The Improvisers’ Guide to Better Writing – Part 1

Can learning the skills that make good improvised comedy help you as a writer? Yes, and over the next few weeks you will find out why and how. Today, we’ll start with the very basics: the warm-up.

Since 2009, I’ve been involved with an improvised comedy group here in Nottingham. Despite being pretty ropey to begin with, I’ve attended countless workshops, shows and events over the last three and a bit years, to the point where I’ve reached of a standard where I can not only perform on stage but also teach the subject.

Of course, the instant reaction I get from telling someone that I teach improvised comedy is “How is that possible? Surely you make it up on the spot?” Of course, this is true. But, as with any other pastime, it is possible to learn skills and techniques that make you better.

Since September 2012, I’ve been teaching kids drama and comedy in Nottingham to a lovely bunch of 8-12 year olds. The Little Imps have come on leaps and bounds since the sessions began, culminating in a ‘mini show’ to their families just before Christmas. And, as well as teaching the basics of stagecraft and how to perform improvised comedy, it struck me that teaching improv has dozens of other positive benefits in other walks of life.

Many corporations use improve as a teambuilding exercise. Team GB’s women’s hockey team did a day of improvisation as part of their build up to London 2012. As one of the parents pointed out to me after a recent session, it’s obvious that improvisation offers other benefits than learning to be funny on stage. It develops skills from social interaction and confidence building to listening

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skills and teamwork.

And, the basic skills needed for improvisation also help us to write better. How? Over the next few weeks I’ll share some of the skills that will make you both a

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better improviser and a better writer. Today, we’ll start with the warm-up.

Part 1 –

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The importance of a warm-up

Most of the people who attend our sessions don’t like the warm-up. To start with, I was the same. What is the point of spending the first 15 minutes of a session jogging on the spot or making weird noises?

Now, I don’t suggest that you do a hundred squat thrusts before you start to write a press release. Neither do I think it’s

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imperative that you make motorboat sounds with your lips or repeat a tongue twister before you start on that website rewrite.

However, warm-up games and exercises can really help improve the quality of your work. They are designed to get you in a cheery mood, focus your mind on what’s about to happen and sharpen concentration.

I’ll talk about some basic group exercises to focus the mind next time. However, the point is that a warm-up takes you from whatever mindset you were in before – stress from your work, the traffic you’ve just sat in, the row you’ve had with your partner – and moves you into a place where you are ready to perform.

I think that is a brilliant lesson for anyone who’s about to write. Emptying your mind of everything else that is going on in order to concentrate on the matter in hand makes for more focused, interesting improv. It also makes for better writing. Try it sometime. You don’t have to spend hours running around the block. Just do some simple breathing exercises, stretch your back and your arms out and try and shake off all the other things competing for your brain’s attention.

As I’ve learned along the way, warm-ups are absolutely essential to a decent

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performance, particularly on stage. Without it, you’re not in the mindset where you’re ready to perform. And, that can apply to practically anything.

Next time I’ll look at how basic improv games and exercises focus your mind and help you to get ‘in the zone’. In the meantime, please share your thoughts below.

————————————

Author: Nick Parkhouse, Published 29 January 2013

English students identify the 3 factors that make great copy

Since October, I’ve been teaching a professional writing course to a group of second year degree students at the University of Nottingham. Their Creative and Professional Writing degree is one of only a handful of courses in the UK that incorporates copywriting, business writing and copy-editing as well as more traditional English modules. And, as it’s a compulsory module, they all have to come to the lectures. (You’ll have to ask them about that.)

Before Christmas, I set them an assignment which contributed towards their final degree grade. I asked them to identify the three factors that, in their opinion, were essential to great quality copy. They then had to critique a piece of copy against these criteria.

Having marked the 17 assignments, I thought it would be interesting to share the results with you, and for you to see what the students consider the three factors that make great copy. In order, the results were:

  1. The copy should be clear, concise and easy to read
  2. It should contain good ‘calls to action’
  3. It should be focused on the reader

Other choices included ‘a good headline’, ‘the correct tone of voice’, ‘it should be reader focused’ and ‘it should be benefit driven’.

Now, clearly these are all important factors and a good piece of copy will no doubt satisfy all of these criteria and more. However, it got me thinking as to what my choice of three factors would have been. After some deliberation, I think I’d have chosen:

  1. Good copy should be benefit driven
  2. It should focus on the reader
  3. It should have a good call to action

Some of the students had an excellent grasp of copywriting ‘theory’ (such as it is) and produced some excellent work, justifying their choices with research and examples. But, if you had been asked to complete a similar assignment, what would you have chosen? Do you agree with the students’ choices? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

————————————

Author: Nick Parkhouse, Published 18 January 2013

Do you mind your manners when you write?

For a few weeks before Christmas, I spent much of my time helping my wife with her fast-growing online business. For a couple of months, she spent 18 hours a day making lovely ceramic gifts while I looked after the logistics of sending hundreds of orders far and wide.

For a long period, our lead time for orders was around 3 weeks. This was clearly marked on the product pages and in the confirmation e-mail when customers placed

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an order. For most people that was fine but, as you would expect, a handful of people got in touch to ask if they could receive their order a bit sooner.

This is typical of the emails I was receiving from clients:

Hi there

I recently ordered a personalised necklace for my mum’s Christmas present. I note from the email that the estimated date of dispatch for this is 17 December which will be after I last see her before Christmas. Is there any possible way of a quicker dispatch?

Kind regards

On the face of it, this seems like a perfectly polite request. But look closer. Nowhere does the customer use a small but important word: ‘please’.

For a few weeks I was receiving several of these emails every day. Clearly we couldn’t prioritise everyone’s order, so I developed a simple rule. If the customer said ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, I’d prioritise it. If they didn’t, I wouldn’t.

Now. I appreciate that this may seem a bit picky and a bit arrogant. However, it actually got me thinking about how easy it is for manners to go out of the window when you write. Had any of these people spoken to me about their order, I expect all of them would automatically

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have said ‘please’ and ‘thank you’.

I then began to notice that I wasn’t saying ‘please’ in my own emails and correspondence either, even when I was asking quite a favour. This is something that I’ve immediately tried to remedy.

As copywriters, we spend days asking people to ‘call us now’ or ‘get in touch today’ without ever saying ‘please’. I appreciate that it’s not relevant (or indeed appropriate) in all cases, but wouldn’t your copy be

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a little bit warmer and more polite if you just said the magic word once in a while?

Have you had any success with using the word ‘please’? Do you automatically include it? And does your copywriting mind its manners? Please share your thoughts below.

————————————

Author: Nick Parkhouse, Published 11 January 2013

Has or Have?

Is Manchester United a singular or a plural?

The reason I ask is that one of my

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current clients is a major local motor retailer. And, you’ve probably worked for companies and had this same issue yourself.? Let’s call them Sandicliffe (as that’s their name).

When writing a press release for them the other week, I found myself totally confused as to which of these phrases was correct:

Sandicliffe have launched a new initiative
Sandicliffe has launched

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new initiative

I’ve also encountered this problem when writing things like “Chelsea have a great away record this season” (clearly not true, but bear with me) and “England have a tricky away trip in France.”

Technically, I suppose that as a sports team or a company is one entity then the correct grammar would be to say that “Scotland has a great record” in the same way that “Madonna has a great voice”. But, it just doesn’t sound right.

So, which is it? Sandicliffe have a great range of used card? Or Sandicliffe has a great range of used cars? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

Know Your Plurals

One of my longstanding clients owns a lovely catering and sandwich delivery business in London.? Just looking at the pictures of his luscious food platters makes my tummy rumble – and this happens at least once a month when I sit down and write his latest newsletter.

This month I was focusing on his range of patisserie platters.? Portuguese custard tarts, croissants, fruit tartlettes and chocolate éclairs are amongst the delicious snacks that are offered as are those French pastries with the chocolate in the middle.

Now, I know that it’s called a pain au chocolat.? And I did French ‘A’ level (admittedly *many* years ago) and so I should probably have known that more than one of them would be ‘pains au chocolat’.? But it got me thinking: sometimes plurals aren’t quite what we expect, are they?

So, here are some

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plural oddities, just in case you’re ever writing about more than one formula or Attorney General.

Plural oddities

One of the most common mistakes that writers make is to simply add an ‘s’ to the end of a noun to pluralise it.? While that may work with a cat, a key or a football, it won’t necessarily work in all cases.

Jobs are a common source of confusion as, quite often, they don’t follow a pattern.? For example, you might have several brigadier generals, judge advocates or lieutenant colonels.? However, there may be a different group of attorneys general, sergeants major, paymasters general and notaries public.

You see the problem?

And it’s not just jobs that can cause confusion.? If you’re dealing with more than one pelvis, it’ll be pelves.? More than one bandit?? Banditti.? And more than one cannon?? Cannon.

Here’s a list of a few unusual pluralised words, just in case you’re ever writing for a company that sells piccolos or oxen.

Daughter-in-law? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? Daughters-in-law

Potato? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ?

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? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? Potatoes (that’s for Dan Quayle, that one)

Opus? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? Opera

Teaspoonful? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? Teaspoonfuls

Mister? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? Messrs.

Table d’hote? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? Tables d’hote

Manservant? ? ?

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? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? Menservants

Ox? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? Oxen

Cul-de-sac? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? Culs-de-sac

Crisis? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? Crises

Court martial? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? Courts martial

Formula? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? Formulae

Piccolo? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? Piccolos

Please share any other unusual plurals in the comments below…

Get with the program(me)

One of my current projects is to rewrite the website of one of the region’s biggest motor companies.? This morning, I was looking at their ‘About Us’ pages when I happened upon some information about their Customer Care Program.

It got me thinking.? Is it a Customer Care Program in the UK?? Or a Customer Care Programme?

Program or Programme?

Apparently, the word ‘program’ was predominantly used in the UK until the 19th century, when the spelling ‘programme’ became more common — mainly as a result of influence from French, which has the same word ‘programme’.

So, if you’re using the word in British English, they you should almost always use ‘programme’.

The one exception is when you are referring

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to the word in the context of computing.? A computer program should always be the shorter version of the word.

So, in British English:

  • You can take advantage of our Customer Care Programme
  • I can’t get this program to run on my PC
  • My favourite television programme is Doctor Who

However, if you’re writing in American English you should always use the word ‘program’, whatever the context.? The same is generally true of Australian English, where ‘program’ is also mainly used (although ‘programme’ is still in common usage).

So, if you want someone to ‘get with the program’, you probably want to be using the American version.? Or don’t use that horrible phrase at all, of course.

As a verb

Using the word as a verb follows much the same rules.

If you want to tell your computer to do something, you will program it.? For example, ‘it is easy to program this PC’.

However, if you’re using British English and want to programme anything else, use the longer version.? For example ‘the next stage of the plan is programmed for next year’.

So, my

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clients now have a Customer Care Programme.? Lovely.

Inquiry or Enquiry?

I mentioned a week or so ago that one of my aims for 2012 was to avoid blithely using terms and words that I assumed were right and actually undertake a bit of research to check I was using them correctly.

Last time I looked at the correct usages of ‘while’ and ‘whilst’ and this time I thought I’d double check I was using ‘inquiry’ and ‘enquiry’ in the right places.? Are they interchangeable?? Or do they mean different things?

Inquiry or enquiry?

As with many of these things, the simple answer is ‘either’.? For example, the Chambers 21st Century Dictionary presents the two spellings as interchangeable variants in the general sense.

However, there is a subtle difference between the two terms.

In the UK, ‘enquiry’ is generally a term that is used to refer to ‘the act of questioning’, such as:

  • He enquired about her health
  • I made an enquiry about the price of a ticket

‘Inquiry’, however, is more commonly used when referring to a formal investigation, such as:

  • There will be a public inquiry into the riots
  • The police are making inquiries about the incident

A simple way to remember which to use is to consider that an ‘inquest’ (an official investigation) is related to ‘inquiry’.

Just to confuse you (of course): if you are writing in American or Australian English, inquiry is normally the correct word, irrespective of the circumstances.

Have you any examples of when ‘inquiry’ or ‘enquiry’ might be correct, or suggestions for seemingly interchangeable terms that I can consider in this feature?? Let me know in the comments below.

While-ing away the hours

Hello, and Happy New Year to you.

I rarely make specific New Year’s Resolutions. To be honest, I find the idea a bit silly, and I rarely keep to them anyway.? What I do sometimes, however, is use the New Year to make a concerted effort to change small things.? Perhaps I’ll cook at home a bit more.? Perhaps I’ll drink a bit less.? And, this year, I plan to try and spend a bit of time learning more about my trade.

So, I’m planning to become a better writer by gobbling up the advice of many other talented people and by improving my general standard of English.? I reckon it’s already pretty good, but learning some new words and making better use of the words I do know are two of my aims for 2012.

And, along the way, I hope to share some of what I learn (which may, of course, be second nature to you anyway…!)

While v whilst

It dawned on me over Christmas that I wasn’t sure what the difference is between ‘while’ and ‘whilst’.? I always thought that ‘while’ related

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specifically to two things happening at the same time (‘he watched TV while she knitted a scarf’) whereas ‘whilst’ was a term with a meaning more like ‘whereas’.

Anyway, after a bit of research it turns out that the terms are generally interchangeable – at least when you are using British English.? American English doesn’t tend to include ‘whilst’ and so if you’re writing for a US audience, the advice is to only ever use ‘while’.

If you’re writing for a British audience, using ‘while’ will also generally mean that you won’t be wrong.

With the word gradually dying, though, I am keen to keep it healthy!? There are three pieces of advice I have found which are useful:

i) ‘while’ can be a noun (‘in a while’) whereas ‘whilst’

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ii) ‘while’ can mean either ‘during the time when’ or ‘whereas’ while ‘whilst’ has only the first of these meanings

iii) ‘while is often used for activities happening in parallel (‘While I was preparing lunch, my wife was gardening’) whereas, in contrast, ‘whilst’ is used where there is more of a contradiction (‘Whilst it may be necessary or desirable to protect populations from cruel and corrupt governments, it is not necessarily our business to undertake regime change.’)

So, it seems that there isn’t much of an issue using either word when writing for a British audience.? And, taking point iii) into account, it appears I was pretty much right after all….

Anyone else have experiences or advice on the best way to use ‘while’ and ‘whilst’?

The Top 5 Divorce Songs

There are thousands of break-up songs in the pop music canon.? And, we’ve all listened to them in the past when we needed to get over unrequited or lost love.? And, as Elton John sang in Sad Songs, ‘from the lips of some old singer we can share the troubles we already know.’

However, divorce songs take the break-up to a whole new level.? They can be cutting, bitter, regretful and moving as they often share the singer or songwriter’s very personal experience.

There are lots of brilliant divorce songs, but here’s my top five.

Abba – The Winner Takes It All

When writing a piece about the world’s greatest songs about or inspired by divorce, it would be hard not to include the single that was voted Britain’s Favourite Break-Up Song in a 2006 TV poll.

Apparently written about the deteriorating relationship between Bjorn Ulvaeus and Agnetha Faltskog, The Winner Takes It All topped the UK charts in 1980 and has repeatedly been voted the nation’s favourite Abba song in polls.

Whether it’s about the writer’s own separation (Ulvaeus says not, the basis of the song being “the experience of a divorce, but it’s fiction. There wasn’t a winner

Balm been threw product application black buy viagra several I experienced that couple oil caked and really.

or a loser in our case. A lot of people think it’s straight out of reality, but it’s not”) or it’s simply a break-up song, The Winner Takes It All is arguably the most famous and best-loved divorce song of them all.

Alanis Morrisette – Underneath

Bearing in mind that most of her songs are written about personal experiences, it stood to reason that a difficult and traumatic break-up was always going to lead to Alanis Morrissette penning a less than complimentary song about her own situation.

When the Canadian singer-songwriter split with Hollywood actor Ryan Reynolds, her following album, 2008’s Flavors of Entanglement, was written about the grief and pain she suffered after the break-up.? It’s an album that must have made tough listening for Reynolds and lead single Underneath was particularly honest.? Underneath opens ‘look at us break our bones in this kitchen/look at us rallying all our defences’ and whilst it’s technically not a divorce record – the pair were only engaged – it’s as bitter and honest a break-up record as exists in modern pop.

Kelly Clarkson – Because Of You

After shooting to superstardom by winning American Idol in 2002, Kelly Clarkson’s record label were reluctant to include the song Because Of You on either her debut album Thankful or the follow-up Breakaway.

Apparently written when Clarkson was sixteen years old to cope with the emotional trauma of her parent’s divorce, Because Of You was polished by producers Ben Moody and David Hodges and released as a single in 2005, reaching the top ten across the world.

From the opening line (‘I will not make the same mistakes that you did/will not let myself cause my heart so much misery’) it’s clear that this is a song written from deep personal experience of the effect that a divorce can have on a teenager.? It’s a superb and moving pop record.

Neil Diamond and Barbra Streisand – You Don’t Bring Me Flowers

Lots of songs about break-ups and divorces concentrate on giant, ethereal themes such as the end of love or the pain of the parting of the ways.? Others take a bitter look at who is to blame or are written from the position of a child caught up in the split.

What I love about You Don’t Bring Me Flowers, however, is that it does the exact opposite.? By concentrating on the tiny minutae of relationships it is somehow way more powerful than songs which talk in general terms.

I’d wager that ‘You hardly talk to me anymore/when you come through the door/at the end of the day’ is the most cutting, acerbic and honest lyric ever written in a break-up song.? This is not a vague overview of the deterioration in a marriage; this is the day to day factors which see two people drift apart.

For these reasons, I think You Don’t Bring Me Flowers is the greatest break-up song of them all.? Heart wrenching.

Jason Mraz – Love For A Child

The second divorce song written from a child’s perspective, Love For A Child features on Mraz’s bestselling 2008 album We Sing. We Dance. We Steal Things.? Loosely based on his parent’s own divorce when he was five years old, Love For A Child is a heartbreaking look at a parental split through the eyes of a small boy.

Mraz told the San Diego Union Tribune: “(One) line is from when my parents were busy not talking to each other. I could hide right down the middle (between them). I could tell my dad, ‘I’m going to my mom’s,’ and tell her, ‘I’m going to my dad’s,’ and

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Lyrics such as ‘Was it mom who put my dad out on

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his ass or the other way around/well I’m far too old to care about that now’ and ‘it’s kinda nice to work the floor since the divorce/I’ve been enjoying both my Christmases and my birthday cakes/and taking drugs and making love at far too young an age/and they never checked to see my grades’ tell the tale of someone caught between two separated parents.

Mind you, there is affection in the song too.? Mraz added: “At same time, I had a great upbringing from two families. And the freedom I had, I’m grateful for. You can’t live the rest of your life carrying a pain because your parents couldn’t get along. I choose to spend my life crafting a joy.”

_____________________________

There’s my top 5 divorce songs.? Any that you’d agree with? Any you’d add to the list? Let me know by commenting below.

Meet The Staves

It’s been almost a year since the Staves were last in Nottingham.? Sisters Emily, Jessica and Camilla wowed a small audience at the Bodega Social last October whilst opening for Keane side-project Mt Desolation and despite rave reviews, little has been heard of the trio since.

However, all that could be about to change.? Sitting at the back of the Glee club, it turns out that the band have been busy this year, with this short tour supporting American singer songwriter Willy Mason just part of a busy autumn.

The trio are clearly excited about what the near future might bring and have clearly been hard at work.? “Doing the album has taken up most of our time this year.? We’ve also done some gigs, some recording and some more writing, which has been cool.

“We’ve basically finished our album but we don’t know when it’s going to come out yet – hopefully around spring.? We also have an EP later in the year – probably the end of October.”

For those unfamiliar with the Staves, think the Fleet Foxes but with female vocals.? Soaring harmonies, gentle acoustic guitar and some high quality songwriting mean that mainstream success is surely only a matter of time.? Especially, I wondered, with a general resurgence in interest in folk-pop acts?

“I think there’s more interest in the singer/songwriter genre – there was Damien Rice back when that huge record came out – and then there’s people today like Willy Mason, Laura Marling – classic songwriters of today.? It’s the simplicity of someone with a guitar – there’s no frills, just them and the music, their voice and their guitar.

“You can connect to that sort of music much better than with the glitz and glamour of stuff like the X-Factor and it’s definitely reassuring that people like to come out and listen to this kind of music.”

While their existing recordings give a taste of what to expect from the band – the beautiful Mexico and Facing West appear in their set – only by hearing the girls live can you truly appreciate the genuinely spellbinding nature of their harmonies.? And, the reaction to their live performances seems to be almost universally positive.

“You don’t really get many harmony groups without a big band behind them, so perhaps it’s something that people haven’t seen much of.

“It’s nice when people come up to you afterwards and say that they enjoyed the show, but obviously you’re not going to get that many people coming up to you telling you that they didn’t enjoy it!? We don’t have people walking out of our gigs or throwing things at us….

“You can kind of gauge it by the reaction of the audience – when people are quiet and listen, especially when you’re a support band that people aren’t there to see – they don’t owe us anything.”

It’s been a long road for the Staves to even get this far – indeed the trio freely admit that it’s only relatively recently that they made the decision to take the music business seriously.

“We’ve always sung together around the house, in the car. ? One summer, a friend cajoled us into doing an open mic night at our local pub, so we did some covers and really enjoyed it.? We then did a gig of covers and enjoyed that – it has been a very slow process as one of us was always at uni and so it would be a ‘one gig a year’ thing.

“A couple of years ago we thought we should actually try to do this properly. We didn’t take it very seriously at first but then started writing some songs and it went from there.? This is our life now – it’s definitely what we want to do.? It would be amazing to be able to make a living from this and to do it as long as we wanted to make music together.? That’s the aim.”

I wondered that considering recent spats between members of sibling bands – think the Gallaghers and the Followills – whether the Staves also had their family moments.

“Being sisters is a blessing and a curse! We fight all the time, but as we’re sisters you can fight and it’s all OK.? There’s no grudges held – it’s very honest. We don’t fight in the sense that we don’t get on, we just spend a lot of time together.? We end up squabbling in the car, just like when we were kids – about which CD we want to listen to…

“We can’t imagine doing this with anyone else, though – it’s definitely our thing.”

If you think the Pierces had the ‘sibling acoustic singer songwriter’ market sewn up, you should think again.? After the haunting Winter Trees and the rousing

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new song What Good Am I? rounded off another superb show, a respectful and generous audience seemed to register what many already know; that the Staves are a band going places.

“As for conquering the world, we don’t know.? We just want to make music that people feel a connection to, that they enjoy listening to and that we like.”

____________________________________________


The Staves’ new EP is scheduled for release in late October.

Listen to Facing West, Mexico and The Fire at: http://www.myspace.com/thestavesmusic
For more information go to The Staves’ website or the Facebook page