- 05 Feb 21
Life, death, heartache and joy – it’s been a tumultuous few years for all-sister folk trio The Staves. But they’ve triumphed in adversity and returned with their finest album to date... Portrait: Sequoia Ziff
Alan Partridge jokes were not what Hot Press expected when sitting down for a Zoom chat with two thirds of all-sister folk-pop trio The Staves. But Jessica and Camilla Staveley-Taylor are in an irreverent and talkative mood as they beam in from their respective living rooms. The Partridge-banter is soon flowing like warm pints of Directors Bitter.
“I’ve bounced back! We’ve bounced back! Like Alan Partridge,” says baby-of-the-family Camilla doing her finest “ah-ha!” impersonation. “It’s been a long time.”
In the five years since the Staveley-Taylors’s previous studio record, they’ve witnessed the death of a parent, the birth of a baby (to eldest sibling Emily), the ending of a long-term relationship (Camilla), and a brief relocation to the United States (all three). That’s a lot of living in a comparatively brief period and the experiences are distilled into perhaps their finest LP yet in Good Woman.
“We moved over to America just after Brexit happened,” says Camilla (or Milly). “It was 2016. Trump got elected at the end of the year. It was a weird time to go.”
Friends – American friends especially –were shocked that they would chose to live in the American Midwest. But the Staveley-Taylors have always been drawn to comparatively out-of-the-way places. Going to New York and LA would have been too obvious.
Minneapolis was close, too, to Wisconsin-based Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, with whom they had collaborated. So they knew the region. And, being geographically central, it was perfect for touring. It was also, of course, the fulcrum for the Black Lives Matters protests last summer following the killing there of George Floyd. The sisters, back in Britain by then, were not at all surprised by what transpired over the summer.
“Black Lives Matters protests were already happening,” says Camilla. “People were being shot around where we were living in Minneapolis. It’s no surprise to me. The problem hadn’t gone away and then it flared up again. Around the same time, the Women’s Marches were happening. The #MeToo movement was taking off. There was a lot going on. Minneapolis… I guess it could have happened anywhere [in the USA].”
The sisters grew up singing together in Watford. Friends told them they were good enough to do it for a living. Their first official gig was an open mic at their local pub, Horns. It was a triumph and after a few more they found themselves guesting on a Tom Jones record. In 2012, their debut record Dead & Born & Grown was released – produced by the father-and-son duo of Glyn and Ethan Johns (producers of Led Zeppelin and Kings of Leon respectively).
There was a bit of hype early on and they were (inaccurately) lumped in with the likes of Laura Marling and Mumford and Sons. Yet as the years ebbed by and the gap between LPs grew, so they began to experience doubt.
“We’d been away from it so long. It’s that thing – once you stop, you lose momentum,” says Jessica. “You lose your flow. It ends up being quite a long time. And then with our mum – it was a sudden thing that shook us to our core. It took the wind out of our sails. More time was lost after that point. And then before you know - fuck... five years are gone.”
Good Woman is a triumphant reminder – to The Staves and to the rest of us – of their talent. And it brings something new to their homespun sound. There are growling guitars, vocals that progress from a whisper and a shriek. They went through a lot – and you can hear it on an album that triumphantly contains multitudes.
“It feels very necessary and therapeutic to close that chapter,” says Camilla of the life events that went into the LP. “Close it and purge a little bit.”
One of the influences on Good Woman was a period of upheaval for Camilla. A long-term relationship was coming to an end. The songs she was writing for The Staves at that time – several of which are on the new record – saw her wrestling with her perception of who she was and how being in a couple had eroded her sense of self.
“Relationships are weird anyway,” she says. “They force you to hold a bit of a mirror up to yourself. I’d been in this particular relationship quite a while. I’d got so dug into it – was so devoted to this person, I lost a bit of myself. And I guess I started to think, or was made feel, not good enough. I found myself viewing myself through that person’s eyes and that person’s gaze.
“Suddenly you’re using that as a gauge of what’s good or not. You lose your way a little bit. After the relationship ended, it was strange to look back at songs you had written when you were still in that situation and view them with fresh eyes. And you think, ‘fucking hell – what were you doing... run away you idiot!’”
The other huge blow was the sudden death in 2018 of the sisters’ mother. One of the tracks on the new LP, ‘Sparks’, is inspired by her – though they are anxious to point out Good Woman isn’t explicitly about her passing. Maybe one day they will be able to put those feelings in song. For now, it’s too raw.
“It’s so strange, with bereavement,” says Jessica. “It can affect you in ways you never thought it could. You can feel very unanchored – as if you’re just floating around in a dream. Kind of like drifting like a zombie. But it also shines a light on a lot of positive things. It’s hard to talk about it without sounding cheesy but there was this sea of love that we had around us – loads of people we love coming out of the woodwork, which we didn’t expect.”
• Good Woman is out today.