Lauren Mayberry’s voice has often been described as ‘sweet’. Even producer Greg Kurstin, the pop heavyweight with whom CHVRCHES collaborated on their new album Love Is Dead, described it that way. But rather than leaning into her voice's innate purity and creating a comfortable home, Lauren says she uses it to “lure people in and then trap them.”
The music, bold and bright as it often is, burns the edges of her voice, draping it atop undulating synths and machinated drum beats that almost threaten to drown it. On new single “Miracle,” a fierce, shimmering question mark of a song co-produced by Steve Mac, Lauren’s voice rings out in its purest form before being broken into shards and sampled, the chorus squashing and distorting it. Pay attention to the band’s lyrics, and the sugar melts away completely.
The Scottish electro-pop trio’s forthcoming third LP is full of heartbroken despair doubling as a polemic against the current political climate. “Wasn’t it gonna be different? And wasn’t it gonna be true?” asks “Never Say Die,” before determining, “All you want is to play at playing God.” The song’s chastised subject could just as easily be Donald Trump as it could a romantic partner. Elsewhere, on “Graves” for instance, the ambiguity slips towards outright political fury: “They’re leaving bodies in stairwells and washing up on the shores / Do you really expect us to care what you’re waiting for / When you’re high in your castle / Keeping an eye on the door?”
Crammed into the booth of a busy west London diner, surrounded by the sound of clattering bowling balls and ‘50s doo wop, I sat down with CHVRCHES for a candid, impassioned chat about their new album, politics, Time’s Up and why “the women are fucking pissed.”
Most of the songs on your new album, Love Is Dead, could be about both a relationship and the state of the world. Would you agree?
LAUREN MAYBERRY: I could go down the list and say which ones are about personal stuff, and which are just waking up in the world we live in right now and feeling the heaviness of that. But I really like the fact that people can read them in whatever way they want. That just says that pop music doesn't have to be meaningless. To me, it's about the death of empathy I suppose. Some days you get up and 100% agree with this album title, and then other days we emphatically don't agree. I guess that's what it's about, questioning and trying to figure it out.
In what way do you think empathy has died, and what do you think has caused it?
LAUREN: The best thing about where we are right now is people being conscious and caring about each other and doing things with a purpose, and the worst things are the apathy and lack of ability to engage and empathize with each other. All of that ultimately probably comes from a place of hurt. If people are really hateful and disgusting in the way they treat other people, that probably came from a hurt place — but then, when does it stop? When does this spiral end? Sometimes you can get pretty melancholic about that.
IAIN COOK: I think it comes from a place of fear as well. The idea of building walls and isolating and alienating ourselves from, for example, the rest of Europe. "I don't trust this person because I don't know them, or know what they want from me." I think that contributes as well to wanting to withdraw.
MARTIN DOHERTY: People are inherently selfish, that is just the way it is. And when those people become politically disenfranchised, that starts to breed hatred, and then when you get someone saying all the right things, that they identify with, like the people in power in Britain and in America right now, that spreads and increases the level and intensity of that feeling, until we get to the position that we're in right now.
LAUREN: It's like an onion, there's layers of fucking sadness to that. Because the people who are generally coming from a place of privilege, the politicians who are saying they're gonna help these people, aren't gonna help them. They're helping people that are like them, they're helping people who are in a high tax bracket, they're helping businesses, they're helping corporations, [not] the people that were fearful and confused. If your life sucks and someone tells you it's because of somebody else, that's where these things flourish and fester because everyone's sad and afraid. And then you say you're gonna help them, and you didn't even do it. You dragged us out of Europe because people were afraid and you preyed on their fear, and you're not even gonna help them anyway. What a horrible state of affairs!
MARTIN: The anti-Scottish independence campaign in the UK preyed on people's fear about what would happen if Scotland was not in the European Union. But then a month later they were like, "Oh, by the way, see that whole campaign… we're gonna leave the EU anyway."
LAUREN: People say it's too soon to have another Scottish independence referendum, but Theresa May will have another general election! Somebody said to me the other day, "You should be pleased there's a female Prime Minister because that's feminism at work." Just because somebody walked into Downing Street and had a vagina, doesn't mean they're making decisions that benefit women in any way. Margaret Thatcher was a lady. I suppose she was a woman in a man's world, but that's about the only nice thing I have to say.
“Just because somebody walked into Downing Street and had a vagina, doesn’t mean they’re making decisions that benefit women in any way.” —Lauren Mayberry
So where do we go from here?
LAUREN: There's a lot of stuff to be fucking sad about, there's a lot of stuff to be fucking angry about, but I think you have to take those things and try and figure out a way to have a conversation. If we just stand at two opposite ends of the spectrum screaming in each other's face, we're never gonna get anything done. I don't agree with a Trump voter, but why do they feel like that? Yes, some of those people are racist and have hateful opinions, but some of those people voted for him because they felt completely left behind. You think they're these demonic figures, but it's actually just people that are in the same city as you, shop in the same shops as you, who watch the same movies as you, so why do they feel so differently? That's scarier to me.
I was reading an interview with a band recently who were saying something along the lines of, "You wouldn't ask a footballer about guitar amps, so why would you ask a musician about politics?”
IAIN: Well, because musicians are real people in the real world.
LAUREN: When people say, "Stay in your lane, you're a musician, so you should only talk about music," what do you think songs are written about? I connect with music because what somebody has said has resonated with me in one way or another.
MARTIN: That's such an idiotic argument. I might ask a footballer what his politics are.
LAUREN: Some musicians don't have strong opinions, or they deliberately don't have strong opinions because they want to try and sell as many records as possible. In this current moment, some people are gonna look back on that and look pretty fucking irresponsible and heartless. You wanted to sell X-number more records by deliberately staying quiet about things when you could make a tiny difference and lose... There's certain massive pop stars who deliberately don't talk about certain things, and that's your prerogative to do so, but you're only afforded the ability to do that because you're at such a place of white privilege that it doesn't touch you. I'm not gonna say the exact names, but I think we can all figure it out.
MARTIN: We're not a political band, but we're making music at a time where it would be so bizarre not to comment on this stuff. It is everywhere you look. How can you possibly make an authentic record right now that's coming from a personal place or a genuine place, that doesn't at least have an awareness of what the fuck's going on around you? The idea is insane.
Lauren got flack five years ago for saying things about being a woman in the industry…
LAUREN: …which now would just be on a T-shirt.
MARTIN: “Flack" is definitely one way to put it. Iain and I had a particularly interesting perspective standing next to somebody that took the level of criticism that Lauren did. It was intense.
LAUREN: Not that we didn't get a lot of props for it. We didn't do anything terribly revolutionary, we just asked for equal treatment. It's kind of mad that that was such a big deal. Writing an opinion piece about [gender inequality] got more attention than it would now because there's so much more conversation, which is good.
MARTIN: There's [some people] that maybe play into that now.
LAUREN: There's certainly pop stars who are quoted as saying, "I'm not a feminist, I don't hate men," and then fast forward two years and their entire album campaign is about sisterhood and women and "feminism fuck yeah!" OK, but if that is your marketing campaign, then when an administration comes in that is systematically stripping away the rights of women, maybe it's your job to say something. You can't just make money off it and then not actually do anything.
With someone like Taylor Swift…
LAUREN: Your words, not mine.
MARTIN: Who was talking about Taylor Swift?
… I think you’ve got to allow people to evolve when it comes to their views on things like feminism — but as you say, if you’re profiting from it, it is strange to then stay silent on big issues.
LAUREN: Yes. Taylor Swift's feminist turn, I don't really care how you got there and why you're saying it because you're saying it to a huge demographic of young girls who can't be reached by other people, so you talking about that is fucking powerful. I don't really care if someone found out about it through the writings of Kathy Acker or from a Taylor Swift interview, ultimately it's empowering young women, and it's putting it out into popular consciousness. But, also at this point in time, when somebody says, "Would you denounce white supremacists who are using your music?” maybe that's a morally conscious, correct decision to make. That's the straw that pissed this camel off.
IAIN: That's an interestingly stretched analogy. The camel's like, "Fuck you, straw.”
Five years ago, the big question was whether you were a feminist or not. Now, no one's reluctant to say identify as such, but it doesn’t always translate into action. Does it concern you, with gestures like wearing a white rose on the BRITs red carpet, that it's easy to get credit without actually saying, doing, or risking much?
LAUREN: Yeah, we'll have to watch and see how that translates into action. It's really great that we're talking about this stuff, but you can't just make those token gestures and not turn around and look at who's in the room and how you're treating them. With the Oscars, you kicked Harvey Weinstein out, but you gave Kobe Bryant a fucking Oscar. Bill Cosby's still in the Academy, so is Roman Polansky, so is Mel Gibson. Mel Gibson's back in the game? What the fuck's going on there? He's a racist, sexist, aggressive beast. Surely he ticks all the boxes of people you probably don't invite.
MARTIN: He's reformed though don't you know?
LAUREN: Not that people can't change, but in this moment, with that narrative, we're gonna put up Daddy's Home 2 billboards?
MARTIN: You can't cut someone's head off with this hand and bring the other guy into your bosom with the other. That's not right.
“You can’t just make those token gestures and not turn around and look at who’s in the room and how you’re treating them.”
There’s a danger that some people will say,"We got rid of Weinstein, problem solved."
LAUREN: It worries me that those few men will be the sacrificial lambs, and then everyone will just carry on as normal. I keep thinking, when are the fucking dominos gonna fall on the music business? That's stacked and ready to go. But it's not unionized in the same way.
I suppose there's two issues, there's various people that might be acting illegally or immorally, and then there's the structural inequality.
LAUREN: Yeah, the culture around it. To me, that's why the conversation around Time's Up should end up being a two-layered thing. There's the stuff that's straight up illegal — assaults and crimes — and let's deal with that, but then also there's stuff like the Aziz Ansari thing. Everyone was having a debate on whether that was or wasn't assault. Just because something isn't a crime, doesn't mean that it's acceptable or appropriate. It's kind of crazy we're in a time where someone can be like, "Well he didn't rape anyone." It's like, "Oh does that make it fine?" It’s a nuanced discussion, and the nuance is somewhat lost if we're just talking about white roses. But it's a conversation that's in the right wheelhouse, it's just whether or not we've figured out the exact way to have that conversation. I don’t know. The women are fucking pissed man, as well they should be. This was due in the post for a really long time. Everyone's like, "Why are the women so upset?" I'm like, "Because you made them that way!”
Going back to the album, how was the writing process different this time around?
LAUREN: Last time, we would get the vocal sketch and the instrumentation, and then I would go away and write it completely in isolation, then we would come back together. Sometimes that would work, and sometimes it would end up quite disparate and feel a bit strange.
MARTIN: [On this album] we were all together when we were breaking ground on an idea, so we were at least all in the same headspace, even right up to a lyrical concept or an idea for the hook, and then we put our own spins after the fact.
LAUREN: Sometimes I'll show [lyrics] to the guys, and there'll be things that have been crossed out, and they'll be like, "No that's better.”
MARTIN: Lauren's got this thing where she'll write the absolute killer, and then cross it out.
LAUREN: I'm not ready for it to be told.
MARTIN: It's funny though, as you grow in confidence, instead of it being scored out to the point where you can't see it, it'll just be a line. I think that's an interesting part of your growth. By the end of this, maybe they'll all just be there."This is what I want to fucking say."
“Lauren’s got this thing where she’ll write the absolute killer, and then cross it out.” —Martin Doherty
I read that Greg Kurstin said to you, Lauren, "If the vocals are as sweet and precise as this, why not make the other sounds fucked up and gnarly." I'm interested in your relationship with your voice, and the fact that it's often described with words like "sweet.”
LAUREN: I kind of like that you can take that tool and use it for evil. Lure people in with this sound — "Oh this sounds like a pop female vocal" — and then we trap them. If everything else was super polished, and we super tuned the vocal, and the lyrics were more benign, I feel like we would polish all the heart out of it. If we made it shinier and cleaner and more technically radio-friendly, then it would have none of the guts and personality.
MARTIN: There's a thousand ways to use an instrument like Lauren's voice. It's not like Tom Waits, where there's a small number of ways you can make that voice work, with a voice like Lauren's, it's usually heard on Top 40 radio under generic producer crap, and we were never about that.
How important was it to you, at the start of your career, to make it clear that Chvrches is a band, with three equally important members?
IAIN: It's easy to see this as a pop production duo with a singer, and that's not what we are.
LAUREN: We were super focused on establishing that, especially on the first record because once those things get taken out of your hands, it's out of your control. I feel like now, nobody thinks that it's a hired singer vanity project.
MARTIN: There's two very particular sides to that, though, because on the one hand Lauren really didn't want to be seen as a vehicle for somebody else's songwriting, but nor did we want to be seen as two...
LAUREN: Creepy dudes.
MARTIN: …creepy producer guys who have found a girl because they were incapable of doing it any other way. It was just three people that met at a very particular point and got together at a really fortunate time in all our lives, and the result was this band. [We’re] three oddballs that have got together somehow. I'm proud of that.