As we enter 2012, Liverpool’s Stealing Sheep are cooking up a storm. Currently, however, one-third of the folktronica trio is actually cooking up some formidable looking soup. The Line Of Best Fit is sat in vocalist/keyboardist Becky Hawley’s kitchen and she has just prepared what looks and smells like the world’s healthiest pan of vegetable broth. It is so thick that several spoons would stand tall in it.
Becky is a graduate of the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts – or LIPA as it is known around these parts – which is sited at Paul McCartney’s old school. Along with bassist Emily and drummer Lucy, she formed Stealing Sheep during the summer of 2010. Their brand of melancholic, woozy folk quickly captivated local audiences.
After supporting the likes of Ólöf Arnalds and Emmy The Great, Stealing Sheep have recently released a sparkling mini-album, Noah & The Paper Moon, which collates their early singles on the ever-inspiring Heavenly Recordings. The trio are currently writing their debut album proper. It would appear that Stealing Sheep are ready for 2012; a shiny people-carrier sits outside Becky’s window (“our first van cost £700 and the engine melted on the way back from a festival”) and the band have already bagged a support slot on a forthcoming Field Music tour. Trips to SXSW and New York’s Sound City beckon.
But, for now, thick soup and a forthcoming show for The Line Of Best Fit are first up on Stealing Sheep’s beguiling menu.
I know you attended LIPA, but how did you meet Emily and Lucy?
We actually met on Lark Lane, which is a little alternative street in Liverpool, with a few cafés, pubs and vintage shops. I was working in a shop and they were working in a café above. I used to call them and ask for beans on toast. We gradually go to know each other. I’d play records in the shop and we would have musical conversations and swap music that we’d done.
What music did you play in your shop?
I’d actually watch the rain out of the window and play Bo Carter and old-time blues. I think, harmony-wise, that comes through into the music we are doing. On an upbeat day there would be MIA and Santigold and electronica like Au Revoir Simone.
LIPA is based in Paul McCartney’s old school and he is a patron, but what was it like to study there?
Well, the big advantage is that you are surrounded by brilliant musicians. So, if I need a harpist or a trumpet player, in terms of contacts, it is brilliant. In terms of resources – studios, rehearsal rooms, or if you need a video camera or a lighting rig – it is great. There is a management course as well, so, while we are all into music, what I learned on the course is how you turn that into a sustainable project – how you turn it into a business and keep it alive.
Was there a lecture on how to deal with music journalists?
No, but we did have journalists come in and talk to us. We had to go out and review a band and become the critic and learn the musical vocabulary.
Who did you see?
I went and reviewed DJ Scotch Egg. I loved it.
So, the three of you then decided to form a band. How did you settle on what you wanted Stealing Sheep to sound like?
Well, we all met up in a café in Liverpool in July 2010 and we knew what each other could play and we all liked female harmonies – that is the reason it is three girls. Then, we each wrote down on a piece of paper all the bands we liked, made a playlist, swapped them and they were all completely different. Emily listens to Krautrock and Seventies psychedelic stuff, Lucy likes gypsy music and I like electronica.
You’ve pretty much described the Stealing Sheep sound.
But, hopefully not is a pastiche kind of way. The, we did some recording on my cassette player and it was really distorted and heavy. That gave us an idea to be a bit darker because of the distortion on the cassette player. We decided to be heavier and a bit more dramatic. We didn’t want to be twee in any way, as it is three girls with cutesy voices. We didn’t want to fall into that Joanna Newsom thing, even though we like her. We didn’t want it to be soft. We wanted it to have a melancholic, haunting vibe.
I believe you recorded ‘I Am The Rain’ at Abbey Road studios. How did that come about?
Well, even though we’ve told the world about it, an unnamed engineer snuck us in, in the middle of the night. We spend eight hours recording in a studio that costs £3000 per hour for free. It was just phenomenal. I loved it and can’t wait to go back there one day. The acoustics are brilliant and we recorded it live in the room. As we were driving towards Abbey Road, the engineer was on the phone and told us that Paul McCartney had just arrived. I’ve met him a few times through my course. But, we missed him because, for some bizarre reason, we couldn’t find Abbey Road.
So, what is Paul McCartney like?
He is just a normal, lovely guy. The strange thing was I didn’t think about the fact he is famous until afterwards. I called my mum and told her I had just jammed with Paul McCartney and it was my parent’s reaction that made me realise it was big deal.
You jammed with a Beatle?
Yeah, I just played my song and it had a section with a kazoo and he loved it. Then, he wanted to play a song and have me do the kazoo part over it. I wasn’t starstruck at all, it seemed very normal at the time. I think I would be starstruck if I met Björk, because she may be more influential to me.
Did Macca give you any good advice?
He did. He said I was not resolving my songs, and I needed to so that the audience knows when to clap. He was telling me how you please the listener and it is not just an indulgent thing about you, it is also about the people you are playing for, which is obviously something he does rather well.
I realise that I wouldn’t be asking a male band this question, but as an all-girl group, how conscious are you of how you are perceived against your peers?
I’ve noticed we keep getting pigeon-holed. All of our band comparisons have been female artists. Sometimes they don’t sound anything like us; it is just that it is three girls. The real reason we are three girls is that we like three-part female harmonies, but we actually like playing with guys as well.
And what about your image?
We have just started thinking about it. We have had quite a bit of criticism about it in the past. Someone said that we looked like Joni Mitchell, but in a negative way, in a review. So, we had a lot of comments of what we were wearing – some good and some bad – and it definitely made us think more about what should we were wear. But, people take a photograph of us and that becomes a brand.
I have to do that awful journalist of comparing your sound to other bands – to give readers a reference point. I’m feeling lazy, so why don’t you tell me who you think Stealing Sheep sound like.
I would say Broadcast for my synths. We also listened a lot to Twin Sister – I really like that Twin Peaks, dreamy sound. Emily’s guitar style has been compared with My Bloody Valentine as she uses a lot of whammy. Lucy has a similar drum set-up as Velvet Underground.
Are you psych-folk?
I prefer folktronica, because it is electronic but a bit folky.
You’ve just released a mini-LP Noah & The Paper Moon.
That’s not our first album. It is a collection of our singles; it’s a bit ramshackle in a way as the songs are all very detached in their moods.
So, when can we expect your ‘proper’ debut album?
We are writing it at the moment and recording it in January. It will be released in May-ish. There is no deadline.
How are the new songs developing?
We have definitely grown as a band in terms of the music. It is not as easy for us to play; we’ve used lots of different time signatures and it is more advanced musically but it is not intended to be difficult to hear. It’s challenging us as musicians more. We are growing the sound and the songs are more contained journeys.
There is a real buzz about Stealing Sheep, and you seem to be tipped by many for success in 2012. Does this create its own pressure?
I’m trying to ignore the pressure of that as people are going to expecting something and I don’t want to think about that. I just want to carry on doing what we are doing and that people carry on enjoying it.
And finally, I don’t usually ask the ‘band name’ question, but I’m intrigued by Stealing Sheep. What’s the story?
Well, there was a Norwegian death metal band called Enslaved who stole a sheep from a politician who wanted to legalise the free downloading of music. No sheep were harmed in the process and they made their point. It’s a little bit boring – that’s why we usually make something up.
Noah & The Paper Moon is out now via Heavenly. Stealing Sheep play London’s The Old Blue last on December 13th.