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Interview: Laura Oakes on new EP, songwriting and Jukebox Lockdown

We caught up with the UK singer-songwriter about her latest EP How Big Is Your World.

Laura Oakes
Credit: Laura Oakes

Laura Oakes has quickly become one of the stars of the UK country scene.

Originally from Liverpool, it was a trip to Nashville as a teenager that sparked her to realise her dream of becoming a singer-songwriter. She released her first single, Don’t Let It Hit Ya, back in 2013 and has been championed by the likes of Bob Harris, as well as performing at festivals up and down the UK including C2C: Country to Country, The Long Road and Black Deer.

Following the recent release of her new EP, How Big Is Your World, in February 2020, I recently spoke to Laura to talk about the EP, how she approaches her songwriting, her recent UK tour and what she’s been doing to keep busy during lockdown.

How would you describe your music?

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So I guess my sound is for anybody that’s a fan of Kacey Musgraves or Dixie Chicks, kind of married with older 70s singer-songwritery things, like Carole King and Stephen Bishop and things like that.

You’ve also just put out your new EP How Big Is Your World. Can you tell us a bit more about it?

Yeah, it’s kind of probably taken about two years from starting to write it and then we’ve been recording it over probably a year. These five songs that are on it are, over the two year period of doing sessions every day, these are probably the five songs that I was most excited about and just desperately wanted people to hear. So I was saying to someone the other day actually, if you want to know how I feel about things, probably listening to the EP is the quickest way to find out. This is five honestly, what I think about huge subject songs.

Was it difficult to decide on just these five songs?

It was difficult in a way. There was probably a good 12 or 13 songs that I really wanted to record, but these five were probably the ones I was most excited about and was just desperate for people to hear. I’ve been playing them live for a little bit before we recorded them as well, and that played a big part in informing what we recorded because they were the songs as well that people seemed to be connecting to the most. Which just makes them even more special to you and you wanna record them so much more. The first couple of times you play them for a live audience and they are really finding something in them that they connect to. So there was a lot of songs that I would have loved to record but those five were very easy to pick as my favourite five.

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You co-produced the EP as well – was having that creative control important to you?

Yeah, it was actually. My favourite listening to songs, some of my favourite parts of songs are tiny little instrumental bits or a tiny little moment that happens that last two seconds. So when it came to my own stuff I really wanted to be involved in putting all those little moments together, not just writing the song but kind of really shaping how every part of it sounded was such a rewarding experience as well. To kind of have an idea from the day that you wrote a song of what it would eventually sound like and then be able to co-produce it and turn that into reality, was really special and really important as well.

Has there been anything unexpected about how people have responded to the EP, like the way they’ve reacted to particular songs for example?

What’s kind of quite weird actually is the fact that obviously the EP’s called How Big Is Your World and the title track, which came out two weeks ago, is How Big Is Your World. It’s sort of so strange that it’s come out now because it was written over 18 months ago, but to listen to it now sounds like you could have written it about this situation that we’re all in at the minute. And kind of people connecting to that and it just being so strangely predicting what is happening at the minute. That’s been really strange to just have it out. But it’s been really nice that people have got a song that is saying exactly what is happening at the minute.

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But I think the one that people connect to the most of the five is Learn To Be Lonely Again. That song’s about my mum and dad, that’s who it was written about. It was special anyway but to have people at the end of a show or when they’ve listened to it or bought it online or on the CD, to have people say, “oh that reminds of my relationship with my other half” or it reminds them of their own mum and dad’s relationship and the little things that people do that characterises that relationship, to hear people have their own version of that story is just the biggest compliment in the world as a songwriter.

I wanted to ask about Better In Blue Jeans – how did that one come about? And I know you’ve made some changes to it in terms of the production as well…

Yeah, that’s like… I say the writing process for the EP was two years but with the exception of Better In Blue Jeans. That’s probably been a song for four years. It was one of the very first things I wrote that I was like, ‘this feels 100 per cent me and what I wanna sound like and say’. That is my favourite song to perform live. It absolutely had to go on the EP, because it’s just really fun to sing it and really belt it out.

And I mean, I had that title for ages before it ever became a song. It was written down and I didn’t really know what to do with it, and then I went in for a session with the co-writer of it, Dan Lee Cope, and he was like, “I’ve got this”. He had this kind of melody idea and feel idea, and he was like, “I wanna see what would happen if someone like Katy Perry released a country song”, which I was like totally here for. I was like, “cool, yeah, let’s see what that should sound like.” And then as we were working on it, just working on the melodies and the structure and stuff, I remembered that title and I was like, “oh I really wanna write this song called Better In Blue Jeans”, and it just felt right to put those two things together.

But the production on it has changed obviously as I’ve played it live over the years. I had an acoustic version of it out a couple of years ago, but this version that’s out now is what has always been in my head for that song. It’s kind of the ultimate version, that sounds like where I wanted it to sound on the day we wrote. But yeah, it’s my most favourite to perform.

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The other song I wanted to ask about on the EP was Welcome To The Family. Where did the inspiration for that come from?

So the crazy thing about Welcome To The Family is I wasn’t involved in the original writing. That had been written by the co-writers of Old Ghosts and How Big Is Your World. They’d written it with another writer called Will Hoge a couple of weeks before we did the session for How Big Is Your World. And because in writing sessions you get talking about things, and anyone that talks to me for longer than 15 minutes know I talk about my family [laughs]. Because they’re massive and they’re very musical so they just naturally come up in conversation.

So I’d just been kind of talking about them and different things, and at the end of the session for How Big Is Your World Jason, one of the co-writers, was like, “oh we wrote this song a couple of weeks ago, from what you’ve chatted to us about and your style we think that you’d love this song”. And they pitched it to me in that session and within the first 30 seconds I was like, “I have to sing this song”, because it just felt like someone had written it about my family. So yeah, they were very, very lovely and said, “if you want it then the song’s yours”. I just thought, ‘if I’m connecting to it so much, so many other people will find something in this that’s true to their family as well’. It just felt so weird to find a song that I hadn’t actually been there for the writing session but it sounded exactly like I’d been sat there the whole time.

You’ve mentioned you’ve been writing the EP for about two years – do you feel your songwriting process has changed over that time?

That’s a really good question actually. It tends to start a couple of different ways, and all five songs on the EP are a really good example of that. No two songs ever start in the same way. Like a lot of the time for me it’ll start with a title. I love having a title to write to because you can kind of tell from the title what the song should feel like and from the writing process where you’re heading to if you’ve got that title line to pin the story on. And that happened with Old Ghosts and Better In Blue Jeans, they were titles long before they had songs.

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But stuff like Learn To Be Lonely Again and How Big Is Your World, there was nothing written down. Those things were just on my mind. Especially with Learn To Be Lonely Again. That song, I didn’t go into that session that day with anything to do with what that song’s about. It kind of just came off the back of that conversation that was happening in the room, and it just very naturally got written.

It’s nice kind of doing it in a couple of different ways because you get completely different songs from it. So I quite like that there’s no real set way of coming up with stuff, because it depends on the song. If it’s something that I really wanna talk about and it’s been on my mind, generally it can’t come from anything other than just chatting about it and see what happens. But yeah, as I say with other stuff there’ll be titles swirling round my head for months before they ever become songs.

You also recently went out on your latest headline tour in the UK – how was that?

That was great. That was so much fun and I was very lucky to be able to complete it before everything got cancelled and went on lockdown. That was lovely. Again, just to be able to finally have the EP out and be able to play all of those songs to people, that they then all knew because they could hear them before. Yeah, it was really nice. I mean, there’s nothing like playing live. Just to have that – no two gigs are ever the same, no two audiences are ever the same. So you’re going round playing the same songs and the same set every night, but have completely different experiences gig to gig based on how the audience are receiving certain songs. It’s great. But all of the stuff went down so well and I can’t wait to get out and play to people again, rather than being stuck behind a webcam and doing it that way! [laughs]

I wanted to ask you about the Jukebox Lockdown you’ve been doing by the way. What made you decide to do it?

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I’ve done a load of livestreaming a couple of years ago at Christmas. I’ve done a song every day of December through Facebook Live, and that was just such a lovely way of connecting with people instantly. And then obviously when gigging had to stop and going outside more than once a day had to stop, it was more just a thing of I was just desperate to play songs. It’s so strange to go from singing and playing pretty much every day to then going to just being sat at home with no reason to sing or pick your guitar up. So it was just a way of staying in touch with people, and especially because the new music was coming out as well. I just wanted to keep connecting with people while the music was coming out so people could hear it and still knew that all was well and we’re just carrying on as normal. Which I think… I mean I don’t know how long we’re gonna be doing this for, but it’s really nice. Even thought it’s not the same as being in a room with people and playing live, it’s still nice to be able to do something musical. And people have been so great – buying merch and buying the CD and tipping online and stuff. I know all of the artists that are doing live streams and stuff are so grateful to people for tuning and supporting them even through what’s a very, very uncertain time for everyone.

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

Oh, ah! There’s so many. There are so many. I would say actually at the minute, only because someone asked me this a couple of weeks ago, and it’s a song that’s only recently come out but I just wish I’d have been in that session is Both by Ingrid Andress.

Oh I love that song…

It’s so good isn’t it?! It’s one of those where I feel like when you’re younger every song’s exciting and gives you that kind of tingly feeling, and the older you get and the more used to a sense of music you get that happens less and less. And it’s those songs that give you that kind of teenage tingly feeling about stumbling across this absolute gem. And that song as soon as I heard it gave me that feeling. I was just like, “oh I wish I’d written this song!” I mean there’s millions but at the minute that is definitely the song I wish I’d written.

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What else have you been doing to keep yourself busy during lockdown? Are you working on any new music?

Yeah, I mean, thank God for the internet and for video calling. Loads of live streams, so I’m doing every Wednesday and every Sunday on my own channel, and then a couple of different channels and things. But just loads of writing. What’s really funny actually is that because I’ve been in EP mode and recording for the last year and then gigging everything and getting ready to release stuff, this was kind of coming to the time now where I was like, “oh I should probably start writing some new stuff”. So I think the universe definitely heard me on that one! [laughs] ‘Well here’s a load of time to do that now then!’ So yeah, been trying to write as much as possible.

And also, and I think it’s worth everyone just remembering, I’m trying to remember at the minute not to put so much pressure on yourself just because you have got a lot of free time. It’s still quite a stressful, uncertain time. So I’m trying to write as much as possible, trying to play as much as possible, but also not put pressure on it because I feel like, ‘oh well I should be writing every day because I’ve got the time to’. And I think that’s probably gonna be the same, not just for songwriters and performers but for a lot of people that have got all this time on their hands. Just not to put pressure on it just because you feel like you should be doing something because you’ve got a minute to sit down or whatever. It’s fine to just take a minute and not do anything.

But for me, lots of writing, just trying to collect ideas. Lots of online writing sessions as well, which have just been great. And then just carry on with the live streams and hopefully be allowed to perform for people again very soon [laughs].

Are there any plans for an album at some point in the future? Or more EPs?

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I would love to do a full length album next. There’s definitely at least another EP’s worth of stuff that could have been on an album this time round. So yeah, I’m writing all the time, so I’d hope a full length album’s not too far in the future.

Laura Oakes’ new EP, How Big Is Your World, is out now.

Laura hosts Jukebox Lockdown every Wednesday and Sunday at 4.30 PM UK time via Facebook Live – watch it here.

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