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Interview: Jackie Oates talks new album, touring and songwriting

We spoke to the UK folk musician ahead of her recent album showcase.

Jackie Oates
Credit: Jackie Oates

Since she was named as Radio 2 Young Folk Awards Finalist in 2003, Jackie Oates has been a darling of the UK folk scene.

She’s won two BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards (including the 2009 Horizon Award) and performed with Rachel Unthank and the Winterset and The Imagined Garden, as well as touring the UK and appearing at festivals nationwide. Last week she released her seventh album The Joy Of Living, the follow-up to 2015’s The Spyglass And The Herringbone.

I spoke to Jackie ahead of her recent showcase for the new album at London’s Lush Studios. Read on to find out more about the record, her forays into songwriting and the artists she thinks more people should be listening to.

Can you tell us more about your new album, The Joy Of Living?

Yeah, so this is my seventh album, and it’s very different to my previous albums because it’s not studio recorded. It’s been recorded in my kitchen over the course of a year and a half, and when we made it I didn’t even know I was making an album. I thought I was just having fun and making demos. So it’s mostly me playing and I’ve got some friends playing on it as well. It’s a bit like a diary really, of the course of quite an eventful two years of my life.

You went through quite a turbulent time during the making of this record. Did that influence the songs you picked?

Entirely. I think it was an entirely different way of approaching a record, because normally I think about the narrative and the light and shade and what I was trying to say. This album felt more like a kind of catharsis and just how good singing is for the soul and for making you feel connected with who you are. When you have a baby it’s very easy to lose sight of the person you were beforehand, so one of the things I did the most in those early few months was sit at my piano and sing for the sake of it.

The album includes covers of Darwin Deez and John Lennon – what was it that drew you to those songs?

Well, so Simon Richmond who is the producer, he’s a good friend and he comes from a very different world to me. And when we were making the album random things happened and we just decided to go with them. So the John Lennon song just reflected this period where we’d been chatting about families and I’d just been to Liverpool to where John Lennon grew up [laughs], so it was like this flight of fancy really to include that song. And likewise, Darwin Deez I’d never come across before but I like adding these elements of something completely unexpected that is at odds with a folk album. So I always like to be a bit eccentric.

 

Does that idea of doing something different influence how you arrange songs as well?

No, I like to constantly play with my sound and make my sound about very much where I am, both geographically and in my life. I think I’m very affected by the friends that I have and my musician friends around me, so I like to be quite playful really.

Is collaborating with other musicians important to you?

Yeah, definitely. I like it all to be quite organic and often I have a very clear idea in my head of the sound that I want, so I pick the people that I know can emulate that sound as closely as it is in my head. Most of the time it matches it perfectly, so I’m very lucky. I’ve got lots of friends who have these real talents but very obscure talents. So on this record I worked a lot with Jack Rutter, who’s this beautiful guitar player, and he just achieves such a soft and delicate emotive sound.

You’ve mentioned the sense of place being important. How much influence did home have on this record?

Definitely, because I think up until I became a mum I was going out to sessions and singarounds and hearing songs first hand, whereas I barely left Wallingford apart from to do gigs for two years. But what I realised was important were these songs that my dad used to sing, that are kind of part of my childhood, and just bringing them back to life was so comforting. So May last year there was a memorial concert for him and I had to sing a set entirely of his songs, so quite a lot of the material was me working those songs out. And I’m so glad I did, but now I feel I’ve done it I can move on and get back to me, which is nice [laughs].

Was that quite a cathartic experience?

Yeah, very emotional. It’s quite an odd experience singing it in public, because those are the kind of songs that I would only ever sing to my baby.

Has your family had a big influence on your musical style?

Yeah, so my dad is originally from Scottish parents and they weren’t into folk music but he was very proud of his roots. And I just didn’t realise how much of him was in me until he’d gone. I don’t think you do – I think you think that you’re you and you’re unique and actually you’re the product of your parents and all that love, and I kind of realise my epiphany was that the reason I play music I think was because he was proud and we could share in it together. So that’s been a huge thing. My brother’s also a singer and songwriter and I’ve been fortunate enough to grow up watching him sitting at the piano and playing. I think I’ve absorbed from him this need to sing and this need to carry all the emotion in the voice.

You’ve also played in several bands over the years. How has that impacted your solo work?

I would say actually I think I’m quite a chameleon. Maybe I’m a bit simple but I love collaborating and being in different bands. I find it quite easy to adopt the style and the genre of the band I’m playing with, I think because I was brought up going to these sessions with my dad in Stafford. But when it comes to my stuff I’m quite strict with myself that I inhabit this quite distinctive sound and I don’t meddle with it, if that makes sense. I want to experiment but maybe it’s a control thing. I have to direct it and I think it’s me leading it a lot more with my own stuff.

You’re going on tour in November. What can people coming to see you expect?

They can expect to be moved and to be transported. I always aim to send them to a different place and take them away from their everyday lives and think about things. I want to find comfort in music as well. But the music I make is quite timeless and I want it to feel like you could be in any decade or any century. But you can be calm with it, if that makes sense.

Are there any songs from this record you’re particularly looking forward to playing live?

Oh, so the title track, The Joy Of Living. I just want everyone to hear it because I think it’s such an important song. It was a Ewan MacColl song and the words are just beautiful and important, so I’m excited about that. There’s some little songs that I wrote for my daughter. I’m not really a songwriter but I think these songs just pour out of you when you’re a mum and so we’re gonna be airing them and that’s quite exciting.

What’s the one song you wish you’d written?

Well there’s so many! So many. I’m really into lyrics, and in general I wish I had Alistair Roberts’ lyrical ability. I think he’s a bit of a genius. And I also think Emily Portman has just this incredible mastery of language. I’d love to be better with words but I think I’m quite a shy person and quite self-conscious. I’m not quite there yet [laughs].

Are you keen to do more songwriting in the future?

Absolutely. I did an English degree and I got used to writing in this certain way for essays and I think I had quite a pretentious tone. My biggest fear with songwriting is that I’d sound quite portentous. So I haven’t found my voice yet. But I’m working on it.

What’s the one thing you’ve learnt from touring?

It’s a totally different fear. Once you leave your house, and I find it quite brave to step away from my house, but I’ve also learnt that you have to give yourself plenty of time. It doesn’t work if you’re anxious or you’re stressed about anything. So it’s taken me years to learn that you just need to stay calm at all times, because your adrenaline levels just peak and dip. It’s kind of about taking a bit of you with you. And then when you get home it takes at least a day to touch base and just feel OK again. So it’s quite bewildering.

Do you have a favourite song that you like to cover live?

Ooh! I enjoyed singing Can’t Be Sure by The Sundays, because I’m a big Sundays fan. It’s just joyous and there’s something about the arrangement of that that felt quite liberating. I love doing cover versions because it’s just such a different feel to traditional songs. May The Kindness by Dave Wood has been our anthem for about 10 years, and it’s really affected people. I know it’s been played at a lot of different events and people can really relate to it, so that’s been a really lovely one.

What would be on your wish list for your musical career?

I would love to go back to Scandinavia and do some more gigs out there and maybe collaborate a bit. I’d love to do some music for TV or a film. That would be lovely. Children’s TV would be a dream come true. I did a little theme tune for a company who make The Moomins in January, a thing called Urpo and Turpo, and that’s just brilliant. I think still plenty more to do.

Is there anyone in the folk scene you think more people should be listening to?

Oh yes, definitely. So Megan Henwood would be my ultimate. She’s one of my best friends but she is lyrically just incredible, and she moves you and transports you immediately whenever you hear her. She sort of casts a spell on the audience. And Alistair Roberts who I’ve been a huge fan of for years. Granny’s Attic – new trio, I’m really impressed with them. And then going further afield there’s a Norwegian singer called Uwe Boksas, who I absolutely love and would recommend.

One thing people may not know is that the cosmetics company Lush actually named one of their products after you – how did that come about?

Oh it was amazing! I’m wearing it now, it’s my favourite thing. I’ve been working with Lush for a few years now helping them with their spa music, because they’ve got a series of English-themed spas and they’ve occasionally had festivals. So I’ve played at quite a lot of events. About seven years ago Helen who invents a lot of the products noticed that I have very pale skin and she was making a series of colour supplements, and one in particular was for pale people and it was made of oat milk. And so she just thought ‘oh I know!’ So I was called into the laboratory and sent away with this thing to test for the summer. Originally it was meant to be like a sun cream. It’s been one of my proudest bucket list moments, having that in the shops and being able to go abroad and find my little product in shops in Canada and France.

What do the next few months look like for you?

So I’ve got my tour in November and then a tour in February with the new album. I’ll be out on the road with my band so I’m really looking forward to that. There’s also a few little projects in the pipeline. So I’ve been writing a musical with my friend Megan Henwood and this comedian called Amy Mason. It’s called Hollering Woman Creek and it’s about pregnancy, perinatal depression and travelling around Texas. We’ve done about three or four shows with that so far but we’re hoping to do a lot more. And possibly doing a radio ballad about winkle fishing in Lancashire. Little bits and pieces like that. Oh, and the other thing – important thing, I’m the musician in residence at the Museum of English Rural Life in Reading. So I’m working with them for a year, writing a big piece of music about folk music and agriculture, and I’m doing some working teaching folk songs to people at the museum and that’s all brilliant.

See Jackie Oates on tour in the UK in 2018/19:

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

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