A little over a decade ago, in an unassuming parent’s garage in Oxford, Stornoway was born. Today, the internationally acclaimed folk four-piece have three albums under their belt and their journey together is slowly coming to an end with the announcement of their Farewell Tour in the spring of this year.
Despite the band’s formation seeming so long ago now, speaking to Oli Steadman, Stornoway’s bassist, I still get the sense that Oxford will forever hold a special place in his heart, with the first musical experiences of his youth directly tethered to the town and its strangely wonderful qualities.
Whilst Brian Briggs (vocals) and Jon Ouin (keys) met during freshers’ week, sowing the first seeds of what was to become Stornoway, Oli and his brother Rob moved to Oxford from South Africa: “We’re sort of immigrants in a way, we arrived in Oxford not really knowing anybody or having any roots.” He tells me “the music scene in Oxford welcomed us in”.
Thinking back to Stornoway’s rather odd beginnings, Oli is certain that no other music scene would have tolerated the band: “We were a band who for the first few years would wear dressing gowns on stage, we’d get strange sort of acrobatic routines going within our sets and … we were just a really ramshackle group. But it was the nature of Oxford’s scene, on both the town side and the gown side…that made it possible for a band like ours to form.”
Curious about the strong themes of the natural world running throughout Stornoway’s body of work, I ask whether this was mainly a result of Briggs’ background in ornithology. Oli explains that the band is primarily “in love with the poetic and storytelling side of nature…We’re convinced that the way in which to draw inspiration is just looking and appreciating.” The vivid imagery and lush instrumentation carrying many of Stornoway’s songs certainly attests to this focus on observation.
‘Lost Youth’, a track from their latest album Bonxie, samples bird song in an especially playful way, contrasting the heavier undertones of the lyrics, which describe a state of uncertainty in growing up and moving on.
Oli tells me this focus on nature is another way in which the band manage to harmoniously channel their differences as people: “All the members of the band have that obsession with nature but from so many different backgrounds, so while Oxford is a melting pot of people, the band is a melting pot of nature enthusiasts and pretty much bird geeks.”
The intense joy and emotional range of Stornoway translates especially well to live shows, where wild instrumentals are married together with stripped back moments of acoustic intimacy.
I ask what is most appealing about live shows. “The audience, if anything, is a centre of gravity in the musical relationship. The audience is where the emotion happens and where things are sort of authenticated.”
As a band with “some notoriety for obsessing over the small venues”, their last ever show at the Oxford New Theatre with a capacity of 1,800 is less a challenge and more an opportunity to truly leave their mark on the town which gave them life. Oli is excited to play to as many fans as possible, telling me that “[The New Theatre] is ten times the size of people we’d play to in our ideal gig but hopefully that will just make it more magical in some way.”
Stornoway’s down-to-earth, uplifting, and beautifully engaging sound will undoubtedly leave a yearning in the hearts of many. Promising to go out with an emotionally charged bang, Oli assures me that the Farewell Tour will be a celebration of Stornoway’s achievement: “We’re gonna want to do ourselves proud and put on an entertaining show for people.” I, for one, cannot wait.