Jackie Oates talks Lullabies, knitting and frying her brother

I was lucky enough to hear Jackie Oates’ new album – Lullabies, out today – back in January. It filled me with optimism for the year ahead. She has long had an interest in the lullaby form – they pop up again and again on her albums, and they’re always high points – for example Lavenders Blue from her debut, or Slumber Boats from Lush’s Fresh Handmade Sound project. Jackie Oates Lullabies

So it’s great that Jackie has had the confidence to indulge her passion and make such a focused record. From majestic opener Dream Angus (see below) to the profound, moving optimism of closing song Sleepers Awake, it’s a peaceful, thoughtful and beautifully performed album.

Belinda O’Hooley and Chris Sarjeant both make invaluable contributions, with sombre, delicate piano and expressive guitar respectively. They balance Jackie’s fiddle playing and voice – pure and expressive as ever, perfect for lullabies – to give the album a solid, appropriately dreamy musical base.

And it’s the basis for quite an exploration: there are traditional songs from Britain and Iceland, settings of the writings of Shakespeare and AA Milne (the wonderful Alexander Beetle had me rapt, dying to know what happened to the insect who had lived in a matchbox), and covers of the songs of Paul McCartney and John Renbourn.

These lullabies will doubtless soothe little ones but, though there are jolly ditties like Little Fishes, this isn’t a children’s album. Jackie finds melancholy and even portent – Sofuðu Unga àstin Mín carries a warning to restless children – in the songs.

I interviewed Jackie about the record for the current issue of English Dance & Song magazine (you can pick up a copy at Cecil Sharp House, or get sent one if you join the EFDSS). Reasonably enough, the editor doesn’t want the material repeated elsewhere, so I made sure to ask Jackie a series of silly questions for Folk Witness. She was kind and patient enough to humour me:

If you could describe your new album, Lullabies, in five words, what would they be?

Calming, timeless, ageless, Arcadian, innocent.

And if the album was an animal, what animal would it be?

It would be a big friendly black and white tom cat called Wilf.

Who’s your favourite person called Angus? It can be a normal person or a famous Angus (eg Deayton, Young, Steakhouse).

I’ve been told to say that my favourite Angus is Angus Deaton, a leading microeconomist.

Is a lark your favourite bird? You sing about them a lot.

I grew up in a village very near Cannock Chase in Staffordshire with a garden and trees populated by noisy birds outside my bedroom window. But I left home straight after my 18th birthday and have lived in the city ever since. I’m aspiring to live in a house where it is feasible to have one of those bird feeders outside the kitchen window. But I like singing about larks – the word ‘lark’ is nice. My favourite bird is the carrion crow. In fact I might knit one once I’ve finished knitting my next-door neighbour Nick.

Tell us about a weird dream you’ve had…

I had a dream when I was on the cusp of starting school – and it has haunted me ever since. My brother Doug-Jim is two years older than me; and I remember him starting infant school when we first moved from Congleton to Brocton in 1987. The old infant school in Walton-on-the-Hill was a big, imposing Victorian building. I had a dream that my mum and I went to pick up Doug from school, and were told that he’d fallen over in the playground. So we were led to the classroom where he was lying, mummified on one of the desks. We took him home and mum was instructed to fry him in a giant frying pan to remove the bandages. I remember that the dream wasn’t upsetting – just deeply strange.

Jackie Oates Elly Lucas
Jackie Oates: likes the moon, kind to animals
Photo: Elly Lucas

How do you feel about the ethics of keeping a beetle in a matchbox? Are we to assume that Alexander would be properly fed, watered and exercised?

I’ve never worried about the ethics of beetle keeping because, in the song Alexander Beetle, Alexander doesn’t have to stay in his matchbox for very long. But if I had the desire to keep a pet beetle – I’d ensure that his needs were fully catered for. In fact, I don’t think I would want to keep a pet beetle. I’d rather have a big black cat called Wilf.

If you had to put one member of The Beatles into a matchbox and keep him as a pet, which one would you choose?

I think I’d definitely choose George Harrison because I love his songwriting and his work with The Travelling Wilburys and Ravi Shankar.

You’re playing a gig, and one of your lullabies is so effective that the entire crowd falls asleep. Would you (a) pinch their valuables (b) shout “I’m Jackie Oates! Pay attention to me!” and wake them up, (c) Find some blankets and tuck everyone in, or (d) something else?

I think I’d quite like it if the entire audience fell asleep… I’d probably seize the moment to have a sit and do some knitting.

Huldra Oates Roberts
A Huldra, knitted by Jackie for Kathryn Roberts

Folk Witness hears you are a very good knitter. What’s your favourite thing you’ve knitted?

I wouldn’t say I’m a very good knitter yet. Everything I knit is slightly flawed and wonky looking. But my favourite knitted thing so far is a Huldra, which I made for Kathryn Roberts after hearing her sing the song ‘Huldra’ for the first time. Huldras are forest spirits who take the form of beautiful seductive women – but their backs are made of hollowed-out rotting trees. My biggest ambition is to finish knitting The Imagined Village and film a music video. So far I’ve made Johnny Kalsi, Sheema Mukherjee, Simon Richmond, Simon Emmerson’s daughter Josie and his dog Spice. But I keep getting sidetracked.

Finally, and very importantly: what’s your favourite sandwich?

My favourite sandwich is cheese and pickle but I don’t have one very often because I don’t think I deserve it.

Lullabies is out today (March 18) on ECC Records

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