It’s a decade since The Staves self-released their first EP and a lot has happened since then. Their third album Good Woman was written and recorded amid major upheaval, heartbreak and bereavement. The new-found boldness, loudness and lyrical directness on this record are indicative of lives forced to become a serious concern.
Jessica: “It’s not a happy record. But it’s not timid. It’s not apologetic. It’s the most honest we’ve been. The end result is defiant.”
Following the 2015 release of their critically embraced second album If I Was (Stereogum described it as “unimaginably beautiful,” concluding The Staves were “one of the greatest bands in the universe.”) and a sold-out show at London’s Royal Festival Hall as part of Guy Garvey’s Meltdown Festival, the group moved to Minneapolis to begin work on new music and to follow a long held desire to tour more of America.
During this intensely creative time the sisters took complete control over their output, taking the reins of production on their Sleeping In A Car EP and the standalone single Tired As Fuck, as well as scripting and directing the videos. In 2017 The Staves produced a collaborative record with the experimental chamber ensemble yMusic. The Way Is Read merged yMusic’s minimalist compositions with newly written Staves songs loosely inspired by Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy; with Emily, Jessica and Camilla also adding their voices, as instruments, to the orchestra. The Sunday Times called it “a delightful surprise… an unexpected success.” Gaining respect and recognition from fellow musicians, The Staves were invited to sing on the final Leonard Cohen album, posthumously produced by his son, and Paul Weller’s hotly anticipated 2020 LP On Sunset.
The music of The Staves has changed significantly since the acoustic pastoralism of their 2012 debut album Dead & Born & Grown. But early songs such as Mexico and Winter Trees not only introduced us to the band’s breath-taking sibling harmony and astounding gift for melody; they’ve since become cover version standards on YouTube, with fans uploading phone-filmed renditions on a daily basis. The group gratifyingly acknowledge that so many of those fans are young women their own age, whose experiences, burgeoning confidence and defiance, Good Woman reflects.
Camilla: “We do have a lot of female fans, and lots of them have kind of grown with us. I want our songs to be a comfort to them if they’re going through any of the same things. I’d like them to know they’re not alone, that there’s other people who are struggling their tits off! An alternate title we had for the record was Trying.”
Emily: “A lot of the time you write songs to talk to yourself or to your past self; to soothe yourself or to make sense of something. And it’s only once the music is out there that you see where it lands and where it connects with other people.”
The Staves began writing material for a new record in December 2017. With Emily and Jessica now back in the UK and Camilla living with her boyfriend in the US they wrote remotely, exchanging ideas on GarageBand and Voice Notes across the ether. But their lives were soon turned upside down. In June 2018 their beloved mum, a constant supportive presence at their gigs, and at whose kitchen table many of their first songs were written, unexpectedly died. A month later, Camilla’s relationship was abruptly and painfully ended, leaving her stranded in America far from her family. When she returned, broke and broken, she moved into her mum’s now empty house. Feeling a need to regroup and look after each other, the sisters called a halt to recording and touring, parted from their management company and took control of every aspect of the band, finding a new strength and autonomy in difficult times.
Jessica: “It’s not a record about our mum dying because much of it was written before that happened. But obviously it adds such a deeper and more profound level to it.”
Camilla: “I think for the last year or so the only way to get through various things was to just say, fuck it. When everything falls apart you see what’s important, and that’s culminated in the songs that we’ve written. The attitude on this album is ‘fuck it.’”
Thankfully 2019 began with the happier but still life-changing news that Emily and her partner were expecting their first child. In the following months, plans were put in place to begin recording their long-awaited third album.
Good Woman was recorded at RAK studios in London in the final months of 2019. It was produced in collaboration with John Congleton, whose work with Sharon Van Etten, Angel Olsen and St Vincent similarly aided a more self-confident and raw expression of intent to emerge.
Emily: “John Congleton said to us early on, ‘I think you’re in a really interesting place in your lives. And I think you’ve got something to say. And I really want to find out more about that.’ And that’s the first time that anyone has ever said anything like that to us. I was really encouraged by someone actually listening to where we were at as people, as musicians, as sisters.”
Several of the tracks were built on top of the original demo recordings, retaining the spirit in which they were made, resulting in what Jessica describes as “a patchwork of different sonic spaces.” Field recordings made by the band became part of the arrangements, most noticeably on the title track which features layers of ambient noise and conversations of women talking; recordings of the sisters’ friends and family.
In early 2020 the band resumed touring, unveiling their expansive and exhilaratingly powerful new sound, and previewing these emotionally affecting songs in intimate venues across the country; with tickets selling out in seconds. They ended the tour with a triumphant homecoming appearance at the 6 Music Festival.
The Staves’ first album in five years is an accumulation of everything that life has thrown at them in that time.
Emily: “You find strength in the vulnerability and you find beauty in the sadness and magic in the despair. We lost so much, but we found so much. And while the album is not all about mum, something shifted in us when she died that made us make the record in the way that we made it. We became more fearless.”
Camilla: “It feels more about trying to take ownership of these events and not letting sadness or trauma rule you.”
Jessica: “It’s a record about sisterhood, motherhood and daughterhood; love, loss, change and trying to be a good person, a good woman.”