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Jenny Sturgeon: A Different Way of Listening to the Land

To kick off the new monthly format of Between the Art is the wonderful singer-songwriter and musician Jenny Sturgeon.

Jenny lives in Shetland, Scotland, where she moved to five years ago and began to pursue her career as a musician full-time. Previously living in Aberdeen, she worked as a seabird ecologist. Both music and ecology have played integral parts in Jenny’s life, with music being an important creative outlet. Having finished her PhD in seabird ecology in 2016, Jenny decided to dedicate more time to her music and hasn’t looked back since! Biology and ecology frequently intertwine within Jenny’s music with her most recent album, The Living Mountain released in 2020, based around Nan Shepherd’s well-known book of the same name.

During our conversation together, we spoke of many different ways to approach the creative process, a passion for igniting enthusiasm, and noticing the micro as well as the macro elements that make up a place. Read on for more...

Image: Anne Campbell

Where do you work? What makes this place important for your creative process?

During lockdown, I converted our old garage into a studio space so I have this fantastic place to work in! I love being able to shut the door at the end of the day and leave the work behind. As I’m a touring musician as well as a working musician, I’m away from home quite a lot. Whenever I am home, it means I have more time for creating so it’s great to have a space where the recording equipment is already set up.

Generally, I get a lot of my inspiration from being outside when I’m out walking. I try and go outside every day, even if the weather is awful! My partner is also a seabird ecologist so I often go out to help him, and I could spend hours walking beaches looking for signs of oil… I process a lot of thoughts when I’m walking. Thoughts come up as part of my creative process, such as a melody or a lyric – it’s a different way of approaching something creatively. It’s almost like a form of meditation, where half of your brain switches off and the other half is firing at all cylinders

How would you describe your creative process? Do you use certain mediums/techniques to develop your creative ideas?

It changes a lot depending on the project. In the case of The Living Mountain, it was based on a book I was familiar with and I went back and revisited it a lot before making notes or writing. I suppose it’s ruminating. I have loads of notebooks which I fill with mind-maps, or list ideas; or, I might pick up an instrument first. I try to vary the process so that the songs also vary because if I approach creating music and song-writing in the same way every time, I’m likely to come up with a similar formula for each song. The inspiration could also come from a poem, an object, a feeling or a colour, and having a creative response to it. I tend to write as the thoughts come without editing and see what happens. I don’t necessarily have to use these notes for anything but I find it a fun approach. It also gives me a purpose and some structure, particularly when I block out time for writing or playing the guitar.

Image: Anne Campbell

Do you have any rituals that help with this process of creating work?

Yes, having a slow morning is one – I find that I can’t really sing before 10am! The morning is really precious to me so I take time over breakfast and make multiple cups of tea. I’m lucky enough to have a view out over the sea, so I will sit at the kitchen table and look out. This is my ritual before I start thinking about being creative.

I also do vocal warm-ups before I start singing and this is another ritual that I’m quite fond of. It makes me feel in the zone. There are certain things that I always come back to, including a physical warm-up to feel present within the body. Following the breath and tapping all over the body wakes up the nerve endings and makes the whole body feel more alive and ready to go.

Another ritual that I used to be very particular about was keeping my working space clean and tidy, not having loads to stuff lying around. Now that I have my studio space, it’s got a little bit more chaotic but I quite like that! I think this is because now I can just shut the door when I’m finished for the day. No one else is using the space so I can leave it how I want it to be.

"People think of landscapes as these big panorama photos but you can equally see something like that by using a little macro lens. It’s a tuning in and looking at what’s at your feet as well as the bigger picture."

What are you working on at the moment?

I’ve just finished my second tour of The Living Mountain, and I’m going on tour again later in the year.

Currently, I’m working with various different songwriters and collaborating on projects. Since 2020, I have been working with the fantastic songwriter and all-round lovely human Boo Hewerdine. We have been writing together online over Zoom and now have an album’s worth of material. Hopefully this will be released later this year. I also have a new album coming out with a band called Salt House which has been inspired by a documentary film made by Scotland The Big Picture. This will be released in the autumn. I’m focused on tweaking these projects and promoting them, as well as starting to think about what I might do for my next album. It’s a little way off yet, but I have some ideas…

Aside from these projects, I’m also working alongside Rachel Newton, who is a part of the band Spell Songs, and Andy Bell who recorded their album, which was formed out of Robert Macfarlane’s and Jackie Morris’ book The Lost Words. We are working on an installation for an exhibition at The Sill in Northumberland, taking inspiration from the book and creating a soundscape. It will run for 20 minutes, progressing from dawn to dusk, with improvisations based on animals and plants that are featured in the book, such as the fox, woodpecker, and owl.

Image: Anne Campbell

What does “sense of place” mean to you? Is this concept present in your work?

For me, a sense of place is all of the different elements that make up that particular place: the sounds, the smells, what you feel when you are in that place. There’s an emotional response, but it also includes the textures and what you see from a small-scale to a big-scale. I love this idea of seeing the landscape in a tiny little square. People think of landscapes as these big panorama photos but you can equally see something like that by using a little macro lens. It’s a tuning in and looking at what’s at your feet as well as the bigger picture. This helps to ground me in a place.

When I go out to do field recordings, I sometimes take mics and headphones to enhance the hearing sense, noticing how that changes the way I feel in a place; noticing what I see because I can suddenly hear things that are a lot further away or the microphones are picking up sounds that I wouldn’t normally be able to hear, or sounds that are in a higher definition. I find that quite magical.

Do you have a message that you hope to give to the world?

I would say it’s an enthusiasm for the natural world, and by that it includes us, humans, the cities and the industries that we create. It’s an enthusiasm for being outside, listening, and approaching things in a different way or changing the perspective. I always want to encourage this rather than make people feel the doom and gloom surrounding the environment. Although there’s an element of this in my writing and songs, it's also very much a celebration of what we have. People can take from it what they will, looking at it on the surface level or delving in deeper through reading into the lyrics and interpreting a meaning.

"It’s an enthusiasm for being outside, listening, and approaching things in a different way or changing the perspective."

Image: Anne Campbell

Jenny's Book List:

Books are a constant inspiration and I’ve constantly got my ear open to what people have to say or write. I often write lines or quotes down in a notebook.

1.The Scottish Bothy Bible by Geoff Allan

I have done a little bothying but not as much as I would like! It felt like a little bit of escapism to read about different bothies you can go and visit. I’m quite excited to delve into this more and plan some journeys.

2. Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez

This is relevant to my next album, looking at data to generate music. The book is exposing data bias in a world designed for men. Women are at a massive disadvantage for many things, including medicine and in the work place. I’m really enjoying reading this and find myself quite shocked on a regular basis!

3.When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams

This is a memoir about a woman who was left notebooks from her mother but they are all blank. She had assumed that they would be full of thoughts or insights. I wouldn’t normally read something like this but I’m finding it really interesting.

Image: Susan Molloy

To learn more about Jenny's work and to listen to her beautiful music, visit her website and Instagram @jennysturgeonmusic

Images 1, 2, 3, 4, 5: Amy Campbell

Image 6: Susan Molloy


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