Storning-away through Cowley: Interview with Stornoway
Few bands have come to amass such a loyal Oxford fan-base than Stornoway. Although the band doesn’t actually come from Oxford – Jon Ouin met Brian Briggs as post-graduates at Wolfson College in Freshers Week where Brian was doing a PhD in “ducks” and Jon a Masters in Russian Literature, references such as “zorbing through the streets of Cowley” have ensured the foursome have become synonymous with the Dreaming Spires. Having just played one of two sold out gigs at the Town Hall, Jon reveals “I always feel more nervous before local shows because you want to do your best on your home turf.”
The band’s 2010 debut album Beachcomber’s Windowsill was suffused with what the Guardian aptly, if pejoratively, termed ‘hello-trees-hello-sky whimsy’, fuelled by the ringing purity and naïveté of Brian’s vocals. The band’s forthcoming follow up album Tales from Terra Firma will be released in March. So what can we expect? Describing the Stornoway sound as “essentially soulful”, Jon elaborates, and replies that the album “is a series of songs which are loosely tied together by the theme of what it means to be human, they’re kind of inner thoughts. It almost like a diary .. but musically more expansive and more meaty.”
Stornoway are often characterised as forming part of the neo-folk revival, in part fuelled by Mumford & Sons, Laura Marling and Dry the River. This revival has led to the genre of folk becoming increasingly ambiguous. On one hand we’re faced with the commercialised stadium-filling Mumford & Sons, and on the other, the resolutely traditional sound of Bellowhead.
I ask Jon how much affinity Stornoway feels to the seemingly amorphous folk genre in light of this. “There’s two reasons people talk about folk music. I think its like a Sixties thing which has mutated, the term, ever since Bob Dylan. That’s where the confusion comes but it doesn’t really matter because if you say folk people nowadays think of an acoustic guitar which is a bit of a misnomer…[Stornoway are similar to Mumford & Sons] insofar as they play with an acoustic guitar, they like playing live music, they like projecting something which is personal to a large audience. I don’t understand when people say we sound the same. They’ve massively popularised the genre, which helps because it may change the way people see us.”
Jon explains this resurgence as a backlash against the commercialisation pervading the music industry, and indeed wider society. “I suspect it’s something to do with the feeling of searching for authenticity. There’s a simplicity to [folk], or a pastoral quality, which weirdly people in cities connect with. there was a big revival in the Sixties and Seventies and that was linked to social shifts. Everything is so atomised now. If you’re talking about songs which are simple in format… its like going to church in a way, or a football match.”
Clearly folk music, or what most consider folk, provides an outlet for a more communal musical expression in a modern society where these opportunities have significantly diminished.
On a separate note, Oxford’s thriving and dynamic music scene is a well documented phenomenon. The so-called Blessing Force, comprising bands such as Jonquil, Trophy Wife and Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs have all been identified as culprits in a neo-shoe gazing, experimental synth genre particular to the Oxford music scene. But quite clearly not part of this music milieu, how much do Stornoway feel immersed in Oxford’s music community? Jon replies sceptically “ They’ve been here longer than us and in different guises …I do go to gigs but I feel that we’re not that well integrated in some respects. I love a lot of the music [Trophy Wife] make, I’m a big fan but I don’t know any of them personally. I’m a distant admirer. I go to the Rusty Bike a lot. Half Moon has some good folk things going on. “
Owing their initial rise largely to BBC Introducing, radio presenter Tim Bearder was an early champion of the band and was reportedly suspended from work after barricading himself in the studio and playing an hour’s worth of Stornoway songs.
Jon agrees that BBC was instrumental in their rise, saying “the BBC had a lot of influence, because there was that link with BBC Oxford. Interestingly this month they elected not to put us on the Radio 6 playlist. I’m not complaining because they’ve done so much for us but its not so simple, it’s all down to individuals, you have to persuade individual DJs and individual producers. If you get opportunities you take them but we weren’t very career-minded about it.”
So for the band who has shot to recognition through a series of charmingly fumbling, haphazard incidents, what does the immediate future hold for Stornoway?
“We are touring, touring and possibly doing some touring after that. We’re basically going to concentrate on recording our music and writing new things at the same time.”