Stornoway have always been slightly mis-cast.
Caught up in the 'nu-folk' media furore, the band's songwriting – deftly assured, neatly poetic – always stood apart from this trend.
Now operating alongside Cooking Vinyl, sessions for the group's new album 'Bonxie' betray a growing maturity.
Out on Monday (April 13th) 'Bonxie' has a rare depth to its execution. Stornoway's Jon Ouin is a literary buff, and agreed to share the contents of his bookshelf for Their Library.
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What is your favourite book and why?
This is pretty difficult, but I would say Ivan Turgenev’s Otsii I Deti (‘Father and Sons’, 1862) as I’m into Russian books. It’s a 19th century classic which has stuck with me for some reason. There are some tropes there which you might expect to find: family discord, political discussion (and a backdrop of serfdom), mysterious houseguests who never seem to leave, love interest, people hiding in bushes, and a duel! But it’s more than that…
It gives a glimpse of a specific historical time period in Russian history when the younger generation of free-thinking nihilists (the 'sons') were talking about ideas that the middle-aged liberal idealists (the 'fathers') didn’t get. It’s not a dry or difficult novel though, and Turgenev sketches out all his characters generously, so there are emotional pulls, private concerns and human fallibilities that we can all identify with. I like the way that there’s an ambiguity to it, and no easy moral to draw from.
What other authors do you like?
Thomas Hardy, ETA Hoffmann, John Fowles, Haruki Murakami, Iris Murdoch, A.S. Byatt, Jose Saramago, John Steinbeck...
What draws you to certain books?
If I’ve been reading something a bit bewildering or knotty and need some light relief, Haruki Murakami’s books have an airiness to them which draws me in. His narrative style is always limpid, almost childlike in its simplicity, so you can skip through it and become addicted pretty quickly. But as I’ve probably hinted at above, I tend to be drawn to books that give a strong flavour of time past and don’t necessarily correspond with the modern world!
For instance, I love Thomas Hardy’s books because of the way you become steeped in rural Dorset from another time. His books also have this compelling sense of inevitability, and he includes a lot of old folklore, customs and speech within his novels - almost like an anthropologist would, so it’s like you’re hearing voices from the past. He incorporates the natural world and the landscape into the his writing to such a degree that they seem to mirror what is happening to the characters.
Do your literary influences have a direct impact on your songwriting?
If I can speak on behalf of Brian (Briggs, co-songwriter) I think I'd say: yes, sometimes! One recent example is a song on our new album ‘Heart Of The Great Alone’ which we co-wrote. This was partly inspired by reading Beryl Bainbridge’s Birthday Boys - a fictionalised account of Captain Scott’s expedition to the Antarctic 100 years ago. Each chapter is written from the perspective of the five men on the Terra Nova: Scott, Edgar ‘Taff’ Evans, Dr Edward Wilson, Lieutenant Henry 'Birdie' Bowers, and Captain Lawrence 'Titus' Oates.
I had a couple of very sketchy lyrical ideas alongside a basic musical demo/feel inspired by the song. Brian then fleshed it out and finished the thing - he chose to write from the perspective of Edgar Evans, who, as it happened, lived the next village away from him on the Gower.
What are you reading at the moment?
Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger.
What is the first book you remember reading as a child?
Probably one of those Ladybird books like Peter and Jane, We Have Fun.
Have you ever found a book that you simply couldn't finish?
I tend to grind through a book even if I’m absolutely hating it. This is partly because there are so many times in the past when a book hasn’t really revealed itself to me until the last quarter or thereabouts. The only one I’ve put down almost as soon as I picked it up was Don Delillo’s ‘Underworld’ as I found it too ungainly and laboured…but I’m going to try again as I like giving things second chances.
Would you ever re-read the same book?
Rarely if ever. This is really because I have this sense that there are so many books that I would like to read that I prefer to move on to the next as soon as possible!
Have you ever identified with a character in a book? Which one and why?
Yes. I identified with Major Kovalyov in Nikolai Gogol’s story ‘The Nose’. It’s the story of a man (Kovalyov) who wakes up to find that his nose has gone missing. Meanwhile his nose is in town masquerading as a human, having acquired a higher rank than him and a passport, and is on its way to Riga. Maybe I was feeling over-caffeinated and paranoid when I identified with him.
Is there an author / poet you would like to collaborate with?
Anna Akhmatova (although we might be 50 years too late and she might not like our music).
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'Bonxie' is due to be released on April 13th.