With the release of yet another superb album, The Spyglass & The Herringbone, it’s very easy to make a case for Jackie Oates being amongst the very topmost of the current folk music scene. Her beautiful, clear voice and instrumental skills are matched with song selections and arrangements that have seen a straight flush of first class albums, each of which, delivering something different, could be considered a stand out in its own right. It is worth remembering that Jackie only appeared as a Young Folk Award finalist in 2003, before winning the Horizon newcomer’s category and the Best Traditional Song award in 2009. Jackie seems to have achieved such a lot since that first BBC recognition a dozen years ago, picking up plenty of other recognition along the way, with MOJO and fRoots magazines, as well as Folk Radio UK repeatedly singing her praises.
It’s no surprise that Jackie was introduced to the folk circuit as a natural extension of the family’s passions. Her morris dancing father and her mother first met in a Manchester folk club and she also had older brother Jim Moray, himself an Horizon Award winner (with four Folk Awards in total), a few years more advanced into his musical career, laying a path to follow. Jackie’s interests in music were much wider than folk, significantly, however, she took to the fiddle and really credits the likes of Eliza Carthy and Kate Rusby as the role models that confirmed the direction she was headed in.
Like many young musicians at the start of her career there followed a degree of agonising over how to make it all pay. Jackie has, however, previously described how youngsters at folk festivals were naturally drawn to each other’s company. So it was following Jackie’s Young Folk Award appearance that she accepted an invitation to become one of the founding members of Rachel Unthank and the Winter Set, alongside the Unthank sisters and Belinda O’Hooley. The band was originally conceived as an all female line up, although produced from the outset by Adrian McNally. Jackie only appeared on the first album, Cruel Sister, departing before Mercury Prize nominations and Folk Awards for The Bairns catapulted things on to whole new level.
By that time Jackie had launched her solo career and was well and truly settled at the opposite end of the country, in Devon. She’d studied English at Exeter University and it was here that her love of the big ballads developed. Jackie recorded some demos with local legend Phil Beer, which led to her self-titled debut coming out through Show Of Hands’ own Hands On Music, making it one of only a scant handful of releases not directly related to the duo or Miranda Sykes, their bassist. In fact it was Phil’s own label Chudleigh Roots that oversaw the follow up The Violet Hour, which properly established Jackie with that 2009 Horizon Award, doubled up with Best Traditional Song for The Lark In The Morning from the album.
There then followed the extraordinary Hyperboreans, which resulted from Jackie signing to the legendary British indie label One Little Indian. Perhaps best known these days for the sustained success of Björk, although always wilfully eclectic, adventurous and far more expansive, it was none the less the Icelandic singers previous band The Sugarcubes that provided the album’s ‘hit’, as Jackie included a version of their song Birthday. Although such obvious pop moves may not have sat well with all in the folk community, the album still fared well in the end of year polls at fRoots and MOJO.
If that relationship between artist and label created her best album so far, then Jackie continued to ring the changes and also to grow as an artist. The next move, however, created an even better synergy and EEC have simultaneously brought some stability while widening her artistic horizons. This new release will be her third solo album for the label, while she has also become a permanent member of EEC’s innovative and best selling group The Imagined Village. Further than that she’s been involved with label co-founder Mark Constantine’s cosmetics empire, creating music for his Spa retreats and even getting a foundation named after her ‘ideal for Traditional Folk with fair skin.’
The two releases thus far on ECC, Saturnine and the more obviously themed, immaculately researched and equally engrossing, Lullabies are different records, yet there is the growing sense of Jackie really finding her voice. She has always been prepared to mix the old and the new and also to work with song choices, musicians, arrangements and producers that have pushed the envelope of folk, but perhaps it’s her voice that has grown, or maybe it’s self confidence that allows ownership of the songs. Whether they are plucked from the folk tradition, the indie charts or newly written, there’s a satisfying, near seamless blend of material that may even bring a welcome quiet to folk / not folk debates if people will but listen.
It’s therefore not right to divide on trad / not trad lines and instead, let’s say there are some tracks which are great fun. The opener John Blunt, with its warring couple paying the consequences of not bolting the door, each too stubborn to give ground. The penultimate track is a working of The Devil And The Farmers Wife, with the latter rejected by the hell-spawn for being too horribly vicious and even downright deadly, all set to a morris tune with just a hint of the otherworldly in the mix. Hail! Hail! The First Of May, written by Dave Webber on returning from Padstow May Day and learnt by Jackie from Magpie Lane is simply joyous, all the more so in the spring sunshine we are currently enjoying.
England is the home of “Such terrible weather” in the Sundays Can’t Be Sure and the arrangement, all chamber serious strings and glistening harp is sublime. There may be a few vinyl copies of Reading Writing And Arithmetic getting an overdue dusting down as a result, mine included. But the bold almost stately arrangement seems to add an extra significance to what is already a cracking song.
There are more complex arrangements too, but even the tricky hand claps of Robbers Retreat can’t unseat the notion that perhaps crime does pay. A Cornish Young Man is even more slippery, happily skipping a beat, with a graceful sidestep, despite its easy dancing pace, as the titular lad heads on a fools quest and meets more than his match in a feisty woman who denies him. Doffing Mistress too is bright and merry, suggesting Elsie Thompson has the respect of her workers, even if it is all about potentially dangerous work, mostly performed by children. The fact that she hangs her coat on the highest pin is clearly something to look up to and the song suggests the doffers will work for her, but not those higher placed.
Even when a melancholic mood is invoked, there is something life affirming about it and the simple yet gorgeous Take This Letter To My Mother, offers hope to the sender that the simple message of ‘I’m alive and doing fine’, will bring peace of mind. In The Yellow Bittern a man views a dead bird as a sign that he must live his life to the full and the Banks Of The Bann finds another unlucky one in love, perhaps finding the first urges for of a change of lifestyle to repair his reputation. All three songs feature some absolutely beautiful guitar playing and both brother Jim and more prominently on this occasion, Chris Sarjeant, but also Jack Rutter (Moore Moss Rutter) are amongst an expanded list of some of the finest folk instrumentalists around, Jackie included, who make this record such a joy to listen to.
Perhaps the varied pleasures of The Spyglass & The Herringbone can best be summed up by the title track and Jackie’s version of The Halsway Carol. The former is an achingly beautiful and tender song written by Chris Sarjeant in response to gigging at and exploring the Foundling museum in London. It displays the first concerted effort to providing refuge for children whose parents couldn’t cope and who would otherwise be abandoned. The song refers to the tokens that were left as identifiers should the parent ever be able to return. The latter is a brilliant schottische, a kind of slow polka dance, written by hurdy-gurdy maestro Nigel Eaton, with lyrics commissioned from Iain Frisk, who turns it into a sort of secular carol about the shortest day and winter landscape. The song has been enthusiastically promoted through the international folk community, with all comers encouraged to render their own versions. When you hear it, hopefully you’ll understand why Jackie’s version is simply superb.
Then you might pick two other songs to make the same point that the The Spyglass & The Herringbone gathers up all of Jackie Oates promise to date, dusts it down and adds polish to present a sparkling jewel of a folk record. It’s a rare and most refined thing of gift of great beauty and as good a record as you could rightly hope for, that’s all yours for the small price of admission. Or to state that more prosaically… Grab it! Play it! Love it! Either way, don’t delay.
Review by: Simon Holland
01 May Folkworks Fiddles on Fire, Sage Gateshead
02 May Folkworks Fiddles on Fire, Sage Gateshead
15 May CC Gasthuis, Aarscott, Belguim
20 May Winchester Discovery Centre, Hampshire
22 May St. Pancras Old Church, London
24 May Bude & Stratton Folk Festival
25 May Bude & Stratton Folk Festival
26 May Exeter Phoenix, Devon
29 May The Forge at The Anvil, Basingstoke
30 May Finstock Village Hall, Chipping Norton
01 June Nettlebed Village Club, Oxfordshire
04 June The Arts Centre, Ormskirk
05 June Selby Town Hall, North Yorkshire
10 June VAKA Folk Festival, Akureyri, Iceland
11 June VAKA Folk Festival, Akureyri, Iceland
12 June VAKA Folk Festival, Akureyri, Iceland
13 June VAKA Folk Festival, Akureyri, Iceland
20 June Eroica Britannia, Bakewell
The Spyglass & The Herringbone is out now via ECC
Pre-order it here: http://eccrecords.co.uk/shop/the-spyglass-the-herringbone/