Sandi Thom, like a fifth of the world's population, is staying at home right now. The Scottish singer, who is most famous for her 2006 hit debut single I Wish I Was a Punk Rocker (With Flowers in My Hair), lives in a villa in the small Gulf island of Bahrain, where she moved to just over three years ago, and the kingdom, just as with most other countries, has been hit by the coronavirus outbreak.
"Everyone here is being really sensible," she tells The National over the phone. "We're also home-schooling Logan [her son], which takes up all the day," she adds with a laugh.
You'd usually find Thom busy with the Bahrain Animal Rescue Centre, formerly the Dog Father rescue and rehabilitation centre, which she took over in 2018 when its founder, Tony Waters, who was widely known as "The Dogfather", passed away. "I had always worked and volunteered for Tony, fundraising and helping out, tending to the animals," Thom explains.
“When his life ended and this chapter began, there was no plan of action or contingency in place. His kids are all living abroad and no one wanted to leave their families behind and relocate back here, so I just kind of picked up the gauntlet and rallied everyone together.”
For the past year, Thom and the four-member team have been busy implementing a framework for BARC to run as a community organisation and building a new shelter facility, which is 70 per cent complete. “I am the kind of person who hates to see injustice towards animals and abuse of power," Thom adds. "After living here for three years I see various problems that exist and I can’t turn away from that. I can’t not do it.”
The animal welfare problems she sees in Bahrain include salukis getting dumped after races and pitbulls being bred for fighting, for example.
The stray dog problem has also boomed, she says, after they were all put in one area together, allowing the population to grow and disease to spread. It’s for reasons such as these that Thom has turned her attentions to trying to impact legislature, such as the GCC 2014 Animal Welfare Law, which includes punishments for people who abuse or neglect animals.
“The law wasn’t implemented in Bahrain, and only has been in the last few weeks,” she explains.
“There are a lot of things here that need to come up to global standards,” she says. “It’s not that people don’t care, but there are so many hoops to get through before they can finally pass a law. There is a lot of red tape and bureaucracy, and it takes a lot of time.”
That’s why she’s planning to stay on the island for at least another year or two, although she admits this is just a temporary home for her family.
“I have an awful lot to accomplish before I move on, including finishing the shelter and finding someone to permanently run it, and generally see the changes I really want to see.” She’s happy to stick around, however, as she enjoys living there.
Why is Sandi Thom in Bahrain?
Thom originally moved to Bahrain after her husband was offered a job in finance. "I had been living in Los Angeles, where I met him, and then I had to move back to the UK and live in Essex. No offence to Essex, it's a lovely place, but I didn't want to move back to the UK." So her partner started applying for positions around the world. When he was offered a job in the Gulf, Thom didn't flinch. "By nature I'm an adventurer. I like to move and see the world, so I said: 'Great, why not, let's go'."
The past three years have gone quickly and it wasn’t hard for her to integrate into the community. Plus, she says, there’s much to love about Bahrain. “Parts of the country are stunning, there’s the history, the community, it’s very safe … You can’t complain, you know. I live in a lovely house and there’s a pool and gym and it’s in the sunshine. The only thing I would complain about is summer, which is brutal.”
It’s all about perception, she adds. “You can go anywhere in the world and find the beauty in it, if you’re looking.”
What about her music career?
She's also kept herself busy making new music and taking on gigs around the country every few months. Just before the Covid-19 pandemic, she was about to start a new album – her seventh – which she's calling Wanderlust. She expects that to be done within four to six months. "While I'm here I want to introduce Arabian instrumentation and players into my music."
While her debut album Smile … It Confuses People went platinum and sold more than one million copies worldwide, Thom has yet to replicate that success with her other five albums. For the past few years, she's been releasing them independently, rather than working with a label. "I just organically release what I have to the fan base and put it out there," she says. "It works for me, that independent machine."
She also does the odd gig here and there in Bahrain, but limits it to every three or four months. “There are only so many places you can play here,” she adds. “I will probably start to go back out into the world a bit more, like in the UK.”
But for now, she’s too busy dealing with a crisis. “With the shelter, it was just a case of pre-planning and making sure we have enough provisions and food in stock with the closure of commercial shops.”
While BARC is currently closed to the public and volunteers are staying at home, the four members of staff are keeping things ticking over. “One staff member has been working in a shelter for 18 years, so he knows what’s what. If there’s a medical emergency, then they have to go, but it’s just a matter of keeping everyone healthy and happy.”
The shelter is also still accepting any abandoned animals. International adoptions may have come to a halt, Thom adds, but plenty of strays are still coming in, particularly as the island’s other shelter is not taking any more in at the moment. While a few people expected an influx of abandoned pets, as expatriates fled the island, that hasn’t been the case, she adds. “A lot of people have gone back to the UK or wherever they’re from to be with family, but so far we haven’t seen a surge of people showing up at the door.
“As I said, everyone is being really responsible here.”