Tell us about your journey to where you are today?
After completing my undergraduate degree in Biological Sciences at Worcester College in 2001 I got my first job in ecology as a field assistant working on the long-running Great Tit project in Wytham Woods.
I followed that with short-term roles working with oiled Guillemots in Portland, endangered White-breasted Thrashers in St Lucia, and school groups on the Isle of Purbeck before returning to Oxford in 2004 to do a DPhil at Wolfson College on wildfowl conservation.
During my DPhil I met future band mate Jon Ouin and we started playing music together. We formed Stornoway and after finishing my studies the band toured and recorded full time until 2017, at which point we went on hiatus and I returned to wildlife conservation as a nature reserve manager in Wales. I rediscovered songwriting during the pandemic and Stornoway came back to life last year. Now I am doing everything all at once!
How did your time at Oxford change you?
My undergraduate years were hugely formative - I made lifelong friends, including the love of my life, and had the best time ever. And then my postgraduate degree at Wolfson changed the course of my life unexpectedly when I met my band mate Jon and started writing music.
What do you love most about Oxford?
It is really only having moved away from Oxford that I’ve seen it for the truly spectacular city that it is. At the moment I am back regularly for band practice and I love cycling through the city centre, weaving between the colleges and libraries and feeling like I’m in a film set. It has an amazing energy and such a vibrant cultural scene, which is something I miss living in rural Wales.
After Oxford, how have you juggled both a career in music and follow your passion for ornithology?
Essentially I have been alternating which one is the job and which is the hobby. So when Stornoway was full time, nature kept me sane by giving me somewhere to escape to and by working its way into my music. Then when Stornoway went on hiatus I turned my focus to conservation, until songwriting re-appeared in the evenings when I got a new shed! Now I juggle the two by doing both part-time.
Tell us about your role at Llanelli’s Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust.
I work on a wonderful wetland reserve, attempting to make it as attractive as possible to a wide range of wildlife, and particularly for those species and habitats that are nationally or internationally threatened. The reserve encompasses a huge variety of habitats, from saltmarsh and saline lagoons, through woodland, reedbeds, meadows, and freshwater lakes, and it is open to the public. My job is to monitor wildlife and manage the habitats with the help of grazing animals, staff and volunteers, and to show visitors what makes the place special and why it needs looking after. It is exciting to work in a wetland because it is such a fast-changing, dynamic habitat and I can see the positive impacts of our practical conservation work almost straight away.
Why is it so important, especially in a time of fast-paced-IT-focused-life, to make time to reconnect with nature?
It is absolutely vital that we all make time to connect with nature in any way possible. I am a firm believer that maintaining a connection with nature gives us an instinctive awareness of its importance, not just for our mental and physical health, but also for the health of the planet overall. Why would we care for something that we feel no connection to?
Birdsong has featured in many of Stornoway's songs.
How has birdsong inspired your music and is there a birdsong that you're still waiting to use in a future song?
I started learning bird song in Wytham Woods while working on the Great Tit project. It allowed me to tune more deeply into the environment and develop a much stronger connection to it. Suddenly I could tell when a Sparrowhawk was going to fly over just from changes in the calls of other species. When you feel part of something it becomes exciting, and the excitement I get from being in nature is why the outdoors finds its way into every song I write. It provides the inspiration and backdrop for pretty much all my music and lyrics, as well as the antidote to the windowless gig venues and tour vans!
I’d definitely like to include some nightjar song into a future song. They create an amazing electronic didgeridoo-type sound which I first heard when working on the Isle of Purbeck.
Where in Oxford during the winter and early spring is the best place to listen out for birdsong, and which are the easiest bird songs to identify this time of year?
There are loads of options! In February you can already hear loads of birdsong in colleges, parks and suburban gardens as the days start to lengthen. Great tits are a good starting point for learning as they have a very recognisable and repetitive, high-pitched, two-tone ‘teacher, teacher’ song. Robins are another good one to learn at this time of year, because they are very visible and sing pretty phrases in a wistful, thin and nasal tone. Mistle Thrushes sing from tree tops in some of the parks with a much louder and richer tone in repetitive, lazy phrases.
There is an increasing trend for alumni wanting to use their degree for good but not sure how to get started. What would be your advice to anyone wanting a career in wildlife conservation?
If you love nature and want to do something practical whilst making a positive environmental impact then you can’t beat it. The rewards are great, although not in a financial sense! It can be surprisingly competitive to get into the field, and practical experience is often required for outdoor roles, so many people (myself included) volunteer for conservation organisations to help get a foot in the muddy door. Internships are a great option if circumstances allow.
You formed the band Stornoway during your time as a post graduate at Wolfson College, Oxford. How did you find time for both the band and your studies?
I approached my DPhil studies as a job, more or less working office hours where possible. This left time for recording and gigs in the evenings and weekends, and in the winter I worked on lyrics during my daily commutes to and from fieldwork in SW London. We recorded much of Stornoway’s early material in our college bedrooms and got very absorbed in the recording process, so we weren’t always too popular with our neighbours!
In 2023, after a 10-year hiatus, Stornoway reformed. How have you found returning to songwriting, and why had you stopped.
‘Write a new song’ had been a new years’ resolution for two years running, but it took a new shed and a pandemic before it actually happened. I now wonder how I had lived so long without it, because rediscovering songwriting has been the most exciting and enjoyable thing to happen to me in years.
I had stopped songwriting because Stornoway had come to a natural hiatus in 2017. The band members were moving apart geographically and ready for new projects. I had moved to Wales with my young family and was excited to throw myself fully back into nature conservation.
You're back out on tour in February 2024. What are you looking forward to most about the tour?
We returned to touring last year and I don’t think we’ve ever enjoyed it so much in our whole career. We didn’t know what to expect after such a long break but the reaction from fans has been absolutely incredible and we feel so lucky to be able to do it again. It’s a huge buzz!
Which Oxford venue brings back the fondest memories for you, and any plans for Oxford dates this year?
We have played pretty much every venue in Oxford multiple times and have so many cherished memories. We’ve always tried to find unusual places to perform - highlights include Christ Church Cathedral, the Town Hall, the A1 Pool Hall, the Natural History Museum, and the Botanic Gardens, but my all time favourite would have to be performing at the Sheldonian Theatre for the first time, backed by the Oxford Millennium Orchestra. We’ll be headlining Wood Festival near Oxford in May.
Your latest album is available on Eco Mix recycled vinyl. Explain how the vinyl is made and how does it sound?
We are committed to minimising the environmental impacts of our merchandise, and use recycled materials in all of our physical release formats. The vinyl is made entirely from recycled hard plastics from a wide variety of sources, and as a consequence every print is uniquely flecked with a range of marbled colours. The sound is exactly the same as a standard black vinyl record.
What would be your top tips for alumni wanting to pursue a career in music?
The music industry has changed almost beyond recognition since Stornoway were starting out, but hard work and passion are as essential as ever. It is tricky to get financial backing but fortunately home recording is getting cheaper and easier, and word can spread faster than ever. Don’t release anything until it’s ready. And perform!
Stornoway were the first ever unsigned band to appear on Later... with Jools Holland in 2009 performing alongside Sting and Jay-Z! How did that come about, and did you get to meet Jay-Z?
The opportunity arose after a long chain of events. A key moment was getting selected (after submitting a demo) to perform at the Glastonbury emerging talent competition. We didn’t win but we did get invited to perform at the festival, which led to a backstage performance for the BBC, organised by the same people that book the artists for Later…
As well as Sting and Jay-Z, we were in the same room as the Foo Fighters and Norah Jones. The experience was probably the most terrifying of my life! I shook hands with Jay-Z, after having desperately avoided eye contact while he nodded along to our performance of ‘Zorbing’!