Back at Wood Festival in May, when I first played with Band of Hope, I met Jackie Oates. She was performing after us, a long time after us, in the evening, with her friend Megan Henwood. Jackie plays the violin and sings, Megan plays guitar and also sings. When they do so together it’s like the wings of birds touching mid-flight, gentle and powerful at the same time. If you think that sounds a bit lah-di-dah, have a listen yourself and tell me I’m wrong.
Quality. That’s why, despite regret being a wasted emotion, I now still deeply regret persuading Jackie Oates, much later on that very same evening, to wear a silver spandex ‘Sleeve of Power’ on the understanding that it had magical powers to improve her playing even more, if such a thing were possible. She obliged, which just goes to show the tolerance and forbearance of which the human spirit is capable when faced with a bit of an irritating, drunken knob.
It makes it even more surprising, therefore, that the morning after Wallingford’s Bunkfest, as the end of the summer draws near, while Band of Hope Tom and I are reliving the events through tired and happy eyes over tea and a chocolate caterpillar cake at her house, Birthday Girl Jackie asks me if I would consider contributing some pedal steel to her new album. If you’re not amazed and surprised at this, then perhaps I need to put it in context:
I have at this stage been playing Pedal Steel Guitar for around six months.
Jackie has heard me play lap steel, but never pedal.
Jackie is an internationally respected and hugely talented recording artist who could hire any musician she wants.
She intends to pay me for my contribution.
Very few adults have a Colin the Caterpillar cake for their birthday.
All of which takes some time to digest. Of course I say yes to her offer, but I make it clear that it’s on the understanding that if Jackie doesn’t like what she hears, she must reject it, and either ask me to do it again or simply abandon it and find someone else. I can’t bear the thought of her putting up with rubbish if it’s not what she wants, just for the sake of protecting my feelings. She agrees to these stipulations and I get in the car, with that feeling you get when something unexpectedly amazing happens. Maybe it’s different for you, but for me, it’s a sensation that my ears are being gently pulled upwards on invisible strings. I can’t explain it.
Jackie sends me over a demo of the track, and my ear-raising delight quickly turns to anxiety and apprehension. It’s beautiful, a cover of The Joy Of Living by Ewan McColl, which she has recorded with her guitarist Jack Rutter. His playing is sublimely delicate and precise, but that’s not what concerns me the most. Tom explains to me that the album is being recorded to mark two crucial events in Jackie’s life, the passing of her father and the birth of her beautiful daughter, Rosie. These events took place in the same week. The track on which I will play is the title track of the album, and its centrepiece. It’s the farewell of McColl to his lover, his family and the mountains he loves, and given what Jackie’s been through, it’s unbearably poignant.
I start to think that Jackie has made a terrible mistake, but there is no turning back and I’ve made a promise. I practise like crazy, hoping that she will stick to her side of the bargain by being honest, and even if I don’t make the cut, I’ll get valuable experience by recording with someone of her experience and talent.
The recording takes place a few weeks later, in her kitchen. Part of the idea of the album is that it’s clear that it has been recorded there, with the sounds of the home, Rosie’s toddling, ticking clocks, buzzing fridges, the road outside, forming part of the atmosphere. It tells the story of a musician in the middle of her life, not in the sterile studio environment which protects her from it. From my selfish point of view, as a way to lower yourself in gently, it’s comfily great. Producer Simon sits in front of me, his desk and laptop perched on the kitchen table. He is kind but firm and no-nonsense. Perfect.
I assemble the Sho-bud and, in tuning up and almost immediately break a tuning peg, for which I have no spares. Fl*psakes. That’s why you hire a seasoned professional. Working with its tiny hexagonal stub I manage to get Nashville’s Finest in tune and start with a first run through, which Simon calls ‘Take One’. I give it everything, working knee levers and pedals like I’m on a rare visit to the gym in an effort to squeeze as much emotion as I can from my machine. It’s OK, inevitably not as good as my rehearsals at home, but not an altogether terrible start. What is amazing though, is the fact that, unlike the gym, I am dripping wet with sweat after a full four minutes. I think I might have overcooked it. I have a few more takes, with less sweat, but also less joy in an ever-diminishing circle where more effort and attention seems to result in a worse performance. I’m not happy, and perhaps sensing this, Simon calls a halt for tea and what Jackie calls ‘Disappointing Biscuits’. I can only assume this is in comparison with her magnificent birthday caterpillar, as they taste fine to me.
We sit and talk about her tumultuous days back in January 2016, losing her Dad on the very day she brought her daughter home and how one way of dealing with that was to create this piece of work. She talks openly and emotionally and I realise how hard it’s been. Without it ever being meant to work this way, when I sit down again to play, the connection between the performance and Jackie’s experience is what’s at the front of my thoughts. The focus is completely different now; it’s more about my reaction to what she’s told me and less about mechanics of what I’ve learnt and the practice I’ve been putting in. The result is simpler and better for being less conscious and less in the room. It’s not so much about me any more. I’m not fooling myself; it’s not a complete performance by any means, but I know from his reaction that Simon will be able to use big bits of it, and that it’s the best we’ve got so far. We stick down another 5 or six takes and then call it a day, as Jackie’s ability to amuse 20-month old Rosie while simultaneously making beautiful music reaches a natural conclusion.
Despite Jackie’s kindness, I’m not a professional musician. I am a television presenter who has had fantasies about making music professionally since he was 12 or 13 years old. I’m at the beginning of my voyages with the pedal steel guitar and I don’t have to listen very widely to know that I have a lot of ground to cover to hold a candle to even technically average players. I am where I am, and only playing more will change that. What my day with Jackie and Simon reminded me is that the emotional connection to your song is not an add-on to technique and skill, it’s the root of the whole thing. Music is just like any conversation; listening and feeling have to come before showing off how clever you are at expressing yourself. However much I practice and however good I get or fail to get, I mustn’t lose sight of that.
The Joy Of Living will be out in April.