CHVRCHES’ Lauren Mayberry on Feminism, Journalism and Every Open Eye

Music Features CHVRCHES

Pity the poor, unprepared scribe who blithley enters the ring with scrappy Scottish singer Lauren Mayberry to discuss her synth-pop trio Chvrches or its new sophomore set, Every Open Eye—because this erudite artist has a Masters degree in journalism herself, and she does not suffer fools gladly. So anyone with uninformed, ho-hum questions is heading for a knockout blow that will lay them out flat on the canvas. For her current round of interviews concerning Every Open Eye, she’s been fielding the same unimaginative queries, over and over again.

“I wish we had a drinking game we could play when certain interview questions come up,” Mayberry, 27, says with a disgruntled sigh. “I think for our first album, it was all ‘What is the V about?’ and ‘How did you meet?’ And for the second record, it’s just been a lot of ‘Did you feel pressure when writing the album?’ It’s funny for us now, with the amount of things that are written about us, where someone obviously had an angle the night before they even spoke to us—to me, I look at that now and think, ‘That’s terrible journalism! Because your angle wasn’t informed by the actual conversation you had.’ I guess it’s just been really interesting to be on the other side of a media that I used to work on.”

Mayberry was originally studying law, but she soon realized that her personality just wasn’t cut out for it. “So I concocted a strange master plan in the second year of my degree that I would finish it, get my research skills up to scratch, and then do multimedia journalism and try to make a segue into documentary film,” she explains. “And I used to be quite hopeful that journalism could be a force for good in the world—and oftentimes it is, you know, a place to discover things and learn things. But I don’t know if I would have been a really great long-term journalist, either. So maybe I lucked out with the whole band thing.”

Far from combative, Mayberry is fairly friendly and forthcoming about all aspects of her career. And certain inquiries simply don’t need to be made—they’re part of Chvrches lore and legend now. Like how she grew up playing drums in several bands, including Blue Sky Archives, which eventually crossed paths with .Aerogramme anchor Iain Cook when he produced its 2011 Triple A-Side EP. Cook heard something special in her lissome voice and asked her to sing on some demos he’d made with fellow keyboardist Martin Doherty. By 2012, the three had played their first gig together and issued their bouncing kickoff single “The Mother We Share,” with the full album The Bones of What You Believe following a year later, on posh imprint Glassnote. It would go on to sell over 500,000 copies worldwide.

And no, there was no fear of a sophomore jinx hovering over the Every Open Eye sessions, which took place at the group’s own Alucard Studios, the same converted Glaswegian flat where Bones was whelped. They had countless co-writing offers, but they declined them all, concentrating instead on a cohesive Chvrches identity and sound. It proved a resounding success, exemplified by the lead single “Leave a Trace,” which takes a slightly sinister undulating synthesizer line and adds the wreathlike filigree of Mayberry’s perky chirp and her cautionary lyrical warnings: “Take care to tell it just as it was…Take care to bury all that you can.” Then the disc really revs up, with the club-thumping “Keep You On My Side,” a Modern English-anthemic “Make Them Gold,” the Blondie-bubbly “Clearest Blue” and “Empty Threat,” a Bauhaus-dark “Bury It,” and a Cocteau Twins-ethereal closer
“Afterglow”—the ultimate showcase for the frontwoman’s shimmery, silver-hued style. (A bonus-track edition features six more cuts, including live versions of “Clearest Blue” and “Leave a Trace” from the Pitchfork Music Festival.) It’s truly a remarkably cohesive record, the kind of rock-solid follow-up you rarely get these shallow days.

More importantly, Every Open Eye isn’t angry. And Mayberry—after recent events she’s endured, far worse than half-witted interview questions—has every reason to be seeing nothing but red. “But I guess I tend to write about more personal experiences and not that kind of stuff, and I don’t think that justifying that by writing about it would be something that would feel good for us,” she says, ‘that’ referring to the aggressively sexist, often misogynist messages she began receiving online after Chvrches became successful, which prompted her return to journalism two years ago with an op-ed column for UK newspaper The Guardian, in which she called every last troll on the castigating carpet for their behavior. Again, she was mad as Network hell. And she wasn’t going to smile demurely and take it.

Mayberry’s scathing column sent shockwaves through the male-dominated music industry. “And I guess at the time, it was probably born out of frustration and being very tired of having to do our job in that way,” she says. “And as much as we’d all been in other bands before this—and I’ve experienced a certain level of that while I’ve been in other bands—the level at which Chvrches was operating just then, we were receiving those kinds of comments and that kind of treatment to a much higher degree. And I guess now, I feel like, although that stuff still happens to us, I think that having an honest reaction to it has informed the ethos of the community that’s directly around the band. And that feels like we’re in a much stronger place, a much stronger position, and I feel much less isolated when dealing with it now.”

Even for the “Leave a Trace” video, social media chatter included snarky sexist putdowns. Trying to analyze their knuckleheaded origins, Mayberry began to think that she’d been brought up naïve, in a household where her parents encouraged her to accomplish anything she wanted, regardless of her sex. But when she started playing in pre-Chvrches bands—and dealing with male venue workers—she quickly understood that women were often seen as second-class citizens. The advent of social media hammered the point home. “Then you realize that—based on nothing other than your gender—people assume certain things about you, straightaway, and for a while, that was quite depressing,” she recalls. “Because I was like, ‘I am equally involved in the creativity of this band!’ So it was interesting to be undercut for no other reason than what gender you are.”

“Feminists are always the biggest sluts,” read one of the tamer posts regarding the “Leave a Trace” clip. Most are unprintable. And she is a devout feminist, Mayberry asserts. “But I think a lot of people are confused when they try to describe that word, and they try to make it into something it isn’t. So it’s got a stigma attached to it that I don’t think is justified. So in the Guardian piece, I simply wrote the sentence ‘I am a feminist,’ and then I outlined the basic definition of it. And to me, it’s the social, political and economic balance between the sexes, which we do not have at this point. I don’t think we have it at all.”

To that end, the activist has put her money where her mouth is, via the grassroots feminist collective she founded in her home town called TYCI. Ask her about the acronym, and she snickers wickedly. “Umm, it stands for Tuck Your Cunt In,” she states, matter-of-factly. “It’s kind of our slang term, a tongue-in-cheek way of saying, ‘Man up! Get your shit together, sort yourself out!’ I started it around the same time as Chvrches, so it was strangely timed. But it’s a volunteer-run collective, and we do live events in Glasgow once a month, and we have a radio show, a podcast and a website. There’s a handful of us that run it, day in and day out. But people can contribute by getting in touch with us.” She stops for a minute to consider the increasingly popular organization. “You know, as much as we talk about the negative aspects of being a woman in the creative industries, it’s nice to try and do something positive, as well, and focus on trying to create tangible change, rather than just complaining.”

How did Cook and Doherty handle all the negativity their bandmate was dealing with, every time she turned on her computer? “They were aware of the fact that these things happen to women,” she reckons. “But they hadn’t been in a band with a woman, or seen any of that stuff up close. So it was something that we were all pretty disgusted with, for a long time. But after a while, you have to think about how you actually want to deal with it—what are you going to do about it?” She thinks she’s found a suitably zenlike solution.

“You can’t change these people behaving like that,” Mayberry has decided. “But you can change how you choose to respond to it, and how you conduct yourself. And that’s why it feels better to us to talk about it in that way, so if there are young girls following our band online, then that makes them feel less isolated when they might be dealing with similar things. And if there’s young guys following the band who are figuring out who they are, what they want to be, then that’s great, too—they might stop and think about their own behavior for a second.”

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