“I think being sung to is the nicest thing in the world. There's nothing more comforting or enjoyable.” Emily Staveley-Taylor, eldest of the three sisters who comprise The Staves, is attempting to distil the band's appeal. “And I would hope,” she adds gently, “that this is what people feel when they hear us sing.”
To describe The Staves' music as merely comforting or enjoyable would be to severely under-egg the pudding. Theirs is songwriting as striking as it is exquisite, a melding of still, bright English folk and sublime West Coast pop that, performed live, is capable of plunging an audience into awed silence.
It is singing so alluring that the Staves were asked to provide backing vocals for recent albums by both Tom Jones (alongside Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings) and Fionn Regan, and to tour with Willy Mason, Josh Ritter, James Vincent McMorrow, and Mt. Desolation, among others. Meanwhile, legendary producers Glyn and Ethan Johns (whose combined credits include the likes of The Rolling Stones, The Eagles, Joan Armatrading, Ryan Adams, Ray LaMontagne, Kings of Leon, and Laura Marling to name but a few) found The Staves' talents so compelling that they both independently tracked the band down. The Staves' debut album, due for release in 2012, will be the first record on which father and son have shared production credits.
The musical evolution of The Staves — Emily, Jessica and Camilla — has been a slow, steady process; an adventure that began in the stew of family car journeys, sing-alongs and squabbles over the stereo, and immersed in the music of artists like Feist, Fleet Foxes, Simon & Garfunkel, Buffalo Springfield, and Motown. “There was always music in the house and we always sang,” Jessica remembers. “Mum and Dad weren't professional musicians or anything but they were always into music and would sing, and play both the guitar and piano. Lots of harmonies.”
They talk particularly of the influence of their Mother: Welsh-born, and raised in a community of male voice choirs, she instilled in her daughters the power of communal singing. “It's in her blood,” Emily recalls. Equally, their father taught his daughters how to play the guitar, and is the proud owner of that incredibly influential record collection.
With many of their friends in bands, The Staves were soon cajoled into taking part in an open mic night at their local pub, The Horns in Watford. They played covers mostly: Crosby Stills and Nash's ‘Helplessly Hoping’, Neil Young’s ‘After The Gold Rush’, and ‘Landslide’ by Stevie Nicks. “We really enjoyed it,” Camilla recalls. “So that summer we started to do more. And gradually we began to think maybe we should write our own songs.”
When Jessica relocated to Liverpool to study music, the band acquired a new focus — with a place to rehearse and experiment, the city became the sisters' second home. “And gradually the number of gigs we did each year started to increase,” Camilla explains. “I think at that point we were just always trying to keep up with demand. If someone got in touch and asked us to play a gig we thought yeah, we'll do that. But then that happened more and more, and suddenly we realised we were gigging. It was never a conscious decision. It was a very unthought-out haphazard start.”
Simultaneously, The Staves were developing their own sound. In the beginning their songwriting style owed much to the artists they admired, but over time they struck upon a sound that is undeniably their own. “Our vocal arrangements have a lot to do with it,” Says Emily, “When we’re writing a song it suddenly gets to a place where it's ours, sung in a three-part harmony.” The vocal arrangements are indeed something that marks out The Staves, a mingling of dusky sweetness and high, beaming radiance. “Oh yeah,” Emily laughs, “we're definitely better together than apart. It's weird, we've all got really different voices.” The band explain how their voices seem to fall in order of age, with Emily's the lowest, Jessica's somewhere in the middle and youngest sister Camilla's somewhat higher. “Camilla and Jess can both go high,” Emily says, “but when Camilla goes high it means something totally different to when Jess does.”
Most of the songs on the Mexico EP — their second — were developed at their Mother's kitchen table. From the bruised, wistful qualities of the title track to the steady, measured beauty of ‘Icarus’. And there are so many more songs in their arsenal, from the soft, sweet gallop of The Motherlode to the warm melancholic of Gone Tomorrow, to name but two.
“They're all pretty introspective songs,” Jessica says slowly, “and it's quite hard to explain what they're about to anyone — you almost don't want to tell people what they're about so they can draw their own impressions from it. But I think there is an immediacy to them.” Camilla agrees: “Normally we've let songs buzz around for a while before we recorded them but with these we didn't. They’re fresh out of the oven.”
For the listener, these are three songs that offer the merest taste of the sisters' extraordinary talents, a promise of the brilliance to come, and a reminder, perhaps, that being sung to really is the nicest thing in the world.