In Conversation with Vaults

First came Cry No More, a twinkly, bewitching slice of electropop that managed to rack up a staggering 10,000-plus Soundcloud plays in its first week. A string of equally-glorious singles later, they land a slot on the Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack with One Last Night, now nearing 20 million views and thus launching an onslaught of the media attention. They rounded off 2016 as official sound-trackers for the John Lewis Christmas ad campaign, covering Randy Crawford’s One Day I’ll Fly Away alongside a 150-piece orchestra and releasing their debut album the same month.

Chief-songwriter Ben Vella and producer Barney Freeman met at university, roping in Blythe Pepino for vocal duties, allowing a year to figure out who could bring what to the trio and which direction to aim in.

“We all have a very eclectic taste in music so I think that’s the thing that holds us together most, plus we’re all quite hesitant thinkers,” explains Pepino, pondering on what it is what draws the three members together so well. “I’m probably the most exhibitionist of us all but we all think about things a lot so that holds the lot of us as one.”

Pepino holds a varying background in music, insisting that “about 70% of my life has been about music.” You’ll fairly easily find videos of her amid different musical collectives and why music seemed the go-to career path. “Traditionally in our culture, music is held up a something quite exciting to do so as a kid I had quite a good idea of what it was and was happy to choose that as a way forward.”

Pepino is as much the giggly person that many a previous interview has pointed out. The most laughs come at the mention for my personal adoration of her Fifty Shades London premiere outfit, a brilliant see-through PVC two-piece dress and black underwear, topped off with a bowler hat.

“That was such a brilliant outfit, I don’t think anyone noticed it which I found amusing. If I’d worn heels and done very beauteous makeup and hair the maybe people would have paid a bit of attention,” she laughs.

This out-the-norm eye for fashion transcends into Vaults’s live performances, Pepino often in dramatic stage attire as a concomitant to the equally-striking music. “It’s never been about doing what everyone else does,” she explains. “I hate that feeling of ‘oh that’s so last season.’ It’s about expressing a feeling in what I’m wearing, so it’s much more theatrical than it is seasonal.”

It’s a mind-set that stretches back to her childhood, admitting to being a “bit of a geek” and often crafting her own clothes as a form of self-confidence. “I didn’t feel very much like I fitted into the normal ‘thing’ in school and I preferred it that way,” she clarifies. “In order to wear something different you have to force yourself into a position of autonomy. It was my way of going ‘don’t fucking bully me cos I’ve got my balls.’”

Regardless of an intriguing lighting rig, inner-crowd dance routines or Babs, their two-metre Aluphone consisting of numerous bells “that look like breasts,” Pepino is always going to find herself front and centre of the Vaults live experience. On whether the confidence she exudes is the same is how she is feeling on the inside, it’s a separate matter altogether.

“There’s usually an internal battle going on which is between an old woman in the corner going [in her finest Wicked Witch of the West impersonation], ‘you can’t do anything, you’re rubbish!’ and the other person sitting down with a cup of tea saying, ‘just sit down there and don’t worry about it all.’” More snickers follow, before elaborating on the idea that “I’ve got to a point where I know what these different characters are all doing so I can decide which one to listen to at a specific time.”

As the group’s vocalist, she admits she’s less open to the idea of the perfect “I fucking think I’m amazing” frontrunner, insisting on “always carrying a broken doll element to myself and I have to just deal with that.” It’s similar to her ideal perception for a crowd. “I want the audience to see the broken bits of me that I think are in everyone, maybe showing a connection between myself and them.” And as far as her aforementioned dress code goes? “Hopefully they can then reflect on my exhibitionist side and go, ‘fuck it! She’s done it anyway!’”

Three years down the line, this combination of immersive live shows, critically acclaimed releases and big-name boosts has (finally) lead to debut full-length Caught in Still Life, bringing together a selection of their best alongside a handful of stellar newbies. Cry No More is on there as album opener, whilst their festive John Lewis rendition finds itself rounding off the record, albeit a more ‘Vaults-ified’ version. Whilst a debut LP is likely to, and arguably should, pose difficulties and struggles to those making the magic happen, Pepino is already finding much of Caught In Still Life a tricky listen.

“I think I struggled with the more pop, bigger sounding ones,” she admits, rather hesitantly. “I think I completely overdid Midnight River. I know that loads of people love it but I still shrink away a bit when I have to listen to that one. It’s the same for some of the other bigger tracks too.”

Without doubting her, any distancing from a handful of tracks is difficult to comprehend. Midnight River itself is a glistening eruption of choral vocals and synth whilst tracks like Overcome and Hurricane reveal the dynamics that the trio can stretch to, given their back catalogue’s emphasis on groovier slow-jams. That said, it’s the record’s down-tempo moments, like Poison, that really secure Vaults as a big deal.

She agrees. “Poison was one of those songs that didn’t really have any comping, it just seemed to pop out. It carries an authenticity that much of the other stuff on the record doesn’t.” Divulging further, she explains, “It’s one of the great dichotomies for me. The quieter stuff I find really easy – Bodies for example was one I wrote and has a delicacy to it that I really enjoy. The larger ones, I just find a little bit harder to go back to.”

It’s unsurprising that One Day I’ll Fly Away made the cut with the album announced and released within the same month long space as the advert’s release. Pre-empting the albums release, the band posted an open letter via their social media accounts highlighting their support for the Stop Funding Hate campaign, urging companies to stop advertising in newspapers that spread the message of fear, xenophobia and racial hatred towards refugees and migrants. John Lewis being one of those said-companies, despite wide-spread appeal for the retail chain to join the campaign.

Pepino herself holds a history as an active campaigner for refugee support, conducing fundraisers and helping to construct shelters for refugees in Calais, hence the importance of their statement.

“In the last twenty years, there’s been a decline in people being able to be vocal and remember it as a necessity of an artist to do so. In the end, what’s the effing point? If you can’t comment on the society you’re living in then you’re not an artist as far as I’m concerned.”

“Companies like John Lewis need to remember that, no matter how small the artists they work with, these people are autonomous,” she explains. “I think it’s something that quite a lot of people have forgotten. Especially in this day and age where you’re afraid of what the papers are going to write about you.”

It’s not the first time that Vaults have found themselves in a political discussion based outside of music. In early 2016, Pepino and her boyfriend opened up in an interview for The Independent on their polyamorous relationship, again met with social media praise for bring the topic to the mainstream eye. The question is posed: is it more relevant than ever for musicians to be honest about their relationships and sexuality?

“If anyone feels strongly enough to speak about anything then they just should, that’s why I did,” she explains. “There’ll always be these dark places where people feel like they can’t go and if any artist feels strongly enough to talk about those then I think it will always have an important effect. It encourages debate about many things, in one way or another.”

With the debut out the way, it’s hard to blame someone as evidently forward-thinking as Pepino for having her sights set on the next step. “I’m just not very interested in this industry anymore and far more intrigued to create more visual work that draws out of the song writer and make something that’s a bit more of an immersive experience for the audience,” she explains.

“I’ve only done it a couple of times before where I really feel like I’ve nailed it and that’s proof to me that I do have to do something along those lines. Obviously I’ve got quite a lot of stuff to do with Vaults so I should probably do that…” Cue some final giggles.

With all their recent activity, it’d be criminal if Vaults weren’t in the running for the hardest working band in the UK right now. It’s an effort that has been three years in the making, landed them slots that may artists wouldn’t get till their third album and prove the surrounding buzz surrounding them all this time has been so worth its while.

Maybe one day, they’ll fly away, but for now they’re just flying high.

Caught In Still Life is out now.

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