Photo by Danny Clinch

 

Lauren Mayberry: Rising to the Top By Slipping Through the Cracks

CHVRCHES frontwoman discusses influences, history and empathizing with fans.

“It seems very grown-up to be speaking at a conference,” remarks CHVRCHES singer Lauren Mayberry about her scheduled SXSW Music Keynote session. “Normally we’d just be schlepping around in the back of a van.”

That Mayberry says this while backstage preparing for a prime, mainstage performance at the Austin City Limits Music Festival betrays her modesty about her band’s stature and success. In the six years since CHVRCHES arrived at SXSW early in its first U.S. tour and walked off with the inaugural Grulke Prize for Developing Non-U.S. Act, the Scottish trio’s rise to major headliner status has been steady, yet quietly relentless.

At the same time, through her insightful and forthright statements about the issues facing women in the music industry, Mayberry has become a central figure in discussions about gender inequality. It is in this dual role as entertainer and social activist that she will speak at the SXSW Music Conference alongside Garbage frontwoman (and fellow Scot), Shirley Manson.

Interview excerpt: Mayberry talks about the time she met Shirley Manson

The roots of CHVRCHES extend back to Iain Cook and Martin Doherty meeting while both were students at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. Cook was a founding member of the local alt-rock band Aereogramme, which was signed to Chemikal Underground and released four albums prior to splitting up in 2007. Doherty was a latter period member of Aereogramme, and future CHVRCHES manager, Campbell McNeil, was the band’s bass player.

Mayberry had been a fan of Aereogramme, and in 2011, Cook produced an EP for her unsigned band, Blue Sky Archives. As she remembers, Cook mentioned a new collaboration he had with Doherty, who was playing with The Twilight Sad at the time, but downplayed his expectations of it. “They were maybe going to try to sell it to publishing company or just put them online,” she recalls. “It was never like it was going to be a real band necessarily.”

CHVRCHES at 2016 SXSW Radio Day Stage. Photo by Christopher Mcneil

CHVRCHES at 2016 SXSW Radio Day Stage. Photo by Christopher Mcneil

 

Cook then (“rather unprofessionally” as Mayberry jokes) played some of the Blue Sky Archives recordings for Doherty, who suggested that they bring Mayberry in to help with the new project. “So we did the demo, and after that, we were all excited about it,” she says. “And we had a conversation in a pub about making it a real band, and what we wanted to do, and that was that!”

CHVRCHES released the first online track, “Lies,” in May 2012 on the Neon Gold Records’ blog, and soon after, the song was getting played heavily on both SoundCloud and BBC Radio 1. The band made its live debut that summer, and after the release of the “Mother We Share” single in November, Glassnote Records came calling. CHVRCHES signed with the U.S. label in January 2013, joining up with the likes of Mumford and Sons, Phoenix and Childish Gambino, while contracting with Virgin in the U.K.

“… on the face of it, you’re like ‘That’s not what a pop band should be!’ But that’s how I kind of feel like we slipped through the cracks, because we’re not what a pop band should be.”

When CHVRCHES headed across the Atlantic in March 2013, the grassroots buzz was becoming undeniable. “First, we played the Independent in San Francisco, the Echoplex in Los Angeles and then we went to South-By,” Mayberry remembers about the first U.S. tour. “And every time we were like ‘There’s people at these shows, and they know the words, and there’s not even a record out!’ I’d never been in a band where anyone knew any of the words ever. So that was pretty wild!”

By the time CHVRCHES arrived in Austin, she says Doherty sensed that the timing was perfect: “Martin had been to SXSW tons of times with other bands, and we got there and felt totally out of our depth with throwing up gear and trying to get shows to happen, but he said ‘This feels different’ … It’s so hard to get noticed because there’s so much going on, and people were really paying attention to the music. Sometimes it just connects with people, and you feel really lucky.”

CHVRCHES DJ Set at the 2016 SXSW Music Opening Party at Maggie Mae's. Photo by Dustin Finkelstein/Getty Images for SXSW

CHVRCHES DJ Set at the 2016 SXSW Music Opening Party at Maggie Mae's. Photo by Dustin Finkelstein/Getty Images for SXSW

 

Sonically, Mayberry, Cook and Doherty had managed to conjure a sound that was cutting-edge but heavily rooted in classic ’80s U.K. synth pop sounds. “Iain had started collecting vintage synthesizers, so we started writing on those instead of with guitars, so that was kind of the starting point,” Mayberry explains. “And then we do all kind of overlap in our love for Depeche Mode, Kate Bush, Cyndi Lauper … But what makes the band sound the way it does is that we all have quite different tastes in a lot of ways, so then you merge those together with all of those old school influences.”

Interview excerpt: Mayberry talks about relationship with fans

Using the SXSW buzz as a springboard, CHVRCHES toured through the summer before releasing the debut The Bones of What You Believe in September. Before ultimately earning Gold sales status in the U.K., the album topped Billboard’s “U.S. Independent Album” chart and was in the top ten of “Best of the Year” lists from The A.V. Club, Consequence of Sound, Paste and PopMatters.

CHVRCHES capitalized on the initial acclaim with the release of the follow-up, Every Open Eye in 2015. Again, the band handled production, recording in a basement flat refurbished for recording. Sales and exposure-wise, Every Open Eye performed even better than The Bones of What You Believe, cementing CHVRCHES’ status as both a critical and commercial force, while maintaining the core sound of the debut.

 

“People think that because of the instruments you’re playing, that it’s gonna be a po-faced, serious, kind of cold electronic project,” says Mayberry. “But the songwriting is more informed by the old school Euro synth pop, and the live show is definitely more informed by rock bands we’ve been in, and the lyrics are more informed by the likes of Jenny Lewis or Nick Cave. But on the face of it, you’re like ‘That’s not what a pop band should be!’ But that’s how I kind of feel like we slipped through the cracks, because we’re not what a pop band should be. On paper, no one should want to have signed us, but in practice it fuckin’ works!”

For the most recent record, Love Is Dead (released in May 2018), CHVRCHES chose for the first time to work with outside producers. The band collaborated with the likes of the Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart and The National’s Matt Berninger during the creation process, and ended up using one song produced in conjunction with top U.K. producer Steve Mac. In the end, eight of Love Is Dead’s 13 tracks were done with the multi-Grammy winner Greg Kurstin. “I like the fact that the records are all connected,” says Mayberry. “But they don’t feel like the same album over and over again, and I feel like that’s the hardest thing to do.”

Though the band’s heavy touring schedule will take them across the U.S. through the end of 2018 before heading off to Australia, Europe and Japan, Mayberry will make the trek to SXSW to engage in a Keynote Conversation with Shirley Manson, presented in association with the PRS Foundation’s Keychange program. For Mayberry, the chance to share a stage with another prominent women in the music industry and discuss both past challenges and a more equitable future was one she couldn’t pass up.

“Growing up where we grew up, Shirley Manson was a big fuckin’ deal. I genuinely think that if I had never discovered Garbage and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Blondie that it would have ever occurred to me that ‘you could be in a band’ … And 20 years ago, she was saying stuff that people are still having arguments about now, and having the confidence and intelligence and bravery to say things like that has been super inspiring,” Mayberry concludes.

SXSW will be held March 8-17, 2019. The Music Badge gets you primary to all SXSW Conference Music & Convergence Tracks, Music Festival showcases and Comedy Festival showcases, as well as secondary access to most Interactive and Film programming. See you in March!

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