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Jess Hall - Interview

  by Nick Dent-Robinson

published: 25 / 8 / 2015

Jess Hall - Interview


Devon-born and now Oxford-born singer-songwriter Jess Hall speaks to Nick-Dent Robinson about her unconventional musical beginnings and her much acclaimed debut album, 'Bookshelves'

Oxford singer-songwriter Jess Hall is generating real excitement with her recent appearances at major festivals and at local venues including the Cornerstone Arts Centre in Didcot, Oxfordshire. Music writers have described Jess's voice as “pure as clear cut crystal” and they have acclaimed the “honesty”, “deceptive simplicity” and “melodic elegance” of her songs plus the “warmth, virtuosity yet earnest innocence” of her performances. And audiences have been enthusing about Jess at every event. Having grown up near the beautiful Devon coast, the sea is a recurring theme in Jess Hall's songs with poignant tales of love and loss. Yet for the past few years Jess, 34, has lived in land-locked Oxford, working with Christian Aid. Her new album, 'Bookshelves', was launched during a special night at Oxford's Holywell Music Room, Europe's oldest music venue. And now Jess is very much part of Oxford's vibrant music scene. “People had told me how nice Oxford was,” Jess recalled. “But it wasn't until I had been here a little while that I started to appreciate just how attractive a place it is to live in. Though, coming from rural Devon, I thought it was hilarious to find people at the local sushi restaurant wearing dinner jackets and gowns. The mix of town and gown still fascinates me. “At first I worked for the Probation Service - there were some lovely people there - before I joined Christian Aid where I am now a regional coordinator. I had no idea when I arrived in the city of the extent of Oxford's music scene. I didn't know that bands like Supergrass, Radiohead and Fairport Convention had a local connection, and the range and scale of live music here is so impressive. But then, the way I first became involved in music was a little unusual.” Jess Hall was born in Cookham, Berkshire but at a young age she moved with her parents and two older brothers to near Barnstaple in Devon. Initially her father ran a business restoring pianos and Jess and her brothers plus her foster sister all learned to play the piano. “We were all quite musical,” Jess explained. “We went to the local Methodist church and sang there. Each year there was a Carols by Candlelight evening which was one of my favourite things. People would just choose a carol or a poem or a silly song to perform or play an instrument - a bit like an open mic night. I have no idea what made me do it but one year when I was eleven or so I just told my mum and dad, 'I want to sing a song this time'. The minister's son played piano and accompanied me, and I sang 'Good King Wenceslas', trying to sound like choristers I had heard. Anyway, after I finished, the minister and my parents were looking at each other rather shocked and saying, 'Jess can sing, she can sing.' After that my parents arranged singing lessons for me and I sang solos at school. Eventually I studied singing up to Grade VIII - which is as high as you can go before taking a course for a degree or professional music diploma. Then I stopped my singing lessons and mainly sang in church. I had some guitar tuition though." “I was focused primarily on church music when I was young though I really liked folk songs. My dad did play Beatles tracks at home as well as some 1970s' music, and my brothers liked rave or grunge. So there was a variety of music at home but I wasn't much into pop. Except for Abba. When I was seventeen I did go through a big Abba phase!” After school, Jess was not convinced she wanted to go straight to university. Instead she worked in a Devon toothpaste factory for several months before going to Watford to join Soul Survivor, a Christian organisation which Jess knew through attending their summer festivals with her family. She worked with adults with disabilities like Down's Syndrome and subsequently lived in Battersea for a while - which, culturally, was quite a contrast from North Devon. “That period was probably very good for me, though it wasn't easy,” Jess says now. “My time with Soul Survivor definitely changed my perceptions and, later, just being in hugely multi-cultural Battersea after the mono-culture of Devon, was rather overwhelming. I returned to Devon where I worked in a pottery for a bit. Gradually I decided that I wanted to do something socially useful at university – not just a course like Drama or Geography. My former careers tutor at North Devon College was really encouraging, and he helped me decide to go to Swansea to do a degree in International Development. I loved doing the course - which included some time in Kenya studying students' responses to poverty - and a bonus was that the Swansea campus is very near the sea!" “I graduated in 2005 and, soon after, I went up to Edinburgh for the launch of Make Poverty History. There were many aid agencies there, lots of activity and activism on all kinds of issues around poverty and development. I wore a Martin Luther King T-shirt with the slogan, 'The time is always right to do what's right' and, despite my lack of practical experience, I knew then that somehow I wanted to be the person handing out placards, inspiring others to help. But it was quite a while before I ended up here in Oxford working with Christian Aid and actively lobbying on a range of important justice issues plus public speaking to groups to encourage them to help. Life runs in all kinds of directions, but I am very glad it has led me to this point now. I love what I do.” Meanwhile, ever since her days back in Devon before university, Jess had been entering open mic contests and singing plus playing guitar and, increasingly, writing songs. Like many musicians, Jess is reluctant to categorise music into different genres but she does feel that her time in Oxford has broadened her horizons musically. “I like Sigur Ros from Iceland with their beautiful, rather ethereal sound,” Jess said. “And, though my own style is closer to Eva Cassidy, I really enjoy Cara Dillon, Eliza Carthy, Kate Rusby and Katherine Roberts, all of whom are linked with the Lakeman family. A very big moment for me was just after university when I first saw Seth Lakeman perform in Devon. He was young, everyone in the band with him was young and cool and he played the fiddle so fast and energetically. I became a huge fan then and I was so thrilled in June to be able to support Cara Dillon and her husband Sam Lakeman - Seth's older brother - at Didcot's Cornerstone. I was lucky that night to be playing with the brilliant Jon Ouin of Stornoway plus the wonderful folk-roots cellist Barney Morse-Brown of Duotone who also produced my album. That performance at Didcot was definitely a career highlight for me along with playing at the Wilderness festival and my album launch at the Holywell Music Room. I would love one day to support Seth Lakeman at a gig - that is an ambition. We both have a Devon background, so maybe it could happen?” Jess's 'Bookshelves' album features Jon Ouin who also contributed to some of the record's arrangements and instrumentation. After hearing Jess perform at 2013's Wilderness festival, Jon was keen to work with her. Before then, Jess had seen Barney Morse-Brown supporting Stornoway and was intrigued by Barney's beautiful and innovative cello playing plus the lyrics in his songs. She contacted him to ask about the inspiration for his lyrics and was thrilled when Barney took the time to respond in detail to her. Later he agreed to play at a charity gig Jess was organising. Barney and Jess have since become good friends and have quite often performed together. Barney, who lives on a house boat on the Thames near Oxford, has worked with Eliza Carthy, Birdy, Chris Wood and many other accomplished artists and his production skills on the 'Bookshelves' album are impressive. “I had never previously been too enthusiastic about recording,” Jess admitted. “But working on 'Bookshelves' with Barney gave me more confidence. I learned so much. Barney is very special, and when I decided to do an album Barney was the person I wanted to work with. He has a huge musical gift but is so lovely with it. My main skill is singing and, during the recording, Barney focused on that, keeping the arrangements simple and pared down. My songs draw on personal experiences which is perhaps why people can relate to them easily. There's a lot of romance and there are references to the coast and sea - both literally and as a metaphor. I do love the sea; one of Oxford's few drawbacks is that it is so land-locked and far from the coast.” With a highly-acclaimed first album behind her, Jess Hall now looks forward to performing more live gigs and would like to return to play in the Netherlands where she toured successfully a couple of years ago. She is also due to appear at this October's OXJAM event raising funds for Oxfam and at various venues around the South of England. Despite her music gaining popularity, Jess, however has no plans to abandon her work with Christian Aid which is important to her. “I am passionate about advocacy and campaigning for justice, and I enjoy lobbying MPs or attending an AGM of a massive company to ask big business questions about their ethics and behaviour on various issues. That is now a key part of my life and who I am. But music is important too - and I want to do more writing. My aim is to continue to try to have the best of both those worlds - my music and my campaigning role. The two fit together better than you might imagine.” Jess has little time away from music and her Christian Aid work but, when she can, she enjoys relaxing with family and friends. Perhaps surprisingly, she also likes to listen to hip-hop music! Sadly, though, there has been no opportunity for Jess to develop a long-term romantic relationship. “That is one arena where I haven't been too successful,” Jess reflected, a little wistfully. “I would like a relationship. But I hope that at some point soon the timing will be right and the person will be right. I believe these things are more planned than just fate. And meanwhile I am very happy here in Oxford doing what I do.” Photographs by John Cairns http://www.johncairns.co.uk

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Jess Hall - Interview

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