Young folky singer-songwriter Jess Hall is one to watch. Tim Hughes reveals why

Beautiful, evocative and dripping with emotion, Jess Hall’s music demands to be heard. Lured by her deceptively simple melodies the listener is ensnared by her heart-wrenchingly lovely voice and clear, keenly-observed lyrics, which she admits are largely autobiographical “with some poetic licence”.

Perhaps that’s why this young singer-songwriter from Oxford is being talked about, in hushed tones, as one to watch — the latest in a long line of local singer-songwriters to break through.

“I find it really special when my music touches people,” she tells me.

“It’s full of references to things that have influenced me, such as the sea and other nautical themes, both as literal reference and metaphor. There is also a little bit of romance, most of it hapless.

“There’s a strong nostalgic feeling, looking back over time, and a couple of songs lean towards what happens when you get it wrong.

“People often cry, but in a good way.”

After years of winning over rapt audiences in bars, back rooms and other small spaces, Jess is set to make the leap with the release of her debut album Bookshelves. Written over the course of four years, the record will be launched later this month at Oxford’s — and indeed Europe’s — oldest purpose-built music venue, the Holywell Music Room.

“It will be an intimate musical experience,” she says. “My music is folky and vocal-led with a simple guitar style and will really suit the venue.

“As soon as I started thinking about where to launch the album, that was my first thought. It was built for musical performance and that is reflected in its architecture and acoustics.”

As far as musicians go — even classically-trained folk artists —- Jess leads a wholesome existence. A regional co-ordinator for Christian Aid, based at Oxford’s Wesley Memorial Church, she is clean-living and teetotal, preferring a nice cream tea and “the making and eating of cake”.

Coming from a musical family in Devon, it was perhaps inevitable that she should become a performer herself. Her grandfather was a formidable singer, who won a choral scholarship at New College, Oxford, while her father was a piano tuner and restorer, who delighted in bringing his work home with him. Growing up in a house full of pianos and harmoniums, at the age of 11 she followed in her grandfather’s footsteps and began singing, going on to perform in a church band. Eventually she got round to writing her own songs — initially inspired by the coastal scenery of her native West Country.

“I started writing before I left Devon but I’d been singing for years and years before that,” she says.

“One day I had a day off, and thought I’d write a song on a whim,” she recalls. “A friend suggested I go to an open-mic night which I did. I found it good fun, so started going to more.

“When I came to Oxford I didn’t know anyone, so again went to open-mic nights as a way to entertain myself — and started writing my own songs instead of doing other people’s.”

Those songs were inspired by artists such as Lisa Hannigan and Laura Veirs.

Paying her dues on the floor of the Cape of Good Hope, on The Plain, and the Catweazle Club at the East Oxford Community Centre, the combination of her vocal talent and engaging lyrics quickly earned her admirers among fans of traditional folk and new acoustic music. However, she quickly realised she needed more intimate performance spaces.

“My sound is quite quiet and gentle, and doesn’t suit open-mic nights in bars where people are talking,” she says. “So I started putting on my own gigs, and lobbied a few people to put me on at their nights.”

She recorded her first EP Red Jumper with an uncle in Marlow, launching it just over two years ago.

“I play on my own but I’ve also picked up a few people along the way,” she says. Among them are cellist Barney Morse-Brown of multi-cultural folk project The Imagined Village and acoustic two-piece Duotone, and James Cunning of Oxford band We Aeronauts, who provides accordion and backing vocals. Other familiar names to appear on the album are Jon Ouin of Cowley folk-pop act Stornoway and Darren Fellerdale of Family Machine, who contributes double bass. Backing vocals come from friends Lydia White and Anna Woodward. The album was recorded and produced by Barney and mixed by Richard Evans — a former guitarist for Peter Gabriel.

She has lent her own talents to other local acts, among them Grudle Bay, August List and Flights of Helios — joining them onstage at Wilderness Festival, at Cornbury Park. A favourite of Oxford promoter, and fellow cake lover, Vez Hoper’s lovely Irregular Folk sessions, she was last year invited to perform at London’s Union Chapel. “That was amazing,” she says. “It was a dream fulfilled.”

Her show at the Holywell Music Room will see her performing the album all the way through. “I’ll be playing it how you’d hear it,” she says. “Although it will be slightly different as there are certain musicians on the album that we haven’t got — such as Jon from Stornoway. It’ll be a sit-down affair, where people can take the load of their feet and listen with no chatting.”

With the album on the launchpad, she admits it is probably time to start thinking about writing new songs. “I’ve been so preoccupied with the album that I’ve been on a bit of a hiatus. So I hope to get inspired and start working on more songs now.”

Yet don’t go expecting too much of a departure. “I have varied musical tastes and like lots of different sounds,” she laughs, “But, let’s face it, I’m never going to be a grindcore metal fan. It’s great if other people enjoy it, but it’s just not my thing.”

She adds: “I’ll always love folk — but even a lot of that is grim, horrible stuff about people dying. Mine is more aspirational with hope in it.

“Life can be hard and depressing enough, so I hope to focus on something more uplifting. Even if people do cry when they hear it.”

Jess Hall
Holywell Music Room, Oxford
February 21
Tickets £7 in advance from