“Stornoway did not exist. I was creating with no goal or plan and it was exhilarating. I
am a playful person and I got completely lost in the adventure of songwriting, not knowing where a song might take me, what feelings I might discover and how they might turn into sound. Every song was an emotional and physical journey I was only partly in control of.

Once I got the taste of a song forming, I was completely hooked. I would disappear
in it for days, emerging from the shed as high as a kite, with the sea roaring in the distance and no light but the blinking stars.” – Brian Briggs, his shed, a hilltop, The Gower peninsula, Wales, January 2023

Like the man said: before they soared back with the sky-scraping, heart-filling, life-giving kaleidoscopic wonder that is their fourth album, Dig The Mountain! – a record also peopled by the nightingale whisperer, a former Guillemot, and a Chinese superstar and her guzheng (is it a bird, is it a plane? No, it’s a zither) – Stornoway did not exist.

The beloved, nature-celebrating band, formed in Oxford in 2005, had what we might call a glorious deciduous decade: a burst of colour and life, spread across debut 4AD album, the silver-selling Beachcomber’s Windowsill (2010), Tales From Terra Firma (2013) (“a triumphantly expansive album” – The Guardian *****) and Bonxie (2015) (“their best album yet” – The Guardian *****).

But after numerous international tours (Europe, Australia, America and back again) and various memorable festival appearances – and, perhaps best of all, an unforgettable show in Stornoway in the Outer Hebrides – by 2015 the bloom was off. It was time to tune back into the natural landscape.

“When the dust settled, I closed and locked the door on songwriting and Stornoway,” Briggs remembers. “I swapped my guitar for a chainsaw, and got to work managing a
wetland for water voles and lapwings.”

But the band’s roots, while dormant, were never dead. From their goodbye tour
onwards, concluding with a long-delayed-by-Covid finale at WOMAD (“a magnificent
farewell” – The Spectator), Briggs, keyboard player Jon Ouin and bassist Oli Steadman stayed in touch. They stayed in touch, too, with Oli’s drummer sibling Rob, even though he’d found love on a Stornoway US tour and was now settled in America. The band were nourished by friendship, and by musical and environmental kinship, and by the biomass of fan enthusiasm.

Meanwhile, in 2020, when the world stopped, something stirred. Ouin credits, firstly, the cleanliness and friendliness of the foursome’s split (“we were just naturally slightly
pulling apart at the time”) as “laying the ground” for a regrowth. In lockdown, as the world turned inwards and regrouped, the musicians were doing the same. “We started remembering the reason why we made music together in the first place,” says the keyboard player, “which was always just a simple, instinctive desire to create things.”

With The Gower devoid of visitors, Briggs, elementally exposed in his makeshift studio in his shed on a coastal hilltop , senses buffeted by the roar of the sea, felt a connection to “that sense of wildness, which I always have always found really inspiring”. For the first time in years, the music was moving in him, stirred by the emptiness and wildness.

“I’ve always sought that in my writing,” he continues. “When I used to write in Oxford,
I’d go into my campervan and imagine I was parked on a cliff instead! And it’s still about finding that space where no one can hear what you’re up to. I find that liberating.”

Even more liberating was the desire to make music again – and make it for, let’s see,
that’s right, no reason or purpose. Expectations? None. Deadlines? Non-existent.
Stornoway? Again, like that man said, also non-existent.

“Once a few demos were taking shape, I began to wonder what I might do with them, and whether to consider a solo album,” acknowledges Briggs. But a primal pull was
there, too. “I knew I wanted them to sound bigger and better, so inevitably I sent them
to Jon, hoping that he would consider working his magic on them. In fact, he did far more than that – he also sent me a clutch of his own wonderful sketches, which gave rise to more new collaborative songs.”

Oli Steadman was also soon onboard. But sadly his brother wasn’t – time, tide and
the Atlantic were against Rob re-joining, although his bandmates insist the door always remains open. Over 2020, 2021 and 2022, as lockdowns and restrictions waxed and waned, as the world tilted on its axis, revealing nature as both freshly wondrous and mortally imperilled, the Stornoway 3 worked on Stornoway #4.

With Briggs in southwest Wales, Steadman in southeast London and Ouin in east Oxford, the threesome bounced songs and ideas between themselves. At the centre of this triangle of gladness was producer Mike Lindsay of acid folk pioneers Tunng. “He definitely challenged a few things,” says Ouin, approvingly, of their musical fellow-traveller, “which is exactly what we wanted to happen: to do something completely fresh. The little touches that he added at the mixing stage are full of character. It’s been a really perfect fit.”

Playing with instrumentation and melody, words and texture, the resulting songs are
buoyant and windswept, rich in colour and natural light, but with an undertow of
longing borne of grief for our disappearing nature. The songs inhabit the liminal world
between sea and land, and Ouin’s arrangements never fail to immerse you deeply into the wild place that is uniquely Stornoway’s. Joining the party were Cooking Vinyl, the
agreement to release Stornoway’s comeback album a no-brainer for the discerning label that had, in 2020, released their live album The Farewell Show.

Opening track Trouble with The Green is the glory of sunrise (or sunset) set to music,
as painted by a keen-eyed but perhaps overwhelmed observer. It’s a synaesthetic
wonder, rippling with sights and sounds and birdsong. “We wanted to showcase that colour and that playfulness across the album,” says Briggs by way of explaining its position as Dig the Mountain!’s own dawn chorus. “It has quite a few twists and turns and different sounds. And it is perhaps a slightly darker mood than the album as a whole.”

And that’s because, he expands, that sense of wonder and play is a misdirection. “It’s a metaphor for someone struggling with drug addiction, a friend of mine who’s had a pretty rough couple of years. She’s someone with ADHD and an incredibly colourful person. Her head’s always fizzing with different ideas, in different directions, and I wanted to bring some of that into the song.”

Briggs’ knack for a melody the milkman could whistle or a mockingbird could mimic is front and centre on Bag in the Wind. “The song was born from just noodling around on the guitar, playing muted chords with all my fingertips just resting gently on the strings. I recorded two guitars and panned them fully in stereo which gave the close-up effect you hear in the verses.”

But he’s quick to pay credit where credit’s due, acknowledging the song’s part-origins in on a second-hand CD picked up at a record fair in Oxford Town Hall. “The vocal melody was partly inspired by the recording of the Agisanang Choir you can hear at the beginning and end of the song, singing ‘Tschelane’ in the Tswana language. I found the song on a favourite compilation of mine called African Renaissance Sampler, Music from the South African Broadcasting Corporation Archives.”

Meanwhile, if you go down to the woods today, you’re sure of, well, to be honest, not
that big a surprise – bird-whisperer and folk musician Sam Lee, collaborating on the
sinuous, woodsy folk-funk of The Navigator.

“He brought me quite a lot of inspiration, generally” says Briggs. In 2019 the Stornoway man attended one of Lee’s woodland sessions, Singing with Nightingales. “He’ll invite a musician into the woods for a feather-and-flesh interaction that Briggs found “incredibly spiritual. I feel grateful to Sam for giving me the battery boost of that experience.”

Birds of a feather: Lee was an obvious person to contribute to Dig The Mountain!, both in the recording and when it takes wing: in collaboration with Lee’s Nest Collective, Stornoway will be performing a series of outdoor, amidst-the-trees shows this summer. Insert “branching out”/”going out on a limb” jokes here.

The flora and fauna of Dig The Mountain! don’t stop there. There’s a magical cover of Björk’s It’s Not Up To You, the chirruping electronics of the Vespertine original replaced by acoustic rootsiness, with gorgeous vocals from Yijia Tu.

“Yi Jia is an astonishing musician,” begins Steadman. “In 2017 I’d seen her perform
Mongolian throat-singing at SOAS. She’d traveled there from Ghanzhou to study
musicology, having already conquered the Chinese pop charts, including a debut
album in collaboration with Grammy award winners. She & I attended WOMAD 2019
which led to her returning as a performer in 2022. Stornoway were there to watch,
and her virtuosity left the whole audience speechless. We ran backstage to ask
whether she might add guest vocals and guzheng, which you can hear in the verses.”

Step forward, too, drummer Mike Monaghan (Gaz Coombes, St Etienne), beating in
from his home in Berlin; former Guillemot Fyfe Dangerfield, who sings on Anwen, a
song inspired by Briggs’ daughter’s joyful dancing; Black Mountains poet Paul Henry,
who wrote the words for Kicking The Stone; and Gareth Bonello, AKA The Gentle
Good, a brilliant Welsh folk artist and fellow bird-lover. The haunting loneliness of The
Fisherman is one of his compositions but, as Briggs explains, “we’ve twisted it away
from Gareth’s version slightly by adapting the verse lyrics and chorus melody, and
layering my vocal arrangement on top of Jon’s Indian harmonium and Oli’s double bass.”

In a neat twist, Bonello’s grandmother used to live in the farm which eventually became the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust Wetland Centre in Llanelli – Briggs’ place of work. That’s nature and nurture right there, which is more than apt when we consider the welcome return of a group more connected to the natural world than any other British musicians. With a very personal understanding of the urgency of the climate and biodiversity crisis facing us, Stornoway go where no other bands go: not just preaching conservation, but living and loving it, too.

As much is made directly and movingly clear by final track Excelsior, a beautiful elegy
inspired by the devastating change in British woodlands resulting from Ash Dieback,
an airborne fungal disease which kills the tree, starting from the tips and spreading inexorably back into the heartwood. “There was a mighty ash in the valley behind my house,” says Briggs, “but it succumbed to Ash Dieback. Their small leaves and short growing season let more light into the woodland floor than any other tree species. The ecology of British woodlands will never be the same again.”

But where there’s heart, and art, there’s hope. And there’s more, much more, to be uncovered in Dig The Mountain!, onwards and upwards from the origins of the album title (courtesy of another “guest”, Briggs’ infant son), via an encounter with a beached whale, to Stornoway’s plans to tour this summer in as green a way as possible – and
with the fan enthusiasm already tendrilling out towards them.

“It’s thrilling to see the response from fans each time,” says Steadman, reflecting on Stornoway’s smattering of rare & secretive live appearances over the last few years.
“Those vital moments are when we come face-to-face with just how much people continue to love Stornoway, and believe in it.”

‘Dig The Mountain’ was released in October 2023, through Cooking Vinyl, to critical
acclaim, scoring an array of UK Top 10 chart positions, including Album Sales (#7),
Physical Albums (#7), Record Store (#6) and Independent Albums (#5), followed by a
sold out UK tour ending at Kentish Town Forum. The band will be playing European dates in April and festivals throughout the Summer.