After a pair of tours supporting Bon Iver and The Civil Wars, British sister act The Staves are back in the U.S. for a headlining tour now that their debut LP, Dead & Born & Grown, is finally out. The album is a delicate mix of folk traditions: finger-picked acoustic guitars and rich three-part harmonies. The record was also the first collaboration between the father-son production team of Glyn and Ethan Johns, who between them have made records by some of the biggest artists in the world, from The Rolling Stones and The Eagles to Kings of Leon and Ray LaMontagne. For the latest edition of Tell Me About That Album, we chatted with Jessica Staveley-Taylor about making the record, touring in America, and growing up folk. The Staves play The Triple Door on June 16th.
It’s a neat touch that the first album by a group of sisters was recorded by a father-son producing team. How did the collaboration come to pass? It was a strange coincidence really. We met Ethan because he’d produced an album by Tom Jones and we’d done some backing vocals on it. We gave him some of our music, he said he liked it and we stayed in touch. We’d always really liked the Ryan Adams records he’d done and stuff with Ben Kweller and Leona Ness, and he said, “We should do something.” We were over the moon. Then we were doing a gig in London and his dad was in the audience and he said, “Well done, I really enjoyed the show. I bet my son would really like you guys.” And I told him we’d already worked together. I guess they were both drawn towards something that we do–I don’t know what, but they both liked it. [Laughs.] They hadn’t produced a record before so it was so mad that our record was the one.
What was the dynamic like in the studio with both of them? I imagine Ethan must have learned plenty from his dad growing up and therefore was comfortable in the studio with him. They get on amazingly well. I think they’ve got a huge admiration and respect for one another. They certainly got on in the studio better than the three of us did! I was expecting a bit of competition but I think they’re just huge fans of each other’s work.
Did they divide up the producing duties in a specific way? Glyn did most of the work producing and Ethan mainly played, so he was in the live room playing guitar or whatever.
I know you grew up listening to a lot of ‘70s artists. Did you ever consider having a rock band or did folk music always seem like the best natural fit? We never really put much thought into what we were going to do. The whole thing just happened really naturally. It’s what we’ve always done together. Our parents were listening to Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Crosby, Stills and Nash. It was the music that we loved and that we’d sing around the house. The more we listened to it, the more we thought we should be trying to do this as a group. We didn’t really have time to think about what sound we were going for.
Is your writing process collaborative or do each of you bring in your own songs or lyrics? It differs song by song. It sometime starts out as one person’s song and they’ll bring it to the group and we’ll figure out harmonies and maybe fine tune the arrangement. Other songs can be all three of us from the very beginning batting ideas around. It’s nice that there isn’t quite a formula yet for how to do it.
How do your parents feel about what you guys are doing? They’re really, really happy for us. They’re very supportive and encouraging. They’d always drive us to our gigs and stuff.
Is it true that when you were growing up you guys thought your dad had written all these amazing classic rock songs you heard him playing around the house on guitar? They’re from that generation where they were growing up with that music, so we grew up listening to that music as well. When we were younger, my dad was playing guitar and my mom was singing “The Times They Are a Changin’” by Bob Dylan, and we thought that it was my dad’s song. We didn’t know the original.
He didn’t try and take credit for it so his daughters would be in awe of his songwriting prowess? Yeah, he should have taken credit! He taught us to play guitar and I think we learned through hearing our mom and dad play and they’ve got really nice voices and do nice harmonies together, which we learned at a young age.
You’ve toured the U.S. with Bon Iver and The Civil Wars. Did you learn anything through playing with them each night that you’ve been able to apply to your first headlining tour here? Both of those bands are such lovely people and great company and a really good example of how to tour and be nice to everyone around you and put on a great show. I think that’s the way to be. Don’t be rude to people. Be nice to your support bands and be nice to the people working in the venue. The Bon Iver guys did a really good thing, which is about an hour after the show, they’d order, like, five pizzas backstage. Suddenly an hour after the show you realize you are ravenous and haven’t eaten since lunch and a take away pizza is the thing you need around midnight.
Were you able to do anything exciting on your previous visits in Seattle? The last time we were over that way was on the Bon Iver tour and we didn’t play in Seattle but we drove through and I think we went to Guitar Center.
You didn’t even stop for Starbucks? We tried! We went down to the fish market, Pike Place. But there was a huge queue for the Starbucks and I figured the coffees there would taste the same at any Starbucks so I thought I’d just look at it and take a photo instead.