Instead of containing lyrics or photos of the band, the paper insert of Beachcomber’s Windowsill features beautiful drawings of sea creatures, as though the album itself washed up on shore alongside them for collection by the eponymous beachcomber. Stornoway released their debut album on the 24th May 2010, just weeks after signing a record deal in the remote Scottish coastal town that gave the band their name. The reception was mixed, ranging from a shrugging two stars to a glittering five, as critics grappled uncomfortably with the band’s straddling of genres. The Guardian decreed that singing about conkers was a crime against rock and roll while the Independent claimed that zorbing, the extreme sport that gives the opening track its title, was decidedly ‘un-folk.’ Undeterred by these squabbles over classification, the public unambiguously purchased the record, which it placed 14th and stayed in the charts for five weeks.
Genres like dance and blues prescribe a specific mood or response, and do exactly what they say on the tin. But folk music is slippery. By definition it is the “music of the people”; it knows no limits, offers no distinct rules or patterns to follow, and evades a clear definition. This is evident at the Cambridge Folk Festival, the UK’s oldest celebration of the genre. With past performances from acts as wide-ranging as Toots and the Maytals and Chumbawamba, the festival’s programming team have adopted a policy approaching “anything goes.”
Stornoway were invited into this broad church in 2010, performing at Cherry Hinton Hall two months after the release of Beachcomber’s Windowsill. The band were introduced to the music world on a tide of new enthusiasm for folk, which curiously sprouted in the capital. In the late noughties, a nucleus of folk aficionado – the so-called “West London Folk Scene” – gave a new lease of life to a sound typically associated with the provinces, as the likes of Laura Marling and Noah and the Whale replaced the twang of straw-chewing yokels with a sharp cut-glass filter. In 2009, the summer before Stornoway’s performance, the stage at Cherry Hinton Hall had been graced by the scene’s greatest export. Mumford and Sons – armed with a prestigious name better suited to hanging gilded script above a Chelsea wine merchant than atop a Glastonbury line-up – were leading the charge for the gentrification of the genre.
Long before the charts existed, traditional folk music was shared orally between rural working classes, with themes relating to the nation or region where it originated. The folk revival of the 1960s spawned music which bore little resemblance to the culture which inspired it, and what we now think of as “contemporary folk music” is vastly diverse, ranging from “psychedelic folk” to “folk metal.” The history of folk, then, is a history of inclusivity and continual revision.
Beachcomber’s Windowsill was one such wave of revision, turning from the fitted-waistcoat tribe and re-imagining the roots of the genre. The origins of traditional folk music lie in the fields, where repetitive tasks like reaping, threshing, and digging could be kept steady and pleasurable through melody. In the 21st century, we have removed ourselves from the intimate processes by which we depend on nature for survival. Beachcomber’s Windowsill eulogises our loss. Like farmers harmoniously working the soil, all members of Stornoway sing together for one track of the album, ‘We Are The Battery Human’, which encourages the listener to go outside, subverting modern farming evils to present us, humans, as the ones cooped up.
While Marcus Mumford rode the coattails of literary allusions, Stornoway frontman Brian Briggs put his own classical training to good use; he was working towards a PhD in ornithology [the study of birds] when he met bandmate Jonathan Ouin at Oxford University. He lends this lens to the record, which understands the complexity of human relationships through nature. The natural world has inspired art since time immemorial as our shared environment offers a catalogue of experiences common to all. In ‘Coldharbour Road’ Briggs sings “I am a small town you are a tornado.” It renders a feeling both visceral and immediate; rather than arriving via the pages of a book, the meaning rushes through before one can acknowledge its passing.
The album harks back to the recycling of tunes and stories across fields and time as well-trodden metaphors are trotted out and regenerated. In ‘The End of the Movie’, Briggs is “looking for a sea change” in the aftermath of a break up, and the age-old conceit of life as a journey is rejuvenated in stand-out track ‘Fuel Up’, which beautifully romanticises car travel and is packed with nostalgia and hope.
Briggs’ lone voice opens the record in ‘Zorbing’, before backing vocals emerge like a field workers’ call-and-response. Instruments chime in, reminiscent of the gradual gathering of sound as drinkers join in with a traditional folk band’s impromptu pub set. But before Briggs even opens his mouth, we hear his heartbeat – a single bass string, thrumming rhythmically, generating a lifeforce that carries through every track. Elsewhere, drummer Rob Steadman achieves the effect of a steam train and waves crashing with drum brushes and symbols in ‘Boats and Trains’ and ‘On the Rocks’ respectively. Musical instruments, natural forces, human bodies and minds all become the common material, flotsam and jetsam intermingling on the Beachcomber’s Windowsill.
Having placed folk music back in the realms of the natural world, Stornoway succeeded in a kind of “rewilding” of the genre. Theirs was a journey filled with charm and whimsy, via a homegrown music video filmed on a roundabout and kazoo solos. They were playful to the very last, announcing sadly in 2017 that they were to be “Stor-no-more.” A recent Facebook post announcing the release of a live album of their farewell tour suggests that, like their fans, they’re feeling nostalgic. But while the comments section fills up with hopeful requests for a reunion and Marcus Mumford collaborates with Major Lazer, Brian Briggs has retired to a nature reserve in Wales to watch birds.
Words by Flora Snelson.