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Jackie Oates sits on the floor of Richard Evans's studio in Bath, looking very pleased with herself

Jackie Oates: The making of ‘Gracious Wings’

'Gracious Wings', the new collection from Jackie Oates comes out on 2nd September. Her 8th album release, it is a mixture of traditional songs, originals and surprise covers. In this exclusive article, she details what it took to put this album together.

The idea for making a new album came in Autumn 2021, whilst typically spinning far too many plates. I was excited to make a new recording, having learnt a few more skills during lockdown, that would enable me to venture into setting up my own record label and building on the Needle Pin album that I had handmade with John Spiers in 2020. I was keen to work with producer Richard Evans again, as I love the ambient and emotive sound that he is able to conjure. I also knew that I wanted to work with a small group of my closest musical friends and collaborators, because time would be very limited.

I began rehearsing for the record without a clear shape and structure. Normally, when making an album, I’d have a very definite storyline attached to the list of tracks, and there would be a dynamic arc and range within them. I felt as if I didn’t have such a luxury of thinking time this go round. I’ve spent many hours playing music with John Spiers, Jon Wilks and Megan Henwood over the last 18 months. The years of COVID restrictions altered my world and honed in on the things and the people within a few miles of my house, and I feel so grateful for the friendships that have strengthened because of this centering.

Here’s how each of the tracks and collaborations came about.

John Spiers and producer, Richard Evans, recording in Bath. Photo credit: Jackie Oates

Tracks: Lament To The Moon, Robin Tells Of Winter/Gracious Wings, Iruten Ari Nuzu

Early January, 2022, John Spiers and I drove down to Bath on a foggy Monday morning to begin recording my album. John has had an incredibly busy year, and I was keen to capture these three songs while he was off the road. John and I recorded Needle Pin at Richard’s studio in Bath in January 2020. We recorded these three tracks ‘live’ with no click track or separation. Having played them on tour, the process was quick and we found ourselves back on the M4 within a few hours. I revisited the vocals for the tracks a week or so later, and then they remained untouched for many months until John Parker came to lay his magical bass playing on them.

Tracks: When I Was A Fair Maid, The Ship In Distress, On and On

I have loved working with Jon Wilks – he has a huge energy, drive and focus, and he has reignited my love of folk music. He has a very distinctive finger-picked guitar style, and we decided to arrange ‘When I Was A Fair Maid’ as I could picture how he would lend bounce to this song.

The song is one that I first came across on a more recent Voice Of The People album, and had earmarked. We began piecing the arrangement together during trips to his house in Whitchurch, Hampshire. We arranged to meet at the studio in Bath in late January, but sadly COVID got in the way. A few weeks later, on a wet and drizzly February Friday, we finally made it. We decided to record the first two tracks to a click, so that I could add my vocals at a later date (they are quite vocally challenging).

‘On and On’ was by far the track that we were most passionate about, and proved to be the most difficult to capture authentically. Jon has a beautiful guitar arrangement for this song, but I struggled with the pitch of the higher sections and we had to make a snap decision to lower the key of the whole song considerably. This turned our arrangement on its head, and where the guitar would previously be playing the main riff, the strings have replaced it. I am really delighted with the accidental tone and effect this had.

Megan Henwood recording vocals with producer, Richard Evans, in Bath. Photo credit: Jackie Oates

Tracks: La Llorona, Looking For My Own Lone Ranger

Megan Henwood is a really dear friend of mine and we meet up regularly in Oxford or Wallingford, but rarely to play music together. Being mothers with young children, our time gets spent knee-deep in toys whilst drinking strong coffee and keeping one eye on the chaos and the demands of our small people.

We wrote ‘La Llorona’ while working on a show called Hollering Woman Creek with stand-up comedian and writer Amy Mason, to be performed at the Bristol Old Vic. The play featured themes of prospective motherhood, mental health struggles, Texas and the legend of the Hollering Woman. Megan had written the bare bones of a song that was to be the main musical theme, woven in between Amy’s spoken word narrative. I helped to fill out the verses and the motifs. The concept of the song felt very simple and timeless, and neither of us realised the significance of what we were writing. I didn’t know that I was pregnant; Meg didn’t know that she would also be having a baby a few months later.

‘Looking For My Own Lone Ranger’ is a song co-written by another close musical friend and collaborator, Charlie Dore, alongside Deacon Blue’s Ricky Ross. I first heard Charlie sing this song at Nettlebed Folk Club and was completely blown away by it, especially because of her introduction to the song. Charlie had lost her brother, Rowan, before his time, and dedicated this song to him and his love of the Lone Ranger. Something about sibling love and shared childhood memory really resonated with me. I found the song to be very fragile and vulnerable, and it reminded me of just how precious these bonds are. Megan and I often sing this song with Charlie as part of a group called The Ladies of Nettlebed. Sadly, our friend and co-band member, Rowan Godel, passed away earlier this year. It felt even more pertinent that we find a way to capture the song.

We met up in Bath in April, a few months after the album recording began. Megan was very excited to be at Richards’s house and studio and we had a lot of fun. We recorded both songs live without any separation, and eye contact became key. I was really excited to see how on-the-ball Meg is in the studio, and she added some really key elements to other tracks whilst she was there – such as the vocal lines on ‘Robin Tells Of Winter’. Once again, our day in the studio was very swift and to the point.

Producer, Richard Evans, at the controls. Photo credit: Jon Wilks

Tracks: Tammy Toddles, Roobarb and Custard, Time Time Time

Mike Cosgrave and I began working on ‘Tammy Toddles’ back in February when he was visiting to play a gig in Newbury. Mike is someone who I haven’t been able to see properly for a long time due to lockdown and the absence of gigs. When we first started playing together in a duo and as part of a band, we were both living in Devon. I’m now based in Oxfordshire and Mike is still in Bovey Tracey, and thus soundchecks become the main rehearsals. I gave him a few song options to think about, and ‘Tammy Toddles’ was the one that came to life the most easily.

I had wanted to apply a Clannadian approach to an up-tempo simple song, whereby the track would begin with slow arpeggiated notes and then grow in intensity and tempo. Mike understood this idea instantly and turned ‘Tammy Toddles’ into a big arrangement on the spot. I was delighted. It would take me a few more weeks to rewrite the words as they were originally in Scots language.

‘Time Time Time’, by Tom Waits, is a song that we arranged as part of a Christmas tour in 2019. Likewise, ‘Roobarb and Custard’ is a set of tunes that we played many years ago and decided to bring back to life. Mike is another musician who really shines in a studio setting. He achieves astonishing feats when he came to Richard’s studio in April. He was able to lay down all his parts without any ghost tracks or click tracks. We recorded ‘Time Time Time’ together.

With these three tracks I felt as if I had an album and a shape, and that everything was starting to hang together well.

The artist in residence. Richard Evans’s studio, Bath. Photo credit: Megan Henwood

Also featuring: John Parker, Simon Emmerson, Tom Crook and Richard Evans

After recording the bare bones of these 11 tracks, John Parker came for a day of recording double bass. He had already composed parts for all of the tracks, using a combination of bowing and plucked bass. He worked really well with Richard’s guidance and created a very full and emotive sound. Having heard the tracks with the addition of John’s bass playing, Richard and I both realised that we would not need the level of overdubbed instrumentation that we had previously thought.

With ‘Time Time Time’, Richard wanted to achieve a sound akin to the Gavin Bryars song, ‘Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet’. I had played him a recording of a client that I’d been working with as part of my master’s degree training in music psychotherapy. I had been working at a hospice and writing songs with patients who were coming to the end of their lives, and the songs they wrote tended to be messages that they wanted to convey to their loved ones after they had departed. We had the inspiration that the chorus to ‘Time’ could achieve a similar message. We wanted a male untrained voice with grit and character. I was keen that Tom Crook also sing on the choruses. Tom is my supervisor and often the person who people last sing with before their passing. We asked Simon Emmerson to sing on the choruses and he did so in a very moving way.

By May, we had the key elements to all of the tracks, and it fell to myself and Richard to fill in the final musical details. I added simple string passages, harmonies and the odd doubling of vocals. Richard then added some mandolin and whistles. The album was mixed by Richard and subsequently mastered by Nick Cooke at his studio in Somerset.

Artwork and Layout

I had a very specific idea about the artwork for the record. I knew very early on that I wanted to find a title from my album that included the ‘Gracious Wings’ Harpy Eagle reference. Having found photos of real Harpy Eagles, I realised how striking these birds are, and that there is something about the intensity of their eyes and their sullen expression that captured the mood of my album somehow. I had in mind a few artists who might be able to achieve such an effect.

Jo Elizabeth May is someone whom I came across as part of a project called ‘Ondervinden’ that I took part in 2021. She makes art with linocuts and the effect is both timeless and characterful. I was delighted when Jo responded to my email and fulfilled my brief so well. My friend Charlotte Dobbs created the layout for the album. She is a close friend who works as a graphic designer for OUP. We met for lunch one Friday and used the teapot on the table as inspiration for the colour scheme for the record! She was also able to help me with the accompanying merchandise for the album release, which you’ll find on my Bandcamp page – along with Gracious Wings itself – in due course.

Gracious Wings by Jackie Oates is out on September 2nd and can be preordered via the artist’s Bandcamp page.