Matters of Stave Concern: The Staves interview

Justin Vernon from Bon Iver guaranteed The Staves “something good” would come from recording in his Wisconsin studio. Jessica Staveley-Taylor tells Craig Fitzpatrick what happened next...

Just in the door and sitting down with a cuppa after a flight home from Hamburg (how very Beatlesesque), Jessica Staveley-Taylor has missed the solar eclipse. No matter, the clouds have ensured that so has the rest of the Hiberno-British Isles. “Classic,” she laughs.

Classic indeed. Putting that damp squib to one side, there’s another major event taking place – The Staves’ second album has landed in Ireland. Jessica, who joins her younger sister Camila and older sister Emily in the band, somehow manages to sound genuine when expressing how excited she is that we’ve got it first. “We’ve a special place in our hearts for Ireland.”

This might ring hollow, if it weren’t for the fact that they gig here so often they’re often mistaken for natives.

“We have had some people think we’re Irish,” nods Jessica. “We’re not The Corrs, man, we’re from Watford! But I take it as a compliment because Irish music is amazing.”

Proud of their Watford roots, there are hints of pastoral English trad in their sound, though it mostly takes its cues from Americana. So the US has been an inspiration and, most recently, a sanctuary. Ready post-touring for the sequel to 2012 debut Dead & Born & Grown, they took Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon up on an offer and high-tailed it to Wisconsin to create.

“We’d been touring with Bon Iver and Justin had said ‘whenever you have any spare time, come out to the studio, hang out, see what happens and I guarantee something good will come out of it.’ So we went on the fly. We didn’t tell anyone we were going because we didn’t want anyone to have any expectations. We didn’t have any expectations, 'cause we didn’t really know what we were gong to do.”

Three young English musicians dealing with extremely snowy conditions, holed up in a place, April Base, named after an Air Force compound in The X Files and owned by a musician with a penchant for dwelling in the wilderness... it sounds like the start of a naff horror film.

“There were times when it really did feel like that. They’ve got the box-set of Twin Peaks there in the studio and at nighttime when we’d finished a long day in the studio, we’d all go sit and watch. Because the house is really remote, at night it’s pitch-black outside. And there were definitely a few moments where it was like, ‘I don’t want to turn the light off when I go to sleep. I’m really scared.’”

Given the story behind Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago, you’d assume Justin Vernon is essentially Bear Grylls with a guitar.

“There’s a bit of a myth around him. I think he recorded his first album in a cabin, but he lives in an actual house now. So that’s where we were! It’s made of bricks!”

With the three sisters writing and Vernon taking care of production and arranging duties, Jessica says the group drew on the atmosphere of April Base to craft a confident record that finally captures a ‘Staves sound’ that’s greater than the sum of its folky parts.

“It was great to be in a place where a lot of good music has already happened because I feel like it leaves a residue, somehow, in the air. Good vibes that you can tap into. Justin’s musical ability and his ear for a good part on a song or an instrument is just incredible. He’s definitely an encouraging and calming presence. It sounds cheesy but there were times when I think he almost believed in us more than we did in ourselves.”

Talking about self-belief, incredibly they failed to wrangle any good Kanye West stories out of him.

“I think he may be a bit protective of people he works with,” Jessica diplomatically offers. “And you probably have to sign a contract if you work with Kanye West!”

Fair enough, they had their own work to do, with If I Was representing the fruits of their labour.

“It feels a bit more empowered, a bit bolder, than the first. Maybe a little more confident. I think we’ve stepped up to the microphone a bit more this time round, if that makes sense.”

The restless energy of the road and the existential quandaries that arise when it compromises and complicates your personal life inform the record. Not that it’s your typical ‘touring is awful’ sophomore effort. Highlights like ‘The Shining’ deal with it in inventive ways and the songs are stronger sonically and melodically this time, sweetening the pill.

“Being slightly displaced and feeling like you don’t quite know where you belong because your reality is always changing, cos you don’t have one place and one base – that’s a really thrilling thing. Exciting and inspiring. But at the same time it can be frustrating. You can feel lonely and isolated.”

And now they get to do it all again...

“You get to moan about it in songs but we wouldn’t be doing it if it was actually that hard,” admits Jessica. “It’s a privilege to be able to do it, really. I feel incredibly lucky that people want to come out to shows and hear us screaming away on stage about our problems!”

This story appears in the Hot Press Longitude Special with Hozier on the cover. To purchase your copy, order online direct from
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