Jackie Oates
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Jackie Oates


Band Folk World


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"The New Face Of Folk"

On the wall of an Oxford front room, above a harmonium and a fiddle, you'll find a popart print of Jackie O. At first, you think you're looking at John F Kennedy's widow, but then you look beyond its primary colours. Captured by artist David Owen, the face under the hat and glasses belongs to folk's newest first lady – Jackie Oates, one of a new breed of young singers pushing traditional music into the mainstream.

Oates is from homegrown, down-to-earth stock, brought up in folk festivals as a child and pub singarounds as a student. Nevertheless, she is interested in bringing tradition and modernity together – and a variety of audiences are responding to her. Last month, her fourth album, Saturnine, ranked highly in end-of-year polls; next month, she is part of HMV's Next Big Thing tour, and is a frontrunner for singer and album of the year at the Radio 2 Folk awards. She likes surprising people too - witness her version of the Sugarcubes's Birthday, or the existence of a brand of makeup named after her.

"It's a foundation, for Lush," she laughs as we go through to her kitchen. She serves up sausage soup and a homemade cake and explains that she was recording some sea shanties for the cosmetics company's new range of spas, "and I was just the right pale colour for them: they said it's for traditional folk." The honour has brought her a new kind of fame – she has had Japanese makeup fans coming to her gigs just to get their photo taken with her. "Trouble is, if you type my name into YouTube, you more often find reviews of the foundation than videos of me!"

Oates is lovely company. And, just like her records, there are hints of a darker soul underneath the sweetness. As she speaks, you're reminded of the way she delivers folk songs, like iron fists in gossamer gloves.

Born in 1983, Oates is from a traditional folk family. Her parents met in a Manchester folk club; her father is a morris dancer; her older brother, Doug, performs as the folk singer Jim Moray. Becoming a fiddler first, Oates didn't exactly rebel, she smiles, despite loving such indie bands as the Smiths and the Bluetones. Still, there came a point where she knew she had to carve her own path. "It took me a long time to discover folk on my own terms. Seeing people like Kate Rusby and Eliza Carthy when I was about 10, standing at the front of the stage, really helped. They inspired me as a female, gave me something to look up to."

Unlike her big brother, she decided against studying music, and took a degree in English at Exeter, "to immerse myself in a world that's not quite part of day-to-day life … and I loved it". Her love of ballads began then too, but far from the students' union, in a pub five miles away. At the Topsham Folk Club, Oates felt she had come home. "But it was a completely different tradition to the one I had grown up with. And there was hardly anybody my age there – they were much, much older. But they looked after me and nurtured me, to the extent that they're [now] some of my best friends." One group who were regulars there, the Claque, perform on her latest album.

Oates learned to sing by ear, and to collect ballads from the area. Devon remains, she says, misty-eyed, one of her favourite places in the UK; she only moved to Oxford to live with her economist boyfriend. Although his also being a morris dancer, she laughs, somewhat softens the blow.

Oates knew that she wanted to sing for a living. "I struggled with that for years. You know, how am I going to be able to afford to live? Is this long-term? But there was this voice inside me that I wanted to get out." She describes singing as something magical, alchemical. "When you're singing, and know you're touching people, it's the most euphoric feeling. You're this version of you that you can't convey in everyday language or conversation. This hidden essence."

However, her professional career began playing viola with Rachel Unthank and the Winterset. She knew most of the band from folk festivals as a child ("it's a very small world"), but when offered the opportunity to join them full time in 2007, she turned it down. It was a brave move: their next album, The Bairns, was a huge, Mercury-nominated success. But having gained her confidence as a performer with them ("I had a ball"), Oates knew she had to do her own thing. She owes lots to the Unthanks, she adds, as do many other young folk artists. "They've done tremendous things for the scene, especially for people from a very traditional background, because making this music accessible is so, so important."

Oates waves this flag often. Her first two solo albums (2006's Jackie Oates and 2008's The Violet Hour) saw traditional material being given inventive arrangements. 2010's Hyperboreans also saw Oates working with alternative-folk musician Alasdair Roberts – and she particularly enjoys traditional and alternative sides of folk music coming together. "British folk has such a rich, friendly community t - The Guardian

"Confirming her pack-leading position"

With the folk firmament currently filled by several 20-something rising stars, there’s a danger that with so many poignant ballads, jolly jigs and all manner of rousing, rootsy revelry assailing (and even wassailing) the ear, the casual listener is spoilt for choice when it comes to gifted performers.
Happily, Jackie Oates continues to stand out from the crowd with a sequence of beautifully judged solo records dating back to her eponymous debut of 2006. This fourth set edges her ahead of the competition just a little further, as she presents a time-travelogue collection of songs about Cornwall (mostly) which, despite a jauntiness in the tempo of many of the tunes, presents the West Country as a bleak, dangerous place to be.
Even as The Hills of Trencrom gently bubbles along, with its lilting instrumental melody percolating through layers of accordion, bouzouki and Oates’ five-string fiddle, there’s a suspicion that even with the absence of a lyric, the body count is probably rising just out of sight. This doomed or fated love which haunts much of the album benefits from Oates’ light-of-touch vocal though – while it hints at the mournful undertow pulling upon the songs’ subjects, it never falls beneath a sentimental wave. That balance between her voice and the sparse instrumentation which frames it represents the real triumph of Saturnine.
On Poor Murdered Woman, the dread reportage of the lyric shines amidst exquisitely disconsolate hand-bells icily tolling around the corpse, whilst Mike Cosgrave’s cascading piano animates the falling tears which Oates describes during a forlorn yet moving reading of The Trees They Are So High. Moments like this, which cast memorably shiver-inducing spells, are responsible for consolidating Oates’ position as a young folk artist well worthy of so much admirable acclaim.





‘Deservedly becoming a celebrity in the new folk scene' The Guardian

2011 fRoots Critics’ Poll Album of the Year nominee
2012 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards Album of the Year nominee
2012 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards Folk Singer nominee

Jackie Oates is a phenomenon in the exploding folk-pop scene in the UK today. Originally a member of The Mercury-nominated The Unthanks (then Rachel Unthank & The Winterset), she has since carved out an astonishing solo career which has made her a name to conjure with in folk music circles, in demand for work with other artists, cosmetics stores, collaborative projects, even the subject of pop-art….

She has recently been the inspiration behind a ‘Jackie Oates’ titled and specially produced tinted moisturiser for fair skin in Lush - the worldwide chain of seven hundred fresh handmade cosmetics stores.

In May 2011 she toured with EMI-signed folk-pop star Seth Lakeman.

She has been immortalized as a Jackie Onassis for the 21st century by pop-artist David Owen (see above).

She’s newly established as a member of the all-star multi-cultural folk band Imagined Village alongside Eliza Carthy, Chris Wood, Martin Carthy and more (recording for Radio 2 at Maida Vale Studios in June).

She recently spent a week in the songwriting house of the Cecil Sharp Project which garnered major features on Radio 3’s World on 3, Radio 4’s Today programme and The Guardian.

In the wake of this explosion of activity, Jackie released her new studio album ‘Saturnine’ in September 2011. She says of the album,
‘The songs, their arrangements and instrumentation, and the album artwork are the result of a frenzy of current fascinations from viols, hand bells, eccentric percussion to the Saturn return, Joseph Cornell and Alphonse Mucha.’

Through the album is a strong connection to the songs, tunes and people of her west country of England base, as well as a burgeoning maturity which sees her move on to new heights from her 2009 released ‘Hyperboreans’ album, which itself drew a landslide of rave reviews: 'Jackie Oates is deservedly becoming a celebrity in the new folk scene' said The Guardian. 'English folk-pop...as pretty as some spring mornings.' said The Independent

‘Saturnine’ sees special guest contributions from Jim Moray, Alasdair Roberts, Karen Tweed and the little known Devon acoustic male voice line up The Claque.

A selection of reviews in for Saturnine:

‘The twelve dark and twisted ballads are largely about murder, violence and magical trickery. But sung in Oates’s disinfecting voice an interesting tension arises. It’s the musical equivalent of seeing the purest girl-next-door you know smoking a fag…a confident arrangement of traditional tunes, brilliantly executed and startling to hear.’
Arts Desk (CD of the day)
‘A luscious album…rich in so many ways’ Songlines
‘What’s most impressive here is the way the arrangements and instrumentation weave together so seamlessly…comparisons with June Tabor are apt.’ Uncut ****
‘She must now surely be considered among the highest echelons of the modern wave of British folk acts.’ fRoots
‘Whether seductively delivering stalwarts like Sweet Nightingale and Brigg Fair or linking with The Claque on Four Pence A Day and Marrow Bones, it’s the rustic beauty of Oates’ voice that enthrals.’ Mojo

‘Saturnine’ went on to be nominated as Album of the Year in the 2012 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, with Jackie also receiving a nomination for the Folk Singer of the Year Award in the same awards. The album was also shortlisted for the fRoots magazine Album of the Year Award, and was a Mojo top 10 folk album of 2011.

In 2012 Jackie will tour the UK, Austria and Germany in her own right as well as playing major festivals including Sidmouth FolkWeek, Shrewsbury Folk Festival and Moseley Folk Festival as well as touring and playing festival dates in the UK and Europe with The Imagined Village.

In spring 2013 Jackie will release an album of lullabies supported by two Lullabies tours in spring and autumn 2013. The project as a whole will include a new archive of lullabies collected by Jackie, being lodged in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library at Cecil Sharp House in London, the home of the English Folk Dance & Song Society. The project is support by funding from Arts Council England.