There’s an economic and cultural schism in the UK. It’s called the North/South divide. In the South the people are wealthy, urbane and sophisticated; in the North they are poor, primitive and uncouth. Colloquially, the boundary between these two regions runs through Watford. When a southerner refers to people living in places “north of Watford” they mean the unfortunate inhabitants of deprived areas – the uneducated, the grubby, the unworthy.
The town of Watford lies just 25 km north west of central London. It is on the London Underground and within the M25 London Orbital motorway that encircles the Greater London metropolis. Four fifths of England is to the north of the town. And beyond that there is the even more barbarous kingdom of Scotland. Very little of this island actually qualifies as “the South”. And there’s the rub. Northerners feel as though they get a raw deal from a parliament that is based in the capital city and whose policies seem to be unfairly skewed towards the Home Counties of South East England.
In the mid twentieth century Watford was a place of printworks and breweries. Nowadays it is more often associated with Elton John’s favourite football team. But there’s another musical connection, too. Emily, Jessica and Camilla Stavely-Taylor, the sisters known collectively as The Staves, grew up and formed their band in Watford.
The Staves‘ music sits somewhere between Laura Marling and The Unthanks – I’ll call it modern, adventurous indie-folk. Or, as one reviewer put it:
Superior sing and strum, indebted to bygone folk but with a singular flavour born of the sisters’ intricately knotted vocalsTom Lamont in a Guardian article
The sisters first started to perform in public at their local pub, The Horns. That would be around 2004 if my calculations are correct.1 In 2010 they released their first EP and contributed to Tom Jones’ album, Praise and Blame. Their debut album, Dead & Born & Grown, appeared in 2012. Here’s the title track.
There’s something intriguing about the lyrics in that song. Even the title seems to have the words in the wrong order. Shouldn’t that be “born”, “grown” and then “dead”? But the song doesn’t just repeat the ‘circle of life’ mantra for us, it makes us think in a whole new way about how some things change and others stay the same. And old themes seen through new eyes pervades much of the band’s material.
In 2015 The Staves performed at the Glastonbury music festival and released their second album, If I Was. It retains the sumptuous three-part harmonies and adds uncredited session musicians for a fuller, more mature sound. It’s a little more upbeat, a touch poppier and carries a hint of Americana. I particularly like Steady, although I can’t say I understand the lyrics on this track and the video only leaves me more uncertain.
The Staves‘ third album was a collaboration with the chamber music ensemble yMusic. Released in 2017, it’s called The Way Is Read and it demonstrates the sisters’ unfettered willingness to experiment. The result is much more than a folk-singer trio with a chamber orchestra as their backing band. Tapping into the talents of the American composer Ryan Lott and exploring the tones and textures of yMusic‘s six classical instruments has produced a stunning blend of classical and folk music. And there’s no better example of that hybrid fruit than track 5 on the album, All My Life.
A new album from The Staves is due out on 5th February; it will be called Good Woman. In a review on the BBC website Mark Savage says, “the album sees The Staves evolve into a bolder, more experimental band” and he notes that “the title track … opens with a computerised, processed loop of the sister’s vocals”.
The Crotchety Assessment Panel agrees that there is a little more use of electronics but, for us, the effect is to suppress the vocal harmonies and dilute the distinctiveness of the sisters’ earlier compositions. And that’s a shame. Then again, the songs are still lovely and we can imagine that they grow on you in time.
Crotchety Man lives about 150 km from Watford (as the crow flies) and it has taken at least 8 years for news of The Staves to reach me. That’s a speed of roughly 2 m/hr, or twice as fast as a snail. I know we are backward here in the North, but I can’t understand how it could take so long for word of something as wonderful as The Staves to get here.
- According to the bio on Apple Music, “Emily was only 14 years old when the siblings made their live debut at a neighbourhood pub’s open-mike [sic] night …”. But that would mean that Camilla, six years younger than Emily, was only 8 when they first performed at The Horns. It is much more likely that it was Camilla who was 14; Jessica would be 16 and Emily 20. A BBC article from last year tells us that Camilla was 30 in 2020, so she would have been 14 in 2004.