When The Staves decamped to Justin Vernon’s studio they didn’t bother to tell their label. It’s just as well it worked out well,
“Justin [Vernon, frontman of Bon Iver] had said: ‘If you ever have any free time and you’re in the States, just come by. Hang out for however long you can and something cool will happen, whatever it is: whether it’s a song of yours, a song of mine, whatever.’ ”
It was last year when The Staves decided to take Vernon up on his offer. The Watford sisters – Emily, Jessica, and Camilla Staveley-Taylor – had struck up a friendship with Vernon when they were supporting the American band around the US, UK and Europe.
So they took of for Eau Claire, Wisconsin, travelling to April Base – Vernon’s studio in the heart of “America’s Dairyland”, which Jessica Staveley-Taylor jokes is “like Watford with snow”. The initial visit was so informal that they didn’t even bother to tell their record company that they were going.
“We didn’t want to shout about it,” says Staveley-Taylor, “because we didn’t really know what it was that we were going to do – and if you say ‘I’m going into the studio with Bon Iver’, then suddenly there might be an expectation of ‘Well, you better come out with something good’,” she laughs.
“So we were very cautious and just kind of tried to chill and enjoy it – and I think that approach worked, because it ended up being such a fruitful experience going out there.”
The resultant album, If I Was, is a beautiful record that builds on the pastoral folk of its predeces- sor by undertaking some bolder musical statements, as heard on the electric guitar-led Black & White and Teeth White. Working with Vernon gave them the freedom to step outside the folk boundaries.
“I think because Justin is a musician and artist himself, he approaches producing in a different way – and I think that way of being made us feel comfortable to bring our own ideas to the forefront. There were so many great musicians that played on the album; we had string players and horn players and it felt like we could really try anything out.
“We didn’t want to make the first album again. It was certainly a lot of fun to strap on the electric and turn the volume up and go for it.”
Staveley-Taylor says that they “hit the ground running” after stockpiling so many songs written and half-written on the road, and their long touring cycles informed much of If I Was.
“Putting out an album and touring had a huge influence,” she says. “Your sense of normality is totally up in the air – you don’t have routine, you’re not at home, you don’t see your family, your friends, your boyfriends. I never like to complain about it because it’s a privilege and a blessing to be able to do it, but there are sacrifices that come with that sort of lifestyle; there’s a distance that happens between you and your life.
“When you’ve been on the road for longer than you’ve been at home, suddenly you think, well, actually, maybe this is my reality: staying in hotels and travelling around and being rootless. That definitely characterised a big part of the album.”
Despite the thematic nature of If I Was involving being adrift both physically and emotionally, Staveley-Taylor is clearly excited about getting back out on the road and playing these new songs for an audience. She’s especially looking forward to The Staves gig in Dublin’s Olympia, where she recalls the trio supporting James Vincent McMorrow a few years ago. All in all, they’ve come a long way from The Horns in Watford.
“It’s what we love and the most immediate way of being able to validate what you do; being able to sing a song and for people to immediately respond to it,” she says. “It’s a very satisfying thing. We want people to relate to this album, to feel something to it. And the best way to do that is to be in the room and play it for them.”
There were so many great musicians that played on the album; we had string players and horn players and it felt like we could really try anything out
If I Was is out now. The Staves play Dublin’s Olympia Theatre on May 6th
Emily, Jessica and Camilla Staveley-Taylor of The Staves