Oxford’s always been a multicultural city – people here often have odd roots, and Miriam Jones’s are some of the oddest. Her American parents moved to Canada when she was a child, and ended up in Oxford via Vancouver, Nashville and Papua New Guinea. From all this, she’s developed a unique voice, finding her niche in Americana. She’s about to release her fourth album, Between Green and Gone, a collection of soulful, expansive stories in song form.
The melancholy pining of her music is somewhat at odds to her cheerful optimism that pervades her outlook on life, musical and otherwise. Within this too there’s a strong sense of self-confidence too, as seen when she reflects on her unusual upbringing:
“I think probably one of the things the moving around did was not plant me in one sphere of influence musically. I spent a lot of time on my own and just exploring my own voice and so it’s now later in life that I’m becoming aware of some of the people who people suggest that I sound like; a lot of them I’ve barely heard of – I didn’t listen to a lot of different kinds of music so it’s nice having the pleasure of discovering things in retrospect. I suppose that that can come from not being completely rooted in one spot and surrounded by a certain culture of music.”
I ask her again about influences and she doesn’t give too much away:
“I don’t listen to very much – I’ll really fall in love with something and just listen to it for like forever… I suppose when I was learning to sing and playing around in Canada, Sarah McLachlan was really famous over there. A lot of people know who she is over here but she definitely stood out as someone with an incredible voice and a really gifted songwriter as well. So she probably influenced me, although I don’t think I sound anything like her, and I definitely don’t have her vocal skills – she was trained as an opera singer.”
It’s clear that Canada is Jones’ spiritual home, and is where she developed as a songwriter, but talks with contentedness about her move to the UK:
“I love Canada but it’s a difficult place sometimes to do something like music because it’s so massive. In terms of big city centres there aren’t that many and what there are, they’re so far apart. So to do a road trip in the summer of festivals is doable if you can get the attention and actually get the gigs but it’s not actually that easy to do so.” Contrary to the cynicism seen in a lot of places about the state of the British music scene, Jones is very positive about it:
“I love a lot of the music coming out of the UK and having been here for a while now I definitely feel, with everything being so close together, there’s a lot of cross-pollinating; word gets around faster and there’s a social energy that I hadn’t felt in Western Canada. I think there’s an intensity here about everything that makes it hard sometimes to adjust, y’know, because I’m not from a very intense place but it’s been really good for creativity, it’s a little bit of a pressure cooker… I suppose it’s a big thing to move to a different culture and there’s lots of adjustment and that’s always a good fodder for songwriting – and being away from my family so all those tensions. They kind of lend themselves to creative stuff.”
Her previous album, Fire Lives, was recorded entirely in her home in Marston, which led to a fuzzy warmth that has its benefits and drawbacks:
“I think a lot of stuff can be done these days and it does allow people to experiment and really try different things without having to find much money to do it. I found it does have its limitations so for this album I tried to raise the money so I could actually go into the studio.” While hers is one of the successes in the great surge in alternate methods of making music nowadays, she isn’t entirely convinced of it.
“I think it’s difficult these days because it’s hard to know when you should make that leap and push to do something beyond the home studio. I think it can be worth doing but it takes a lot of work to track down the funds. I think a lot of people have been successful with getting help and finding interesting ways of engaging with fans; I know I’ve been very blessed in that way as well – people all wanting to help me get this album made and to do it at a high quality. But I’m really really glad I went a bit beyond this time and it took longer. I had to be more patient, a bit more thoughtful about it but I think it’s definitely paid off.”
I’d very much agree it did. Between Green and Gone is an excellent album – Jones is playing an album release show on 25th February at The Wheat Sheaf that comes highly recommended from us at OxStu towers. Testament to her whirlwind upbringing, she breathes life into a genre rooted in tradition and as such is one of the strongest players in Oxford’s local music scene, and as she’s starting to get national press attention, her prospects are deservedly rising rapidly.
Last year, during my much-awaited Christmas vac break, I saw a Facebook status which really hit home. A fellow fresher had posted, twinned with a “feeling frustrated” emoji, the following words- “I don’t quite understand what vacation stands for, in Oxford terms – it surely must stand for the action of vacating our rooms, rather than the ‘holiday’ synonym we think it carries”. A Twitter newsfeed littered with swearing at ‘my Michaelmas, non note-taking self’ and expressions of sourness and despair at the approaching term confirmed that this thinking was anything but confined to a singular individual – it was a shared pain, which lessened the excitement of coming back to seeing college friends and the prospect of another two months of ‘so bad it’s good’ clubbing. I can’t think of anything other than the awful start-of-term exams, collections, that loom ahead of us, term after term, that may have motivated such a bitter general consensus.
This term brings a wealth of art and theatre to our doors in the form of three arts festival, TSAF (Turl Street Arts Festival), Somerville Arts Festival, and Keble Arts Festival. Coming up first is TSAF with its programme just officially released, which takes place in 5th week. The festival is a combined effort between the three colleges based on Turl Street, Lincoln, Exeter and Jesus, who put aside college rivalries for the week for the sake of the arts. Offering a huge variety of events spanning across the week, you would be hard pressed not to find something of interest to you.
Often when we talk about musicians with a very rapid move to success, we rely on the same tired, old phrases: stratospheric rise, catapulted to fame, meteoric trajectory, pushed into the limelight. They’re words full of movement, but they’re kind of empty – used so many times that the meaning has been lost.
So how to describe Hozier without recourse to any of these clichés? I’ll stick with a simple nod, instead, to the fact that a year ago, he had an (already growing) select number of fans. This January he sold out Oxford’s O2 Academy.
The room was packed. Squeezed standing only. Lots of screeches and the odd “we love you” shouted from the crowd. Some particularly enthusiastic reception of any mention of his home county Wicklow. Plus the fact that we were all singing along – lyrics word perfect in song after song. I was quite far back in the crowd, so I wouldn’t want to claim this definitively, but he seemed a little surprised at this level of audience ardor. We were, after all, the opening night to his first UK tour.
There’s something uniquely special about getting to see an artist who cares deeply about their craft. Hozier’s music is sumptuous, dark, joyful, and thoughtful. All those qualities were drawn out and held up to the flashing lights in turn, changing rapidly from song to song – Hozier switching moods as easily as he switched guitars. Gorgeous yearning in ‘Run’; brooding, almost resentful, energy on ‘Foreigner’s God’; the deceptively light tones of ‘Someone New’. It’s frustrating to boil these songs down to a few, choice adjectives – but I guess they’ll have to do.
But although I say ‘Hozier’, the performance wouldn’t have been possible without his backing band – who he graciously mentioned, each by name, asking for them to be applauded too (as well as making lots of references to the excellent support band Seafret). I mention this for a reason. Hand in hand with the success, there’s the seeming lack of ego, the acknowledgment that anything like this is – to an extent – a collaboration.
Plus, extra points for the fact that most of his fellow musicians were female, and oh-so-cool. Perhaps fitting for an artist whose work often subtly explores gender, sexuality and politics – whether it’s the mention of “anthems of rape culture loud” in ‘To Be Alone’ or the video for ‘Take me To Church’ with its commentary on LGBTQ+ rights in Russia.
There was an extra layer of interest in charting the audience’s responses too: that completely inevitable rush of excitement when the opening of ‘Take Me to Church’ sounded; the hush for his solo performance of ‘Cherry Wine’ with his tall, skinny figure silhouetted on stage; the raucous screams as ‘From Eden’ started; the appreciative nods when he duetted with Alanna Henderson (whose solo music, by the way, is ace) for ‘In a Week’.
This latter song yielded a backstory about some hills near his home. “You only hear their name when the bodies have been found… So this song is about two lovers, who go and do what lovers do – like rot and die.” Commentary peppered the other songs too, as well as any number of bashful “thanks” for our rather exuberant, very vocal appreciation – most apparent in the long, loud calls for an encore, which we got with the most brilliant rendition of ‘Angel of Small Death & The Codeine Scene’.
It’s not apparent yet whether Hozier is comfortable with the level of celebrity he’s at, the sudden interest and online adoration. But he deserves it. And there’s obviously a lot of joy in the performances – a kind of infectious jubilance that we carried with us as we left the building. It made me want to go and do things, to make and create and write and live vividly. My friend and I were buoyed up, fizzing with satisfaction. As we walked back through Cowley, heading home for a final glass of wine, we talked and talked and talked about what we’d just seen. I guess that’s what the best gigs do.
PHOTO/ Neon Tommy, Flickr
Sitting at the back of an arena, viewing your favourite artist from a multiscreen rather than the stage is hardly every fan’s realisation of “the perfect gig”. Even in standing arenas, the stage is usually roughly five feet away from you. The lack of personality and experience offered by major venues can leave even the most dedicated music fans feeling a little empty. Independent venues often offer a more personal, intimate experience you’re unlikely to find at your multi-national corporation affair.
This is not to say that corporate venues don’t play a part in the modern music industry, they certainly do. However, if you’re interested in something more distinctive, more raucous and with the feel good factor of supporting local artists, independent is the way to go. Independent Venue Week, (Monday 26th January – Sunday 1st February 2015) sees live music showcases at The Cellar and Jericho Tavern. In honour of this, here are some of the best and most distinctive independent venues in Oxford.
First up is the The Cellar, the sweaty underground basement in the back alleys of Cornmarket Street. The Cellar has been owned by the same family, ever since its formative days as the rocker pub, The Dolly. The Dolly was soon renamed The Cellar, undertaking an extreme club makeover complete with white washed walls and smooth varnished floors. The club also transformed its lineup with Fridays becoming their Hip Hop night with a Toby Kidd DJ set and Saturday House night with “Rum Boogie & Breakaway.”
Continuing to pump up the volume on their club nights, the club hosted the likes of British hip hop duo Task Force, award-winning DJs Scratch Perverts and alternative Hip Hop artist Buck 65. Numerous artists have graced the now darkened walls of the club including; Foals; Mumford and Sons; Stornoway; Pulled Apart By Horses; Noah and the Whale; Metronome; Blood Red Shoes and Women’s Hour amidst many others. Upcoming events include one of Oxford’s best known student nights, Supermarket. The diverse nature of The Cellar is best summed up by Foals’, Walter Gervers: “Long may it continue for all to enjoy real gold shows in the most intimate of settings, just please stop spilling sambuca on my shoes..”
The unique setting of independent music venues is often a major part of their appeal; the Old Fire Station can make huge claims to this. In 2011, the historic building reopened as an arts centre run by Arts at the Old Fire Station. The venue hosts Oxford’s emerging music acts with their monthly feature, The Listening Room. Every month, two or three up and coming artists from the local music scene perform, offering an eclectic mix of musical styles and influences. The venue also hosts the Oxford Improvisers on the first Tuesday of every month, performing new and improvised music, the Improvisers deliver an invigorating performance that abandons the restrictions of formal composition.
Our next venue, the unassuming East Oxford Community Centre, Princes Street off Cowley Road, is home to one of Oxford’s most enviable live music nights: The Catweazle Club. Once inside, you’re transported into a sensual world. Achieved by soft lighting from fairy lights and reflections from the glittering curtains and banners, you’re invited to sit down on sofas draped in blankets or throws, or alternatively, to sit on a floor that’s comfortably adorned with cushions.
Catweazle differs from a traditional open mic night, by the fact that there is no mic, just a single spotlight and a chair. The performances whether they be poetry readings, spoken word acts or live music are all performed acoustically, resulting in an electric atmosphere of silent admiration for the brave performers. It averages upwards of 15 acts every Thursday and offers a unique experience at every outing. It’s hard to imagine any corporate venue that would take the risk of allowing anyone to haunt the stage but it’s a formula that works, producing a palpable night of live music and performance.
Independent music venues it seems, have never been more important. On that note, local Oxford band Stornoway leaves us with the importance of independent music venues: “We played every single place we could get a gig in the early days, and numerous times. If it wasn’t for small, independent venues it would be nigh impossible for a new band to cut their teeth in the live music world.”
PHOTO/ Paul Tipping FOALS – The Cellar
PHOTO/ The Listening Room – James Stutton
900 young people a year are going to be supported by a new learning centre opening in Oxford.
Run by charity IntoUndersity in collapboration with Oxford University and Christ Church, up to 80 student volunteers will assist with mentoring and after school support programmes for students in South and East Oxford. Members of Oxford outreach staff will also be assisting.
The centre in Blackbird Leys opened in November, but was officially launched on 3rd February, with IntoUniversity Tweeting that they were, “excited to celebrate with our students, staff and supporters”.
The Dean of Christ Church, the Very Revd. Prof Martyn Percy, said: “Christ Church is delighted to have initiated the setting up of the centre in Blackbird Leys. Christ Church and its students are supporting the centre through student mentoring, visits and events at our main site and financial contributions.
“We believe that the centre will significantly improve the life chances of some of Oxford’s least advantaged children”.
As well as after school academic support, the centre aims to offer mentoring programmes and a focused programmes designed to help young people to realise their aspirations.
IntoUniversity in Oxford will work with children and young people aged seven and older, in partnership with local schools and community organisations.
The centre in Blackbird Leys is the 18th established by IntoUniversity, and the first in Oxford. Other centres serve areas including London, Nottingham and Bristol, with around 16,000 young people participating in their programmes. In 2013, 82% of IntoUniversity school leavers attained a university place.
Dr Samina Khan, Director of Undergraduate Admissions and Outreach at Oxford University, said: “Oxford is delighted to be working with Christ Church and IntoUniversity on a sustained programme targeting children early in their educational careers right through to applying for university, apprenticeships or further training and education.
“Support for this programme from the local primary and secondary schools has been great and we look forward to working with them as this programme goes from strength to strength”.
Image: Ralph Williamson