookies. The eldest Stave, 31, hasn’t turned diva yet, though. She’s a joker, as are Jessica, 27, and Camilla, 25, who’d rather use Twitter to decide the name for a squirrel that visits their home in Watford (christened “Mrs Gwendolyn Erasmus Nutbucket-Stashdash” last week) than spend hours in analysis of their sensitive lyrics and lustrous harmonies.
I’m far from the first to enjoy their entertaining company. Tom Jones, Mumford & Sons and Bon Iver have recorded and played gigs with the trio. Before they had a record deal of their own, they sang as part of Jones’s backing band when he was making towering gospel music on his 2010 Praise & Blame album. “He is awesome, a very nice guy and a bloody great singer, still,” says Emily. Then last year they headlined Glastonbury (kind of) when they sang With a Little Help From My Friends during Mumford & Sons’ closing set, alongside The Vaccines, Vampire Weekend and First Aid Kit. “Being at Glastonbury was a monumental high. We used to sing that song in the pub in Watford with a Joe Cocker tribute act,” Emily adds.
Apart from a brief move for Jessica to Shepherd’s Bush (“Spending money I didn’t really have on a place I was never in”), the sisters are Watford through and through. Jessica and Milly currently live with their mum, while Emily is nearby. They’ve been there for most of this year but are now itching to tour again and play songs from a new EP, The Blood I Bled, out next week (on Atlantic), and a second album due early next year.
They recorded their new music in a location rather different from Watford: the snowy wild outskirts of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, where Justin Vernon from Bon Iver lives. “Oh, yah!” they say, mimicking the area’s Fargo-style accent.
The influential indie musician, who they supported at Wembley Arena in 2012 and on several tours, after vague intentions at first has ended up as the official producer of their new album. “His studio is in the middle of nowhere and pretty magical really,” says Jessica. “They have really cold winters, a lot of snow and trees. He’s stayed in his home town, which is kind of the equivalent of us. It’s a wild, romantic version of Watford.”
Vernon’s hands-off approach worked a treat for the band as they trod that tricky line between wanting to move forwards and not wanting to lose their initial magic. “It was this huge blank canvas,” says Emily. “We could try anything. Trying it at three in the morning, getting shit-faced and then trying it, trying it in the complete dark. He just went, ‘Yep, yep, yep,’ and made it happen.”
The results are bliss. Few sets of voices sound so at home together, and though there are more noticeable flirtations with electric guitar this time around and the drums in particular sound more forceful, a pastoral acoustic sound still dominates. “We didn’t want to set too many rules. If you second-guess yourself too much you end up making nothing that means anything,” says Camilla.
I receive a collective “Ahhhh” for revealing that their first album, Dead & Born & Grown, is still on constantly in my house almost two years since its release. Its gentle, folky atmospheres are perfect for a quiet night, even if there is the odd spikier moment. “I apologise for dropping the F-bomb in front of your children,” says Emily of the indelicate lyrics of the otherwise lovely Pay Us No Mind.
It’s obvious that they started working with Vernon because they enjoy each other’s company, rather than looking for a big name to boost their profile. “He just said, ‘Come, hang out and I’m sure we’ll make some music’,” says Camilla. “It was nice not to have any pressure.”
Even so, pretty faces have apparently blinded some people to the sisters’ songwriting abilities. “People have said, ‘So, you co-wrote the album with Justin…’ Er, no, but thanks for assuming that,” Camilla adds.
“He is a songwriter so it’s not that far-fetched an idea, but that kind of thing has happened throughout our career,” says Jessica. “If we were a dude band they just wouldn’t ask.”
Though he hasn’t helped with the words, the inspiration of long periods in Vernon’s country, on tour and recording, have definitely coloured the lyrics — that couldn’t be more obvious on their sleepy ballad, America, on the new EP. Life changed for them on the bus, rumbling over that vast land with Wichita Lineman on repeat. “Having been on the road for however long, it kind of makes sense that relationships change, whatever they are,” says Jessica. “It’s a struggle to retain normality when you don’t actually have structure in your life. It is what it is.”
Emily recalls “six-hour stretches of just staring out of the window thinking about that one phone call you’ve just had. There’s a lot of time for contemplation. Thinking about your individual identities within a group. We’re sisters, we’re family, but we’re different people.”
Different people who can’t wait to be crammed together again in tour buses and dressing rooms, and making those incredible harmonies on stage. “Screw you, Watford,” says Emily. “See you at Christmas.”