Jackie Oates first came to the UK folk scene’s attention in 2003, when she was named as a finalist in the Radio 2 Young Folk Award. Since then she’s won two BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards (including the 2009 Horizon Award), performed with Rachel Unthank and the Winterset and The Imagined Garden, and toured the UK as well as appearing at festivals around the country. After a turbulent period in her personal life, she’s now released her seventh album, The Joy Of Living.
The album includes a mix of Oates’ own compositions and arrangements of traditional songs. It opens with Freedom Come All Ye, a slower song with a bright melody that contrasts the downbeat lyrics. Midway through you hear a cry from Oates’ young daughter Rosie, who was present for much of the writing and recording process (which largely took place in Oates’ kitchen).
What struck me throughout was the simplicity of the record. Oates uses very few instruments; often she’s backed by just her piano or an acoustic guitar, with occasionally some strings thrown in. Sounds like Rosie’s laughter on the sunny, light Rosy Apple give the record a very organic feel, which I found really refreshing.
One aspect I particularly enjoyed was Oates’ piano playing. I really like how she uses the instrument as an extension of the song, such as on Sweet Farewell where the plodding effect adds to the characters’ sorrow at parting and the music box-like feel of the fantastical Unicorns. She also draws on lots of traditional folk influences, particularly on My Shoes Are Made Of Spanish – which wouldn’t sound out of place at a ceilidh – the accordion-led Nay Ivy Nay and Hey Ho, To The Greenwood with its singing in the round effect, which gives the song an ethereal quality.
However, the whole album acts as a wonderful showcase for Oates’s vocals. She has a gorgeous, crystal-clear tone that simply shines out across all 16 tracks, and her soft sweet voice is a joy to listen to. She has a real gift for bringing characters and places to life and enhancing the emotion of songs such as the heartstring-tugging The Bird and the lilting, nostalgic The Last Trip Home. Meanwhile, she’s able to make even the darkest, most grotesque lyrics sound beautiful on convict ballad Virginny and the quietly defiant Catch Me If You Can. Oates also makes great use of harmonies and a capella sounds, particularly on her cover of Darwin Deez’s Constellations with its soaring, almost choral effect.
One of the highlights of the record for me came early on with Oates’ cover of John Lennon’s song Mother. The sharp, spiky piano notes punctuate her plaintive vocals and the steady drums add an atmospheric heartbeat effect. She also bookends it with her own song Spring Is Coming Soon, a soothing nursery rhyme-esque tune. Putting the two tracks together makes it feel like a much bigger piece and balances them both out really well. I also loved her stripped-back take on the title track, originally written by Ewan MacColl, which was full of warmth and affection.
Oates closes the album with Rolling Home. The rollicking a capella song opens with a raucous male chorus before a solo voice – that of Jackie’s late father – takes over. She comes in to join him and their voices blend beautifully together. It put me in mind of being in a pub or at the end of a family party, making the fading away of his vocal and Jackie’s solo ending all the more affecting.
Overall Oates has made one of the best folk records of the year so far. Her understated approach means that the stories and emotions of the music comes to the fore, supported by her delicate piano playing and lush, dreamy vocals. She’s an absolutely fantastic musician and has made an album that’s incredibly powerful without being overblown or too elaborate, and one that’s sure to appeal to fans of traditional and contemporary folk alike. I can’t recommend it highly enough and encourage you to see her live if you can later this year – it really will be something very special.
Track listing: 1. Freedom Come All Ye 2. Spring Is Coming Soon 3. Mother/Spring Is Coming Soon Reprise 4. Virginny 5. Rosy Apple 6. The Joy Of Living 7. My Shoes Are Made Of Spanish 8. Unicorns 9. Nay Ivy Nay 10. Catch Me If You Can 11. The Bird 12. Hey Ho, To The Greenwood 13. Constellations 14. Sweet Farewell 15. The Last Trip Home 16. Rolling Home Record label: ECC Records Release date: 24th August 2018
See Jackie Oates on tour in the UK in 2018/19:
25th August 2018 – Oxford Storytelling Festival
15th November 2018 – Kitchen Garden Cafe, Birmingham
16th November 2018 – Pound Arts Centre, Fordham
17th November 2018 – Tuppenny Barn, Emsworth
21st November 2018 – The Greystones, Sheffield
24th November 2018 – Shelley Theatre, Bournemouth
2nd February 2019 – The Arc, Stockton on Tees
8th February 2019 – The Platform, Morecambe
9th February 2019 – The Met, Bury
10th February 2019 – Whitstable Sessions, Whitstable
12th February 2019 – Water Rats, London
13th February 2019 – West End Centre, Aldershot
15th February 2019 – Starcross, Devon
20th February 2019 – Aberystwyth Arts Centre
3rd April 2019 – Willows Folk Club, Arundel