It belatedly occurs to me, as I sit down with the three members of Vaults in a swanky Soho members’ club, that we should have done this interview on a trampoline. As the band who sing Randy Crawford’s One Day I’ll Fly Away while various animals bounce in a snowy garden in this year’s John Lewis Christmas advert, they’re going to have to accept that they’ll be closely linked with tumbling fox cubs and an over-exuberant boxer dog for the forseeable future.
They’re up for the challenge. “When John Lewis first approached us, we already loved the song, so that was the first step,” says multi-instrumentalist and chief songwriter Ben Vella, 36. “Then we loved the whole experience of recording it. It’s something we’re proud of, so whatever comes out of it, we can stand by it.”
For bands, especially new ones, doing an advert no longer has the stink of the sellout that it did once. “I think people are a bit more wise now to how difficult it is to break a band. I hope people don’t think badly of us for giving it a go,” says synth man Barney Freeman, 36, who first started making music with Vella while they were both at university in London, long before Vaults formed in 2013. However, doing a big ad such as John Lewis, which over years of seasonal tearjerkers has managed to become as essential a part of the Christmas run-up as mince pies appearing on supermarket shelves and Noddy Holder screeching like the first cuckoo of spring, risks overshadowing your other work. Tom Odell’s version of The Beatles’ Real Love in 2014 (soundtracking the boy with the pet penguin) remains his highest charting single, while Lily Allen’s cute take on Keane’s Somewhere Only We Know the Christmas before (the cartoon bear and hare) far outperformed her comeback single proper, Hard Out Here, released around the same time.
As a less well known band, Vaults might be more grateful for the profile boost. Getting a song on a big ad is their final tick on the list of everything a group has to do to get noticed these days, along with providing music for TV shows (Attenborough and the Giant Dinosaur on BBC One, Channel 4’s Glue) getting on a major movie soundtrack (their song One Last Night was in Fifty Shades of Grey) and guesting on a dance track (this summer’s Gorgon City single All Four Walls).
“There’s a lot less money in the industry now, with streaming and so on,” says singer Blythe Pepino, 30. “It makes it a lot harder to get anywhere. But doing this ad was actually really fun.” She got all the glory on this one (“It’s my poor man’s Shirley Bassey moment.”) while the men of the band were somewhat overshadowed by the 66-piece orchestra and 70-strong choir who crammed into Abbey Road Studios. Vella says he played the percussion chimes you hear at the beginning, while Freeman was given a cymbal.
Usually, their music is a lighter, sleeker beast, mixing strings with synths and electronic percussion plus Pepino’s powerful, dramatic voice. If you’re missing London Grammar, they’ve got a similar combination of soulful singer and classy modern backdrop.
Crucially, they’re ready to capitalise on their ad appearance with an impressive debut album coming next week and a UK tour newly announced for February. That wasn’t the case the last time they were gaining prominence, sitting beside Ellie Goulding, Beyonce and The Weeknd on the Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack in February last year. Pepino grabbed attention at the premiere, turning up to the Odeon Leicester Square in a see-through dress and black PVC underwear, so nobody really noticed the flat cap that Vella was wearing. He was disguising his hair loss while being treated for testicular cancer.
“It slowed us down for about a year. I was in treatment for six months, and then obviously when that finishes you can’t just leap onto a stage straight away. It just knocks the stuffing out of you,” he says. “It was bad but it’s very treatable now. The survival rate is about 99 per cent, so if you’re gonna get cancer, it’s the one you want! So I wasn’t that worried. It was more frustrating than anything because we had to take the foot off the gas.”
It wasn’t all negative though. “People seem to have an idea that taking a longer time to do something is bad, but actually that pause allowed us to grow a bit, personaly and as a group,” says Pepino. And Vella made a reassuring discovery: “I actually have quite a nice-shaped head. Some people have peanut heads, don’t they, but mine is very normal looking.”
When they were ready to step back into the public eye earlier this year, Pepino bravely turned the spotlight on herself. Google her name and the first thing that comes up is an article in the Independent about her polyamorous lifestyle – simultaneous relationships with her boyfriend, her girlfriend and another couple. “It would be very disingenuous if I said it wasn’t a lot of work,” said the boyfriend. “But it’s so worth it.” Pepino insists that she doesn’t regret talking about her private life (“I was quite happy to do it because I’d spent a lot of time trying to vocalise that it isn’t this terrible thing, so it was a good opportunity to do that on a wider scale.”) but she certainly isn’t keen on the subject today. I make one ill-advised wisecrack about Mormons and that’s the end of that. “I’ve stopped talking about it now. People don’t really want to know about it.”
She’d rather, quite rightly, talk about the work she did earlier this year with a group called The Brighton Shelter Build Project. In January she travelled with them to Calais to help erect 13 flat-pack shelters, housing up to six people each, in the “Jungle” refugee camp there. She also helps a Hackney charity called Bread & Roses, which supports refugee women who want to work. She was, of course, upset by the clearing of the camp a month ago. “I spent a lot of time in tears around the time they were torn down. It’s a travesty, basically. I feel very ashamed of a lot of the rhetoric and how the politicians of this country seem to be. I think it’s appalling the way that we’ve treated these people who are fleeing war.”
For the forseeable future, however, she’ll have less time for good deeds. With the imminent album, tour and a key position in the nation’s festive build-up, Vaults now have all their ducks in a row (not to mention foxes, badgers, squirrels, hedgehogs and bulldogs) and are ready to fly themselves.
Feb 9, Islington Assembly Hall, N1 (020 7527 8900, islington.gov.uk/assemblyhall)
Caught in Still Life is released on Dec 2 on Virgin EMI