Home   What's On   Article

Subscribe Now

Illustrator Jackie Morris will have ‘best seat in the house’ at Cambridge Folk Festival



More news, no ads

LEARN MORE


More than just a folk supergroup, Spell Songs will be accompanied on stage at this week’s Cambridge Folk Festival by visual artist Jackie Morris.

Spell Songs, from left, Jim Molyneaux, Kris Drever, Seckou Keita, Rachel Newton, Beth Porter, Karine Polwart, Jackie Morris and Julie Fowlis
Spell Songs, from left, Jim Molyneaux, Kris Drever, Seckou Keita, Rachel Newton, Beth Porter, Karine Polwart, Jackie Morris and Julie Fowlis

The group initially came together in 2018 in order to create a musical companion piece to The Lost Words and The Lost Spells, books by author Robert Macfarlane and illustrator Jackie. Their first album, The Lost Words: Spell Songs, was released in 2019, and this was followed by Spell Songs II: Let The Light In in 2021. Both were critically acclaimed.

Spell Songs at the Natural History Museum. Picture: NHM
Spell Songs at the Natural History Museum. Picture: NHM
Spell Songs performing at Folk by the Oak in 2019. Picture: Tammy Marlar
Spell Songs performing at Folk by the Oak in 2019. Picture: Tammy Marlar

Pooling the diverse vocal and instrumental talents of these renowned musical talents, Spell Songs blend a diverse array of sounds from instruments such as the kora, the electroharp, the cello, and the Indian harmonium.

The group features Julie Fowlis, Kris Drever, Karine Polwart, Seckou Keita, Rachel Newton, Beth Porter and Jim Molyneax. Rather than playing an instrument, Jackie, who lives in a cottage on the cliffs of Pembrokeshire, will be using ink and watercolour to depict the natural world when she appears at the festival alongside her musical cohorts this weekend.

Jackie Morris. Picture: York Tillyer
Jackie Morris. Picture: York Tillyer
Spell Songs II CD. Picture: Elly Lucas
Spell Songs II CD. Picture: Elly Lucas

She reveals that The Lost Words, an illustrated collection of spell-poems, was awarded the Hay Festival Book of the Year in 2017. “As part of that, we went and did an event at the Hay Festival: the Winter Festival, which is a kind of little-known part of the festival,” she recalls, “and in the audience was a lady called Caroline Slough.

“Caroline and her husband Adam run the Folk by the Oak festival [at Hatfield House in Hertfordshire] but they also put together musical projects. Caroline saw a lot of potential in the book to bring music to it, and so she and her husband approached our agents, gathered together this group of musicians who are just like... if you’re going to work with musicians, these guys are the best – and that’s how Spell Songs came about.”

Jim Molyneaux as Lark and Drums. Illustration by Jackie Morris
Jim Molyneaux as Lark and Drums. Illustration by Jackie Morris
Julie Fowlis as Lapwing and Whistles. Illustration by Jackie Morris
Julie Fowlis as Lapwing and Whistles. Illustration by Jackie Morris

She continues: “We had a residency in a place called Monnington House, which is near Hay [in Herefordshire], and over a period of about 10 days they put together the whole of the first album. Then when we did The Lost Spells, we had another gathering. It was planned and then like everything else, all plans went awry.

“Our second tour was, I think, the week after lockdown started, and everything was cancelled. Then it was cancelled again, then it was cancelled again! But eventually we all got together and more music was made, and we’ve since managed to do the tour of six venues.

“Then there’s these two festival events we have coming up [Folk by the Oak, which has since taken place, and the Cambridge Folk Festival].”

Kerry Andrew as Kingfisher and Stand. Illustration by Jackie Morris
Kerry Andrew as Kingfisher and Stand. Illustration by Jackie Morris
Spell Songs, from left, Kris Drever, Karine Polwart, Seckou Keita, Rachel Newton, Jackie Morris, Robert Macfarlane, Julie Fowlis, Beth Porter, Jim Molyneaux. Picture: Elly Lucas
Spell Songs, from left, Kris Drever, Karine Polwart, Seckou Keita, Rachel Newton, Jackie Morris, Robert Macfarlane, Julie Fowlis, Beth Porter, Jim Molyneaux. Picture: Elly Lucas

There were originally eight musicians involved in the project, Jackie notes, but Kerry Andrew was forced to drop out for health reasons. She also notes that each member of the band is a singer in their own right.

“Seckou is an amazing kora player – he is an astonishing musician – Kris plays guitar like nobody I’ve ever heard play before, he’s just wonderful, Julie’s got a voice... well, she must be some kind of seal spirit, I think, and when I was doing the illustrations for the book, I was listening to Karine, not knowing then that one day I would be on stage with her. Amazing really.”

When on stage, Jackie already has in mind what she’s going to paint – no interpreting the music through visual improvisation here, fortunately. “I’m painting otters and foxes,” she explains, “and in order to paint something very swiftly, I have practised in the same way that in order to play their tunes, they [the musicians] have practised.”

Spell Songs. Picture: York Tillyer
Spell Songs. Picture: York Tillyer
Spell Songs. Picture: Elly Lucas
Spell Songs. Picture: Elly Lucas

Jackie, who has won awards for her artwork, says she is looking forward to ‘performing’ at the festival but admits that she’s also “a bit scared”, stating: “When I decided I wanted to be an illustrator, I didn’t think to myself, ‘I’ll be an illustrator and one day I’ll be on stage with a band’ – that wasn’t in my thinking.

“It’s quite an anonymous profession, creating images quietly in the background, so I always like it when it’s finished! It’s nice when I’ve done it and have something that half resembles what I was trying to paint – that’s always a plus.”

Seckou Keira as Osprey and Kora. Illustration by Jackie Morris
Seckou Keira as Osprey and Kora. Illustration by Jackie Morris
Jackie Morris. Picture: York Tillyer
Jackie Morris. Picture: York Tillyer

She adds: “I love being on stage with the musicians because I have the best seat in the house, really, while they’re playing. The music is sublime; they’re the best band any illustrator could wish to have.”

We could yet see another of Jackie’s collaborators join her on stage. “What I’d like to see one day is Robert Macfarlane sitting on stage writing while they’re playing,” she says, “but I keep saying this and I just keep going, ‘It’s not so interesting really is it, watching somebody write as watching somebody paint!’ And I say that as a writer myself.”

[Read more: Clannad’s special farewell at Cambridge Folk Festival, Katherine Priddy interview: ‘I keep one foot in the folk world and one elsewhere’]

Rebecca Stewart, Cambridge Folk Festival manager, said: “We are so excited to have Spell Songs join us at CFF this year. It’s such a unique performance and what a stellar group of performers! It will definitely be a highlight.”

Jackie Morris. Picture: Elly Lucas
Jackie Morris. Picture: Elly Lucas

Three of the Spell Songs members took part in the BBC Proms last Saturday (July 23). Jim Molyneux arranged Thrift, Little Astronaut, Acorn and Moth for choir and orchestra and the results can be listened to here, 34 minutes and 40 seconds in.

Cambridge Folk Festival runs from Thursday, July 28-Sunday, July 31. Spell Songs are set to perform on Saturday. Go to cambridgelive.org.uk/folkfestival for more. For more on Spell Songs, visit thelostwords.org.



This site uses cookies. By continuing to browse the site you are agreeing to our use of cookies - Learn More