Chvrches: How singer Lauren Mayberry became 'the punk rock Joan of Arc of pop'
“Sometimes I look at my lyrics and I think, ‘Are you all right?'”
Lauren Mayberry is still taken aback by the emotions that poured from her pen as she wrote Chvrches’ third album, Love Is Dead.
As the title suggests, the record deals with a gut-punching heartbreak - but it gives equal consideration to the hate and divisiveness that have dominated politics since the band last released new material.
“We’re looking for angels in the darkest of skies,” Mayberry sings anxiously on the pre-apocalyptic single Miracle. “Where does all the good go?“
The singer’s “frustration and confusion” at the state of the world was only exacerbated by the band’s recent relocation to the US.
“It made us go in on ourselves even more, being in that somewhat hostile atmosphere,” says her bandmate Martin Doherty.
“I don’t know,” says Mayberry. “I think I’d feel pretty pessimistic if I was living in pre-Brexit Britain, too, to be honest.
“But it’s a typically Glaswegian thing to do, to feel the most misanthropic and macabre when you’re in the sunniest place on earth.”
The band’s decision to live in New York and record in LA surprised many fans because, ever since they emerged in as pop’s premier synth band in 2012, Chvrches have refused to play by the music industry rule-book.
Mayberry challenged misogyny and abusive trolls long before the #MeToo movement caught fire, while the trio insisted on making their first two albums in the basement of synth player Iain Cook’s house in Glasgow.
“We were incredibly against any idea of outside collaboration whilst we were forming our identity,” says Doherty.
But with the band established in the charts and on festival line-ups, Cook felt they’d done enough to build “a protective armour around that core”.
The time had come to see what other writers and producers could bring to the band. But it did not go well.
“We did one session where we were bouncing ideas around,” recalls Mayberry. “A couple of well-known producers came in and kind of sprinkled a chorus on, and then they just left.
“I thought they’d just gone round the corner to get a bacon butty, but no, they’d gone. Like. ‘Boof! There’s your chorus. Goodbye’. That song did not make it any further.”
Other collaborators tried to steer the band away from their indie instincts.
“They were like, ‘Well, it’s top 40 time, isn’t it? Let’s go!’ But that was never us, really,” Doherty says.
More productive were sessions with Eurythmics star Dave Stewart.
“Talk about going to the source,” marvels Doherty. “I don’t want to say we’ve ripped him off, but I’m extremely influenced by him.”
Although the songs Stewart produced didn’t make the album, his unconventional techniques had a profound impact.
“Every evening he does Martini hour,” says Mayberry. “And one night, out of nowhere, he just turned around and said, ‘You know, I think that you want to be this punk rock Joan of Arc of pop music - so why don’t you just stop complaining and do it already?’
“I was shocked and mildly offended at first. But I kept thinking about it in the taxi on the way home.
“I thought, ‘I don’t know if I feel like that, but if he can see it in me, I should probably think about it.’
“That definitely unlocked something in her lyrically,” observes Doherty. “He ignited a fire and helped us find a type of creative ambition that was maybe missing in the past.”
With the band on a creative roll, they hooked up with Greg Kurstin - the producer behind Sia’s Chandelier and co-writer of Adele’s Hello.
They instantly felt a connection, not least because his studio was a dingy basement of “wall-to-wall keyboards” and a constant “buzz and hum of electronics”.
Mayberry says: “The special thing about Greg is he’s still a musician himself. He always wants to play and experiment. He doesn’t come in thinking, ‘I’m this guy who made this record and I have this many Grammys.'” [Five, to be exact].
Within a week, the band had recorded four songs. Impressed, they cancelled their other plans and decided to work solely with Kurstin, who captured Mayberry’s soaring soprano on the same microphone he’d recently used for Adele, Dave Grohl and Paul McCartney.
“Everybody’s like, ‘Oh, it must be very intimidating to work with Greg on vocals,'” says the singer. “But he’s not thinking about technical ability, he’s looking for personality.
“Adele’s an insanely amazing singer - but it’s those rasps and cracks that give her songs such character. And ultimately, music’s all about communication, isn’t it?
“If you take all the character out of it, and you take all of the humanity out of it, it’s much harder to get emotion across.”
Love Is Dead is littered with emotions - loss, pain, confusion, anger and hope.
On Graves, Mayberry references Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy whose tiny body was found on a Turkish tourist beach after his family’s attempt to reach Europe by sea went tragically wrong.
“They’re leaving bodies in stairwells and washing up on the shores,” she sings, before resolving: “You can look away while they’re dancing on our graves/But I will stop at nothing.”
Some of the album’s more personal songs (notably the stark, grief-stricken Really Gone) made Mayberry nervous about revealing herself in public.
“A small part of you is like, ‘Do I really want to do that in front of people? Maybe I should score it all out and write something that’s a little bit more vague,”‘ she says.
“But as a writer, if you’re not actually exploring things and being honest, then what are you doing?
“I think, sometimes, being vulnerable is harder than coming out swinging.”
Still, the singer’s not afraid to come out swinging when it matters. Reflecting on the #MeToo movement, she’s sceptical that much has changed.
“It’s great that people are waking up and having that conversation, but it has to be more than a symbolic gesture,” she says.
“Yes, it’s great that you kicked Harvey Weinstein out of the Academy but Roman Polanski’s still in there, Woody Allen’s still in there, Bill Cosby’s still in there.
“People wear white roses at the Grammy Awards to show they stand with these things - but then you look at the show, and you look at the content of it, and you look at the people in the room, and you’re like, ‘Oh, nothing has changed.'”
And Mayberry knows the perils of confronting the darker side of the internet. In 2013, she published a searing column for the Guardian about the abuse that female musicians face on the internet - and received even more vitriol as a result.
When she subsequently appeared in a video wearing a dress, the singer was branded a “hypocrite”, a “slut” and a “bitch”.
“Looking back on it now, a lot of it was frustrating and it made me really angry and made me feel really lonely,” she says.
“And there were definitely points where… Not where I didn’t want to do this any more, but I was like, ‘If this is what it’s going to be like all the time, I don’t really know if I want to be that guy forever.'”
Thankfully, Mayberry is made of stern stuff. She’s not about to let trolls define her any more than the existential crisis that prompted Chvrches’ new album.
In fact, what’s really occupying her mind right now is the celebratory curry she’ll be sharing with her bandmates tonight, as a reward for finishing a tough week of promo. That prompts her to consider the really important questions.
“We always get a wee shared black dhal and I’ll probably stick to a prawn dish,” she says.
“And sometimes I will hover over a potato and then I’ll think, ‘Do I really want tatties in my curry?’
“I don’t know! Maybe I do!”
Chvrches’ new album, Love Is Dead, will be released on 25 May. They play Radio 1’s Biggest Weekend in Swansea the following day.
Source: BBC Entertainment