THEY GREW up in a house where good music was always being played, where parents and neighbours loved a sing-song. That Emily, Jessica, and Camilla Staveley-Taylor would eventually form a band seems to have always been on the cards, but it could have been so different. Had things worked out another way, the sisters could today be a comedy trio.
Before they became The Staves - celebrated for their beautiful harmony vocals, and music which fuses folk, roots, singer-songwriter, indie-rock, and blues, and albums such as the 2015 Justin Vernon (aka Bon Iver ) produced If I Was - the sisters in their young years had ambitions to be the next Monty Python.
Camilla laughs loudly at the memory. “Yeah, we were such nightmare children,” she recalls. “We loved Monty Python and lots of weird comedy. We wrote and performed our own sketches. I think we had three volumes of it, we used to make our parents and friends sit down and watch us perform. It was like our own secret language, even mum and dad didn’t understand it. I think we got quite annoying! Far off in the back of our minds we thought we’d like to write comedy, but music got in the way.”
Music was everywhere in the Staveley-Taylor home, singing came as naturally to the sisters as talking. “I don’t remember not singing together,” says Camilla. “I think I started singing close to when I started talking. Both mum and dad sang. They had really good voices. They weren’t musicians, but they used to sing and harmonise around the house.
“Dad played guitar and taught me and Jess when we were young. Our parents had really good taste, there was always a lot of good music on, a lot of sixties/seventies music, a lot of Beatles, all that rubbed off. On our road we lived close to a family very influenced by music, we were always going around to theirs, meeting up, and having a song - that was always the making of a good party. Having that community shaped us and let us know about what’s important in music is connectivity and having fun.”
It came as a shock to the sisters that not everyone lived for music the way their family did. “I was shocked when I walked into friends' houses and heard no music on. That felt so strange,” says Camilla. “It took me a while to realise we were the ‘strange’ ones, but it was so normal for us. I remember realising the role music played in our lives was unusual, and that’s what makes it a special thing that we can do together.”
Eventually the sisters joined forces and began gigging in their hometown of Watford - the band name came about by chance when a friend abbreviated their surname to The Staves on a chalk board outside a pub they were playing. The trio’s initial break came when Tom Jones asked them to provide backing vocals on his 2010 album Praise & Blame. This brought them to the attention of producer Glyn Johns (producer for The Who, the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton ) and his producer son Ethan.
With father and son, The Staves recorded their 2012 debut album Dead & Born & Grown. Its stripped down, organic sound, based around the sisters' voices and acoustic guitar, saw them categorised as ‘folk’ - a term with which they are not entirely comfortable.
“I don’t really mind it, but I think that, as a description, it’s not that correct,” says Camilla. “Folk is a very specific thing to me. I think of it as traditional songs and very, very, stripped down, and not a full band. If someone was a folk fan and came to see us thinking we were folk, I think they’d be very disappointed. There are things from folk music we take, but I don’t know what genre we are. I just say, ‘We’re a harmony band’.
Camilla is speaking to me from Minneapolis, the largest city in the northern US state of Minnesota, where they now live. The Staves relocation here is in response to their growing American success.
“We’ve been spending a lot of time in this general neck of the woods, we did a lot of recording in Wisconsin, which is the next state over, and we know a lot of people here,” she says. “In this part of the world, people are very warm and very open. It’s a very good community to slot into. We were well prepared to come over, but, it’s a very soft version of being a foreigner. It’s an English speaking country and a very, very, similar culture, but there are things you can’t foresee, like the tipping culture is very different, ‘How much am I supposed to give?’ Still I have a greater understanding and better respect for people who live in not their native land."
Most of all, it was in this part of the States that The Staves, through the encouragement of Wisconsin native Justin Vernon, found the courage to experiment with and broaden the horizons of their songwriting, instrumentation, and sound.
“It was a very special experience,” says Camilla of the recording. “We felt very comfortable in the studio with him and it’s a very special producer who will give you that confidence to try new things. Many producers will often have an idea how they want things to sound and how to put their stamp on it, but Justin was interested in what sound we wanted to have and in giving that to us. Ideas we had before, maybe we were too tentative or shy to execute them, but Justin gave us the confidence to believe. It was life changing.”
A mark of that confidence came via the band’s recent single, ‘Tired As F**k’, a slow, bluesy guitar number, with a toughness and aggression barely kept below the surface. “We’re not looking for a definitive sound, but we’re enjoying that you can change as you go on,” says Camilla. “There’s a constant discovery process which makes it exciting, there’s always new things to do and try out and write. ‘Tired As F**k’ is very different to our older stuff, but it feels very natural to us and we will continue to try different things."
The band is currently on tour - they play the Róisín Dubh next week - but life on the road can be a lonely trek, being away from family, boyfriends, family, close friends for long stretches. Does being in a band with siblings help?
“I think so,” says Camilla. “The touring life is a very strange beast. It’s very amazing and very difficult, but having my family around me helps with the isolation you feel sometimes. I feel lucky I can tour with them and maintain that relationship, as the most important relationship to me is my relationship with my sisters. It’s lucky we’re a three-headed monster!”
The Staves play the Róisín Dubh on Friday June 2 at 8pm. Tickets are available at www.roisindubh.net, the Ticket Desk at OMG Zhivago, Shop Street, and The Róisín Dubh.