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Stornoway were founded in 2006 by four very earnest looking college boys – Oxford University PhD scholars – who were drawn together by a mutual love of acoustic melodies and multipart harmonies…

Stornoway is a small fishing port in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, an Australian water treatment company and an Oxford-based indie folk band. Today, we’re mostly concerned with the band. The musical Stornoway were founded in 2006 by four very earnest looking college boys – Oxford University PhD scholars – who were drawn together by a mutual love of acoustic melodies and multipart harmonies. Their unlikely frontman is Brian Briggs, a soft-spoken blonde with a serious face and a penchant for animal conservation.

“I started writing songs when I started university,” Briggs all but whispers. “I met a guy from California who had written lots of songs and we used to jam together in college – I’d play drums and he’d play electric guitar. It was very inspiring to see all the songs that he’d written. I’d always played a little guitar, but that was what kick-started me into thinking that maybe I could write songs too.”

Later, Briggs met Jonathan Ouin, another student living at Oxford’s Wolfson College, and the pair began to rehearse Brigg’s songs in the dining hall, filling the large wooden room with the swell of an old grand piano. They went on to perform at local talent shows, and soon added brothers Rob and Ollie Steadman to the lineup, naming their band after a distant Scottish town that was always mentioned in the shipping news.

Stornoway began to play regularly around Oxford, building a devoted grassroots following that included local BBC radio presenter Tim Bearder. Beader loved the band so much he played their songs for an hour straight on his early morning radio show, earning himself a two day suspension. Soon after that, newly-minted Stornoway fans emailed the band’s mp3 links to radio DJ’s at powerful national broadcasters BBC Radio 1 and BBC 6 Music, helping to introduce the band to a national audience.

“It’s been incredible really, how it’s grown,” Briggs reflects. “We still play in Oxford every now and again and we’re now booking 1000 capacity venues. In the early days, it was those massive local gigs that made other people take an interest – that’s when the wider music industry started paying attention. Eventually, we got the help of people in PR and radio, and then a record label. But it was a long process, building up this team of people and fans who were willing to support us.”

Determined to do things their own way, the band set up a home recording studio very early on, and started laying down the tracks that would become their debut album, Beachcomber’s Windowsill. Released in 2010, it is a fey but ebullient rush of strings and horns; a combination of wistful melodies and heartbroken lyrics that seems to come from another world: a wintry coast; the English countryside; some innocent and rosy-cheeked place. Brigg’s voice, at once earthy and lofty, sails through their songs like an arrow. The twee but romantic images – the longing and determination on the album – are clearly his.

“Generally, I write a song in a fairly complete way in terms of lyrics and structure. I take it to the band if I think it’s good enough and if I’ve built up enough confidence in it,” Briggs confirms. “Then we take quite a bit of care in arranging each song, making each one sound different and trying out different instruments. We often involve the recording process in the arrangement process too, trying out different layers of arrangements. Being able to experiment in the studio is actually very important to our songwriting.”

The soft folk edges and gentle melodies of the Stornoway sound weren’t necessarily intentional, Briggs adds. “I listen to a lot of different types of music and most of it is not acoustic. I actually really love reggae and jazz, for example. But that’s just what comes out of us.

“If you could hear everything that we’d ever recorded, I think you’ be surprised at the different sorts of sounds that we’ve tried over the years, and the album probably makes a lot more sense as a whole when you consider it as part of that spectrum. I think as time goes on, we’ll probably continue to try different sounds and styles, but what you hear on the album is probably what we do best.”

Their humble folk has worked a treat in England, where the band have developed an enviable profile and become a fixture on the national festival circuit over the last few years. Their attack on the wider world has been slow-coming however; it wasn’t until the band signed to 4AD in March 2010 that they really looked at launching overseas. Now, having worked so hard to build their profile locally, Stornoway are starting from scratch with an international audience. They are grateful for the opportunity, of course.

“Playing in a band is not something I ever imagined I’d be able to do for a living, let alone travelling the world with it,” Briggs admits. “It’s quite amazing for us to do that. We just came back from Paris and we’re going to America for the first time shortly. I don’t think any of us for a second feel like we’re bored of it, although I’m sure that will happen one day. We’re all just thrilled to be coming out to Australia and we can’t wait to play to new people.”

Though Briggs’ enthusiasm is delivered in a quiet mutter, he seems sincere. “I guess I have a sense of pride in what we do. If we didn’t think it was any good, we wouldn’t have got as far as we have. It took a lot of work – before we started to get the help of managers and record labels – so we had to be committed. We love it and we’re proud of it, and for that reason,” he murmurs. “We’re keen to share it with as many people as we can.”

STORNOWAY play the sold out LANEWAY FESTIVAL at the Footscray Community Arts Centre this Saturday February 5 along with Cut Copy, !!!, Gotye and heaps more. They also play The Corner Hotel on February 10 – tickets from The Corner box office, 9427 9198 and Beachcomber’s Windowsill is out now through 4AD/Remote Control.