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The sounds of nature, as heard by Michael Dornan

Devon-based musician Michael Dornan has released the first instalment of his new ‘Flora & Fauna’ project, a self-produced effort recorded at home during the pandemic, featuring all manner of remote collaborations.

We sent Michael some questions to fill us in on the project, his journey so far and the inspirations behind his quirky brand of nature-inspired indie-folk.

Can you talk us through your journey as a musician so far?

Well, when I was a kid I learned so much at the old upright piano at home. It had been my grandpa’s – he was a music teacher, choirmaster, accompanied silent movies – and I’d listen to the TV or radio and try to recreate what I heard. It was a little imaginative refuge.

And later, still in County Antrim, I got loads of experience with a female-fronted classic-rock-for-Jesus band. Being the main songwriter and not the singer, I had to be pretty adaptable – and though I go out of my way to not publicise that stuff now, I did develop my chops there. But my biggest influences were solo artists: Stevie Wonder, Brian Wilson, Joanna Newsom. Later in Oxford, I found my voice composition-wise with an amazing band, Praxis Bold. Kinda indie-jazz-folk, so we called it in-j-oke.

You’ve made music in a variety of contexts, from being in bands with people who aren’t Christians, through to music more solely focused on a church audience. What have you learnt from those experiences? Where would you say you fit best?

When I find out where I fit, I’ll let you know! There are so many nuances in this question, I’m glad you dig into the spiritual stuff at Sputnik. As a reader/listener, I love artists who create a little world that I can briefly visit, after which I look at my own world slightly differently. That’s what I want to do. And if I were to fence off my work to all but one group of people, as I once unintentionally did, then I’m not using my abilities to the full. Back to Stevie and Brian – from them I learned that if you have love in you, you put it into every note of every song. That’s what I’ve tried to do with this new record.

As a solo artist, you seem to collaborate very effectively. What advice would you give singer songwriters who have a strong vision for what they want to do who find that they cannot pull it off on their own?

Still thinking of creative partnerships extra ecclesiam, we all had really different views and tastes in Praxis Bold. One night we swapped instruments – bassist on keys, me on bass, which I’m not native to – and we came up with probably our best song ever, from outside our comfort zones. A live staple that remains sadly unreleased. Another time I brought something I’d written, and no-one trashed it, but after a session the guys agreed, “this doesn’t sound like Praxis Bold”. That’s a marvel – we were discovering the character of an entity bigger than ourselves.

It’s different as a solo artist. Instead of a Venn diagram of overlapping interests, you have a circle! So anything goes, but to feel alive you still need the oxygen of community. That’s been harder to come by since Covid. I was going to meet up with a couple of the Praxis guys last March, but… you know what happened in March. So with a new record in the pipeline, I went back to my drawing-board, and decided that with the help of some session musicians, I could make something quite kaleidoscopic from home.

So we have beautiful sounds from violinist Joanna Karselis, a film composer in her own right, but gracious enough to work with the skronky scores I suggested to her; some awesome upright bass from Madalena Graca, who I found online and thought – she’ll vibe with this weird song I have. The key is seeking out people you trust to interpret your ideas with their own hands.

If you had to put music in one of the following categories, which would it be: fun, work, calling?

It’s all of the above at different times, but let me put it like this: if I didn’t have the sense of calling, it would’ve slotted comfortably into the category of “fun” by now.

What does success look like to you?

That’s a little like ‘what does health look like to you’ – a question my wife’s been writing about recently. In both cases, I’d probably say staying active enough to keep going for the long run. I’d lost a lot of momentum because I didn’t do that. I didn’t do that because I had to go away and reimagine myself. Success comes when you’re engaging with people – ideas are shared, or feet start moving, or someone’s sufficiently moved to throw fruit at you.

The new project seems to have been a long time gestating, but by the sounds of it, is coming on great. Can you talk us through it?

Thanks for that. This album is called Flora and Fauna, and is broadly a project about creativity and nature. On the creativity front, the song I mentioned with upright bass is about seeking inspiration – it’s based on a baroque piece by Henry Purcell. The album also has a bit of an obsession with St Cecilia (patron saint of music). And in the past year, little corners of nature have given us all the inspiration we’ve needed, in our daily escapes from home. So there are songs about that small-scale magic, including one about the first time I saw kingfishers, which changed my life.

Of course, trees, insects, they all live great lives without human interaction. I’ve tried to make sure my own voice isn’t the only one involved. On Flora and Fauna there are field recordings I made of birdsong, and a software percussion instrument made only from sounds (wood on wood) I could make in a Bristol forest. And joyously, Emma my wife sings lead on a few tracks. The thing with the biological world is, it’s so diverse I can’t have only a few different sounds on here. Trumpets, synths, crickets at Land’s End – I wanted them all to be part of it.

The first half of ‘Flora and Fauna’ is out now on Bandcamp! Keep your eyes peeled for an upcoming Kickstarter to help finish the project and fund printed copies. Follow Michael’s progress on Instagram or Twitter.