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Shire Folk Album of 2019
Josienne Clarke album
On the eve of the release of her latest – very personal – album, Shire Folk sat down in her Oxfordshire kitchen with Nettlebed Folk Club resident songstress Jackie Oates to discuss how the emotionally raw, but ultimately heartwarming The Joy of Living came about
SF: The Joy of Living is clearly a very personal album for you. Was it recorded to help you feel better under difficult circumstances?
JO: It was even less conscious than that. I didn’t know I was making an album most of the time we were making it. The pretext was that I’d been with my record label for years – we’d done Saturnine, Lullabies, and Spyglass (and the Herringbone) – and I’d been working on spa music. Lush/ECC records is like a family, and everybody who works for it are my best friends, and they noticed that because Mark Constantine, who runs Lush and the label, had lost his dad, and he recognises that need in creative people to express themselves at that point in time. I was just at home with Rosie (Oates’s daughter), she was a baby. Simon Richmond, a producer and a dear friend, he didn’t have that much recording work on at the time, so it was put to us as a way to keep us both occupied. Just to make music for the joy of it. For the first year he’d come round to the house and I wouldn’t really have a plan. I hadn’t seen this as an album. Normally I’d shape an album and I’d think really strategically about the tracks and what I was trying to say. It felt like I was constantly not doing my homework! What I had been doing was just sitting at my piano and singing, just to try and connect with the person I was before I was a mum and before I lost my dad, and just to try and not feel numb .(Oates’s father died of sepsis just after the birth of Rosie in early 2016) It just happened that the songs I’d sing were deeply about my dad. As time went on we thought we were going to rerecord these songs at a studio, polish them and get the band in, but Mark fell in love with the concept that everyone was allowed in my kitchen. It was like a diary really.
SF: It pays off – the ambient sound of being recorded in your home rather than in a studio. There’s an organic feel that’s difficult to replicate in a studio.
JO: Mark’s point was that I sounded much more relaxed. I sound much more like I would if I was singing in a pub or just for fun. For me I’d be singing and I’d be watching Rosie and going: I’ve only got two minutes and then she’s going to come back in the room! It took me a long time to get my head round it, and I’m still getting my head round it, how raw this is. A lot of the songs we put together for a memorial concert for my dad and that was harrowing. To be singing the songs my dad had sung and doing gigs is like opening up that wound again and again, but I’m seeing it as an important thing. I have to take a step back from myself, if that makes sense, and my ego, and let it happen, and know that it’s a transitional thing.
SF: Having your dad on the album must be comforting, but also emotionally raw?
JO: It took such a lot! Again, that was Mark. He’s a very clever man and he understood better than I did how important that was and it made me think. I used to sing with my dad every week when I was growing up and we’d play at folk clubs together. He had a beautiful voice – very distinctive and delicate – but very self-conscious. He was from Hull, but he had this weird accent. I just can’t believe that you never think to record people while they’re there. One of the things I struggled to come to terms with was, how come these memories are so vivid, but they’re going to fade. So, every time I went home I looked for recordings of him and couldn’t find any. My brother website found a little video of him talking about electronics, but that’s literally all we had. Then in a moment of inspiration I emailed his friend Martin Thompson and they’d been on this holiday in Edinburgh with the folk session people. He sent me two videos of my dad singing. I had this record, but I thought – Dad would have been so embarrassed. He wasn’t singing well and I could tell he was conscious of my mum sitting there! I felt a bit like I’d betrayed him, but that song was, like, ghostly. Simon edited it down and said to just sing along with him. So I did. It was one take, then we sat back and listened and both burst into tears! I thought, actually in 30 years’ time I’m going to be so glad I know where this recording is – not in a cupboard somewhere.
SF: How did you decide on the songs to include?
JO: I didn’t choose anything! Literally, because I was thinking about Rosie all the time, I’d say to Simon: we could do this or this or this! It was like a stream of consciousness or like writing a journal: it just reflected every bit of development. It was things I’d come across. ‘Virginny’ and ‘Last Trip Home’ were put together for my dad’s memorial concert. ‘Unicorns’ was my favourite song that he sang when I was a little girl, and I wanted Rosie to experience that as a little girl as well. ‘The Joy of Living’ was actually a conversation I had with my mother-in-law. I knew the song anyway, but she said that when Jack’s grandpa died she wrote out the lyrics and put them in his coffin. We both listened to this song and cried and thought – that’s so important. I’m not really a songwriter, but some of them I wrote because you can’t help it when you’re a mum!
SF: Which means that you get a songwriting credit with John Lennon!
JO: That was deliberate because it encapsulated all of this struggle I was having.
SF: You do unusual cover versions, but I would have never expected you to do Darwin Deez’s ‘Constellations’ in the way that you’ve done it. How did that come about?
JO: In that spirit of being … I like to be affected by what’s going on at the time and that was a song that Simon brought to me. I like to be a bit eccentric, to turn things on their head and be a bit unexpected. There is a lullaby element to that song and it is comforting. I work with children and teach every day and that has been brilliant – they all came to the house!
SF: There’s a wide range of people of playing on the album. Did you know all these people beforehand?
JO: Initially for the first six months, it was just me and all the instruments I had. It was limiting and occasionally I’d use, say, recorders from school when I needed that sound. When I realised we were serious and this was an album, I sat up and thought, this sounds too one dimensional to me – it needs a bit of light and shade. It’s all my mates. There’s no one that I’ve asked to play that I didn’t want to see socially. The beauty of it is that I got to spend time with my closest friends. The core musicians are John Parker, who’s my bass player. He lives up the road and he’s just a wonderful human. I got the rest of the band down. Mike website and Jack website are there.
SF: I have to ask about Matt Allwright. How did you meet him?
JO: I love Wallingford – it’s got this beautiful community feel about it and there’s this band called the Band of Hope and I’ve taught their children for years. We’re really good friends and they’re my social life outside of the folk scene. I met Matt at Wood Festival last year. As I’m a stay-at-home mum a lot of the time, I’d seen him on TV! He’d watched mine and Megan’s gig – stood there in the pouring rain intently – and I could tell he was really moved. He came up to me in the bar later and it was such a weird feeling because he’s the biggest celebrity I’ve ever met, but he was fascinated and just wanted to know all about the songs and folk music. It turns out he’s a really big country music fan and he’s in the Band of Hope because he went to school with Tom website. He’s an absolute fanatic when it comes to pedal steel. He writes a blog, so I knew that he was really passionate about music. He came to the kitchen in the summer and it was on a whim really – I said do you fancy playing on my record? I always choose people because I realise that the reason they play music is because they’ve got this part of their soul that they can channel, and he’s got that! He was really overcome because he is a TV presenter, but he really wants to be a musician, and it was the first album he’s ever played on. I was really nervous. I made biscuits to try and impress him!
SF: Finally, the artwork on the album is beautiful.
JO: It’s an amazing story. Have you heard of Alden, Patterson and Dashwood? That’s Christina Alden. I met her in Norway last year and my friend Tim Chipping had recommended them. They’ve come such a long way so quickly. I’d been listening to them on Spotify and I saw them in Norway and it was just beautiful. I like art that’s quite childlike and I saw that she’d sketched her house. She’s not a professional artist, but she’d done this crayon drawing of her new house. So I asked her if she’d do some sketches. Isn’t she talented!
The Joy of Living is out now on ECC Records