Sally Oldfield – 1979

Something that struck me the first time I encountered Sally Oldfield’s Water Bearer was its brilliant album cover. By combining something real, a staged photoshoot of Sally idling next to a waterfall in some forgotten Irish glen, with an altered color scheme that blends objects and edges to mimic some kind of divine setting, its doing something wonderfully explicit for you without you even noticing it. Without realizing, as you hear the modern, crystalline neo-folk music of Sally unfold, the combination of its visual and those sonics start to hearken to some Pre-Raphaelite era of artistry. An era where English artists would use the environment itself as this cipher for displaying all the hidden corporal, human beauty that can be drawn from it, and how that could be tied to some spiritual or subconscious feeling. Few albums, if any at that time, had simply beautiful music like the kind Sally creates here. So, unapologetically romantic in sound, and dynamic enough to manipulate the optics of it, she’d unknowingly help start a new rung of English neo-folk, a dreamier kind of pop music.

Sadly, if there’s one thing Sally is known for, its being Mike Oldfield’s sister. From a very young age, she enjoyed venturing through Reading’s outdoors by herself. There should would wander in nature, and write poetry, taking in the solitude it provided her from the normal day-to-day life. An avid dancer and writer, and sometime piano player, she was learned enough to be accepted into Bristol University working towards English and Philosophy degrees. Sometime in 1968 though, Sally felt a revelation of sorts.

“When I had this experience I wasn’t actually in an operating theatre but I was walking on the beach. It was a beautiful day and I had a kind of what many people describe as a peak experience, but then it kind of took off and I will probably have to write a book on this one day, but it was such a turning point in my life because after I had had this kind of light experience, I went home that evening and picked up my guitar and music literally flooded through my consciousness. It was the first time I had actually written music. My whole life changed and I just knew from that point I had to be singer.” — from Sally, as told to Inside World Music.

It is then when she decided to strike up a band with her very gifted younger 15-year old brother Michael. Signed by Mick Jagger as the folk duo the Sallyangie, they had a very nascent vision of a new type of Romantic folk music. The album itself didn’t produce exactly the results she was looking for. The structure and the technology of the time didn’t lend itself to the sonic vision she attempted to produce. What happens next is history.

Mike and Sally Oldfield

Resigned to pursue other exploits, Sally receded from the spotlight. Her brother Mike used his own talent to forment his own idea of worldly English folk music. Albums like Tubular Bells, Ommadawn, and Hergest Ridge were his vivid monuments to folk tradition. Throughout these releases though, you’d hear Sally contribute background vocals and ideas, all helpful enough to maintain her interest in that original feeling she had and not entirely give up on her own ideas.

Something changed though around 1978. In that year, she wrote “Water Bearer“. Taking full control of a recording studio, she created this shape-shifting opener. Introducing itself with the sampled sounds of a flowing river, Sally harkens you first to a sound heard in the music of the Pentangle, a jazzy fusion blend of folk and rhythmic music. However, somewhere around the two minute mark, when she introduces a spectral synth sound, you start to hear the shift. At the end of the song, with multiple overdubbed Sally’s harmonizing into the Tolkien centerpiece of the album, “Songs of the Quendi”, you get taken to some new folk future. Technology, has now allowed her to complete that vision she couldn’t before. Using all sorts of created sounds, whether through digital tape manipulation or keyboard creation, allowed her to conjure a sonic dreamscape that can match whatever spiritual lyricism she’s treating us with. Something so beautiful and pastoral, we (and I imagine she) now had to accept, could be created in untraditional ways.

Water Bearer album cover.

This is something Brian Eno, had explored piecemeal through his own music in Another Green World, and Before and After Science all the way through Bowie’s Berlin trilogy, but it had never been applied from a decidedly folk-ish viewpoint before. You can imagine the swooping “Weaver” with more traditional arrangements, but something about its new-style arpeggiating sound draws more feeling out of it than anything in the past could. Its music that speaks more to a shifting time. Our modern folk music has to integrate sounds coming from the history we know. “Child of Allah” the oldest song Sally had in her repertoire, from the Sallyangie days, benefits immensely by amping up its Grecian influence with those bracing oscillating keyboard figures.

The electronic folk music of Sally can best be heard in my favorite part of the album, the transition from “Song of the Bow” to “Fire and Honey”. This blend displaying the intricacy newer instruments can provide traditional music is positively magnetic. Scaling her voice upwards, the lyrics initially speak of discovering places once forbidden, those same lyrics dancing around arping synth and guitar lines not exactly meeting around each other…when she finally gets to intone the “sound of balalaikas” strumming, somewhere around the three minute mark…and then all these gorgeous wash of synthesizers introduce the taste of “Fire and Honey“, Sally’s vision starts to attain that spiritual thought felt then. All these new sights and sounds may be different, and divorced from your lived in past, but you can feel them conjure those emotions. Oof, who’s to say new breed folk singers can’t conjure up new ghosts from the machine?

Sally at work.

Surprisingly forgotten now, and in desperate need of rediscovery, something about Sally Oldfield’s work in this album and her next album Easy, of which the track of the day comes from, speaks more to some kind of modern love which needs to be rekindled. I mean, there was a time that artists weren’t afraid to idle by powerful streams surging forward, and take it all in. Simply bearing witness to the jaw-dropping beauty of “The Sun in My Eyes”, itself one of the most romantic love songs you’ll ever hear, makes one wonder less about how we got to this point, and more about how to go forward. Its getting more obvious the scenery in England is changing but what about the music? More of that soon though…

Listen to:

Water Bearer (1978) at Spotify.
Easy (1979) at Youtube, unfortunately.

Bonus track, here’s a video of Sally performing “The Sun in My Eyes” on German tv: