Oli Steadman, one of the founding members of British band, Stornoway, talks to Kate Balding about technology, nature and folk sensibility.
New-wave folk band Stornoway released their fourth studio album ‘Dig the Mountain!‘ in October 2023, achieving their first Top Ten in the UK album sales charts. It’s a landmark the group never intended to reach.
Six years earlier Stornoway had played a farewell tour across the UK, supposedly closing the door on over ten years of musical companionship. For bass player Oli Steadman, it was a case of falling out of love with the music scene.
Oli joined Stornoway as a homework-averse Oxfordshire teen in 2005, playing alongside his brother, drummer Rob Steadman, singer-songwriter, Brian Briggs and multi-instrumentalist Jon Ouin. In 2010, the band signed a record label with 4AD and Oli went on to appear alongside artists such as Sting, Norah Jones, Jay-Z and the Foo Fighters.
Over the course of their musical careers, Stornoway played Glastonbury Festival, toured Europe, North America and Australia, and became the first unsigned band to appear on the British music TV show Later… With Jools Holland.
It’s a narrative easily associated with breakthrough artists but when Storonoway split in 2017, Oli deviated from the path of most musicians. He began to nurture a lifelong inclination toward technology and retrained as a data engineer.
The career change gave Oli a perspective on the digital world which differs from many artists who see the monopolizing effects of digital streaming platforms like Spotify, as a threat to independent music. Yet where musicians including Dan Croll, Kate Nash and Billy Bragg have raised concerns, for Oli, technology also provides new avenues to realise artistic projects that would otherwise be impossible.
This includes a project he co-founded whilst still in Stornoway. ‘Tigmus’ was a music-tech start-up that harnessed online platforms to promote and fund unique tours, gigs and even albums. In Oli’s words, it sought “to bring music to local communities.”
As part of this project, Tigmus introduced award-winning music into the UK including artists like Rahat Fateh Ali Khan (qawwali), Shahbaz Hussain (tabla), Tanya Wells (ghazal), and Yijia Tu (ghuzheng), and used high-level audience analytics to support their growth.
“I have a more open mind than most other musicians, about streaming platforms, social media, and the potential of AI to deliver immense positive value for artists.”
His enthusiasm about the digital is matched by a belief in the value of community music, something he discusses in relation to both Lewisham and Tower Hamlets.
Oli originally lived in Tower Hamlets to be closer to the music production scene but after moving south of the Thames he was struck by the understated strength of Lewisham’s trad-folk culture.
“Blythe Hill Tavern, Skehan’s, The Brockley Jack, Honor Oak Pub. A lot of these pubs have traditional fiddle bands. And then there is Sister Midnight the promoter who is doing the Ravensbourne Arms, festivals in Crystal Palace and Beckenham Place Park, music shop Soundheart, and the Rivoli Ballroom up the road.”
He speaks about the way these places might not seem much to look at but beyond the surface, there’s an invaluable heritage that by comparison, Tower Hamlets is still struggling to establish.
It’s this reflection on grassroots music that brings Oli to look back on how fortunate his own musical career has been.
“We were hobbyists, playing in pubs and handing out homemade demos. Five years later, in 2010, we signed a record deal with music label 4AD. We enjoyed a subsequent seven years of professional full-time musicianship. It managed to pay all our wages. In retrospect, I realise how much of a privilege that was.”
But he says it was his time working in technology that ultimately allowed him to meaningfully reconnect with the band he had sought to distance himself from.
It was while building apps and technical solutions as a data engineer with sustainability tech company ICIS after the band broke up, that Oli found office friendships, training as a Mental Health First Aider, and taking part in ICIS’s 24-hour walk along the Thames Path for mental health charity Mind, linked closely to his musical past.
“I thought: hang on, that’s exactly what Stornoway sings about. Getting outdoors to reconnect with nature and each other. It’s been right in front of me all these years. Even the song Gondwanaland — which was the first of Brian’s demos I’d ever heard: its focal point is a relationship between two people in a snowstorm.”
You come down like the silent snow
‘Til your mind feels as numb as your fingers
No-one heard for the howling wind when they whispered the strangest thing
No-one saw for the stinging rain: the strangest thingLyrics to Stornoway song Gondwanaland
He speaks about the way ‘Trouble with the Green’ addresses ADHD and addiction, and how ‘We are the Battery Human’ fuses themes of nature and society. “I just didn’t see that until now. I wasn’t listening and in the end, it was technology and coding that brought me back to nature, and ultimately back into music.”
This feeling, and a series of musical lockdown projects by Briggs and Ouin throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, reunited the band and in 2022 Stornoway was reborn.
Today, Oli ties everything to an underlying ‘folk sensibility’, a force that holds nature, community, and mental health together. It’s also something he’d like to champion more deliberately in 2024 with a book attributing a folk song to every day of the year.
“Some of them would be really obvious, like Auld Lang Syne on the first of January and you could explain why we’ve selected that song and talk through the collaborations, history or versions.”
Stepping out into a rare fall of London snow, Oli heads back to book research, tour planning, his job as an operational data engineer, and the newest addition to his family, an 8-week-old baby. As he leaves, he tells ELL, and perhaps himself, it’s going to be a busy year.
Stornoway’s Christmas version of track Excelsior, is out now and features London-based Welsh Male Voice Choir Côr Meibion Gwalia. The group will be touring their new album across the UK from February 8 and Europe from April 22 2024.