Chvrches brings new music to its two San Diego shows
The Scottish synth-pop group released its fourth album, “Screen Violence,” in August
A good number of musicians grew teary-eyed at their first concerts of 2021 — following 16 months of the coronavirus-fueled shutdown of live events — and Lauren Mayberry is no exception.
But the concert that had this 34-year-old Glasgow native crying wasn’t by Chvrches, the top Scottish synth-pop band she has fronted for the past decade. And it took place in early October at the Hollywood Bowl, thousands of miles from her far less temperate homeland.
“I expected to have a misty moment,” Mayberry, a Los Angeles resident, said. “I set myself up for a big weep because I went to see Cat Power, Garbage and Alanis Morissette, who are all artists I admire.”
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How big a weep?
“I was sobbing so much a woman came over and asked me if I was alright,” recalled the blonde-haired singer, who performs with Chvrches Monday and Tuesday at Observatory North Park.
“I was bawling the whole way through! Because everything felt very raw and overwhelming. I’m definitely appreciating things a lot more than before (the shutdown). I thought we’d never see live gigs again. Everything now is so impermanent, and we don’t know anything about anything. It just reinforces how important music and art is to me, personally, to just escape into.”
Blurring the lines
Exactly how much of an escape music provides for Mayberry is demonstrated on “Screen Violence,” Chvrches’ fourth and newest album.
Released in August, it explores topics that are especially timely during a global pandemic. Fear, alienation, loneliness, gender disparity and a desire for connection and empowerment underpin the songs by Mayberry and Chvrches’ other two members, multi-instrumentalists Martin Doherty and Iain Cook.
There are also allusions to horror movies, many of which seem less frightening at a time when the Omicron COVID-19 variant is spreading around the world while the Delta variant continues to surge. Blurring the lines between the real and the imagined gives the lyrics to the best songs on “Screen Violence” added heft, while the bouncy beats and glossy synthesizer melodies counterbalance the often-bleak topics Mayberry sings about.
The result is music you can dance or sway to as you ponder what inspired such dark but inviting songs as “Nightmares,” “Violent Delights” and “How Not to Drown” (which features Mayberry sharing vocals with one of her idols, Robert Smith of The Cure).
“There’s a lot of dread on the record, but it’s also about perseverance, trying to be hopeful and having something to put your emotions into,” she said, speaking from a recent Chvrches’ concert tour stop in Austin.
Mayberry was born in 1987. It was a decade when synth-pop was booming, along with guitar-driven bands like The Cure. Those influences are proud badges of honor for Chvrches in general and in particular on “Screen Violence,” although Mayberry’s musical inspirations also include such American-bred artists as Tori Amos, Jenny Lewis and Whitney Houston.
“We’re all very conscious of making sure we feel like a British band,” she stressed of Chvrches. “So, many of the references on this album are things like The Cure, Depeche Mode, The Prodigy and British dance music. Even now, dance music that comes out of Britain is so different than what comes out of America.
“And I feel there is a very specific storytelling that comes out of Scotland and out of Glasgow specifically. Maybe the people who come from Celtic countries have a deeper connection to folk-singing and literature, and you can sense that in the best art that comes out of those countries.”
‘Surreal way of making a record’
Because of the coronavirus shutdown, the songs on “Screen Violence” were largely written and recorded long distance. Mayberry was at her home in Los Angeles, while her bandmates Doherty, 38, and Cook, 47, were at various locations back in Scotland.
“It was definitely the most surreal way of making a record,” Mayberry said. “We named the album before we started writing it. We knew we wanted a concept to write off of. It definitely helped us emotionally to have something to focus on.”
As unaffected offstage as she is charismatic when performing, Mayberry is an unlikely rock star. Make that, a considerably overqualified rock star, given her accomplishments in academia.
She earned her undergraduate degree in law from Glasgow’s University of Strathclyde, where she then earned a master’s degree in journalism in 2010. Neither stuck, though, and music became her career and her life.
“I was working as a production runner for a TV station, and I think I was going more in that direction. In college, I thought I’d (go on to) be a research assistant,” Mayberry recalled.
“After I started doing freelance arts journalism, it kind of showed me that’s not really how I think about art. I’ve always been a big fan of things, and an appreciator, and I don’t like having to write about things that I’m not as keen on.”
Her entry into music came as a drummer, not a singer, after being inspired in the late 1990s by an “unauthorized biography” of former Nirvana stickman-turned-Foo-Fighters-leader Dave Grohl.
“It’s nice to be back again, after 27 years!”
Has Mayberry’s early background as a drummer influenced the way she phrases her vocals, or the cadences she uses when writing song lyrics?
“Music is something I never studied, but it’s clear to me now that there is such a clear relation between rhythm and melody if you push a note one way or the other,” she replied.
“There’s a commonality, in that they are both very physical. I’ve tried to learn guitar so many times and it doesn’t feel like a part of me, but more like an extension. The idea of sitting down at a drum kit feels more primal.”
An ardent feminist, Mayberry is a founder of TYCI, a Glasgow women’s collective. She is also a supporter of Glasgow’s Rape Crisis Center and of the Ally Coalition, which raises funds to support homeless LGBTQ youth.
“I’ve always been very honest, for better or worse,” Mayberry said. “I don’t have any grand notions that anyone should give a sh-t about what I think. But it shouldn’t be political to encourage people to be kind.
“I know that sounds cheesy. But why should we not try and be a little kinder to each other, and consider what it’s like to walk a mile in somebody else’s shoes?”
She laughed as she repeated a joke by Scottish comedian and actor Billy Connolly.
“If you walk a mile in somebody else’s shoes, then you’ve got their (expletive shoes),” Mayberry said, laughing again, “so just walk on!”
Chvrches, with Donna Missal
When: 7 p.m. Monday and Tuesday
Where: Observatory North Park, 2891 University Ave., North Park
Tickets: $46 (general admission)
COVID protocols: All attendees must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or have received a negative COVID-19 test no more than 72-hours before the concert.
2:38 p.m. Dec. 9, 2021: This article has been updated to reference the one-week quarantine that Chvrches’ member Iain Cook did in Chicago after the fully vaccinated (including booster shot) musician contracted COVID-19 following the band’s performance there.
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