The wonderful cover image for Stornoway’s second full-length Tales from Terra Firma does what great album artwork should, setting the right tone and capturing the themes elaborated on in the music. Bringing to mind the warm surrealism of the drawings in the French fairy tale The Little Prince, the art matches the expansive, exploring quality of Stornoway’s sound on Tales from Terra Firma, which builds on and polishes up the Oxford-based band’s earlier work. Fittingly enough, Stornoway’s imaginative chamber-pop arrangements are at once ambitious and immediate, never too much in the group’s own heads or over yours. PopMatters touched base with keyboardist/arranger Jon Ouin to find out about the making of Tales from Terra Firma, where the inspiration for the artwork came from, and whether Stornoway is a neo-folk band or not. In conjunction with Minneapolis’ Radio K, PopMatters is pleased to present the U.S. premiere of Tales from Terra Firma, due out stateside on 19 March via 4AD.
Photo by Pal Hansen
PopMatters: To start with first impressions, the cover art for Tales from Terra Firma is very striking. It’s certainly reminiscent of the drawings in The Little Prince, and the press release mentions Ukiyo-e as an influence—I’m guessing Hokusai’s Great Wave is a touchstone. How was the artwork created and what kind of impression were you aiming for with it?
Jon Ouin: The artwork for the album was created by our close friend, artist Kirini Kopcke—she worked with our drummer Rob (Steadman) to realise the band’s vision of depicting all of the songs as if they were adventures in the life of the protagonist, so there’s a picture for each “tale” on the album, using fragments of the lyrics as a starting point. As I understand it, Kirini drew the original sketches, scanned them, and completed them with Rob using some graphic design software. Yes, Hokusai’s Great Wave was mentioned in our preliminary discussions about what we were after (as were a whole raft of other things), but I think they’ve created their own style. To my mind they’ve actually made the collection that bit more cohesive too and worth having a physical copy for!
PopMatters: The album definitely seems to convey a sense of wonder implied by the cover art. And yet, the feeling of adventure you conjure up on Tales from Terra Firma is one that’s approachable and immediate, instead of larger than life or melodramatic. How did you go about setting that kind of tone in your lyrics and music?
Jon Ouin: I’m glad you think so! I suppose there’s a naturalness and candour to the lyrics, being largely autobiographical, which I imagine makes them slightly easier to identify with. Musically, the thrust of what we do is go for melodies which are hummable or memorable in some way, so that might be something to do with it.
PopMatters: The sense that you’re searching for something comes through in the album’s longer, intricately unwinding arrangements—many of the tracks exceed the five-minute mark. Were you consciously looking to create more patient, carefully developed songs for the new album or did that come about more organically?
Jon Ouin: It wasn’t an intentionally pre-conceived thing for this album as a whole: the demos were just like that from the start. When we were recording the album tracks, we knew that there were at least a couple of songs which could naturally lead the listener on some kind of winding trip. The music needed proper peaks and troughs—with distinct textures and moods—to reflect that, or the words wouldn’t have quite so much potency and meaning.
PopMatters: Can you tell us more about the making of Tales from Terra Firma, particularly your decision to self-produce the album? What kinds of challenges and rewards came with tackling the process that way?
Jon Ouin: First off, it sounds pretty simplistic, but we’ve always liked producing our own music! For me it’s possibly the best part of being in a band. I suppose we feel that between us we’ve got sufficient ideas and know-how to record ourselves in the way we want to. I know some artists like to bring in a producer as a means of putting themselves in a more challenging environment, or because they don’t know what they want to do with their demos, or they do know what they want but they don’t know how to get there. Those are all valid reasons for bringing someone else to the party, and at one stage we did briefly consider using a producer, but it wasn’t for very long! The fact is it probably would have slowed things down in the studio: as a band we prefer to work it out ourselves because we tend to know where we’re headed, or we prefer to experiment until we get there, and that can be time-consuming. Perhaps there are times when you reach an impasse, at which point a producer would give you a helpful nudge in a certain direction to speed things up, but there’s no doubt it’s much more rewarding to feel connected with your music right from the incipient demo until the complete recording.
PopMatters: Stornoway is often described in articles and reviews as a folk band. However, I noticed that your press release doesn’t use that term at all and your music certainly features a number of eclectic elements, even what sounds like some classical and ragtime parts on “The Great Procrastinator”, for instance. How would you describe your sound?
Jon Ouin: Hmm, self-description is always a bit ticklish. People can describe our music how they want (obviously), but for a long time it struck me as weird how “music featuring an acoustic guitar” and “folk music” have been conflated. I should say the “folk” thing is not something that we are purposively evading—in fact, we used to describe ourselves as a folk or “faux” band!—but it doesn’t always fit the bill. For me, a common thread in Stornoway music is, I hope, a kind of optimistic soulfulness, in the sense that it’s essentially warm-spirited and accommodating, and because we try to vary the musical backdrop a bit, as with chamber music—perhaps “chamber soul” or “soul chamber” (perhaps that sounds a bit too abstract/rubbish!).
PopMatters: After the release of Tales from Terra Firma, what plans do you have for the rest of 2013?
Jon Ouin: We’re going to be on tour for much of 2013, which is exciting for us after having spent most of 2012 recording in the garage! Our UK tour resumes in a few days, then we’re looking forward to our European tour this April, and we’ve got an American tour lined up for May. Besides that, we will be knitting, clog-dancing, body-building, and looking after stray gerbils as normal.