Jackie Oates on new album Needle Pin, Needle Pin, working with John Spiers and ‘lace tells’

Fans of Jackie Oates – and regular readers of Folk Witness – will be aware that, as well as her musical ability, she has a skill for crafting. But short of knitting album sleeves (an excellent idea, if time-consuming), a way of combining the two talents seems unlikely.

But her new, limited-edition album – Needle Pin, Needle Pin, which she made with renowned melodeonist John Spiers – sees her examine the world of lacemaking through song. Oates had previously become interested in lace ‘tells’ – songs sung by bobbin lacemakers in the south Midlands as they worked – and, together with Spiers and long-term collaborator Mike Cosgrave, had assembled a radio ballad on the subject, as part of a project with EFDSS and the Reading Museum of English Rural Life.

Standalone songs from that project – like the sombre Cattern Day Tells, a heartbreaking ‘halloween ballad’ called The Lady All Skin and Bone, and a song from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night – make up half of Needle Pin, Needle Pin. The remainder of the album comprises a series of (relevant) tunes and songs worked up with Spiers over their time playing together.

It’s a treat to listen to, with joyful pieces like Congleton Bear (telling an unusual story from the Cheshire town) and a brandy-based pair of slip jigs particularly full of sunshine. Oates and Spiers are a fine match, the tunes elegantly paced and played, while Oates remains one of our finest singers.

And while she didn’t knit the album sleeves, she has been assembling them at home! You can’t get much craftier than that. Folk Witness chatted to Jackie about how the album came together, and to delve a little deeper into the world of tells. We’ll run this one as a two-parter; click here for part two!

Folk Witness: How did you and John come to decide to make a record together?

Jackie Oates: When I moved to Oxford in 2011, I bumped into John several times at various folky happenings. I think we began playing material together at Nettlebed Folk Club, usually on the spur of the moment, and with five minutes to spare before we were due on stage! We worked up a few sets in this way over the last few years. I have supported John at solo gigs of his, and joined him on stage for the odd song, and he has played in my band a few times. I think the idea to record together came about because we have a number of gigs coming up in 2020, and it felt like a really good way to mark the occasion.

What’s he like to play music with?

John creates a very rich and tonal, beautiful sound, and there’s so much rhythm and volume behind it.

And how is it being in the Jon Boden/Peter Knight role?

An honour! I am very lucky and I keep remembering to remember that! This is a moment in time.

For the album, you managed to record four songs in one day – that sounds quite intense!

We actually recorded the four duo songs in the space of a few hours! I have two very small children and so I have to be very thorough with any time I spend away from home. We arranged to go to Bath to my friend/producer Richard Evans’ house, in the new year, in a fit of ‘doing’. I was able to establish that I could leave the house on a Thursday afternoon, and come back home again on a Friday evening. John is very involved in the radio ballad I have written for the Museum of English Rural Life in Reading, and I had been planning to record the bare bones of this for some time. And so we realised that it would be both mad – and possible – to record both the duo and the radio ballad within a short stretch of time! We had a really great few hours of recording – but yes it was so very intense and we all agreed that this is not, generally, how albums are made!

The album begins with a song about the Congleton bear. You were born there, right? Do you feel a special connection with the story of the bear?

Yes, I was born in Congleton in Cheshire, and lived there until I was just about to turn three. My earliest memory is of watching the Congleton Carnival and seeing a bear (or, at least, someone dressed as a bear) walking along the high street! So yes, I definitely feel a strong connection and on the rare occasions we’ve visited Congleton, I’ve been able to find the exact spot of that earliest memory.

What can you tell us about the tunes? They’re so uplifting!

Thankyou! John and I both have a background in Cotswold morris dancing and so that was an obvious connection when we were looking for tunes to play. In particular, the Beatrice Hills Untitled/Old Hog Or None set came about because we were hunting for tunes that were local to the area where bobbin lacemakers lived and worked. Those two tunes really jumped out because they are wonky but beautiful – and have survived because of this.

Fox Tell gets pretty violent. What’s the story there?

The lyrics come from a lacemakers’ ‘tell’ from Olney in Buckinghamshire. Tells were little songs that would have been sung at the lace pillow, and they were often constructed from the retelling of local events, combined with a counting element! Each time a number was sung, a pin would be stuck into the pillow. But the rest of the song relates to a real-life story in which a young man (known locally as ‘the fox’) plotted to murder his girlfriend. However, she realised in time and his plot was thwarted!

Needle Pin, Needle Pin is available now, via Bandcamp. Keep in touch with Folk Witness via Facebook and/or Twitter. Click here to read part two of the interview!

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