Finding fame through melancholy traditional tunes, Jackie Oates tells Tim Hughes she is now in a happy place and is looking forward to sharing her songs with festival-goers
For years, Jackie Oates has delved into the dark and twisted world of traditional English folk.
When not performing murder ballads and songs about the darker side of life, the two-time BBC Radio 2 Folk Award-winner has sung equally dark and brutal lullabies. But the Oxfordshire singer and multi-instrumentalist insists she has now brightened up – and has a whole new set of cheerful tunes to prove it.
“I’ve moved on from lullabies,” she says. “My new stuff is much more up-tempo and less melancholy, but still very English.”
Jackie, who plays the fiddle, viola, harmonium and piano as well as sings, is part of a generation of energetic young musicians, such as Seth Lakeman, Sam Lee, Jon Boden and Abingdon’s John Spiers, who are striving to preserve England’s folk song tradition.
She will be airing her new tunes at this weekend’s Wallingford BunkFest – a free folk and world music festival, named after the town’s preserved heritage railway - the Wallingford Bunk.
“I will practically be playing in my back garden,” says Jackie, who recently moved to Wallingford from Oxford, and teaches at St John’s Primary School in the town as well as giving violin lessons to 30 private pupils.
“BunkFest is brilliant,” she says. “It’s a completely free festival with most events taking place in the Kinecroft, which has been used as a community space for centuries. “There are crafts, a beer festival and exquisite food stalls which you don’t get at other festivals. It’s a great place to bring a picnic blanket and relax in front of the stage.
“It will be great to play to people I know – including some of my pupils.”
It will also see her playing with her band for the first time in months. “It will be a bit of a special set as it will be the first band gig of the summer,” she says. “The band has been on sabbatical while I make my new record, which will be out in early spring. But we will be meeting up to play English folk tunes in a joyful way.”
Many of her new songs are influenced by her other great love – Morris dancing. She explains: “Since moving to Oxfordshire I have founded a ladies Morris side, Summertown Morris, which has inspired a lot of the album. Doing things with Morris tunes makes it more life-affirming. It’s something I’ve never focussed on before. I have always been more maudlin.”
So what has sparked off this new found joie de vivre? “I’m getting married next weekend!” she laughs. “So that might have something to do with it. It has given me a new perspective.”
She adds: “Morris is definitely alive and well, though. A high percentage of Morris dancers are young people, with more joining every year.
“It correlates with a resurgence in folk music over the past decade. Folk is now so much more credible than it was and fits into the whole ‘baking and making’ thing and the growing love for traditional English activities such as knitting, which I am doing at this moment!
“There are also a lot more festivals than there ever were and they give young people a chance to dance out, It’s good to practise every week but you do need a platform to perform in front of your peers to spur you on.”
And her mood seems to reflect her new-found musical direction. “Singing lullabies was a niche thing,” she says. “It was fascinating to do and it drew in a new audience that had never really heard folk music before. But I am now looking forward to doing more cheerful stuff in the mainstream folk scene.
“And I am really happy.”
Summertown Morris meet every Tuesday, from 8pm at North Oxford Conservative Club in Middle Way, Oxford.
Wallingford BunkFest runs from tomorrow to Sunday. Jackie plays the Kinecroft at 6.45pm on Sunday. Other acts include Baka Beyond tomorrow, Three Daft Monkeys on Saturday, and Tarras on Sunday.
Entry is free
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