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Chvrches on soaring pop, sexism, and making a statement

‘A white rose is really nice, but are you actually going to change the way that you treat women?’

A lot has changed while Chvrches have been away – and a lot hasn’t. In 2013, the Scottish trio emerged with jagged synth-pop tunes that dug into the public imagination. They also, very quickly, established that they wouldn’t be standing for any of the music industry’s shit. When publications tried to single out frontwoman Lauren Mayberry in press (ignoring multi-instrumentalists/producers Martin Doherty and Iain Cook), she refused, instead insisting that the group be treated as a group. She wrote an op-ed for the Guardian about the abuse she received as a woman in a band – and received even more vitriol after it was published. As the band released their second album Every Open Eye in 2015, Mayberry yet again vocally battled the misogyny directed at her online.

In the time since they finished touring that record, the band have been laying low in their adopted home of New York. Meanwhile, outspoken feminism is a trait that’s now become pretty common, even coveted, for young women in pop – but Mayberry notes that the world that Chvrches are returning to with the release of their soaring new single “Get Out” doesn’t feel all that different. “I read one single review of ‘Get Out’ in a American website publication,” she reflects, “and they used the phrase ‘telling off’ in it. I know that's not a big deal in the grand scheme of things, but it’s indicative… They would never say that a male singer was ‘telling somebody off’, like a harpy woman.”

From their inception, Chvrches have been resistant to watering down their opinions into something palatable, and they have the same approach to their music. Though they’ve always written sharp hooks, their synth-noodling instrumentation pushed the songs into weirder territory, unrefined by any outside producers. “There are parts of the contemporary producer culture which definitely aren’t for us,” says Lauren. “You can hear it when you listen to the radio – there’s a certain handful of people that are writing songs for ten different artists and it all sounds the fucking same.”

But this time, Martin reflects, they felt “truly secure” in themselves as a band, and so had the confidence to invite new people into their process as they wrote their third album, Love is Dead (out May 25). That’s how they ended up working with renowned pop producer Steve Mac on one song, and Greg Kurstin (known for his work with Sia, Adele, Foo Fighters, and many more) on several others. The result is a record of roof-raising choruses, weighted by lyrics that tell of anger, hedonism, and political anxiety. “We were encouraged to step up.”

Living in America in the age of Trump, did you feel a pressure to write about politics on this album?

Lauren Mayberry: I feel that any kind of art is kind of a snapshot of where you were at that time, and it would be difficult to take a snapshot of this time and not be influenced by things that are more than personal. When you look back on this (time), albums that were made to fit the two year cycle, ignoring all the thing that were happening in the world, are going to look really jarring.

Iain Cook: The important thing is to be truthful, whether you’re being pointedly political or personally political. If you are speaking from the truth that’s inside you, then ultimately you will come out with something that resonates.

Did you go into the process with a concept in mind?

Iain Cook: At the beginning of a process like this, you break it down into manageable chunks. Trying to do an all-encompassing idea for a project that could easily take you a year to record is very difficult. You're putting yourself under an immense amount of pressure. It's cool because on your first album you get to make it in the shadows; there’s no pressure at all. It's like the secret that you know about that nobody else does. The third album it’s like, you should make a statement. I think that lyrically, it's the most complete thing (Lauren has) done. It always upsets me when people say she “just writes songs about relationships” or whatever.

You feel like in the past you’ve been pigeonholed as writing romantic songs?

Lauren Mayberry: I had this conversation with a friend recently, who isn't a musician, and it was interesting to hear somebody say it: Men can write songs about romance, and it's thoughtful and investigative and it’s an allegory for everything in life. But when women write songs about romantic relationships, they just wrote a song about a relationship.

Martin Doherty: Or in some way they seem to be complaining about said relationship. I feel like it's deeply sexist attitude.

Lauren Mayberry: I grew up listening to stuff like Alanis Morrisette, but I also grew up listening to Death Cab for Cutie and Bright Eyes, and I think I took more of the way that I write lyrics from listening to male, emo alternative bands. But as soon as you put that kind of writing in a woman’s mouth – it's “complaining”, and “angsty.” If a man had written Jagged Little Pill – it’s obviously still regarded as one of the greatest records of all time – but if a dude had written that, people would have been like, “woah, he’s bared his soul! It’s so deep and raw!”

Martin Doherty: I think that's your best lyric on the album, in a song called “Heaven and Hell”, that’s a song that addresses (sexism) pretty directly – that's amazing. I think it's time to say that, and you have the confidence, three albums in.

Lauren Mayberry: I don't like to toot my own horn that much, but when I think about the people that were saying those things like, “She's only in this band ’cause of (being a woman)”, now I'd love to go back to Glasgow and do a victory lap. I’d be like, “My lyrics are better than yours, they're better than yours...” I don't mean to be rude but, again, if I was a dude maybe people would be... But then, maybe if I was a dude, I wouldn't write the way I do. My lyrics are the sum of my experiences.

Martin Doherty: I'm only now realising we're quite scarred. We're talking about shit that happened six years ago.

“Dr. Luke's in the cold, but beyond that, has there really been much change? We're still promoting and selling records by sexual abusers and rapists. You can't say no to one thing and yes to another” – Lauren Mayberry

No wonder – you faced a lot of sexism when you first started out, and so to release new music and see people use the same kind of language, it's like...

Martin Doherty: It opens the old wounds, shall we say.

Lauren Mayberry: (Martin and Iain) were always really smart and thoughtful and supportive of those things. They weren't in the driving seat, but (they) were in the passenger seat seeing the same fucking view, whereas a lot of men don't see that, it's more abstract. So I feel like these guys are almost more annoyed about it than me sometimes.

Iain Cook: That's one of the great side effects of what's happened this year with #MeToo and #TimesUp. It's made a lot of guys aware of how shitty guys are.

Lauren Mayberry: No woman was surprised by anything to do with those movements, but a lot of guys were surprised at the sheer scale. That's something I've always said, when I've been talking about (feminism) with friends or putting on events. I'm like, “Yes, it's important for us all to talk about this, but we have to take it outside of the room where we're all sitting agreeing with each other.” You have to involve men in the conversation, otherwise you'll never get anything done.

You’ve been having these conversations for years now – with this album cycle, do you feel like it's a different atmosphere that you're coming into, where it's less hostile to women who speak out?

Lauren Mayberry: It definitely seems different. The things that are being talked about in a more mainstream way were definitely not as accepted (five years ago), and were met with quite a lot of vitriol and hatefulness at that time. But then, I didn't invent it. I can't imagine what it would've been like saying that shit in the 90s, or 70s. I feel like time will tell, what happens next. There is lot of a conversation about it, but that has to be converted into action, it can't just be a lot of lip service. It’s great that everyone's wearing their Time's Up pins at the Oscars, but we're still giving Oscars to Kobe Bryant and Gary Oldman. You have to actually look at what you're doing. A white rose is really nice, but are you actually going to change the way that you treat women and minorities in music? Probably not.

In terms of the music industry specifically, it's cool now for young women stars to speak out and be empowered. But how much tangible change has there been?

Lauren Mayberry: There hasn't been a shakedown of the music industry in the same way as there has been in the film industry, maybe because it's not unionised in the same way. But I keep thinking, “One day these dominoes are going to fall, surely.” Dr. Luke's in the cold, but beyond that, has there really been much change? We're still promoting and selling records by sexual abusers and rapists. You can't say no to one thing and yes to another. You can't kick Harvey Weinstein out of the canon but still have Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, and Bill Cosby in there. Come on, guys! Let's be consistent with our changes!

Which songs on the album are especially meaningful to each of you?

Martin Doherty: “Really Gone” is an important song on the album. I think I'm at my best when I'm writing exactly how I'm feeling, and being in New York for six months and my family were all in Glasgow… that whole top-line was a spontaneous piece of writing. Lauren went out the room for 20 minutes, come back in and it was there. We were just like, “let's not touch it” – because it's important to protect those moments.

Iain Cook: I really love “Graves”. The music is so triumphant, and the lyrics are so defiant that it has anthemic quality about it that doesn’t feel cheesy. It’s ballsy, and it’s affirmative.

I feel that applies to a lot of the new songs – that idea of being anthemic without being cheesy.

Lauren Mayberry: I guess it’s because live has been such an important part of the band. I’m not religious in any way, but when I go to shows, it's a place of worship, a place where you celebrate, a place with a community. I went to a Nick Cave show, and I was like ‘this is really ironic, you're this gothic messiah figure and you're being worshipped by these people who relate to the lyrics about questioning the existence of Jesus Christ’. But that's the best place to experience those (songs), that are about confusion and conflict. If you can just experience it in a sweaty show, you can cry your face off or dance your ass off. It's nice to fully inhabit that, or fully escape for an hour and a half. That’s a powerful place to be.

Virgin/Glassnote will release Chvrches' third album Love is Dead on May 25