On Returning: Stornoway Interviewed

Songwriter Brian Briggs on their potent - and unexpected - new chapter...

Akin to the natural life they are so enthusiastic about, Stornoway bloomed magnificently for a decade before coming to the end of (what was presumed to be) their natural life in 2017. Across their three albums (the gold-selling ‘Beachcombers Windowsill’, the consolidating ‘Tales From Terra Firma’ and the expansive ‘Bonxie’) the Oxford quartet proffered a unique mix of light-stepping folk and beguiling baroque pop before they parted ways, each member choosing to explore opportunities previously missed in other walks of life.

Yet, like Mother Nature herself, life found a way to rekindle the creativity of lead singer and songwriter Brian Briggs and, later this year, the reformed band (now a trio) are unveiling the next stage in their career with their most eclectic album to date: ‘Dig The Mountain!’ In a story that’s becoming almost inevitably familiar, Briggs used the 2020/21 lockdowns to write music for the first time in years, unknowingly sowing the seeds for the fourth album.

“We didn’t really plan to make another Stornoway album but it was a case of, like many other people, finding a bit of time in the pandemic,” Briggs tells Clash in an exclusive interview. “I had a new shed so I found myself spending a lot of time in it and really enjoying writing music again. That’s where it’s come from, just discovering songwriting after such a long time (and) really getting sucked back into that in a powerful way. It was a real pleasure to do it and I was probably halfway through before I talked about the potential for it to be a Stornoway thing.”

As the demise of the band happened amicably, Briggs and his bandmates (keyboard player Jon Ouin and bassist Oli Steadman) stayed in touch, along with Steadman’s drummer sibling Rob, even though he now resides across the Atlantic. “I’ve been friends with the guys ever since, we regularly meet up,” says Briggs. “John is one of those annoying people who can pick up anything and play it, and I was sending things to him and he was adding these classy touches. Once he started to get involved it very quickly started to sound like Stornoway. Ollie then got involved, then the vocals… it became inevitable. But it’s come from a very natural place. It’s been an easy album to write and record, the songs have just flowed.”

Yet, upon Stornoway’s dissolution, such a reunion seemed unlikely, as Briggs explains the timeline from 2015 to 2023: “Back in 2015 was our last official release and from that point – we very much enjoyed making that last album – we had been doing it for long time, really. There had been a lot of life changes outside the band as well; Rob, our drummer, was 15, 16 when we met. We had to sneak him out of school and take him to gigs! The band did well before he had a chance to do any higher education, and he was quite keen on doing that and was ready. He met the love of his life in America as well, so there was a geographical strain on things. Since the first album came out, I’ve had children, moved to Wales so there’s been a lot of changes there.”

“I think we just had 10 years and such amazing adventures but we were just ready for a bit of a reset. I rediscovered my other passion of working in nature conservation and found this wonderful job to be able to do that in the Gower. There were various forces at work, pulling us apart but not in a negative way. We did the farewell tour in 2017, and that was a real celebration. It did make us have second thoughts if I’m honest! But we called it a day and very much believed that was that. I’m sure lots of bands have the same process. We stayed friends and shared friendship groups so it made it very easy to slip back into working with each other.”

“I probably hadn’t written songs for seven years or something,” Briggs continues. It was before ‘Bonxie’, which was a year or so before that was released. The only thing I did was a project with a Welsh poet called Paul Henry. He had an Arts Council grant to do a collaboration with a musician and got in touch. I kind of co-wrote some bits and bobs with him, but in terms of writing on my own, it had been a very long time. I suppose I wasn’t sure of how to do it, which is why I found it so exciting to rediscover it was a part of me. Paul’s work features on the album as well: one of his poems which we worked on together (‘Kicking The Stone’) ended up on the album. Those are his words and we did a simple piano arrangement which John wrote.”

As to what the band have been doing since the split, Briggs explains: “John teaches and writes music for theatre, Ollie does a lot of data-crunching and works in data science… something I don’t have any understanding of, whatsoever! Sadly, Rob has decided not to be involved this time, as he’s based in America and has his own projects going. We did get in touch and see if he was up for it. Effectively we’ll have a session drummer on tour with us.”

For the first time in their career, ‘Dig The Mountain!’ is the result of Stornoway collaborating with a producer, with Mike Lindsay from kindred spirits Tunng stepping behind the desk. Although Briggs states he had no qualms with using other producers earlier in their career, Lindsay brought something unique to the sessions: “We’ve nearly always done things ourselves; we have worked with producers in the past and it’s never quite felt perfect but this time it really has. Mike has really matched the playfulness, writing, and recording process with his own – what he calls – creative mixing where he’ll add his own touches. He specialises in a bit of added wonkiness and bringing things to the fore. He’s quite bold with his mixing whereas in the past we’ve been inclined to make everything balance perfectly without anything jumping out, whereas he’ll go to town on it. That’s been a joy to hear, it feels like a really good match for this particular record.”

‘Dig The Mountain!’ features collaborations with Fyfe Dangerfield and Sam Lee, two fellow conservation-focussed musicians. Briggs feels that, although their contributions were sonically different, both added a new dimension to his songs: (Dangerfield) covered a Stornoway song a while ago, he’s a fan and vice versa,’ he explains. “I’ve always thought his voice has a lot in common with mine so I was curious to see how our voices would match together. In my head I could hear it working like an Everly Brothers thing; two quite close voices. It came off really well, in my opinion anyway! You can barely tell who’s who but it feels great and he’s a pleasure to work with. He’s gone quite leftfield in his own music and it’s great. I think he gets lost in the process and has no interest in writing commercial hits, which I’ve got a lot of respect for.”

“Sam Lee is almost the opposite. He’s got a very different voice to me, a deep and distinctively folky delivery. His ornamentation feeds from traditional folk, and that song is more of a call-and-answer thing. We recorded on a sunny day in Gloucestershire. When we recorded Sam literally popped out from the woods then went back!”

“I’ve been hosting some nights called Singing With Nightingales, which is a project that (Lee) set up  where you bring a musician out into the woods with a small audience. There’s a lot of chat about bird song and nature conservation but also songs around the campfire and the most magical bit is when it’s really late and you sit down next to the bird and the musician will play. It really feels like the bird responds and there’s a call-and-response thing there. It’s a really unique thing.”

Also on the album is the Chinese artist Yijia Tu, a former Chinese pop star who is undergoing a wholesale career change, as Briggs explains: “She was the equivalent of a Pop Idol type, playing absolutely huge gigs and signing to Sony. I think she just decided that wasn’t for her so she came over to the UK to study and she’s discovered traditional Chinese music. All her various influences are coming together and she’s starting to create her own thing. She’s a really amazing singer and plays a lot of interesting instruments including a Chinese zither. She features on our cover of Björk.”

You read that correctly. Stornoway have opted to make their comeback even more difficult for themselves in choosing to cover the mighty Björk’s ‘It’s Not Up To You’. “The inspiring thing is how adventurous and unafraid she is of doing anything,” gushes Briggs, justifiably. “No-one really covers Björk. I think people are a bit scared! It’s hard to improve, but we didn’t really aim to do that. We just tried something really different and bring it back towards a more rootsy thing, with real instruments. Her original version of that song has a lot of digital and electronic sounds. We changed the rhythm a little bit and had some fun with it. This was before any Stornoway plans and it was a way back in; try a cover or two and just remind myself how I used to arrange songs. It just turned out sounding even better than I hoped it might.”

For his full-time job, Briggs works as conservationist near the Gower in his home of South Wales. With that in mind, the singer is conscious that, although touring is a necessity, to do so in an environmentally friendly way is a challenge. So, in a unique move, the band are playing a series of Campfire gigs in nature reserves, as Briggs explains: “They are with a group called the Nest Collective. We’ve done gigs in nature reserves in the past and it’s the same thing, really. We’re trying to get people outside and enjoy music in green spaces and rediscover the magic of music around a campfire. It’s something we can do with a really low impact, environmentally, we can travel with low kit requirements. We’ve always found that the acoustic arrangements of our songs have always gone well. Those are going to be in the region of 200 (capacity). There will be a little PA but it will hopefully feel quite intimate, with a nice rootsy vibe (while) trying to keep our footprint to a minimum.”

“Nature reserves tend to be inaccessible places that people have to drive to, but these ones are going to be in community gardens and in more urban areas, for the most part. We’re also keen to put on shows that kids can come to as well, there’s so many shows that kids can’t come to. Although they can be a tough crowd but we’ll see! There could be some interesting heckling!”

The video for Stornoway’s take on ‘It’s Not Up To You’ goes live at 7pm on July 28th…

Stornoway’s new album ‘Dig The Mountain!’ will be released on September 8th.

Words: Richard Bowes

Follow Clash

Buy Clash Magazine