all photos: Katherine Gaines all words: Philip Chevalier
“Pardon us,” relayed the equally small and Scottish speaking voice of Chvrches‘ twenty-five-year-old centerpiece Lauren Mayberry to a sold-out crowd. “I believe we are discreetly dealing with a technical difficulty at the moment,” she continued, still quite small, still heartwarmingly Scottish. The band had only ventured two tantalizing songs into a set that would end up amounting to a densely layered hour of emotive synth-pop at the Black Cat last Friday night. When it came to the entire audience’s immediate acceptance of the unfortunate — albeit quickly conquered — technical snafu, we would be wise to credit Mayberry’s unpretentiously Margaret Shroeder-esque way of landing on the long vowel sounds in “discreetly dealing” during her half-apology. Concerning the whole frustratingly adorable Glasgow schtick, she reportedly swears, “it’s not put on, or anything!” Pulled off, is what she should say.
Her confidence throughout a set littered with highly catchy, unreleased material from an album that hasn’t come out yet, told the type of coming-of-age story I’d hoped it would: She was able to step out of an early reputation she’d developed for, shall we say, falling short in the rock-star confidence department. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone prone to judging books by their tiny covers. Mayberry’s sheepishness is more often than not euphemistically editorialized with phrases like “softly confident” (BrooklynVegan) or, as Impact Magazine puts it, Mayberry has “a natural vulnerability that can come across at times as a lack of presence.” Subtext: the woman is fucking shy.
Flash back to the Mayberry of, say, three months ago, picking nervously at the sleeves of her sweater during a radio performance, or even as far back as last November, when she appropriately self-prescribed to an interviewer, “I just need to stop shitting my pants!” Do even the shallowest internet search when it comes to what you should expect when seeing this band live and you will see, buried beneath a pile of generous and forgiving language, the ‘I-don’t-belong-here’ Mayberry I’m referring to. You won’t find the same criticisms extended to Cook and Doherty, who are given large amounts of credit where it’s definitely due, but, as is the case in rock band-dom, there are certain duties that fall square on the shoulders of the man or woman “fronting” the act. Mayberry, seeming to get that now more than she was able to in months past, has apparently realized that it’s up to her to have some fun on stage, since, you know, she’s the only one not constructing layers of darkly textured synth out of thin air, who has a body free to move around a little bit should she choose to do so. She did, and the night was better for it.
There’s a certain quaintly European attitude that, understandably, goes over super well in a city like D.C., built as it was atop that sinking swamp of outsider perception — Mayberry clued into this fluently. Take, for example, her equal-parts outrage/astonishment at just how underwhelming a visual experience up-close the White House is, which drew much laughter from a sympathetically jaded Washington audience. Her confession that The West Wing had mislead her into thinking that the White House was so big in the first place received applause. She cleverly belied her five-foot-nothing girlishness by disclosing a long-time devotion for D.C.’s proudest home-grown punk export: Fugazi.
Brief Aside: After Mayberry gave her shout-out to Fugazi, the girl standing next to me asked if she had just thanked D.C. for “Benghazi.” This misunderstanding, however innocent, caused me to reckon momentarily with the fact that D.C. isn’t just the only city where a Fugazi reference would go over so well, but, also, probably the only city where someone would mistakenly hear “Fugazi” as “Benghazi” thinking the latter to be an acceptable topic for mid-show banter. Even with this to swallow, all was very quickly made OK once again simply by refocussing my energy on Mayberry’s unashamedly earnest old-world perspective re: “What is it you call your town? ‘The District’?”
She was joined in the night’s witticisms by bandmate/comedic side-kick Lain Cook to execute what Mayberry referred to as a “Two man stand-up routine,” (or, was it Martin Doherty? It should be said here that the two other members of Chvrches, both males in their mid-thirties, come across like mirror images of one another, exhibiting a mutual likeness that was no-doubt cemented by their shared physical dissimilarity to the petite, whispy-haired crown jewel banging on a tambourine in-between them), keeping a crowded concert hall laughing and, importantly, keeping them in the moment.
Having earned post graduate degrees in both law and journalism, Mayberry certainly has no reason to have been as nervous as she apparently has been for this long, but that she earned those degrees is a strong indication that, prior to joining up with Cook and Doherty to form Chvrches in 2011, then-twenty-three-year-old Mayberry had no doubt forecasted a vastly different mid-twenties for herself — she didn’t earn those degrees, we can safely assume, with the knowledge that, instead of using them, she would be fronting an electronic pop band on an international tour even before releasing a full-length album. Her life most likely took a bit of an unsuspecting turn, that is, when it became clear that “Lies” was a hit and “The Mother We Share” was an even bigger one, and now, with the highly accessible four-song Recover EP behind them and a forthcoming album ominously* titled The Bones of What You Believe coming out this September, there will no doubt be very little time for Mayberry to do any sort litigating and/or journalizing for the next couple years. She’d better like the lime-light, because there’s a shot she could stay there a while if she manages to work her unquestionably adorable stage presence into a full-blown pop marquee.
Could it be that the group’s U.S. TV debut on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, just one day prior to Friday’s D.C. show, in which the tiny-bodied and cherub-faced frontwoman appears to be only somewhat about to straight up die from nerves, is also footage of Mayberry shedding her last ounce of self-consciousness? If that’s true and her act only gets better from here, then those in attendance last Friday night couldn’t have picked a better point on the bell curve that is Chvrches’ trajectory than to have seen them in the immediate wake of their American tele-babtism.
The set concluded with “The Mother We Share,” only for the band to come out once more for an infectious rendition of Prince’s “I Would Die For You“, renamed “I Would Die 4 V” for their purposes. Those in attendance were thankfully exposed to an unfiltered dynamism from all three members of the band — the very same dynamism that the blogosphere had dutifully warned me not to expect. Whatever type of proverbial spinach Lauren Mayberry scarfed down pre-show, it thankfully did not end up as a proverbial shit in her pants last Friday night — that much is very nice to be able to report.
*While nestled solidly in the “electropop” genre, Chvrches is also, indisputably, an emo band. Their otherwise catchy songs are, as far as the lyrics are concerned, really, really depressing. It goes without saying, hopefully, that this is by no means a bad thing – I love the tunes. But part of me is definitely like, really? The Bones of What You Believe? Pretty emo. I cite as further evidence toward this claim, which is by no means meant to be disparaging, that the band listed Eliott Smith as one of their major influences after coming in at number five on BBC’s Sounds of 2013.