WHRB Sits Down With the Staves

In March 2017, WHRB DJ Alasdair MacKenzie chatted with Jessica, Emily, and Camilla Staveley-Taylor, the three singer-songwriter sisters who comprise The Staves. They discussed the Staves’ songwriting and recording processes, the artists who have influenced them, and several specific songs of theirs, shortly before they took the stage at the Sinclair in Cambridge, MA.

Alasdair MacKenzie: In “Let Me Down,” on the second album [If I Was, released in 2015], in the chorus, there’s a melody (sings) “da da da, da-da-da-da da da.” It’s Lydian, right?

Jessica Staveley-Taylor: Apparently so. I didn’t know that at the time, so I wasn’t thinking, “ooh, I’m gonna go to the Lydian,” but yeah. My musician friends tell me that’s what it is.

AM: So where does that [exploration of unusual musical modes like the Lydian mode] come from, if it’s not from training? Are you messing around until you find something that sounds cool? Or where do the creative moments like that come from for you?

JS-T: I don’t really know where things come from. It’s very rare that I will visualize something and then try and execute it; it’s usually like I discover it. With that one, it was in the guitar tuning that I was playing, and I was trying different chords out in that tuning, an open tuning.

AM: What tuning was it, if you don’t mind giving away a secret?

JS-T: It is an industry secret.

AM: I know some people guard them [their tunings and other facts about how they play their songs]. I’ve heard Bob Dylan wouldn’t even tell the people playing on his session what tuning he was playing in.

Camilla Staveley-Taylor: Whoa. That’s intense.

JS-T: A lot of our songs are in open D. That song in particular, the melody is pretty much played in the guitar line, so it was a guitar part first, and then I felt like it was a nice line to sing, so it became that line [the vocal melody of the song].

AM: You’re talking as if it was a mostly--at least for that song--solitary process for you [Jessica]. Do you have a three-person collaborative writing process, or do individuals write different songs, or is there one person who writes all of them, or how does that go?

CS-T: It really varies. Sometimes, one of us will come up with the bulk of the song and then bring it to the table, and we’ll finish it, or sometimes there’s a seed of an idea that one person has, and we try and finish it all together. But that one [“Let Me Down”] was Jess’s one, and we just tweaked some arrangements and lyrics and things like that.

AM: So when one person is the primary author of a song, it’s still a democratic arranging process? Everybody gets a say?

JS-T: Yeah.

CS-T: Yeah, for sure.

Emily Stavely-Taylor: Yeah. It’s generally the arrangements that make us take collective ownership of a song.

AM: When you’re doing other musical stuff that isn’t writing or arranging--production decisions, or arrangement decisions outside the three of you singing--does that tend to be led by the one who wrote the song, or is it democratic, or does it move around?

JS-T: Again, I’d say it probably varies. Usually, the person who wrote the song tends to have a lot of production ideas that come when the song is being written. I know, personally, that when I’m writing a song, often I’m hearing other stuff happening as I’m writing it. So often, in the studio, I would give my ideas out first of how I think I’m hearing it, and usually we agree with each other--“yeah, yeah, cool, that’s a great path, let’s go down that together”--but occasionally, someone else is like, “no, I think this,” and it’s like, “actually, yes, that’s great.” Or sometimes, it’s like, “I don’t know what the hell to do with this song. I think it’s a really cool song, but how do we…”

AM: What’s a song where you’ve had that happen?

JS-T: I’m trying to think. Probably a song that hasn’t made it on a record (laughs).

CS-T: “Make It Holy” [also from If I Was] was one of those, ‘cause we wrote it--well, Jess came up with it--and we arranged it together, and in the studio, we almost wanted it to sound like an old folk song.

JS-T: I think of it as a merry-go-round melody; it’s a very repetitive kind of melody. When we were arranging it to sing together, the girls [Camilla and Emily] were doing those echoes, a bit like a waterfall, but that one took a while to end up how it did.

CS-T: You had to find out how it should be, because when something is so cyclical and repetitive, you have to pay so much attention to dynamics and making sure it’s not just a plateau for the whole thing. So yeah, it took us a while to work out how to do it, but I think having the Prophet on it and having those drums on it really flipped it. But yeah, it took a while.

AM: What was the first thing you said? Having the Prophet on it? That’s a synthesizer, right?

CS-T: Synth, yeah.

JS-T: Not “the Prophet,” as in Muhammad.

AM: I want him on one of my songs. That’d sound cool.

CS-T: Yeah, exactly: “featuring Prophet Muhammad.”

ES-T: Can’t really use that joke. Not on stage, anyway.

AM: Probably a good call. You’re talking about this all [the arranging and recording process] like it’s pretty self-contained [within the band], so where does Glyn Johns [produced The Staves’ 2011 debut album, Dead & Born & Grown, veteran producer whose credits include the Eagles, the Rolling Stones, and the Who] or Justin Vernon [produced If I Was, singer-songwriter-producer of Bon Iver] come into to this process?

JS-T: It’s sitting around and talking for a while and playing whatever it is you’ve got, so either sitting down and playing it [the song] or playing a demo, and saying, “ok, how do we want to do this, and who’s got a vision for the song?” People weigh in their ideas and get things going, so “Make It Holy” was something where, like Millie [Camilla] said, the fully formed song was there, and it was a question of: “what do we add to it to enhance it?” But with a song like “No Me, No You, No More,” which is also on the same album [If I Was], that was one where it was a guitar thing, and then we used an instrument called an OP-1, which is a synth/midi/sampler thing. [to Camilla] I think it was you and Justin’s idea of sampling our voices to make a drone.

AM: Seems like a Bon Iver kind of thing to do.

JS-T: It has a Bon Iver sound, for sure.

AM: [to Camilla] Not to discredit your contribution to that idea.

CS-T: [to Alasdair] Yeah, fuck you (laughs).

JS-T: Originally, that song [“Make It Holy”] was more fast-tempo. We had banjo on it, we had drums; it was much more country-feeling, ‘cause that was how I wrote it.

AM: Do you think that will be on the 10th-anniversary box set release?

JS-T: Maybe. I mean, it was quite nice.

CS-T: It ended up not properly communicating the feeling of the song.

JS-T: I think of that song as quite a collaboration with the producer. It was a joint journey of discovery, ending up at the place where it’s like, “let’s try no instruments at all. Let’s just sing.”

CS-T: “Let’s strip it completely down.”

JS-T: He [Justin Vernon] was like, “I just want to hear you guys sing in there and see what happens,” and then it became something completely different that I think had much more impact.

AM: When you guys think about writing, do you have any particular idols or influences?

ES-T: I think Paul Simon has the best lyrics of anyone, ever.

AM: Simon & Garfunkel, or solo, or both?

ES-T: I think he kind of was Simon & Garfunkel, but I think his solo stuff, almost even more. To write it so poetically but deliver it so conversationally, so effortlessly, it’s like he’s just talking to you, but he’s saying super profound, amazing stuff.

AM: [to Camilla] What about you?

CS-T: Two songwriters that have been a big inspiration for me have been a guy called Fionn Regan--who’s an Irish singer-songwriter; he’s wildly underrated and should be far more well-known than he is; his lyrics are so atmospheric and great; his melodies are so amazing--and Feist. Feist is someone who has such a way with words; she can make anything sound cool. She can sing something that someone else would sing and it would be cheesy.

AM: “One, two, three, four, tell me that you love me more.”

CS-T: Yeah, exactly. It’s like, “how did you make that cool?”

JS-T: I would say that a songwriter who’s had a big impact on me is Robin Pecknold from Fleet Foxes. Perhaps not as much lyrically, but in the way he structures his songs. When I first got into that first Fleet Foxes record [Fleet Foxes, released in 2008], I remember loving the way that, often, the songs were what I would describe as almost suites, where there’s three or four sections, sometimes. A song of ours called “Eagle Song,” which is on our first album, has got two or three movements within it.

AM: Or “Wisely and Slow” [another track from Dead & Born & Grown], also, has got the a cappella part and then the (sings) “mmm, mm mm mm mm.”

JS-T: Yeah, and I think that songwriting style harkens back to bands like the Beach Boys and Crosby, Stills & Nash, that were playing around with structures and having, like, eight-minute songs. It’s definitely made me write longer songs, which maybe isn’t always a good thing, but I felt very inspired by a sense of freedom with structure, because there is a pop-song format, which is great, but it’s nice to remember sometimes that you don’t have to adhere to that kind of structure. And that [not adhering to a standard song structure] doesn’t necessarily make it [a song] inaccessible or crazy; it can just be a great song that takes you on a different journey.

AM: Not to harp on Fleet Foxes, but first album [Fleet Foxes, 2008] or second album [Helplessness Blues, 2011]?

JS-T: I would say second.

ES-T: First.

CS-T: I remember always thinking first, but as time’s gone on, it’s a much harder call to make. There are moments on the second album that are pretty hard to beat.

AM: You’re playing, probably, bigger concerts now than you have in the past. As the stakes go up, do you find that your feeling about it changes?

ES-T: It’s hard to tell. One of the things that makes being on the road always interesting is that it’s different every single night, for a thousand reasons. Sometimes, you’re playing a really small room, but it’s nerve-racking, because people are (gestures to indicate minimal distance) that far away from you.

JS-T: You can see their reactions to your performance. Literally look at their faces the whole night.

ES-T: It can be very (makes nauseous sound) sometimes. But then, other times, that’s [performing in a small venue is] comforting. Sometimes, a massive place can be intimidating, but also sometimes it’s nice, because you have distance from the crowd, and it’s easier to create the world of the music and live in that. So it really varies. And sometimes, nerves work well for you, and give you that adrenaline to make something amazing, and sometimes they go to your voice and make it go weird, and you’re like, “aah!”

JS-T: Tonight is a nice venue [the Sinclair]--it’s pretty big, and it’s really fun--but other nights, you’d have just as much fun playing a tiny club. Sometimes that can feel more rock ‘n’ roll. Sometimes, we’ve done shows on bigger stages, and you get really nervous, and then you can’t enjoy the show as much. It’s a constantly changing environment, but I think that’s the magic of it: that it’s not like a job where you go to the same place every day, and you know what it’s gonna be like. It’s the tension of not knowing that makes it great.

Alasdair MacKenzie DJs/writes for The Darker Side. The Darker Side has air every Saturday night 10pm-6am and Sunday night 10pm-5am.