Interview: Stealing Sheep

Page 22 – Stealing Sheep, header image credit Luis SantosThis Stealing Sheep interview was originally published in Issue 6 of DrunkenWerewolf Magazine, June 2013.

Stealing Sheep are three women who collectively embody the alt-folk scene; a movement that’s been billowing in the underground of Britain for decades, but has recently been invigorated thanks to a mainstream breakthrough and a revived interest in all that surrounds the festival atmosphere of the 70s. The scene has found an unpredictable home in Liverpool, where the trio are based.

“[Liverpool is] a great base for us, because we feel creative here,” elaborates Rebecca Hawley, the band’s keyboardist and, by and large, chief strategist. “Every place can conjure new inspirations and we feel like your surroundings reflect in your music, wherever you are in the world.”

Joined by Emily Lansley on guitar and Lucy Mercer on bass and percussion, Hawley completes the Stealing Sheep line up. It’s one that has threatened to expose the riches of Liverpool’s scene to the rest of the country, with their debut album Into the Diamond Sun causing a ruckus amongst critics on its release last year. However the ladies don’t let their success go to their heads, instead truly establishing themselves as a part of an emergent collective by collaborating with local talent.

“For us Liverpool has helped [to] cultivate our sound because of the inspirational people here. We’ve collaborated with lots of our friends [who have] skills on offer, from producers, engineers, costume designers, photographers, animators and film makers. It’s a magical place to be!”

Hawley continues, “There’s a band called All We Are - a trio from Ireland, Brazil and Norway. They’re based here and are pretty quirky popsters! We’ve toured with them in Europe and they’re good friends of ours. For our Christmas party [held in Liverpool in December 2012] we collected together some of our other favourite local bands, like Ex-Easter Island Head, Barberos and The Left Hand. We’re also collaborating with Lucy’s marching band [The Harlequin Dynamite Marching Band] for a few festivals this year.”

If anyone’s surprised by the seemingly explosive nature of Liverpool’s current music scene, they need only visit the city for a taster. Propelled by a friendly atmosphere, and between art collectives, exhibition spaces, markets, venues and recording studios, there’s plenty to get your teeth into.

“I think Liverpool isn’t challenged with the same competitive drive as other cities like London,” Hawley explains of the city’s quiet, approachable demeanour. “Musically there are a lot of artists creating bands for art’s sake, rather than commercially driven motives. There’s less hipster buzz around what’s being created by most of the bands and therefore less press about it.”

As for its standing on the “Northern” scene, Hawley and Stealing Sheep see Liverpool’s independence as “a positive thing”.

“We aren't too influenced by the usual pressures of the music industry,” she explains. “When we’re here it's like a haven outside of our usual hectic schedule touring the country, doing photo shoots, meetings and interviews (usually in London or Manchester). It helps [to] give us a clear perspective on things and we feel very free to be experimental with our music and not follow trends or jump on band wagons, cliques or the current scenes. We see it as a positive but can also see how being in the midst of the current music buzz could benefit us too.”

Moving on to the city’s greatest export, Hawley admits, “The Beatles created an identity that’s still so strong in the city. Maybe outsiders find it hard to look past that and aren't really searching for what's modern but I think it's pretty rich in innovative diverse music. You just have to look for it in tiny pubs and cafes. The only national platform for this kind of thing is The Kazimier which has put Liverpool back on the touring map.”

Prolific on the scene, The Kazimier joins a group of people, spaces and artists playing an important part in what’s currently going on in Liverpool. Becky fondly agrees: “We love working with [The Kazimier collective] and bouncing ideas [off of] people in their group. They have an amazing skill set between them, making things light up, unusual costumes, dance choreography, set design, music direction and incredible ideas behind them. It’s an amazing opportunity for us to be able to collaborate with them on things.”

Just as crucial to the band’s output are neighbouring venues like Mello Mello and the Wolstenholme creative space, as well as the exhibition rooms and studios dotted in between.

“These places are very important to what we do,” says Hawley of the Parr Street area, home to all of above. “We met and began writing together because of [venues like Mello Mello and The Kazimier]. It's been our creative world since we started the band and helped to nurture and cultivate our ideas and recordings.”

Hawley continues: “We really like to record at Mello Mello because of its atmosphere and [the] endless tea upstairs! We worked with our friends on Into the Diamond Sun there. Sam Crombie from The Kazimier collective produced the album. The bar staff joined in on chorus vocals and people dropping into the cafe with an instrument were dragged down to the studio to play a bit of trumpet or snare here and there. It gave us a great place to be creative and collaborate with lots of people.”

Though Parr Street is secure in the hearts of musicians and artists across the city, unfortunately recent developments mean its occupants are under threat of closure. Specifically, the colossal shopping development to the left, known as Liverpool One, is encroaching on the area after the venues’ landlord was forced to hand over his buildings to the bank. Losing the community space, says Hawley, would be incredibly detrimental to Liverpool’s rising profile.

“Without a creative location that’s affordable for us and for the artists here [...] we can see that Liverpool would suffer dramatic loss in its current cultural pull. Hopefully the council will realise this and favour the importance of maintaining this creative scene over some kind of renovation of the area. We heard some guys might want to come and make it the 'New Camden'. A superficial finger print copy of an artist place won't be the same and won't be sustainable financially for creative people... Even if it looks the part it won't have the heart!”

Away from Mello Mello, Stealing Sheep have recorded in all sorts of places, nooks and crannies: from an abandoned school to their own flat and back again. According to Hawley setting is an important aspect of their material.

“The atmosphere of a place is really important to us,” she affirms, claiming that if the band could play anywhere in the world, it would be “in Egypt in a pyramid”. As a dream, it’s bizarrely not out of the question. The trio have already proved their versatility on the field.

“We've used an old school [St Margaret’s, in Liverpool] for its amazing acoustics in the old gym. We've filmed videos in an old warehouse by the dock front and in the exhibition space in the Wolstenholme creative space. These places are the most true to our identity and reflect us in everyday because the spaces are lo-fi, DIY and unlike other places you find in other music videos. This helps us build a unique identity and aesthetic that has a community feel and gets everyone involved which is exactly what we want to portray in our music and in our creative mindset.”

“There are a few other locations that we'd like to record in with the next record, including outdoor locations like Sefton Park and the Palm House [in Sefton, Liverpool]. Our new album already feels like a mystical isle and we're feeling really inspired by Paddy Steer, Moon Dog and Eden Abhez... Nature and fantasy are infiltrating our writing so we would like to find locations that capture that. We're really close to the sea so we'd like to record around the coast a bit. Crosby beach made for a great location for our first music video “I Am the Rain”. We got up in time for sunrise for a week and this atmosphere would be amazing to capture on the next record.”

This appreciation of the outdoors seriously helps Stealing Sheep to prepare for playing at festivals this summer, whatever the weather: “We like playing in the dark so when the sun’s going down, this is our favourite time to play when we're at outdoor festivals. When we played at Festival Number 6 last year we played at a magical hour overlooking the sea. A rainbow appeared during our set and we actually stopped, stunned, to tell the audience to turn around and look at it. We've played in hail storms, in the rain... All these elements affect the way we play and the energy in the music.”

Two of the many events they’re billed to play over the summer are based in the South West: at 2000Trees and Glastonbury respectively. Of the former, Hawley says she feels fortunate enough to have cherry picked their appearance to perform alongside Iggy Pop, Melody’s Echo Chamber and Alt-J.

Of Glasto however, she is slightly more apprehensive: “I've never been so I don't know what to expect. Our friends in Alt-J will be there and our label so we are really excited to experience it with them. I'm nervous about the size of it because I don't like the overwhelming festivals usually. The smaller ones usually retain true festival spirit better but I've been told it's more like a collection of all these small festivals and that you can stroll into different atmospheres.”

However, “it's an amazing opportunity to perform and we get to play twice! Once at the Croissant Neuf stage and then The Park stage with the likes of Cat Power and Devandra Banhart. We're really excited!”

To round off, Hawley moves on to Stealing Sheep’s sophomore album; a release we can apparently expect early next year.

“We're recording in May with a producer based in Liverpool called Joe Wills. We will aim to finish it in time to release in January next year so amongst all the gigs we'll be knuckling down on this! We've got about a third of the way through writing [the] album and it's sounding very different to our first. The signature sounds that are developing are being shaped by new instruments we've been collecting from the touring. We've picked up a bamboo zither, Mexican shakers and hand drums and our ideas feel more eclectic. We're also doing loads of illustrations and animations that will accompany the record in some shape or form.”

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