The Staves: 'We don't live in a log cabin'

With Tom Jones and Bon Iver among their fans, why do Watford sisters the Staves still need to convince the owner of their local pub that they deserve a place on her wall of fame

At the Horns in Watford, favoured local of sisters Emily, Jessica and Camilla Staveley-Taylor, who grew up nearby, the walls are busy with bolted-on music memorabilia. Opposite the bar there's a framed Born in the USA sleeve, inscribed with Bruce's oversize signature. At the back of a corner stage, where the Staveley-Taylors, as singing trio the Staves, performed their earliest gigs, one of Tom Petty's guitars has been encased in glass. When the girls come in to do the pub quiz they sit in "the Beatles corner", under a portrait of Macca, for luck.

For almost a year now, the Staves have been tipped as one of many post-Marling, post-Mumford folk bands likely to make a splash. Finally, this month, after a summer of touring, fan-gathering and festival-playing, writing and recording and putting out time-marking EPs, they're releasing a debut album, Dead & Born & Grown. Superior sing and strum, indebted to bygone folk but with a singular flavour born of the sisters' intricately knotted vocals, it's a record that deserves to make good.

Around Watford, anyway, wider renown for the Staves feels overdue. The siblings – Emily, 29, Jessica, 25, Camilla, or Milly, 23 – have been performing at the Horns since the younger pair were teenagers. Long enough, in fact, for the revolving local acts who perform here to include a tribute band (the Slaves). Meanwhile, the landlady, Pam, is thinking of adding a picture of the girls to a column of brick beside the bar, a "wall of fame" that she keeps reserved for portraits of regulars who've made good.

At a side table, the Staves recall their first performance on the Horns stage. Milly was underage and a deal had to be struck with Pam to get her inside. It was an open-mic night and the sisters got up and sang a couple of covers, including Fleetwood Mac's Landslide. "To which I played guitar very shitly," says Jessica. "But it went OK. And we started playing every week."

Open mic night here, as elsewhere, is a write-your-name-on-a-blackboard deal. (Today, the girls point out, the blackboard that obliquely launched their careers is being used to advertise a lunchtime special of steak and onions.) For a while, they performed under their unwieldy double-barrelled name. Then one evening, when they hoped to sing but were running late, a mate chalked them up as "the Staves". It stuck, says Jessica. "We always thought of it as a temporary thing, until we thought of something better, but it never happened. Not the coolest-sounding name, I know. But it's truthful to us."

The transition from precocious pub singers to Atlantic Records artists to debut album took a while. Emily and Jess did three years at university. When it was nearing time for Milly to follow, it forced a decision: should they have a go at making the Staves a full-time concern or wait another three years?

They decided to push forward with the band and eventually had talks with labels. While speaking to Island Records they were asked to sing backing vocals on Tom Jones's 2010 hit Praise & Blame, and at the sessions they met Jones's producer, Ethan Johns. In the end, there was no deal with Island (the Staves signed to Atlantic in 2011) but the Johns connection stuck and he agreed to produce their album along with his father, Glyn, who had chanced on a Staves gig and liked what he heard.

Glyn once produced Dylan, the Stones, the Who, Joan Armatrading and the Eagles; Ethan was instrumental in launching Kings of Leon and Ryan Adams. The Staves album is the first time father and son have worked together, a coup for the sisters. Tom Jones, too, has kept an avuncular eye on their progress, inviting them to do a Radio 4 session with him last month. There, the Staves impressed with an a cappella ballad of theirs called Wisely & Slow, and it's this song that kicks off Dead & Born & Grown.

"Choosing the order of tracks," says Milly, "is a fucking nightmare." They all agree that in a leaderless trio, decision-making can be exhausting, requiring constant group voting. ("We can't use that photo, I look like a donkey… Who cares? I look all right"). Anyway, they made a smart call on Dead & Born & Grown's opener, which begins with an abrupt intake of breath, followed by a full minute of unaccompanied voice – a brave way to launch a debut and an effective one. The Staves can sing.

Lead vocals alternate. Jess does ghostly, cymbal-strewn ballad Mexico, Milly the upbeat title track and Emily the bluesy Pay Us No Mind. Critics who've written about the Staves's music tend to note, of this last song, that an f-word in the middle of a verse comes as a shock. The assumption seems to be that the Staves are too sweet, too delicate to swear. "I don't know what image of us the music conjures," says Emily, "but I am aware we're not quite what you would expect if you'd only heard us sing."

This is true. Before our interview, Emily and Milly arrived at the Horns separately, at five and 10 past noon, each of them immediately wondering whether it was too early to order a pint. (They decided not.) Soon afterwards, a thoughtful ramble by Jessica on folk music, particularly its oral tradition, is derailed by Milly and Emily's bawdy laughter. "You pricks, you absolute pricks," Jessica responds. "This is what I have to put with."

So, yes, they swear in one of their songs – "and if you listen to the lyrics," says Milly, "the word doesn't seem out of place at all".

"It's an understated 'fuck'," says Jess.

"A gentle fuck," they say, all three of them at once. Hoots.

A year ago, with Britain's folk revival well under way, Mumford & Sons rising to the position of major money-makers and woolly-jumpered newcomer Michael Kiwanuka about to win the BBC's Sound of 2012 prize, the Staves told the Guardian that the genre's renaissance was a reaction to an abundance of corporate pop. True enough, but 12 months on, there's an argument that revived folk, itself now abundant, is facing a reaction or the beginnings of one. There are a lot of twentysomething Brits making completely decent, completely incongruous music about an American life they probably haven't lived. There's Bible belt existentialism from newcomers Dry the River (east London based) and Hampshire's Laura Marling singing her beautiful, melancholic, frontier-wife plaints.

The Staves grew up in Watford – children of a teacher and a businessman who both loved American folk – but listen to Dead & Born & Grown and you'd sometimes think that their upbringing was a Carolinian one or a Californian one. Album closer Eagle Song describes a soaring cardinal. The sisters' recent single, Tongue Behind My Teeth, is so clip-cloppy in rhythm they decided to make a video for it dressed as cowboys and riding horses.

"No," concedes Emily, "we don't live in a log cabin." "And we didn't grow up sitting on a porch, playing banjos," says Jessica. "But at the same time," says Emily, "we grew up listening to a lot of artists who were singing about that." Their parents would have friends over all the time, they say, to play Dylan or Crosby, Stills & Nash. As kids, they thought for years their mum and dad had written Helplessly Hoping. "So in some way that is an influence, that is part of our story," says Emily. "And you don't want to deny that."

They make an effort to pick each other up, they say, if a lyric comes out too Americanised. "At the same time," says Emily, "if you fiercely stick to your own accent it can be at the expense of the music actually sounding pleasant." A mid-Atlantic compromise has been made.

For me, their most powerful songs are the ones where Watford squirms through, as on Facing West, for example, a fragile two-minuter that's only more powerful for the occasional M25 vowel that penetrates.

Emily and Milly still live in Watford, within walking distance of the Horns (though separately – "Everyone assumes the three of us must live together, in a house full of chiffon and cats"). Jessica moved to west London a few years ago but seems to regret it; like her sisters, she says, she spends most of her time in Watford when not touring. Abroad, the Staves try to do their bit for area tourism, talking up the merits of their home town on stages from Austin to Brooklyn. American fans usually promise they will visit, says Jess, adopting an accent: "Sure, we'll come to What Ford."

Last week, the Staves played their biggest show to date, not too far away, just south of the Watford bypass at Wembley Arena, where they supported Bon Iver in front of 12,000. Next, they're booked to gig at the Other Voices festival in Ireland, by which time their first headline tour will be under way. It's enough, you'd hope, to formalise their place on the Horns's wall of fame. Pam?

The Staves have moved away to the pub's Beatles corner, pints in hand, to be photographed. Meanwhile, the landlady considers her wall. There's a photograph of Peter Jackson, who a decade ago was in town recording the score for Lord of the Rings. That'll stay up. Below hangs a snapshot of Shane Richie, soap actor and occasional singer; he's been in. Time, Pam thinks, for Shane to come down. To make room.

Dead & Born & Grown is released on Atlantic. The Staves tour the UK in November before playing Other Voices in Dingle on 3 Dec.


Tom Lamont

The GuardianTramp

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