Late last year, The Staves carefully placed a microphone at one end of a barn, walked to the very far corner, and started recording.
The distance was necessary because the sisters – Emily, Camilla and Jessica – were planning to scream one line over and over, until their throats were raw: “I’m a good woman.”
It’s a lyric that gives the band’s third album its title: A statement of confidence and defiance, after a turbulent couple of years that left the trio questioning themselves and their career.
Their lives were turned upside down in summer 2018, when they suddenly and unexpectedly lost their mother, Jean, a former teacher who had encouraged them to follow their dream of making music.
Her death came just two weeks after their grandmother died. Within a month, Camilla had broken up with her long-term boyfriend in Minneapolis, and found herself moving back to the UK.
“It was kind of like a double kick in the stomach,” says the singer.
Devastated and grief-stricken, they took a “big break, and stepped away from everything”, says middle sister Jessica – only for some people to say they were making a mistake.
“We were made to feel like we weren’t good enough as a band,” says Jessica. “Almost like we’d had our moment, and lost our sheen.”
When they started to make music again the sisters were, unsurprisingly, a little shaken up.
“I felt like we’d lost perspective,” says Camilla.
“It’s often that way when you lose momentum,” adds elder sister Emily. “You start questioning everything: ‘Is this any good? What are we doing?’
“What am I?” says Camilla, warming to the theme. “What is my life? What have all my decisions led up to?”
To break the creative impasse, The Staves abandoned their plans to self-produce the record and called in Grammy-winning studio veteran John Congleton.
While previous producers had focused on the sisters’ spell-binding harmonies, Congleton – who has worked with Phoebe Bridgers, St Vincent and Angel Olsen – was more concerned with their state of mind.
“He said, ‘You guys are in a really interesting place in your lives, and I think you’ve got something important to say – so I really want to help you figure out how to say it,'” recalls Emily.
“That really stopped me in my tracks because no-one’s said that to us before. It gave us confidence and faith in the songs.”
That self-assuredness is apparent throughout the album. There’s a new directness to their lyrics, not least because Camilla had a lot to get off her chest.
“A lot of it was my last relationship,” says the 30-year-old. “There was a lot that needed to come out – and when you can’t shout that bile in that person’s face, a microphone is the next best thing.”
The words would just flow out, she says. Sometimes she stopped to ask herself if they were “too catty” – before deciding raw emotion was more honest than self-censorship.
“All the kicks in the ribs / They can really make you weak,” she sings on Careful, Kid – describing how the relationship chipped away at her confidence. “And I’m coming around / From a five-year rebound”.
“When you’re in a relationship, you can end up viewing yourself through the other person’s eyes,” she explains. “And in bad cases, you lose sight of what you actually think about yourself – and you start to let them dictate whether you think you’re a good person or not.
“I think I just got to that stage. There was a feeling of, ‘What does it even mean to be a good woman? Is it just shutting up and being amenable or accommodating?’
“And after a while I think you just need to be like, ‘Well, screw it, I am a good woman. I am enough’.”
Which is how the band came to be screaming that very sentiment in a barn in rural England last year.
And yet, as Camilla points out, most of these songs were written before her break-up actually took place.
“It’s very weird when you listen back and think, ‘Oh my God, I wrote that song when I was still in the relationship,” she says.
“That’s the most depressing thing in the world – that, in hindsight, your song is telling you to run.”
Across the album, song titles like Paralysed and Failure tell a story of doubt and depression and self-criticism. But the first single, Trying, carries the core message – of not giving up, even when it’s a “struggle to be a good person”.
“All we are trying to do is try – and we’re all messing up along the way,” says Jessica, “but hopefully we’re learning, too.”
The band were so enamoured with the song that they wanted it to be the title track. Their label had other ideas.
“They said ‘trying’ doesn’t sell records,” Emily recalls. “We were like, ‘Nothing sells records, mate, just let us do what we want.'”
Eventually, they were dissuaded by the marketing team.
“They thought it might invite negative reviews,” says Camilla, doing a perfect impression of a self-important rock critic: “The Staves were ‘trying’ to be good, but it didn’t work.”
Self-deprecation aside, the album sees The Staves evolve into a bolder, more experimental band than the folk-adjacent trio who emerged from Watford’s open mic scene with 2012’s Dead & Born & Grown.
Good Woman – the title track and new single – opens with a computerised, processed loop of the sister’s vocals and incorporates subliminal snatches of conversation from their mother, grandmother and other influential women.
On Careful, Kid, Camilla feeds her voice through distortion pedals and guitar amps, producing a sound like an angry hornet trapped in a megaphone.
“She played it to me and I was like, ‘This sounds like a Led Zeppelin guitar riff,'” says Jessica.
“We also started using lots of field recordings – ambient noises and bits and bobs we recorded on our phones.”
But The Staves’ magic ingredient has always been the crushing emotive power of their harmonies – and, with everything that’s happened in their personal lives, Good Woman is their most devastating album yet.
Only the most hard-hearted listener could fail to be moved by Sparks, a delicate ballad that’s dedicated to their mother.
There, the sisters sing about those jagged shards of memory that ambush you unexpectedly after someone has gone – the sound of their keys in the door, the way they walked, the filthy joke you know they’d have loved.
“I still have to be careful when I listen to it because it just sneaks up and grabs me by the throat and makes me cry,” says Emily, who became a mother herself for the first time last year.
For Camilla, it was “a breath of relief to write a song that’s just about absolute jubilant love”.
“And that’s the thing I think about grief, is that it’s love,” says Emily. “It hurts exactly in correlation with how much you loved someone.
“When mum died, it was completely out of the blue. I remember being so devastated, but also feeling like I’ve never felt that much love in my life.
“I felt it from everywhere: The love that you’re capable of for the person that’s just died; the love that we felt for each other as sisters; and the outpouring of love from all around us, for our mum.
“It was really so powerful and incredible. I was like, ‘Holy crap, I didn’t know there was this much love in the world. This is magic.'”
The Staves’ new single, Good Woman, is out now. Their album will be released on 5 February, 2021.