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Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2010

Stornoway’s Songs From the Seaside

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Sometimes it takes a journey into untamed seas to discover riches, while other times treasures can mysteriously wash ashore. When it comes to creating music for the U.K. band Stornoway, named after the Scottish seaside town, there are countless chances to uncover new and exciting surprises.

There’s a bit of a seaside atmosphere and sense of discovery that flows through the band’s debut, Beachcomber’s Windowsill, a collection of beautiful, wistful and rustic alternative folk songs.

“On the Beachcomber's Windowsill you find all these different and weird treasures,” says Oli Steadman, one of the band’s multi-instrumentalists. “The title refers to how we found the music within ourselves. It represents treasures we’ve found that we want to display for everyone to see.”

Steadman, who calls their music psychedelic indie folk, says there’s an ever-expanding sonic boundary as the band constantly experiments with new sounds. In fact, for their debut album they tried more than 100 different instruments and used sounds such as the chiming of a Dutch church bell, the clicking from a Morse code message and the chopping of carrots.

The band’s avid sense of discovery and love of new routes are exemplified partly by singer Brian Briggs’ boat trip to Stornoway. That trip turned into a fight for survival in a severe storm that almost capsized his boat. He never reached his destination, but the trip remained a powerful experience.

“One day Stornoway came up in the weather report and he remembered having sailed there and not really making it,” Steadman says. “It was just a suitable moment and the word held a meaning for him, just driving to get somewhere, but you might never get there. It’s a significant place because it’s really far out and hard to get to, and perhaps that represents something about our music.”

Like the music, the band’s name provides room to navigate to new terrain.

“We also like the poetic appearance of the name,” Steadman says.“It leaves a lot to interpretation and it doesn’t force any idea or feeling onto the music. So the music is free to breathe under this name, which can be interpreted many different ways by different people.”

When it comes to creating this music, the writing process is essentially the recording process. The band tends to sit around a sound desk or computer for hours on end, churning through ideas and seeing what sounds good.

“If Brian has an idea, a vocal or a hook, or melody, we’ll play along with it with a banjo, harmonica or whatever kind of guitar,” Steadman says. “And we’ll listen back to the recordings and see what fits.”

The band is already working on their second album, though Steadman says he’s not sure exactly where the sound will go (possibly more folk or electronic). Steadman says the music is very melodic in quality and each instrument provides something special.

“If you listen to any instrument within the mix, everyone is doing something exciting in its own right at all times during a song,” Steadman says. “So there’s no moment when a bass is just contributing just a rhythm or something. It’s always a little project, each part of the song.”

The band recorded most of the album in the many bedrooms of a home in their hometown of Oxford. While the band later transitioned to a studio, they were able to preserve the homemade and raw quality of the original recordings.

“Often those are the most magical moments. Your body creates something you know is in your mind in some way, but [your conscious self] could never have allowed it to come out,” Steadman says of recording live. “Your fingers instinctually hit the right notes that you realize were there all along.”

Even in a live setting, the band is constantly thinking of new ways to present their songs.

“As we get used to songs and play them more and more, you start hearing and seeing new possibilities in the background and you’re like, ‘What if there was a violin or tubas?’”

Stornoway plays the Turner Hall Ballroom on Saturday, Nov. 27, at 8 p.m. with opener Franz Nicolay.
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