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19 May 2015

Stornoway sing with their senses in tune with the natural world

Learning a few birds songs would be a good way of reconnecting the next generation with the natural world
By Ade Long

Stornoway - not the town on the Island of Lewis in Scotland but the band – have released their 3rd album Bonxie to critical acclaim and rave reviews of their live shows. Their front man Brian Briggs popped by the BirdLife office in Cambridge to talk about its creation and how his song writing is inspired by the sights and sounds of nature and wild places.

The band’s roots began at Oxford University where Brian went on to make a doctoral thesis on habitat management of waterbirds at wetland sites around London.  

Q: What ways have you used birds in Bonxie, your latest album?

BB: "Well, indirectly as a source of inspiration really.  I’ve got a birds background or, more generally, a nature conservation background, and moved to South Wales for the writing of this album, The Gower is a stunning area and surrounded by sea and marsh and lots of birds. The landscape and the outdoors have been a big inspiration on the song writing.

We wanted to immerse people as much as possible into the atmosphere and the feelings that inspired the songs. We realised that by using some field recordings chosen specifically for the songs, that we could heighten that atmosphere even more and help bring the outside inside and immerse our listener in those original feelings and inspirations."

Q: For songs like Between the Saltmarsh and the Sea you start with the Brent Geese and the song ends with the calls of Redshank, tell me about some of the other species you’ve used?

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BB: "We’ve tried to match within reason the birds to the settings of the song. So Between the Saltmarsh and the Sea uses a relationship between the sea and the tides and the saltmarsh where I live as a relationship between two lovers, so the sea comes in and out and it’s like a With or Without You scenario, but replacing Bono with a saltmarsh [laughs].

On other songs we’ve tried to do that as well, we’ve got a song called Lost Youth which is set in the mountain uplands initially, so the song starts up with skylarks singing and the sound of a Red Grouse, a weird chuckly song. In the middle of the song there’s a  slightly more mysterious middle eight section where we’ve brought in a Snipe and you can hear a it drumming with its slightly eerie sound.  It was a lot of fun going through the possible different bird species and trying to match them up with the songs."

Q: Are you able to use the bird and other sounds in the live shows at all?

BB: "We are! I’ve had fun choosing some atmospheric field recordings for the shows to play on a nice big PA system.  For our show at Cambridge, We had a reasonably local recording of a bittern booming on a busy marsh at Minsmere, the RSPB reserve.

And we’re using a whole lot besides. We’ve got loons, we’ve got Lapwings, we’ve got the wading birds and Brent Geese, a pod of Humpback Whales recorded in Alaska."

Q: You’ve suggested that children should have the opportunity to learn about sounds of nature at school?

BB: "I feel that from my own experience. I did learn a blackbird song at school because our biology teacher took us out for a couple of lessons to listen to the blackbirds singing in the local neighbourhood and to map their locations when we saw them sing. After a few trips we could map their territories.

Through my first job after university I learnt some bird songs in the woods where I was working, and that massively heightened the enjoyment I got from being outside and being in nature because it’s like a new dimension to it.  I think most people don’t really notice the birdsong because our lives are so busy and we hear so much background noise generally with traffic and so on. I think by learning a few songs and being able to walk outside and say, oh there’s a blackbird singing, there’s a song thrush, you can feel a lot more connected to both the outside world and to the natural world. That’s an important thing to feel in order to value it and to want to protect it. I wrote about the idea of children learning some birdsong at school as a way of reconnecting the next generation with the natural world."

Q: Are there particular issues or aspects of conservation that really get you going?

BB: "The major environmental issues make me pretty nervous for the future to be honest. My personal interests are in ecology and habitat management, but I think the bigger ones relating to human influence on the wider planet like climate change are the more scary ones. 

There’s obviously great work of organisations like BirdLife and its Partners such as the RSPB. But there’s so much more of a wider attitude change needed really in the general public if things are going to change fast. One interesting thing is the internet and its power to accelerate change in people’s attitudes. That gives me a bit of hope in that it’s easier for people to change the way they think when news and attitudes can spread faster.  But it is a bit of a scary time I think."

After Brian departs I'm eager to listen to Bonxie again, with fresh insight from its creator.

Their song “Sing with our senses” says it all about the importance of nature and as a personal allegory for how the band have written the songs on Bonxie.  

We go into the forest, and we open our minds and are senses
In the shadows around us, there's an easier way to connect us
To the spin of the earth, to the stir of the wild inside us

And this is the world that we belong to
And these are the senses that we find it through
And this is the music they exist to sing to
The way to the feeling we can all escape to

It takes only a single listen of Bonxie to recognise that immersing yourself in nature is the perfect habitat for writing beautiful music.