Published Jun 12, 2018"Can I call you on your bullshit?"
It's evening in New York and Lauren Mayberry, lead singer for Scottish synth-pop act Chvrches, is settling in for a drink with Dave Stewart. She and her bandmates, Iain Cook and Martin Doherty, have just finished their first day of work with the former Eurythmics guitarist when the 65-year-old Rock and Roll Hall of Famer drops this bomb on the 30-year old Mayberry.
"And I was like, excuse me?" she recalls, "What are you trying to say?"
After touring 2015's Every Open Eye for two solid years, Mayberry, Cook and Doherty decamped to New York, American visas in hand, wanting to experience life in one of the world's creative hubs. They quickly decided to record their third album there too, disassembling their Glasgow studio and rebuilding it in the Big Apple (getting half the space at twice the price, notes Cook).
As work progressed on what would become Love Is Dead, they began casting about for a producer, the first time the trio had looked outside the band for help. "It wasn't about changing [our writing] process, it was about finding the right person to fit into the process," says Doherty. "And that, quite possibly, could have been no one."
Whereas Mayberry previously used the band to document more personal travails, Love Is Dead is Chvrches' clear-eyed view of the world outside the band, albeit still from a personal point of view. "It's about frustration and confusion and growing up to discover that the world isn't as ideal as you thought it was," says Mayberry. "What do you do with that? You can sit with that sadness or you can proceed."
Booking one-off sessions with a handful of candidates, these "fact-finding" missions yielded a cache of over 30 songs. They weren't interested in someone writing songs for them or otherwise impinging on the distinct sound they had established on The Bones of What You Believe and Every Open Eye. "Sometimes when you listen to the radio, you can tell that there's just a handful of people who are writing songs for lots of different artists," she says. "We were never going to sign on the dotted line up front."
Stewart was the first to challenge the band — "To poke at us in a way that an old-school producer would," Mayberry says. Since their inception, Chvrches have straddled the fence between rock and pop — their songs follow the general patterns expected of other guitar-based bands, but, like much of modern pop, they eschew six-strings for synths, building towering riffs digitally.
"He said, 'Because you don't fit in the big pop world, but you don't fully fit in the alternative world, you get the best of both. You get to live in the middle and do stuff that a lot of other bands can't do.'" Having someone of Stewart's stature essentially say "come on guys, get your shit together and become the band that you want to be" was both humbling and motivating.
The band wrote four songs with Stewart, none of which ultimately made the album's final cut. But their time with the rock legend, who's worked with everyone from Tom Petty to No Doubt, nonetheless proved fruitful. "He was kind of like a creative mentor to us," says Mayberry, giving the band the confidence to continue on their own path, rather than kowtowing to the expectations of others.
"An amazing guy, an inspiring guy," says Doherty. "But, in order to bring someone into the nucleus, it had to feel special and really natural and we didn't get that until we met Greg."
Like many of the producers the band tried out, sessions with Greg Kurstin were scheduled for just a few days. But he eventually became Love Is Dead's primary producer, writing eight of its 13 songs with the band. "The great thing about Greg is that he's worked with so many different kinds of artists," says Mayberry. His eclectic production credits (Kelly Clarkson, Tegan and Sara, Foo Fighters) mirror Chvrches omnivorous musical tastes. Prior to our conversation the band had thoroughly flummoxed a local radio host when they big-upped Camila Cabello, along with experimental electronic musician Nicolas Jaar and Polaris Music Prize winner Kaytranada. "The energy was just really exciting and fresh," adds Doherty. "He was challenging us in a way that got the best out of us."
Perhaps the biggest shakeup to the band's creative process, though, was the way that Mayberry wrote the record's lyrics. For their first two records, she'd separate herself from Cook and Doherty, write with a musical sketch in mind, and then the three musicians would try to find common ground on which to marry music to words. "Sometimes we'd come back and it slotted together perfectly," she says. "But sometimes it didn't."
Inspired by Cook and Doherty's experiences writing with other artists, this time she wrote concurrently with her bandmates. "Any time a session is a failure, it's usually because you leave without a hook, without connecting a piece of lyric to the work that you've been doing that day," says Doherty. "I think establishing that connection at the inception of the idea makes for something a lot stronger."
Though Chvrches' music has never been expressly political, "the personal is political" notes Mayberry. Writing a record about the world's dwindling sense of empathy seems like the most Chvrches way of tackling the troubling political climate in which we now exist. Her knack for turning sad subjects into songs of empowerment is "a reflection of [Mayberry's] personality and worldview," says Cook.
But being the light in the darkness takes its toll. In 2013, she penned an op-ed for The Guardian detailing the abuse she's experienced as an outspoken feminist. "On [tour for] the first record, I was so vulnerable, and all the kickings that were given were really shitty, because they felt really personal," she says. "So on the second record, I thought 'I can't physically do that again, I will create this tougher version.' And that worked really well, but I think it lost some of the good parts of the vulnerability."
The #MeToo movement has helped change some attitudes, but not all. "That stuff still happens to us, it doesn't go away," she says. "It's sad that you have to steel yourself so much that you lose a lot of the good parts of being an emotional person. So I'm going to try and find something in the middle."