Interview: Folk newcomers The Staves, on coping with the weight of expectation

With big label support, there’s a weight of expectation on The Staves, three siblings from Watford. But as Aidan Smith discovers, ahead of a Scottish appearance, they aren’t showing it

With big label support, there’s a weight of expectation on The Staves, three siblings from Watford. But as Aidan Smith discovers, ahead of a Scottish appearance, they aren’t showing it

This could be tricky. The Staves, hot new names in folk, all want to speak. They’re three sisters who sing winsome close harmonies and clearly run the act on democratic lines. But if they all try to talk at the same time how will I tell them apart? To aid recognition, I append what little I know about each name. Thus Camilla, at 23 the youngest, is “baby”; Jessica is “Grange Hill” because in a brief child acting career she appeared in the classroom drama; and next to Emily in my notebook I’ve written “f***”.

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I should explain. On Pay Us No Mind, one of quite a few tracks on debut album Dead & Born & Grown concerning lousy relationships, it’s Emily who sings: “Pick me up/Wish me luck/Fare thee well/I don’t give a f*** anymore.” The senior Staveley-Taylor, who’s 29, laughs. “Some people seem to have been quite shocked by that although I think we say far worse on the album, usually about men, without swearing. But there are times when I just need to say f***. It’s a great word and sometimes it’s the only word.”

The Staves are phone-sharing at the Dublin ferry terminal, waiting to sail back to Britain, where they’ll uncouple from the Bon Iver tour as the support act to play more dates in their own right, such as Edinburgh’s Pleasance Theatre tomorrow.

“We know that one – there’s a good pub down the road,” says Camilla, known as Milly, who might be the trio’s most committed party girl. “How rock’n’roll does it get for us? Well, I’m still wearing yesterday’s clothes and this morning I was up till 5am, smoking and drinking with the Bon Iver guys … oh, and also The Edge from U2.” For the switch from Ireland to Scotland the whisky will change from Green Spot to Singleton.

The girls are thrilled to have been part of this tour, including dates in America, a London show in front of 12,000 and being invited by Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon to return to the stage for backing vocals after completing their spots.

“We love his music although this invite was a bit of a surprise,” says Jessica, 25. “His fans might have been expecting something totally different, not three girls with a guitar and ukulele.”

But if Wisconsin’s Vernon is the pre-eminent nu-folk performer right now and Mumford & Sons and Laura Marling are top of the premier league in Britain, then the Staves have their place among the coming things, with big label support and big things expected. Theirs is a musical intersection where folk (English) meets singer-songwriter (Californian, classic early 1970s) and curiously you’ll find it at the Watford Gap.

“Some people are surprised to learn we come from Watford,” adds Milly. “When they hear the three-part harmonies I think they’re expecting some bluegrassy Americana band. Watford is a typical just-outside-a-major-city town. What can I tell you about it? We’ve got a park which Henry VIII used as hunting grounds. There’s not much of a music scene and maybe it’s cooler to say you come from London but I’m repping the Watford vibe.”

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The Staves are the daughters of a bank-worker and a teacher – “We’re the entire brood; there isn’t a Jim Corr hidden at home,” jokes Emily – and their musical influences almost all emanate from their parents’ record collection. Jess: “There was music playing the whole time, and there were always singsongs. We actually thought The Times They Are A-Changing was written by our dad, rather than some guy called Bob Dylan, and that [Crosby, Stills & Nash’s] Helplessly Hoping had to be one of Mum’s.” The girls were encouraged to join in, but not pushed. “I can’t remember an adult saying to us, ‘Wow, you girls can sing,’” adds Emily. “We did it, we liked it, it was a natural thing. If our parents had ever tried to make us sing we would have said no, just to spite them.”

The trio sang in local pubs and, Milly, who was still underage, remembers a family barbecue and the sounds of Watford FC’s onetime benefactor Sir Elton John’s Tiny Dancer wafting up from a football stadium concert. “I don’t think any of us fantasised about this becoming a career. My big sisters had been to university and I was heading there. But by deciding to give music a go I had to miss out. What absolute bitches they are! We sang at night and did odd jobs in shops and offices. I think Emily drew the shortest straw: she had to seal envelopes. I knew our parents were worried about us because so few bands ever make it but they did well not to show their concern.”

While talking to labels, the Staves were invited to sing on Tom Jones’ 2010 album, Praise & Blame.

Milly again: “That was random, surreal and just amazing.” Jones was smitten, inviting them back for a BBC session and loaning them his producer, Ethan Johns, who helped launch Kings of Leon and, more recently, has produced Laura Marling. And when Johns’ producer-dad Glyn (Dylan, The Who, Eagles) chanced on a Staves gig and liked what he heard, father and son decided to work together on the girls’ debut, the first time they’d collaborated.

If such topline support is amounting to a weight of expectation for the Staves then they aren’t showing it, and the biggest thrill for them thus far has been the simplest thing. “We were doing an in-store the other day and just seeing people walking out with copies of our album was the most exciting thing ever,” says Emily.

They’re also coping with seeing more of each other than most siblings their age. “It’s an unnatural amount of time we spend together,” admits Jessica, “but we’ve always got on well. We’re different. I’m late for everything, having spent all of my school life getting detentions, whereas Emily is really, really good at making lists.”

Unusually, they aren’t cover girls on their own record. Was pressure put on them to exploit their looks? “Not at all,” says Milly, “and we wouldn’t have allowed it anyway. This is about the music, not about how we look.

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“Us on the front would have been like a naff family portrait. You know the type: a woodland scene, or this big storm brewing behind us that we seem remarkably happy about. We’ve got enough of them at home!”

•  The Staves play The Pleasance, Edinburgh, tomorrow.

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