‘Guernsey had never felt so far away’

Local singer-songwriter Robyn Sherwell talks to Helen Hubert about her new single, missing Guernsey and life in lockdown in London...

What can you tell us about your new single, which was released yesterday?

My new single is called Sand In My Shoes, and is possibly my favourite song to feature on my forthcoming EP, which comes out on 11 December.

It’s about missing my childhood home of Guernsey, where I was raised until I left to pursue music in London. The song draws on some of the new sentiments I’ve had since becoming a mother myself.

I sometimes feel compelled to be closer to the place I grew up, for my daughter to see her grandparents more and to experience more of what I enjoyed as a way of life growing up – the beach, the ocean, the clean sea air.

I wrote the song after spending a few days in the island earlier this year. We took my daughter to build sandcastles and paddle on the beach, and even in the February chill, she was as happy as I’ve ever seen her.

Soon after that, both London and Guernsey went into lockdown due to the coronavirus. Like families the world over, we were suddenly divided for an indefinite period. Guernsey had never felt so far away. I suppose it’s fitting that this song, written shortly before lockdown, was recorded during that time. The song is simply arranged with exposed vocals, soft piano, atmospheric guitars and a gentle drone from my shruti box – a portable Indian harmonium-style instrument which I love as it gives the song a calm mantra-evoking meditative undertone.

Over the summer you recorded some footage for Sand In My Shoes here in Guernsey and also decided to film covers of your favourite songs. What is the background to that?

In July my family had the opportunity to travel to the island during the trial seven-day quarantine period, where a negative test on the seventh day allowed us to enter passive surveillance before re-entering normal community life. After three months of lockdown in London, the contrast we felt after clearing this process was like day and night. Being closer to nature, swimming in the sea, and enjoying the island scenery offered a precious breath of fresh air for us after a challenging few months.

Covid restrictions meant the live music industry in the UK (and beyond) was completely cancelled, indefinitely. What would usually be a busy period with gigs and festivals became an empty diary. As alarming as that was, these circumstances also gave us a rare chance to have an extended stay on the island.

I had been recording new music, all whilst stuck at home, and so with this sudden freedom and the many beauty spots to enjoy, I instantly wanted to be as creative as possible outdoors – gathering photos, video content, memories. I knew instinctively that any video for Sand In My Shoes would ideally feature the island, so I started gathering footage on my phone when we went out exploring. The resulting video for the song is a glimpse of some precious memories of our summer on the island.

As for the covers, I wanted to take advantage of the chance to sing and to collaborate with others, since those opportunities had been so restricted in London. My husband (also a musician) and I were keen to do something fun and creative, and having worked before with local photographer, videographer and musician Elliott Mariess, it was the perfect opportunity to collaborate again. We filmed a collection of four songs in different locations, with my husband accompanying me on his cuatro (a type of Venezuelan ukelele). All the songs are special favourites of mine.

Robyn Sherwell. (Picture by Elliott Mariess) (28879074)

What was it like growing up in Guernsey and how would you say it has inspired your music?

I think my focus as a teenager was on finishing school and moving on to the next thing – university, travel, something different, although I had no idea what it would be at the time.

I had a yearning to get away, I wanted to see what the wider world had in store for me. I’ve since discovered that my youth on the island has given me a deep-rooted connection to it, all the more palpable since moving away – so much so that I wrote my song Islander (on my debut album) as a dedication to the island. It’s an empowering, tribal-sounding song, with thumping rhythms and chanting chorus (‘I am not small/I’m an islander’) and it radiates a defiant spirit which I feel reflects the island’s roots and history. That song secured support from Huw Stephens and BBC Introducing, and thanks to their endorsement, it catapulted me onto the BBC Introducing stage at Glastonbury in 2015. And now, with Sand In My Shoes, Guernsey continues to be an inspiring motif, giving me another song that connects deeply to my roots there.

What are your favourite memories of Guernsey?

Without doubt the beautiful beaches, the ocean, and the sunsets. I lived on the north coast near L’Ancresse for much of my childhood and the beach and headland up there are still some of my favourite places in the world. Looking back, I now also appreciate the relative safety and freedom my friends and I had to just go off and explore, cycle, go rock jumping and visit the various islands.

What sparked your love of music and how did you go about making a career out of it?

Since junior school I can remember having a natural love of music. I was given a recorder to try, and I was encouraged to sing in choir, and I just took to it. I took up the oboe and joined the Schools Music Service, playing in the Concert Wind Band and the Symphony Orchestra, and continued to participate up until I left school.

I also started writing songs as a teenager, although I was shy about this. My brother played guitar and had a local band, and I followed them around all the local gigs, and for a summer or two I also sang with him in local bars, pubs and at events.

For a long time it was more of a private dream to pursue music and songwriting as a career, but early on during a history degree at Warwick University I realised if I didn’t give music a shot, it would haunt me no end. I wasn’t resonating with my peers, who wanted to become lawyers or diplomats or accountants.

I moved to London and began playing a series of gigs around the capital while recording demos. I collaborated with musicians in the city and uploaded covers and originals to YouTube, which eventually resulted in some management interest and finally some independent record label interest. Producer David Kosten (Bat For Lashes, Everything Everything, Marina & The Diamonds) was engaged to work with me on my debut album and things really started to progress from there.

Who or what are your biggest influences?

In my teen years I listened to a lot of Jewel, Jeff Buckley, and Rufus Wainwright. I loved soul-baring artists with their heart on their sleeve. Later I got into Imogen Heap, Fink, Foy Vance, Fleetwood Mac, Joni Mitchell and Bat For Lashes. Their open raw honesty in songwriting has always drawn me in. When I’m moved by music, it’s usually because the songwriters have shared their own vulnerability and their heart. So that’s what I strive to do because I believe that’s what makes it authentic and helps people to connect to it. I try to share what’s true for me whilst leaving it open enough for the listener to read their own experience into it.

What is it like living in London in the midst of a global pandemic, particularly during lockdown?

It’s been a tough time in many ways. Ordinarily I’m active within a thriving live music scene and that evaporated in March.

Music is a sociable industry – you’re constantly meeting and working with new people with all kinds of talent and creative drive, so it was unimaginably hard to comprehend when all of that came to a halt and people’s professional careers just ceased to exist. We have a circle of talented friends and colleagues who would be on stage or on tour were it not for Covid, and who instead began teaching music via Zoom, or working in Amazon warehouses and Covid testing sites. Some have left London altogether. It’s such a challenging time for so many people.

Looking for the positives though, with more time at home I’ve been able to write and record more, and we’ve had more family time. Our daughter has loved having both parents at home. There’s also been more of a community feel in my local area. With nurseries and swing parks closed, there were suddenly a lot of parents of young children around, trying to keep little ones entertained whilst balancing a lot of other pressures. There was a feeling of solidarity, albeit at a social distance.

I’m saddened we’re now in a second national lockdown, but for my family, we’ve got through it once already this year, and we’ll just have to do so again.

What are your hopes and plans for the future?

The EP, titled Where Do We Go From Here, is to be released on 11 December and is available to pre-save now. It takes in my current single and some as yet unheard material too. My hope for now is simple: stay creative, keep writing, release new music into 2021. Writing songs is very much an outlet for me, a cathartic process. I feel better when I’m doing it and when I have a project to focus on. In an ideal world, live music will return and I’ll be able to perform and tour and have that live musical connection again.

I’ve also recently been taken on as an industry guest coach, in songwriting and performance at the British and Irish Modern Music Institute in London and I hope to keep this up as well.

Robyn Sherwell. (Picture by Elliott Mariess) (28879078)

Find Robyn:

Instagram & Twitter @robynsherwell

Facebook @robynsherwellmusic


Listen to Robyn’s music on Spotify, AppleMusic or most other streaming and download platforms.

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