The Staves have always been open to collaboration.
The band's approach to songwriting is without limit, accepting influences wherever they can find them.
Crossing paths with American collective yMusic, the twin groups seemed to realise that they had a lot more in common than they thought.
Agreeing to perform together at the Eaux Claires festival in the United States, the musicians wanted to work on something new, something different.
The performance seemed to spark something, opening up a path that has taken these two groups to a joint album.
Out now, 'The Way Is Read' is a fascinating chamber piece, a whimsical, tender, emotionally engrossing collection of a dozen minute masterpieces.
Clash invited The Staves' Camilla Staveley-Taylor and yMusic cohort Rob Moose to cross-examine one another...
Here's how it went down.
- - -
- - -
When was the first time you realised the other group existed?
Rob: The first time I realized The Staves existed was when they walked into their dressing room on the Bon Iver tour, in either Edmonton or Calgary, where I had spent, like, two hours setting up a pedal steel guitar I'd just bought for the first time.
I was probably midway through making some of the world's least musical sounds, at least somewhat quietly, when three heavily accented sisters walked in and rather politely enquired as to whom on Earth I may have been! It was a pretty quick trip from that moment to being absolutely stunned at soundcheck by the sounds coming from stage, and an even quicker one to wandering onto that very stage daily to join them for a few songs in their opening set.
Camilla: I love being described as “heavily accented”! Yeh we first met Rob in our Edmonton dressing room. Rob and CJ were both playing with Bon Iver at that time and we got to hang out a lot, and then eventually heard they played in this sextet with four fellow New Yorkers. I think I remember thinking “fuck I bet that group is amazing” but it was a long while ‘til I actually heard any of their stuff.
How did this collaboration come about?
R: Our groups got together thanks to an almost unprecedented level of like psychic curatorial genius and courage on behalf of Justin Vernon and Aaron Dessner. yMusic was invited to do a show in a literal sweat lodge at the first Eaux Claires festival, for a couple hundred people listening to us probably in their underwear and on headphones, and we decided to thread songs from guest singers into a set of chamber music.
The Staves joined us for two songs from their second album, and it may have been the extreme heat, but we had a deliriously great time working together. As a result, we were paired up for year two of the festival, and we approached our set about as ambitiously as we could, musically, by focusing on building entirely new material.
Through a combination of The Staves writing over unreleased chamber music pieces of ours, and us adapting unreleased songs of theirs and removing the expected main instrument (guitar or piano, say), we built an album-length set of music that truly featured the essence of what each group could do on its own, but doubled!
C: I remember playing in that sweat box. CJ’s trumpet was sliding around his face cos it was so sweaty! That set was amazing though. Just doing those couple of songs felt like a little light bulb going on for me. Just the breadth and potential of it all. I guess it felt the same for all of us and for Justin and Aaron too.
- - -
- - -
Tell the UK readers a bit about Eaux Claires Festival…
R: The festival wins the award for most open-minded and least annoying audience, as well as best backstage catering and most camp reunion-like atmosphere amongst fellow performers.
C: 100% correct. Festivals can all blur into one after a while, but honestly Eaux Claires shines like a beacon of what a festival can and should be. It is very collaborative and there is so much care and attention given to putting on unique and interesting acts or performances for people to see. It’s not corporate at all either. No massive sponsors plastered all over the place. As Rob said, the audience seems so behind that entire ethos of the thing too. So open minded. I can’t speak highly enough of it.
Aside from Eaux Claire's, which is your favourite festival to play and why?
R: I have almost never not hated performing at a festival. Music Now in Cincinnati and Bonnaroo are two memorable exceptions.
C: Hahah! Yeah festivals can be tricky little bastards. Very easy for them to be a nightmare to play. They also can be vibes as fuck too. It’s a fine line. For me Into The Great Wide Open in the Netherlands is up there. Listening crowd and a really beautiful setting. It’s tucked away on an island called Vlieland. Lots of wooded area, hardly any cars, great food, intimate performances. Ace. Bushstock in London is great too, and Glastonbury will always have a piece of my heart.
How were the recent shows at the Walker Art Centre?
R: Performing at The Walker really felt like finding the ideal venue, both for yMusic and for this project. Our aesthetic is amplified acoustic, as in light reinforcement of our natural sound, and the theater there is actually built for this exact purpose. From more of a content standpoint, it was a joy to present the collaborative set to an indoor, concert hall audience.
The material that makes up the album, 'The Way Is Read', is actually kind of two long suites, and the environment in the room was totally supportive of that structure in a way that benefited the music and shaped the evening's arc.
C: Totally. It was the perfect space. This kind of project and doing performances like this is still pretty new territory for us and the Walker just made it so smooth. It was also great to have complete control over the visual elements too to create the exact feel we wanted.
Do you think you’ll take the joint shows to other countries?
R: Odds are we'd be huge in Australia.
C: It would be fun but no plans as of yet. Also, we’re all really lazy.
- - -
- - -
What is your worst habit when on tour?
R: Tortilla chips.
C: Genuinely ditto. Just eating all the rider even when I’m not hungry. Tortilla chips are my nemesis. Also, shall we start a new band called “Genuinely Ditto”?
Which track is your personal favourite from 'The Way Is Read' and why?
R: I think my desert island track is 'Courting Is A Pleasure'. It's such a beautiful programming of polarities, with this old folk song living in kind of a dystopian viola concerto. I love the rhythm we've found in supporting the narrative while maintaining really odd and intriguing sonorities.
C: Yeah I like that one a lot too. Really enjoyed that pairing. Kind of an unorthodox version of folk. I reckon my fave is a fight between 'The Way Is Read' and 'All My Life' though. I enjoy the relentless feeling of the title track and 'All My Life' just has so much floating movement to it.
Which is your favourite track of each other’s, not 'The Way Is Read' related?
R: I like to listen to 'Sadness Don't Own Me' while crying during airplane landings.
C: I hate all your music.
What did you learn from working with each other?
R: I've learned many things from working with The Staves: the possibilities hidden in the fleeting complexity of a small musical gesture, the psychic power of siblinghood, the importance of telling the story of how you've come to be, the value of humor and intuition, and the supreme power of the human voice.
C: I think I learnt that saying yes to challenging and unfamiliar things can yield incredibly rewarding and nourishing results. It’s honestly broadened my musical mind. Hearing what we made in such a short period of time. Hearing what could be possible with players as intuitive and talented as you guys are etc.
If you could collaborate with another artist, dead or alive, who would it be?
R: So many of our group's dreams have come true this year that I don't dare to wish for anything else!
C: Same. Also, I hate literally every other artist/group apart from The Staves or yMusic.
- - -
- - -
'The Way Is Read' is out now.
Join us on Vero, as we get under the skin of global cultural happenings. Follow Clash Magazine as we skip merrily between clubs, concerts, interviews and photo shoots. Get backstage sneak peeks and a true view into our world as the fun and games unfold.