The last time I saw Stealing Sheep – Rebecca Hawley (vocals, keys), Emily Lansley (vocals, guitar) and Lucy Mercer (vocals, drums/percussion)– play live was two years ago, at Buyers Club on Hardman Street. The trio road tested songs for third album Big Wows to an excited audience thrilled to be hearing the new material for the first time.
Becky, who I speak to as she drops off equipment at the Kazimier Stockroom ready for four nights of intimate shows this week, calls that evening at Buyers ‘a public work in progress’.
‘Our stepping stones have always been quite public!’ she jokes.
‘It’s how we work, we’ve never shown something completely completed. It’s forever in development. Every show we do, it’s “that works, that doesn’t…what’s next?” That’s what keeps it fresh for us.’
Using surroundings to inform creativity is what Stealing Sheep do so well. The infamous shows at the original Kazimier in the first half of the decade are part of the region’s music history, as are the Wow Machine theatrical-musical-dance-art events this year at Edge Hill University which gave a long overdue nod to electronic music pioneer Delia Derbyshire. The band always seem to me anyway, to enjoy and be amused by messing with surroundings and making the surfaces above, below and around them, everything, part of the performance. It keeps us the audience on our toes.
‘With our thematic nights that we put on at the Kazimier and Invisible Wind Factory, we always used the space and the last thing we did in IWF we created crystal shards
coming out of the walls. We‘re always trying to experiment with that sort of thing…to make it more fantastical!’
The 80-capacity Kazimier Stockroom home to this week’s residency is different again from the original Kazimier, ‘that beacon of light coming out of the city that’s no longer there anymore’ as Becky refers to it with fondness.
But there are similarities and bonds with the old venue.
‘They’ve been incredibly inventive with that tiny space in the face of all the gentrification around it,’ says Becky of the Stockroom. ‘To have a place that has heart and is still a space for independent music…their innovative approach to building the venue in that space really resonates with us and what we’re about. So we wanted to celebrate that venue and also our link and past to that venue in four nights there. We thought it’d be interesting to take what is quite a big show, with lots of production, into a small space to…see how the party atmosphere translates and how personal it can be.’
‘Playing in a big space…lends itself to so many different things, but we wanted to get that original spirit of Liverpool community, party sort of atmosphere.’
The Big Wows album, released this spring, lends itself to a party atmosphere in a major way. It’s a glittery yet sophisticated triumph. The record cleverly balances on a tightrope of being unashamedly pop and carrying grounded messages, warnings, questions. After all, glitter is pretty but scratchy as well…and as The Quietus said around Big Wows, pop isn’t a throwaway thing anymore.
Our relationship with pop changes both personally and otherwise, sometimes it’s love-hate, we’re pulled both ways.
Stealing Sheep started out back in 2010 as more folky, now they’re absolutely not that.
So how has Becky’s own relationship with pop shifted?
‘I see pop almost a vessel that grabs all the esoteric genres and ideas and brings them together in a way that is digestible and accessible to the masses. I don’t see that as a bad thing. I see it as an amazing universal form of communication where everybody is allowed to enjoy it. Not just for a certain person. I see it as a friendly thing.’
Yet it has a dark side, she stresses.
‘A market driven thing that doesn’t allow the esoteric stuff to shine. So there’s two ways of looking at it. But maybe I’ve got a version of pop myself that I’m friends with!’
It’s very much in the pop tradition to look at songs on their own and give them individual treatment to fit, polish the shiny bits. On Big Wows, Stealing Sheep used different producers including Marta Salogni (Bjork, Orielles) and Ash Workman (Christine & The Queens, Metronomy). It’s a case Becky says, of valuing each song and giving it its best shot, matching songs with producers who have ‘a fighting spirit’ for their favourite.
‘(To be) fair on the other tracks,’ she laughs. ‘I feel that’s given us so many amazing results is following the right energy rather than pushing it in the wrong direction.’
For Big Wows, the three women in the band working separately on tracks then coming together in the studio was flagged up as a new thing for them but Becky insists that in a way, it’s a familiar Stealing Sheep practice.
‘Each individual comes with a sentiment for a song or a vision for a song or a chord progression or an atmosphere and usually they’re the one that directs where the music goes, we all jump onboard to support that person’s vision for the track. To try and make it happen for them.
There’s no hierarchy in the band. We’re all the leader but to make that work we all have to have a chance to lead.’
I read one review which said you were all trying to outdo each other vocally and thought, that doesn’t sound like very Sheepy to me, not at all…
‘I didn’t take that as an offence, I thought that was quite funny! It’s natural to have competitive energy but it’s not because you want to be better than each other but because you want to push each other.’
Mutual support is part of Stealing Sheep’s ethos, but extends outside as well. Sound City 2018 saw them gather female drummers together for the Suffragette Tribute to coincide with 100 years since some women in the UK won the right to vote. The open call for Sheep-led workshops was to try and rectify the imbalance in the music industry, ‘a boy’s club’ as Becky calls it.
‘Loads of women applied, drummers of various skill levels who wouldn’t have felt as confident if it had been mixed… a fantastic reaction. We had this brilliant experience of this respectful workshop in the Invisible Wind Factory and put together a marching percussion and worked with 15 dancers from Edge Hill as well. It was an amazing project.’
Within women-only spaces and projects there’s a sense of freedom all round, I put to her.
It was, she says, different to what she’d experienced before.
‘We’d never come across them before,’ she admits of working with female techs, sound engineers and lighting people for the first time.
And watching YouTube videos of those Edge Hill shows, it’s inspiring to see dancers of so many different body shapes. That wasn’t intentional, but ‘the way it’s put on women to have a stereotypical look, we definitely fight that. Because weird is beautiful to us and weird is wonderful and diversity is wonderful. (And it) just gets boring to have just one look and one beauty norm!’
The videos and art around Big Wows are created by new and emerging women in the sector, an intentional move after noting directors suggested to them were invariably male, a case of ‘“oh you should work with my mate blah bah blah”.’ Giving budding female talent a chance led to South Korean animator Gyuri Cloe Lee, who previously did a video for John Grant, making the Show Love video, and Emily Garner aka Pastel Castle from Leeds making nostalgic, kitschy karaoke videos for Jokin’ Me and Why Haven’t I?
The band found the latter’s work on Facebook, and Garner’s musical project VIDEO support Stealing Sheep at the Kazimier Stockroom. Also appearing will be Despicable Zee, one of the Suffragettes Tribute drummers.
Looking into 2020, the next year sees new tracks, still at a demo stage right now, plus Stealing Sheep’s first American tour, their return to SXSW and Asia. Plus of course they will be performing at our very own Sound City here in Liverpool.
I can’t help but wonder what they have in store for us at the festival in May? Any surprises?
‘There’s definitely some brainstorming going on about what to bring to it. But I don’t how much I can give away because then it won’t be a surprise…’
Stealing Sheep play Kazimier Stockroom on 11th, 12th, 13th, 14th December and Sound City in May 2020.
Interview by Cath Holland