Jackie Oates: ‘I wanted to create a light, summer album this time around’

Now a firm favourite on the Oxford folk music scene, Jackie Oates can be found singing and performing in unusual places, such as the Ashmolean Museum, as well as being a resident singer at Nettlebed Folk Club each Monday. With the release of her sixth album, The Spyglass & The Herringbone, in the bag, Shire Folk caught up with Jackie on the eve of her tour to support the album.


Jackie Oates

SF: Following on from Lullabies, the new album, The Spyglass & The Herringbone, doesn’t appear to have an overarching theme. Was that a deliberate strategy and did you find it freeing not to be restricted by one single subject?

JO: Yes – Lullabies was a deliberately niche album and one where all of the arrangements and performances were very sparse and soft. I have had a growing list of more general songs that I have wanted to arrange for some time, and it feels good to have free rein once again! However, I have wanted to create a light, summer album this time around and so keep everything fairly upbeat and cheerful.

SF: Over the course of your six albums there are always one or two people who appear to have an influence over the album. In the early days there was Phil Beer, and latterly there’s been your brother, Jim Moray, and then Alasdair Roberts, Belinda O’Hooley and on this album, Chris Sarjeant. What do you think they bring to your music?

JO:Over the course of my career there have been friends who have really inspired me and made me think about music differently. I love to create arrangements which reflect the state of imagination that I’m currently in. My brother Jim has always been a big influence as we talk about songs and music a lot. Likewise Phil Beer is like family to me and I definitely wouldn’t have ever been able to approach making records without him. Alasdair Roberts has a beautiful mastery of language and vocabulary. Likewise creating arrangements with Belinda has always been effortless and spontaneous and how the songs sound will be entirely different from day to day. Chris Sarjeant I met when I first moved to Oxford. We come from part traditional and part classical backgrounds and so approach song arrangements in a very similar way. I particularly love his delicate guitar style.

SF: The title track of the album was written by Chris and is very moving. Can you tell us the background to the song?

JO: Whilst on the Lullabies tour, we led a workshop and performed at the Foundling Museum in London. I was very moved by the cabinet of tokens on display there. When the foundling hospital first opened in the late 1700s, mothers would leave a token with their child, in the hope that, should they ever be able to afford to come back for them, they could identify them. A little book accompanies the items on display in the museum, hence our song is about a herringbone-shaped token which belonged to a little boy, then named ‘Gentle Joseph’. Unfortunately, he died very soon after entering the hospital.

SF: Another standout track for me is your version of The Sundays’ ‘Can’t Be Sure’. I’m a huge fan, but I thought they’d faded into obscurity since their last album in 1997. How did you come to cover the song?

JO: I am a huge Sundays fan, and remember dancing around my bedroom to their single ‘Summertime’ in 1997. Harriet Wheeler has been a big influence on my singing. My old university friend and music lecturer Joe Duddell is now composer in residence for Festival No. 6 at Portmeirion, and last year he was commissioned to put together a series of concerts there. We decided upon a set entitled ‘Alternative Female Icons’ and he arranged six pop songs for voice and chamber orchestra. This was my favourite of the pieces that we worked on and I have been looking forward to recording it for months.

SF: You’re about to go off on an extensive tour in support of the album – which do you prefer, playing live or recording in the studio?

JO: I do love recording in the studio but find that I am much more relaxed and at peace when I am singing live. Recording in a studio involves such a lot of pre-planning, time management, travelling and so many, many emails and phone calls! By the time I am there I have to make a conscious decision to forget the outside world and to live in the moment. But on tour, by the time myself and the band are on a stage, all of the anxieties of the day melt away once I have sung the first verse of a song. Or at least most of the time!

SF: You’re a patron of Folk Weekend Oxford along with John Spiers and a resident singer at Nettlebed Folk Club. How important is to you be involved in local grassroots music?

JO: I really value being a part of the local folk scene – my life has always revolved around music and my best friends will always be the people that I play music with. It is where I formulate ideas for new songs and absorb everything that is going on around me. So I look forward to singing at Nettlebed every week as a chance to try out new songs and to see some fantastic gigs.

The Spyglass & The Herringbone is out now on ECC Records

Jonathan Roscoe