It starts with a breathless, brimming affirmation of enduring love and ends with a becalmed reflection on life and loss as dusk draws in. Between these two elemental bookends Stornoway’s superb second album pauses to contemplate birth, death, family, sex, nature, joy, pain and the precise location of home. There are Turkish zithers and there are German spoons. It is the sound of one long song of life unfurling.
Singer and principal songwriter Brian Briggs describes Tales From Terra Firma as “an album of stories about rites of passage.” If there is one unifying theme it is the troublesome task of leaving behind the easy certainties of youth to wrestle with the complexities of adulthood, all the while trying to retain a sense of wonder at the world. Drawing from influences as varied as Tom Waits, John Adams and David Gilmour, with nods along the way to 19th-century poets John Clare and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, it is a multi-textured, hyper-melodic, stirringly emotional piece of work. It is also a fantastic pop record.
We should expect no less. Stornoway lit up 2010 with their thrilling debut Beachcomber’s Windowsill, the culmination of a five-year journey which had its starting point in a Freshers week meeting at Oxford University between Briggs and the band’s arranger and multi-instrumentalist Jon Ouin. After hooking up with South African born brothers Rob (drums) and Oli Steadman (bass), the band honed their sound and aims, self-releasing a series of EPs before finally signing to 4AD for the release of Beachcomber’s Windowsill in May 2010. Hailed from the rooftops for its melodic magnificence and imaginative arrangements, the album reached the Top 15 in the UK and led to tours of Europe, Australia and America, numerous memorable festival appearances and a sold-out show at London’s Somerset House. They even found time to collaborate with Kathleen Edwards on a track on her 2012 album Voyageur, produced by Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon.
Ouin describes the afterglow of all that activity as “very positive indeed – to a certain extent we still can’t really believe that we’re in the position we are.” When it came to approaching their second record there was an awareness that “we had something to live up to”, but their stringent quality control mechanisms proved liberating rather than stifling. On Tales From Terra Firma Stornoway granted themselves permission to cast the net of their imaginations wider than ever. “I think this album is more complicated in some respects, and it feels like it has more substance, more weight,” says Ouin. “We’ve been able to be a little more ambitious, partly because of the nature of the songs, and also we’ve got more into taking a few more risks in the production side of it. Hopefully there is a slightly better match between the mood of the songs and the production and arrangements.”
The band were harvesting ideas for new songs even before the release of Beachcomber’s Windowsill. The majority were written by Briggs “in a campervan amongst some garages in just about the most urban part of Oxford. It is my tiny ‘adventure capsule’ which in the smell of the upholstery alone can transport me to wherever I need to be for the purposes of songwriting.”
The songs themselves are beautiful, heartfelt, dashingly melodic; but with Stornoway the songs are just the start. Around these crafted compositions all four members congregate to tease out every possible nuance. This is a band that runs on curiosity. Producing the record themselves, they took a bespoke approach to each track: every one of these songs was given a very beautiful and carefully considered place to live – musically and geographically. After working on the early arrangements in Stornostudios, the Oxford garage they have made their home base, recording locations ran the gamut of wind-buffeted barns, local churches and community centres, even Oxford’s Pegasus Theatre. Some work was also done at George Shilling’s Bank Cottage Studio in the Cotswolds.
Whatever the location, the aim was always to preserve the emotion and atmosphere of the song’s original spark. “The initial feeling will inspire the basic demo, which I’ll send to Jon, and that will inspire the arrangement,” says Briggs. “We try to build that and the recording around the feel of the demos. If it means a church, or a spoon solo, then we go with that!” adds Ouin.
The bulk of the recording spanned two winters, between December 2011 and November 2012. One track, the gloriously unadorned “November Song” which closes the record, was recorded at the end of the sessions for Beachcomber’s Windowsill. Partly inspired by the death of Briggs’ grandmother, it offers a poignant bridge between the past and the present.
All of Stornoway’s music springs from lives being lived and the ongoing adventures of its four creators. Beachcomber’s Windowsill primarily reflected their experiences while still students; at the time of its release the band’s youngest member, Rob, was gearing up to sit his ‘A’ Levels. Little wonder that, according to Briggs, “the first record was a bit more child-like in some of its perspectives.” In the time between their debut and Tales From Terra Firma Stornoway have, says Briggs, “grown up.” There have been major life changes: marriage, children, new relationships, sudden loss, career crossroads, relocation. If their debut captured the guileless rush of first love contemplated from a teenage bedroom, the follow up frequently describes a deeper, more complex world and more readily acknowledges the shadow as well as the sun.
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A deceptively jaunty stretch of clear blue sea with a dark undertow, “The Bigger Picture” was partly inspired by the tragic loss of a close friend at a young age, conceding that “there’s no answer to your prayers”. The haunting, harrowed “The Ones We Hurt The Most” – which in parts recalls the R.E.M. of Automatic For The People – is freighted with a sadness so stark you can practically touch it. The towering “(A Belated) Invite To Eternity”, featuring massed ranks of violin played by regular collaborator Rahul Satija, squeezes all the trials and tribulations of the love of a lifetime into an epic heart-on-the-line narrative of refusal, regret and final resolution. “Knock Me On The Head” weaves emotional confusion into a beautifully intricate structure and a chorus which strikes like sheet lightning. Written by Ouin, it packs more ideas into four minutes than most bands manage on an entire album.
There is nothing here for the faint-hearted, yet if Tales From Terra Firma goes further into the murky depths of human experience, it also flies higher than ever before into untrammelled joy. The sweet ache in Briggs’ strong, clear voice is as adept at conveying intense pleasure as pain. Whichever he is addressing, he recognises that the words to these nine songs “are fairly exposed. I definitely wouldn’t be able to be so naked in another context. I felt like lyrically I had a lot to write about, mostly positive, happy experiences. I hope people can get attached to them and can relate to some of the stories.”
Opener “You Take Me As I Am” is an unabashed tear through Briggs’ wedding scrapbook, heart and nature in perfect union as he relives the ceremony “on a clifftop in Pembrokeshire”. The tumbling musical backdrop of organ, trumpet and rattling guitar underscores each and every joyous memory. “Hook, Line, Sinker” channelled through Primal Scream’s ‘Kowalski’,” according to Ouin – is a whirring, propulsive, exquisitely lop-sided pop beast, peppered with wah-wah guitar and all manner of electronic eccentricity. Ushered into view by an elegant quartet of clarinets, “The Great Procrastinator” has a dash of Tom Waits on Bourbon Street and the timeless grace of a weathered folk anthem. A stirring, bittersweet ode to decision-dodging it could double, reckons Briggs, as a band manifesto.
Co-written with Ouin “Farewell Appalachia” is a gossamer hymn to the simple life and the power of the senses, the open-throated harmonies, gentle sway and aqueous guitar line suggesting a holy communion in the pines between Midlake, the Mamas and the Papas, Fleet Foxes and psychedelic-era Byrds. “There’s definitely more of an American influence on that song, but I had an excuse because it was about hiking along the Appalachian trail through New Hampshire and Vermont,” says Briggs. “It’s about the feeling you can get from being alone in a beautiful bit of wilderness, with all the mountain air and physical exercise.”
Stornoway’s songs have always gravitated towards the great outdoors. The power of nature was a common thread on Beachcomber’s Windowsill and continues to run through Tales From Terra Firma. The artwork created by Kirini Kopcke and Rob reflects all of this perfectly. Three years on the terrain has become wilder, more expansive, resulting in a kind of windswept soul music which gathers up trace elements of rock, pop, folk, electronica, post-punk, African rhythms and the avant-garde. Rob and Oli Steadman both played more instruments than ever before, taking up autoharp and clarinet. In order to capture the subtle shades of each song a battalion of esoteric instruments has been pressed into service, including dulcimer, harpsichord, qanun, autoharp, mbira, mandolin, the Persephone, spoons and “crunchy autumn leaves”.
Yet the ambition and bigger, bolder sensibility is worn lightly. “Overall I feel they are weightier songs and more emotionally powerful, but we also love to have fun with it,” says Briggs. “A lot of this album is positive and happy. We realised that the album could be more powerful if we took the bigger, life-story angle, but I’d hate the idea of people seeing us a band that takes itself really seriously. Hopefully some of the playfulness comes across in the arrangements.”
Apart from Oli, who is occasionally found sitting in on Zulu music and folk sessions near his flat in Shepherd’s Bush, all of Stornoway still live in Oxford, where the band HQ remains the garage whose walls were carpeted by hand and filled with outlandish instruments and South African trinkets from Oli and Rob’s childhood. A tight-knit group, that is very much a family affair - Brian’s brother Adam Briggs often plays with the band live on trumpet and for the recordings contributed with more home made instrumentation in the form of crisp packets and newspaper scrunching - they have relied on their own creative instincts since the very start and aren’t about to change now. During the making of Tales From Terra Firma no one outside the band heard the songs before the final mixes. It all adds to the sense of a band intent on writing their own story to their own exacting specifications, oblivious to trends or outside influence. “We never aspire to be anything other than who we are,” says Brian. “We’ve never felt we fitted in with a particular music scene, it’s always been about doing our own thing and being ourselves. It is honest music.”
And – honestly – it is wonderful. The title of their second album might place them firmly on solid ground, but in every other respect Stornoway are soaring.
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