“The only thing we’re doing is allowing a woman to exist in a space that you don’t think she should exist in.”
Photo: Shae Detar
“I don’t really wear this eyeliner stuff in my free time,” says 27-year-old Chvrches front woman Lauren Mayberry over lunch at Kin Shop in the West Village. She momentarily rests her fork on her plate of green curry to gesture toward the swooping, Cleopatra-esque ink that extends past the corners of her brown eyes. “It feels kind of like war paint, though. I think it’s been quite helpful. It’s like I’m taking on a character that’s me but 25 percent tougher.”
Over the past few years — eyeliner or no — Mayberry’s proved she’s full of fight. Since forming in September 2011, Chvrches, a three-piece electropop band from Glasgow that traces a line from ’80s New Wave to modern-day EDM, has seen the kind of out-of-nowhere rise that feels like a distinct product of the viral age. (Even that Roman v was chosen to make the name more easily Google-able. “It seemed like a good idea at the time,” Mayberry says with a sigh, noticeably tired of explaining that it’s just pronounced “churches.”) The band’s debut single, “Lies,” a shimmering synth-pop gem with a skyscraping, Billy Squier–size beat, ripped through the blogosphere in the summer of 2012. Like Mayberry, who used to front the Scottish twee-pop band Blue Sky Archives, Chvrches’ other members were Glasgow-scene lifers: Iain Cook, 40, used to play in post-rock act Aereogramme; Martin Doherty, 32, was a touring member of the moderately successful indie band the Twilight Sad. But the overwhelming response to “Lies” and its follow-up single, “The Mother We Share,” made this crew of second-act musicians realize that Chvrches, finally, could be their break. They self-recorded their debut album, The Bones of What You Believe, on nights and weekends while they all worked day jobs. It paid off. Bones sold half a million copies worldwide.
But as is far too often the case for women musicians, increased visibility also brought its share of trouble. The band’s social-media profiles soon became inundated with sexist comments about Mayberry, ranging from the annoying but benign (marriage proposals) to the frighteningly violent (graphic rape threats). There’s an assumption that to be a woman on the internet is to have to accept this constant hum of misogyny and not confront it outright — but one night in her hotel room, shortly after the record came out, nerves shot from touring fatigue, Mayberry snapped. She took a screenshot of an offending Facebook message (“Could you pass this correspondence on to the cute singer, I think we’d make superior love together”) and captioned it, “Please stop sending us emails like this.” A few days later, Mayberry penned a widely shared op-ed for the Guardian’s music blog about online harassment. “Is the casual objectification of women so commonplace that we should all just suck it up, roll over and accept defeat?” she wrote. “I hope not. Objectification, whatever its form, is not something anyone should have to ‘just deal with.’ ”
Almost two years later, Mayberry’s become known for this kind of thing — challenging misogynist internet commenters, sometimes posting their hateful words directly to her Twitter or Instagram. But some have worried that this isn’t the right approach — isn’t this kind of attention exactly what the trolls are after? Does engaging with them directly only make them multiply? Mayberry isn’t sweating the answers. “Once you speak out about it, you attract a certain kind of male who gets pissed off and is like, ‘You’ve got equal rights, what do you want?’ ” She guffaws. “It’s ridiculous. The only thing we’re doing is allowing a woman to exist in a space that you don’t think she should exist in.”
“Lauren is fearless,” Doherty says when I meet him and Cook for an afternoon coffee. “If there’s anyone that wasn’t going to bury their head in the sand, it’s her.”
For the moment, the guys’ nerves are palpable. Two nights from now, Chvrches will play a sold-out concert at Music Hall of Williamsburg — their first U.S. headlining show in quite a while. “We’re coming in pretty cold,” Doherty says. But they’re even more jittery about the release of their forthcoming second album, Every Open Eye (out September 25). The band decided to once again write, record, and produce the album themselves, in the modest Glasgow studio where the magic happened the first time. “You get this level of ownership, and you really can’t compete with that,” Doherty explains. “If this album is a disaster, then there’ll be no one to look at but ourselves.”
Cook shoots a glance at his bandmate. “Or, conversely, if it’s not a disaster …”
When I recount this exchange over lunch with Mayberry, she laughs knowingly. “Iain’s more of a Zen character,” she says. Doherty, on the other hand, has an antic energy about him — shortly after his “disaster” comment, he knocks over the creamer and almost short-circuits my recorder. “I’m somewhere in between the two,” Mayberry says about her bandmates. “Me and Martin panic about different things — but we both panic.”
Luckily, they have nothing to worry about. Every Open Eye expands on the sound of Bones; it’s bolder and even catchier than its predecessor. Mayberry has become a more self-assured front woman, and Cook and Doherty have become better producers, confident enough to do more with less. “We kept coming back to the idea of making this record as lean as we could,” Doherty says. Still, they discovered another boon of not having to pay an outside producer — more money to upgrade your gear. “You know the Van Halen ‘Jump’ keyboard sound?” Doherty asks me, a twinkle in his eye. “We got one of those.”
At the packed Music Hall, the new tunes feel huge — almost too big for the room. (The band will be playing the 5,000-person-capacity SummerStage when they’re back in town in September.) Throughout the show, Mayberry stands still; somewhat paradoxically, it’s her relative ordinariness and slight unease that make her cut such a powerful figure onstage. A generation ago, the phrase feminist musician used to conjure a narrow and specific image in the culture — most likely, an “angry” woman wielding a guitar in a punk band. But Chvrches exists in a moment when that stereotype is exploding and women of all genres are taking up and diversifying the feminist mantle. As we finish our curry, Mayberry says that because of her small stature and unshowy style, she’s used to people underestimating her. “I sometimes get the whole ‘She’s so cute and dinky … and she swears like a trooper! What’s going on?’ ” She smiles slyly. “It’s nice to squash people’s expectations.”
Unfortunately, trolls will be trolls, and as the band was wrapping up recording, Mayberry posted yet another rape threat on her Instagram, the kind she says she gets “on a daily basis.” The caption she wrote, though, was galvanizing. “These people never learn that violence against women is unacceptable,” it read. “But they also never learn that women will not be shamed and silenced and made to disappear.” She concluded with a line that sounds like something out of a Chvrches song: “I am not going anywhere. So bring it on, motherfuckers. Let’s see who blinks first.”
*This article appears in the August 10, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.