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4 February 2021

“It was a meteorite in our worlds”: the Staves on surviving grief and returning to music

After the death of their mother in 2018, the three sisters took time away from making music. On their third album, Good Woman, they’re back with a bolder and more fearless sound.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

You can tell the Staves are sisters by listening to them sing. It’s not that Emily, Jessica and Camilla Staveley-Taylor sound overly similar – although there is a familiar tone that runs through each sister’s delivery – but that their voices combine perfectly. The band’s distinctive three-part harmonies, whether used for heartfelt reminiscences, or fervorous moments of realisation, blend so effortlessly it can be difficult to remember they come from three separate human voices.

You can also tell the Staves are sisters by their shared, sarcastic sense of humour. When I spoke to the folk-pop trio in January over Zoom, each sister was in her own house – Emily in their hometown of Watford, where the oldest sister has settled with her partner and baby daughter; Jess in Hackney, east London; and the youngest, Milly, close by in Stoke Newington – yet they laughed together as though they were sitting on the same sofa. “The dive bars out there are just so great,” said Milly at one point, reminiscing about her time spent in Minneapolis, Minnesota. “There’s not an equivalent here – particularly a Midwestern dive bar… they’re very specific and the clientele are very specific. I just loved them. They were my spirit animal.”

“A bar was your spirit animal?” Jess cut in, with faux derision. “That’s fucked up.”

The Staves, now in their thirties, began performing together at open-mic nights at a local Watford pub. They released their debut album, Dead & Born & Grown, a collection of folk songs which showed off their impressive command of close vocal harmony, in 2012. Its follow-up, If I Was (2015), saw the band lean into bolder indie-rock instrumentation, and was produced by Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. 

In 2016 all three Staveley-Taylor sisters moved out to Minneapolis, in order to dedicate more time to touring the States. Plus, they wanted a change of scenery. “Being free from a sense of who we were in the UK was necessary for all of us,” said Jess. They released two EPs during that time, and a collaborative album with yMusic, a classical string sextet based in New York. 

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[see also: Arlo Parks’s Collapsed in Sunbeams: compassionate, clear-sighted bedroom pop]

Emily and Jess returned to the UK after a couple of years – they missed their friends and family, and “the familiarity of walking into a bar and knowing all the beers”. Milly stayed on, having met a boyfriend and formed a close group of friends in Minneapolis.

After always living in each other’s pockets, it was the first time the sisters had spent time apart. “We would communicate by emailing voice memos and demos from our computers,” Jess said. “It was a weird way of staying in touch but it was a pretty real way of understanding how the other one was doing, because you say a lot more through a song than you do just having a chat.”

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And then the unthinkable happened. In 2018, the sisters’ mother, Jean, died suddenly. “It came completely out of the blue,” said Emily. “She wasn’t ill or anything.” She and Jess had an “agonising” day while they waited for Milly to fly across the Atlantic so the sisters could be together. “It was a meteorite in our worlds. It hit us and everything spun out of control, and then stopped. It was devastating.”

“But it’s funny, looking back,” Emily continued. “I see that period of time with a golden glow around it, just this outpouring of love, which is I guess what grief is – you were so sad because you loved someone so much and they loved you so much. It was incredibly sad but, weirdly, really powerful.”

Another unexpected feeling, Milly said, was fearlessness. “Suddenly it felt like, well, I’m invincible: the worst has happened and I’ve survived it. Musically, it gave us a real ‘fuck it’ attitude. It made us want to be very un-tentative, to be bold and less scared.”

On Good Woman – the band’s first album in six years – this mettle is audible. “Acting like you know me/Like you’re part of my family/I don’t owe you anything/You just came in,” they sing on “Failure”, resolute and uncompromising. “Careful, Kid”, which looks back on a destructive relationship, starts with a jarring riff, reminiscent of an electric guitar, but which Milly created by heavily distorting a vocal line. It’s far more abrasive than anything we’ve heard from the Staves before – but it feels right that such a sound would have the same core material that the band has always kept at the heart of its music: the human voice.

“I often think, how lucky are we, that we get to sing and shout and scream?”, said Emily. “How many people go years and years without making a very loud noise?”

The phrase the band screamed more than any other during the recording process was “I’m a good woman” – a topic Milly in particular had been pondering for a while. “A lot of the time women are expected to be this impossible thing, which is everything to everyone, and confident, but meek and amenable, and quiet, but somehow also with personality, and funny, but not too funny,” she said. “I was in a relationship where I was so deeply entrenched in it that I’d lost sight of what it was that I thought made a good woman. I’d started to view myself through his eyes. I lost myself a little bit.” Just a few weeks after their mother died, Milly broke up with her long-term boyfriend, left the US, and moved home.

[see also: Why Carole King’s Tapestry still speaks to us]

The Staves wrote the majority of the album’s songs before their mother’s death. In the immediate aftermath, they were together as a family rather than a band, and it took time to make their way back to the studio, their relationship to music having grown more complicated than ever before. They relied on acoustic tracks such as “Nazareth” and “Nothing’s Gonna Happen” – songs which distill the band’s essence down to the simple three-part harmony they had grown up singing – to unite them with music once again. “Those harmonies carried us through,” said Jess.

For Emily, having a daughter of her own has altered how she views her relationship with her mother. “I had a moment the other day,” she said. “Maggie was looking at me, she was in her high chair, and I was washing up and doing a little dance and I looked at her and she’d start moving her little shoulders as well. She was looking at me with wonder, and I thought, wow, I looked at Mum like that. She must have seen that look from me, and all the things that I’m doing for Maggie, Mum taught me how to do those things. I appreciate her more now than ever, knowing what I do for my daughter. Mum did that for me? Oh my god! She cleaned up my shit? That is love.”

“That was when you were like 16, as well,” Milly interrupted.

“Seriously!” Emily said, shaking her head.

“And when Mum died, I remember being at her funeral and thinking, ‘Oh my god, all the hours you wasted in your life, Mum, of doubting yourself or having insecurities. None of that matters. All these people are here! You were so loved. You were such a good woman.’ That is the take-home message at the end of fucking life. That’s what matters. I want to not wait until I’m dead to realise that about myself.”

“Good Woman” is released on Atlantic Records on 5 February. The Staves will play a ticketed livestream performance from London’s Lafayette on the same date