When Eurythmics guitarist Dave Stewart recently informed Chvrches frontwoman Lauren Mayberry that she was “the punk rock Joan of Arc of pop”, he nailed her commercial credentials, warrior wit and tenacious integrity in one clumsy soundbite. Mayberry, to be fair, was a little flummoxed by this accolade from one of her musical heroes but it does fit – not just her band’s mix of pure pop hooks with DIY indie attitude but the way in which Mayberry has found herself at the frontline in calling out sexism in the music industry and battling the wider online trolling of women in the public eye.
When Chvrches first emerged from their Glasgow rehearsal/recording bunker in 2012, their impact was almost instantaneous, with the band rather taken aback by their success. No offence to her dependable bandmates Iain Cook and Martin Docherty, but it was Mayberry who dazzled in the spotlight, emerging as one of the most relatable role models for teenage girls and young women since Paramore’s Hayley Williams.
And it was Mayberry who became the target of a steady stream of everyday sexism and a deluge of online abuse on the band’s social media feeds. When she spoke out about it with sober eloquence, the threats and abuse only intensified.
There was unwavering support from Cook, Docherty, her friends and the online community but still Mayberry says “I think back on it and it was pretty f***ing lonely to be honest, because there would be other women that we would see in passing at festivals and they would empathise but then they wouldn’t actually do anything themselves.
“I can look back on photos from that time and you can see when I started to get sadder and wearing baggier and baggier clothes and less and less make-up because I just wanted to be left alone. But I don’t think I would still be in the band if I’d had to put up and shut up and stand and smile and be pretty.”
This was three years before President Trump’s locker room talk was met with the million-strong Women’s March on Washington and four years before the Time’s Up movement was founded in the wake of a string of sexual assault allegations levelled against Harvey Weinstein and others in the film and television industries.
Mayberry had a ringside seat as these grassroots movements flourished and the testimonies mounted up. Since 2015, she has lived in New York, where Cook and Docherty are now also based, and Chvrches habitually tour the parts of the US that even domestic bands don’t make it to, thanks to the strong support they have always garnered from college radio stations across the south and Midwest.
“I think it gives you a better perspective on what it’s actually like, because if you weren’t ever playing in Alabama or Tennessee, I feel like you could get sucked into a one-sided view. There are so many people standing on either side of this line screaming in each other’s faces thinking that’s going to convince somebody to think something different, and I don’t really know if that’s how you get anything done. If you’re not listening to each other and trying to figure out what to do then I don’t know if we’ll make any tangible progress.
“I think it’s a positive thing that we’re having this conversation on a more mainstream platform,” she adds. “Now we don’t do an interview where we don’t talk about gender in one way or another.”
Mayberry says gender has always tended to be an issue in interviews, but the way in which it’s discussed has changed.
“We were [talking about gender before Time’s Up] because I would always be asked ‘what’s it like to be a girl in a band?’ I think it was Martin who said ‘never at any point in my day am I talking about being a man’, it just isn’t a thing.”
Mayberry is under no illusions that exposing sexist behaviour is the same thing as successfully combating it. As we speak, she is on a brief self-imposed internet break thanks to yet another wave of explicit, nasty trolling unleashed now that Chvrches are back in the public eye and set to return with their new album, Love Is Dead, where once again the brightness and catchiness of their synth pop tuneage belies the darker lyrical matter.
The first two Chvrches albums were self-produced in their native Glasgow – where they will appear at the TRNSMT festival this summer – but this time around the trio experimented with outside producers (which is where Dave Stewart entered the picture) before settling on Adele/Sia/Beck producer/songwriter Greg Kurstin as their main collaborator.
“There are definitely more direct moments on this album but I think there’s also some of the most macabre, weird stuff we’ve ever done as well,” says Mayberry, who has no shortage of material to draw on.
“The record’s not meant to be a bunch of manifestos,” she cautions. “When I listen to it, it sounds to me like somebody’s just trying to figure something out, that you’ve got to a certain stage in life and maybe you’re not as much of an idealist as you used to be but then how do you sit with that and then do something positive with it?
“I think if you don’t shine a light on this stuff then it’s just going to fester there in the darkness and I feel like I’ve had to find a balance. I don’t want to spend all my day thinking about that sort of negativity but I do think ‘what would 15-year-old me want if they were a fan of the band?’ I think grown-up me knows that women in bands aren’t superheroes but 15-year-old me would want to see the superhero kick some butt, you know? I feel it’s good to remind myself to be responsible with the platform that you have.
“When you have this opportunity, better make 15-year-old you proud of it, otherwise what’s the point? And I’d rather regret things I did do than things I didn’t do. I mean I’d like to regret nothing but if I have to regret something…”
Love is Dead is released by Universal on 25 May. Chvrches play the TRNSMT festival, Glasgow on 8 July