The Unlikely Triplets: Stealing Sheep Interviewed

Stealing Sheep chat to John Freeman about how their three very different personalities have made a harmonious and captivating debut album

"We are unlikely triplets," says guitarist Emily Lansley of Liverpudlian trio Stealing Sheep. "But that’s a good thing, because it makes it interesting." She’s right; their recently-released debut album, Into The Diamond Sun, is a beguiling blend of styles from three musicians who independently cite "psychedelic rock", "electronica" and "gypsy folk" as sources of individual inspiration.

Formed during the summer of 2010, Stealing Sheep’s (keyboard player Becky Hawley and drummer Lucy Mercer complete the line-up), genre-dodging music – think Warpaint gone psych-folk blessed with twinkling three-part harmonies – has garnered critical acclaim and a burgeoning fanbase. Having seen them play several times in the last 12 months, I can vouch that Stealing Sheep appeal to a diverse cross-section of music fan – a neat trick indeed.

We conduct our interview while dining at an über-cool Asian-fusion eaterie in Liverpool’s leafy Hope Street area. A fusion restaurant is an apt choice – Stealing Sheep’s sound is the intricate combination of their contrasting personalities. Hawley is a graduate of the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts, which is based at Paul McCartney’s old school. She’s previously jammed with the man himself ("he was lovely, but I’d have been more starstruck if it had been Björk") and is the organisational driving force behind Stealing Sheep. Mercer is the quietest – but perhaps most insightful – during our meal, and confesses to not possessing a CD player, preferring to perform, rather than collect, music. Lansley describes herself as a veteran of Liverpool’s "psychedelic-kraut rock scene" and is the possessor of a bone-dry wit. When I ask her about the album track ‘Shark Song’, she swats away my question with a smile and a smirk, "It’s about sharks – what else do you want me to say?" before telling me that her ideal group would have "Beyoncé in Captain Beefheart’s band – that would be tremendous."

For dessert, we treat ourselves to a single portion of lemongrass-infused panna cotta with four spoons. It’s an unlikely but winning combination – a little like Stealing Sheep.

I believe you met when you all worked in Lark Lane area of Liverpool. What were your initial impressions of each other?

Becky Hawley: Actually, we knew each other from the city’s music scene. I had seen Lucy and Emily playing and knew they wrote great songs. I listened to their stuff obsessively for a while and then thought it would be a good collaboration.

My sense is that you primarily are people who love playing music, as opposed to being obsessive record collectors who wanted to then form a band. Is that a fair reflection?

Lucy Mercer: Well, I became involved with bands at the Kazimer club – I’d do bits of percussion – and that’s how I got into different types of music. Since we’ve been doing interviews for the band, I’ve realised I don’t actually have a music collection. I don’t even have a CD player. I’ve always wanted to do music – to play instruments and join in with people.

Emily Lansley: But, we do listen to a lot of music that we all talk about and we’ll discuss certain sounds or technical aspects that we find interesting.

The Stealing Sheep sound is dominated by your three-part harmonies. What is it about that style of singing that you like so much?

BH: It’s maybe because we are three songwriters; we like singing our thoughts at the same time. Personally, I like the sound of people singing together and that sort of choral music. I find people singing in unison bring a feeling of strength.

EL: I am particularly interested in unusual chord structures and sequences. I’m not someone who is obsessed with harmonies, but with singing it is so easy to do odd and different things. When we got together, I didn’t think it was going to be so harmonious; I had no idea what we would sound like. I saw us as a completely blank canvas. We didn’t know each other at all, so it was very weird. It was like building something from nothing.

You are all songwriters – what is the process for creating songs within the band context?

LM: It differs; sometimes the song will be led by just one of us but it depends on how developed the song is. It can be one idea and there is a ‘pile on’ of ideas and we form it that way. There are other times when one of us has a song and it’s more about teaching the others their parts. But, the part is open to change. If I’ve written a guitar part on a song, it will be really, really basic – as I am a drummer – and when I give it to Emily; she can make it her own.

I recall you once did a furtive, middle-of-the-night recording session at Abbey Road for one of your early singles. Where did you record Into The Diamond Sun and how did it differ?

BH: Abbey Road was really nice for one night. We recorded [the album] at Mello Mello café, which is a place where we regularly go anyway – it’s just more ‘us’. We’d written a few songs and then worked with our producer Sam [Crombie], who is a friend of ours. His mantra is ‘less is more’ in the studio, and that was a big fight for us, in some ways.

EL: I’m into ‘more is more’.

BH: We wanted more and more and more. More people, more drums, and more harmonies – more everything.

Into The Diamond Sun is a fascinating listen – how have you evolved as a group over the last couple of years?

EL: When we first started together, we didn’t know what the music was going to be. I think we all thought we were going to be similar, even to the extent that we would all dress in a similar way. Gradually, over the last year-and-a-half we have become more and more individual which is what makes it really interesting, because Lucy, Becky and I are very different people.

BH: It’s about breaking out of the formula. It wasn’t something that we intended to happen, but it was immediately there – we were three girls of a similar age. But, we’ve realised there should be no limitations for what you can do. The album is really eclectic when I listen to it now. There are loads of sounds going on.

LM: Also, I feel what we do is becoming more visual which is really important. I want to be able to hear it and I want to be able to see it. That sounds a bit corny.

You seem to pay a lot of attention to the visual aesthetic. How important is the image you portray?

BH: I think the biggest challenge for us at the moment is trying to get that image across. It is trying to sum up three brains in one image. We finished our album in February and it has taken double that time to do the artwork for it.

Obviously Liverpool has a strong musical heritage. What influence has the city had on Stealing Sheep?

LM: It’s not necessarily the city; it is the people I surround myself with. There is so much going on, especially around the Mello Mello café and the Kazimer [club]. There have been so many productions I have involved myself in that you become a sponge and absorb everything. The way I play the drums is directly influenced by people around me – watching other friends play in different projects.

EL: Even since I started playing in bands when I was 17, I’ve seen a few generations of things happening in Liverpool. This city is a really creative place and it is really exciting to be part of it.

Is Into The Diamond Sun indicative of how future Stealing Sheep material might sound?

LM: I don’t think so. Personally, I feel like there were ideas that I had to get out of the way. When I first started writing songs I felt I had to shake off the first layers of ideas and get a bit deeper. Now I feel like that on the next album I can refine what I want and I can direct my ideas more and the sounds that I want.

EL: I feel like it is a learning process. If you are a creative person – be it music or another art form – you are never going to stop learning. When you have an idea, it can spark a thousand more. That’s what I look for in what I am doing.

LM: We also intend to collaborate more which will help by allowing more people to get closer to what we are doing.

You seem to be generating some real momentum. How would you define success for Stealing Sheep?

BH: Well, there has been a change for me personally. I wanted to get to a certain place where the project could sustain itself financially and that we would be able to invest in a few things, such as a rehearsal space. That has been my dream. My drive now is purely to make music. Hopefully we are at that stage where there is enough interest to propel it and we will be happy doing it for as long as they let us.

You are just about to release the album – it must be a really exciting time?

BH: I’m excited and nervous. It’s all starting to rollercoaster a bit faster than I was ready to go. The amount we are doing has increased by ten-fold and I’m wondering how I am going to let myself enjoy it. I really want to enjoy it but I feel quite nervous about what is coming next.

Into The Diamond Sun is out now via Heavenly Recordings

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