They may be prolific, but in the few years they have been together, Graham Marsh and Amber Renee have not compromised on quality despite racking up an impressive quantity of releases. The pair formed CLAVVS (pronounced “claws”) after a serendipitous crossing of paths at a house party. Renee’s previous experimentation with a more folk-oriented sound coupled with a love of Lady Gaga – “there’s something about the way she made dance music popular that really connected with me,” – pushed to explore a very different sound.
“I was not doing music at all until I was around 22,” Renee explains of her roots. “I had just finished my bachelor’s degree, and I was going to grad school to become an English professor, to become a writer. Music is something I’ve loved and always wanted to do, but at the time, for whatever reason, I didn’t think that it was reasonable. One day I woke up and was like, ‘no, this is all wrong! I wanna be making music!’ About a year later was when I met Graham.”
Somewhat fortuitously, Marsh was at the time a Grammy Award-winning producer/engineer, working with major label artists such as Cee Lo Green.
“I was getting burnt out on it,” he admits, explaining his choice to pivot to something completely new. “I wasn’t creatively or emotionally fulfilled, and was at a loss for what to do. I was like, ‘if I’m gonna stay in music, I really wanna do it on my own creative terms.’ That was when I started looking for someone to partner up with.
“I had worked with a few people, nothing ever clicked, and then I met Amber. We vibed out, the party ended up in the studio playing Radiohead covers, and we started writing songs together – first under the motivation to pitch to other artists, but then I was like, ‘no, I wanna scoop this person up.’ I asked her if she wanted to be in a band with me, and here we are.”
When asked why she agreed to team up with Marsh for the long haul, Renee cites indie-rock outfit Broken Bells as a particular personal sonic touchstone, noting that Marsh worked with member Brian Burton on their record.
“His production style was just so lush and beautiful – so polished and great,” she enthuses. “It reminded me of a lot of music that I was really inspired by.”
The deal was sealed, however, by something outside of their musical compatibility. Renee elaborates on the moment she “really knew” that the pairing had sticking power:
“When you first work with someone, you don’t necessarily know their political leanings or anything like that, you just keep it professional, but Graham at one point commented on how something was so sexist. It was the first time I’d ever heard a guy – particularly a guy in the music industry – talk about sexism. I was like, ‘this is it!’”
The success of their pairing has been proven through an already impressive back catalogue, boasting most recent EP No Saviors alongside a pair of full-length LPs. Last year’s standout single “Lay Back” topped the Hype Machine chart, whilst others have appeared on the soundtracks of TV shows as huge as CW’s recent reboot of Charmed.
“It’s very surreal,” Renee admits of the success. “When things happen like that, it doesn’t feel real.”
“Lay Back” has been particularly well received, aligning with the pair’s view that it is one of their strongest offerings yet. The track, which Renee describes as having a “magical essence”, fell together in the briefest of periods, as Marsh explains:
“Amber wrote that song in her head,” he says, still sounding a little awed by the fact. “She sang that to me the first time and the production appeared in front of me like a mirage. We went in the studio right then and did it, and that’s what is on the record. When we finished it, I knew that song was special, and I knew that was a growth moment for us as a band. It felt really strong.”
“It’s so impossible to know if you’ve captured that magic or not,” Renee adds. “That’s what makes the process of making music so cool. “I like to think of writing songs and finding melodies as excavating through consciousness to discover something.”
“It’s hard to explain,” Marsh adds. “It’s alchemy. Amber wrote a fantastic song – she killed it, and it has a great message to it. I just wanted to complement that with a similarly catchy but vibey kind of production that enhances her lyric.”
Whilst the duo’s songwriting process may not always follow this structure, they’re open about the fact that many make the gendered assumption that Marsh is the brain behind the operation, with Renee filling a more superficial role of frontwoman. Marsh shoots these misogynistic ideas down at the earliest opportunity.
“Our band is about songs,” he states, simply. “Amber’s the songwriter. My beats and production would be nothing [without her], it’s all about Amber’s vocals and lyrics. That’s the main part. I’m just hoping to do justice to what she’s writing!”
“It’s a conversation!” Renee protests, unwilling to concede to Marsh’s generous perspective. “It’s a back and forth. It’s not like I don’t contribute any ideas on the other and, or Graham is like, ‘I’m only gonna be doing production.’ In that way, we both choose some of the melodic ideas, and we both choose some of the production ideas. In working and working together for so long, we’re only getting better at that. It takes finessing!”
Marsh agrees. “We’re just getting to the part where our partnership as a songwriting/production team is at a really, really awesome place. It took a few years to hone that – failing so many times! – to get to the point where we have a system in place that results in really good work. Having confidence in hearing [our music] back is a new place for us.”
“It’s always the goal,” Amber laughs, “but it can be hard!”
The No Saviors EP sees this partnership shine anew on tracks such as the minimal, mesmeric “Violet Sea”, which sees them lean into more naturalistic elements amongst their electronic sound.
“We really tried to go more minimal on this EP,” Marsh explains. “Even ‘Lay Back’ has some of those more organic textures. I was always keeping that in mind. Everything has more sonic space this time around – our last album World Underwater was pretty dense. The spaces in between notes are just as important as the notes themselves. It builds a tension, ‘cause you’re anticipating the next sound.”
“I think that [space] is a concept that has existed in music for a long time,” chips in Renee, “but its really been pushed to the forefront because of hip-hop music. We’re from Atlanta, so hip-hop has been a big part of our lives growing up. It’s cool to see that getting to shine.”
Hip-hop is not the pair’s only source of inspiration falling well beyond the constrains of pop. Marsh cites the “treasure trove” of world music as deeply informative, whilst Renee struggles to narrow down her influences to a single answer. She nods to “super revolutionary” Santigold’s creative choices and ability to “flip a melody” alongside Lykke Li, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Shins, and the aforementioned Broken Bells. With such a varied bank of influences, it’s clear the depth of creativity CLAVVS aim to harness with their shimmering take on pop.
As well as the growth in their sound brought about by this overflowing well of ideas, Renee notes a sea change in her lyrical content that marks No Saviors out from its predecessors.
“This is the first time that I’m really writing love songs,” she admits. “With World Underwater I was going inward – there’s some of that on No Saviors, but it’s about relationships, and connecting with people; how to let people go, and let past memories go. I think that’s the central motif on it. As a title, No Saviors speaks to the way in which we often expect other people to provide the answers for us. That is an extremely toxic and dangerous thing to believe, because you aren’t able to take responsibility or understand where you are to heal and move forward. Centrally, it’s about realising that maybe, you’re not broken.”
As a duo, it certainly seem like CLAVVS are the furthest from broken they’ve ever been.