Tuesday 14 November 2023

LISTEN: Emma Gatrill - 'Out Of The Dark'

We might be nearing the end of the year and album of the year round-ups can't be far off (yikes) but there are still some exciting new releases on the horizon. One of the things I'm particularly excited for is Come Swim, the new record from Brighton based multi-instrumentalist, songwriter and all-round musical good egg Emma Gatrill, which arrives on November 24th via Willkommen Records

I've shared a couple of the singles here already as I think they're brill (I particularly love Adonis Blue - especially as I heard it around the time I saw one!) and I'm not stopping yet, here's Emma's latest gorgeous single Out Of The Dark. Harp, strings, synths, harmonies - there's a little bit of everything, and I'm all over it. 

Talking about the new track, Emma explains that it is "a song about searching for the light in the darkness, trying to discover the best in ourselves and those around us. We have to be the first to change to bring about change. It pays homage to the fabulous Kristin McClement whose song 'Pursue the Blues' was inspirational to this tune. For this album I asked lots of different drummers to record me beats to write to. This song was crafted to a beat written by Jamie Whitby-Coles but then took its own direction. The drum machine ended up replacing the original drums as it added the grit and drive that the song needed."

For those of you lucky enough to have a ticket, Emma opens up for Bear's Den at the second of their four-night run at Union Chapel on Monday 27th November. Enjoy!

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Sunday 5 November 2023

A season of Stornoway

As I sit and start to write this, it’s 24 hours since I was watching Stornoway play for the fifth time this year, at Nottingham’s Rescue Rooms. Weather permitting, I’m tempted to go and see them again this week. (Spoiler: I went, of course I did.) I’ve not been to many gigs since covid, for various reasons, and at the moment it feels that there aren’t many bands that could keep getting me out of the house. Stornoway, however, are so very special to me and I have had the best time following them around over the past few months. It’s been a genuinely really inspiring ride, and I feel motivated to write a little self-indulgent ramble, so here goes.

This has been a generally shitty year for me, and like it so often does, music helps. In recent years, I’ve found a deeper love for nature and wildlife, especially birds. For a while, it felt that I’d replaced loud, busy, crowded gigs for open green spaces, swapped music for birdsong. It doesn’t have to be either or, though. Like a couple of other artists I love (hello Cosmo Sheldrake and Johnny Flynn) Stornoway bring together these joint loves in a truly beautiful way. A love of nature, a passion for environmentalism and brilliant music - an irresistible combination. Getting to see Stornoway perform a few times recently has been a real highlight of a miserable year. One of the gigs was even at a wetland centre: the absolute dream.

Now let’s rewind. I can’t claim to have been around from the start (their gorgeous debut album came out in 2010) - in fact, I stumbled across the band a little by accident, meeting bassist Oli at a Sofar Sounds show in Oxford in 2014. I’d only been living in Oxford for a couple of months, and while I’d been to a few gigs, joining the Sofar crew was the best introduction to the local scene that I could’ve had. I had been an admirer of the Sofar videos on Youtube for a while at this point, and was really excited to get the opportunity to volunteer as a photographer for the Oxford shows.

I had a camera and plenty of enthusiasm, but not much experience of taking photos at gigs, and I was certainly learning ‘on the job’, but I loved my time at Sofar - I met so many cool people (volunteers, gig-goers and artists alike) and got to attend gigs and take photos in some interesting places, many of which I’d likely never have visited otherwise. The first of these shows was at the Worcester College Common Room. Classic Oxford. Oli set up the Oxford branch of Sofar, so we met at the show, and I remember finding him on Facebook afterwards, and noticing that he was in a band, a band which seemed to have a lot of likes… I quickly realised that they were basically Oxford music royalty and started to listen.

The first time that I got the opportunity to see Stornoway perform was on Record Store Day at Truck Store on Oxford’s famous Cowley Road, in the release week of their album Bonxie. An origami bird (I still have it in the CD case) guaranteed me entry as I’d bought the album beforehand, but I was late as I’d headed into town after an early morning RSD shopping. It was so so busy (perhaps I’d underestimated how much Oxford loved them) that I literally had to squeeze in to the doorway and couldn’t see a thing as there was a wall between me and the stage. I might not have seen much, but it sounded glorious.

A few days later, I took a train to Reading with a flatmate to see them play a ‘proper’ gig at Sub89. There was birdsong playing in the venue between sets, which at the time I would probably have thought was a bit quirky, but would now appreciate as a superb artistic choice. More birdsong, always. I remember being completely transfixed by the ‘unplucked’ Josephine and watching my recording of it over and over afterwards.

They played a few acoustic shows later in the year, promoting their new Bonxie Unplucked EP, on which sits their now classic (thanks to the Co-op) The Only Way Is Up cover. Oli got me a photo pass for the Oxford show, and I felt like the coolest person wandering around the church with my camera. I remember avoiding an essay or something similarly important to go to the gig - but it was definitely worth it. They played a beautiful show (and Charlie Cunningham supported!) and I was happy with my photos, and I was certainly starting to really fall for the band.

Stornoway performing at on the Bonxie Unplucked tour

At the start of 2016, I was doing a placement module on the English Literature side of my degree, and the opportunity to work with Oli and Tom (a member of the extended Storno live band) came up. Probably a fairly tenuous link to English Literature when most of my fellow students were working at publishing houses and newspapers, but my lecturer seemed fine with it, and suddenly I was entering the world of live music promotion. As part of the placement I put on my first ever gig, and people actually came to it! The placement went well and I worked with them as community manager for a while (both at university and after graduating), avoiding some of the responsbilities of my degree while working the door for multiple gigs a week across Oxford and often going to other shows in between. 

Later that year, just before the public announcement, Oli emailed me one morning to let me know that Stornoway would soon “be no more”. Compared to some, I hadn’t been around as a fan for long, but I loved the band and was sad for my friends, as I knew how much they loved playing together. It wasn’t meant to be a hiatus or a break, they were all moving on to other projects, to other lines of work, to other countries. The finality of it made it tough news, but a farewell tour was on the horizon, which promised to be a celebration of the band.

The farewell tour happened in March 2017 and was a complete triumph - it seemed that they really were bowing out at the top of their game, with adoring fans left begging for more. Better than fading into the background, surely. I saw them play in London (and got the tea towel) and a couple of days later in Oxford at the final date of the tour. I got to hang around for most of the day (at Oxford’s New Theatre, no less) as we were promoting the show: I watched the soundcheck, had a wander backstage, watched the show, watched as fans said their hellos and goodbyes at the merch stand, and went to the after party with the best of the best of Oxford’s music scene. I never really made tons of friends at university, but the local scene was really welcoming, and Stornoway were always an integral part of it. At the end of the party, I shared a taxi with Oli & Rob’s parents as my halls of residence were close to their house. I remember sitting in the kitchen until the light switched off automatically and just having a cry that something so special was over. Stor-no-more.

I was still working with Oli and Tom at the time, and I’ve kept in touch with them beyond, and knew that the band still occasionally played together at private events, but I had no inkling that a reunion might be on the cards. Last year brought a couple of festival appearances that I couldn’t get to, and it felt a little bittersweet to know that they were playing but that I couldn’t see them. The shows were a sort of extension of the farewell tour, promoting the live album that they’d released from the Oxford show. (Aside: if you have this CD, my photo of the soundcheck is behind the CD in the case!) 

Little did we know that they’d actually been recording a new album at this point, in sheds around the country (where the best albums are made, of course) and that they’d soon be back. Properly. Who could’ve dared to hope for such a scenario?!

The band getting back together and announcing a new album was the best news to kick off Spring this year. I missed out on tickets to their comeback London gig (big sad) but soon the gig and festival announcements started to come thick and fast. I was reunited, physically and musically, with Stornoway at Cambridge Folk Festival in July. It was magnificent. I wrote about it here. The band were so so great, the crowd loved it, and I got to meet one of my favourite authors before their set. Truly the stuff of dreams.

Reuniting with Stornoway at Cambridge Folk Festival

It’s been a bit of a whirlwind few weeks since then around the album release - the band invited me along to see an intimate album launch celebration at WWT’s London Wetland Centre in Barnes in September. It was definitely one of the coolest places I’ve seen a gig, as the band performed with the backdrop of the wetland behind them. Getting to birdwatch while listening to one of my favourite bands was a fairly magical experience. Parakeets were determined to feature on every song, and I saw a jay fly past at one point during the set. Lapwings out on the water too, I think!

Stornoway performing at WWT London Wetland Centre

They brought out Yijia and Fyfe Dangerfield to sing the songs they’d collaborated with them on, and were interviewed about the record afterwards by another collaborator (and all round musical/environmental hero) Sam Lee. I stuck around after the main event, and got to go out into the reeds and watch Brian and Fyfe performing Anwen a couple more times for the video below. Easier said than done, as we were directly under the shared flightpath of airplanes and birds, and while the video looks gloriously sunny, the sky was the deepest grey behind us, and the heavens opened just after this video. After helping to load the van back up (transferrable skills from working in a bookstore and carrying big ol’ piles of books all day every day) I caught a lift with the band back to Hammersmith, and felt pretty sure this wasn’t the last I’d be seeing them…

Of course I couldn’t resist going to see them at Rough Trade East a couple of days later for an instore performance - a very different setting (let’s just say that I’ll take a nature reserve over the rubbish lined streets of Brick Lane any day) but they were ever so brilliant. Before I knew it, I was going to a last minute show at Banquet Records a week or two later, on the day of the album being released. It’s a bit of a trek down to Kingston but so worth it to see them play in such an intimate setting, and to celebrate album launch day with Brian and Jon. 

A few weeks (and many many listens of the album) later I took my dad along to see them (well, he drove me) at Nottingham’s Rescue Rooms. This is where I first saw The Hoosiers back in May 2011 (my first gig in a proper music venue) and it now holds even more special memories for me. Yijia opened the show with a mesmerising set and then it was time for Storno… A full band, a mind-boggling array of instruments (including: a saw, multiple trowels, a bucket of Welsh gravel, a melodica…), a setlist travelling through each of their albums, Low Island’s Felix playing an absolute blinder on drums, unplugged tracks. It had all the ingredients to be one of my favourite ever gigs (it was) and then they went and played one of my favourite songs, dedicated to me. Fairly sure I cried.

I discovered their track Boom Went The Bittern last year through a live video on Youtube from several years ago. There’s a chance I’ve heard it live before, but it has become a bit of a soundtrack of my walks in the past year or so. I’ve been slyly nudging the band to play it since Folk Fest, and on Sunday, they conceded to my badgering - it was one of the best moments of a gig ever for me, no lie.

If I was sensible, that should probably have been it, but I adored the Nottingham gig so much that I had to try and get along to another show. On Wednesday, I took two trains there and back to Cambridge, straight after a busy shift at work, and rounded off my little season of Stornoway with another beautiful show. Complete with a little bit of crowdsurfing from Oli and one of my favourite gig photos ever.

Oli crowd-surfing during Zorbing in Cambridge

So that’s that! It’s been an absolute treat to get to see Stornoway over the past few weeks - in various venues, with different line-ups, different songs. Following them around has given me a little of that gig-going confidence back, and I squeezed in a few other shows in between theirs, with a few in my calendar that I’m hoping to get to before the year is out - looking at you Johnny Flynn, BE GOOD, Chartreuse, Bear’s Den

At each Stornoway gig I've been to by myself lately, I've connected with people in the queue or at the barrier. They've had a little of the magic of those Sofar gigs, providing the opportunity to chat to like-minded folk who are into nature and music. Stornoway fans are a lovely bunch. The band, it goes without saying, are wonderful humans too. They're touring again in February (you should go) and I'm hoping to make it to a show or two then. 

For now: I love you, Stornoway. I am so so glad that you're back, and I'm certainly not the only one. The world, my world, is better for having Stornoway in it. 

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