Sally Oldfield. Woman Of The Light.

The Daeida Interview
An Exclusive Conversation With David Nick Ybarra

[OCR’ed from Daeida Magazine, November 2010, pages 34 ‒ 39.]

I didn’t think she would call. Not because of a cancellation or a request to talk some other time, I simply didn’t think Sally Oldfield would ever be anything more to me than a myth and a mystery. Quite honestly, I didn’t believe she was real. I wasn’t certain she was mortal – and I’m still not convinced she is merely a woman, an artist and a rare creature who could possibly be as earthly as you or I. She is famously enigmatic and as private as the worlds she writes of, sings about, and transports the listener to. A precursor, if not the foremost catalyst, of the «new age» music movement which thrives some ten years into the millennium, Sally Oldfield is arguably the root of a contemporary music form that has been the life force of a uniquely original genre inspired by Folk, Pop, Classical and Tribal music styles. Her direct influence can be heard in artists as diverse as Enya, Enigma, Loreena McKennitt, Annie Haslam and Virginia Astley. An innovator who blends ancient vocal chants, symphonic music arrangements and Celtic-inspired harmonies, her self-composed and self-penned songs often combine mantra-based lyrics, stories and themes, making Sally Oldfield a healer as well as a storyteller. Her groundbreaking 1978 solo debut album “Water Bearer” is today a cult classic around the world, and the lead single release «Mirrors» continues to be a song that resonates in dance remixes and international TV commercials. Her latest release, Cantadora (2009) is available on iTunes. Her classic albums and greatest hit compilations continue to be available for new generations discovering her and for those listeners rediscovering her legend.

Expecting her call like Bess Houdini holding out for Harry’s message from beyond, I watched the second hand ascend the ladder of older numbers to the top of the clock, hoping that at the precise moment of our appointment, the phone would mysteriously ring and from a world away, I might be connected to the source of all that magic, music and mythology. Like squinting for apparitions in cemetery mist, or searching for mermaids in the distant surf, prepared my heart for the possibility she might not call. And then the phone rang…

Where does the «Sally» come from in your name?

I think it was my mother. She was such a Romantic. A lot of the early Hollywood movies featured heroines called «Sally.» and I think that was behind her naming me.

I’d read that your earliest aspirations as an artist were rooted in dance; specifically in ballet.

Yes, it was. My mother had this vision of her daughter being like Margot Fonteyn (she was one of my mother’s heroines of her era in the Forties and the Fifties) and so she pushed me into that world. I think I must’ve done about 6 hours of ballet a day from the age of three. My muscles are still feeling it!

Dance was encouraged but not singing nor the pursuit of music?

She absolutely loved music. She was tone-deaf — she could not sing a note — but she loved music. You’d find her listening to Madame Butterfly night after night. I think my love of music comes from her and from my father’s side too — he has a beautiful baritone voice and my paternal grandmother was a classical pianist. I think the combination of my father — and the technical side of music, combined with my mother’s lack of musical ability but absolute passion for music, laid the foundation for what was in store in my own artistic journey.

You said that she «pushed» you into the world of dance. Was she something like a «stage mother»?

She was a strange mother really. She almost looked like Queen Elizabeth when she was young, you know, with the long dark wavy hair and that style of the late forties/early fifties dress. And she actually used to dress like The Queen! (Sally laughs) In fact, there are pictures of my brother and I dressed up like the young Prince Charles and Princess Anne! We were probably about two years old or so, we thought it was how all children dressed; we didn’t know any different.

Was she a very «theatrical» kind of woman, then? Was that sort of inherited by you?

My mother was a vivacious, extrovert Irish woman. I mean she was pure Irish blood and very patterned as such. She abandoned all her family in County Cork as they were a very dysfunctional family and just ran away from the whole lot at quite a young age, and came to England in search of a better life. She had about seven or eight brothers and sisters, and we never knew any of them. She became a nurse and met my father during the war he is a doctor — very quiet, very English, very reserved — and they were like fire and ice.

Was ballet an escape for you then, or a product of your mother’s own artistic ambition?

It’s true that parents sometimes want their children to be what they wanted to be, and, of course, mine had spent a lot of money on my ballet career. I came to love ballet and eventually got a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dance, and it looked like I was really going to be the ballerina that my mother wanted, but I suddenly rebelled when I was about 16.

Was it a rebellion that was all-encompassing, or was it specifically an artistic rebellion?

I think it was just about everything. My family was just falling apart — literally — my mother was not well (this is all well-documented in my brother’s book, The Changeling) and, as a result, my brothers and I had quite a difficult childhood. I grew up with a kind of a «young carer’s» role. I became the «mother» of the family (my two brothers are younger than me) and I would take care of them because my parents were in such a bad way.

At that young age, were you able to comprehend that your mother wasn’t well?

My father would only vaguely say, «She’s bad,» or «Something’s wrong with her,» you know, he being a «doctor.» It was just a very difficult situation, so I never was close to her. She eventually became addicted to prescription drugs and then alcohol, so the children (Terry, me and Mike), I think we all, in our own ways, locked ourselves in our bedrooms and tried to find our own artistic escape routes.

It was at the height of my mother’s illness that I just didn’t want to dance anymore and instead became very interested in philosophy and poetry.

But not singing or making music?

I never really was interested in singing. It was just a hobby. Most singers have been singing since they were in diapers; don’t they?

Yes, it seems to be something developed and honed early on in life.

I did sing when I was younger and studied classical piano, but not with any intent of forging a life path as a «singer.» In fact, I don’t know if this is known, but I was at school with Marianne Faithfull. We were best friends.

No, I didn’t know that…

We were childhood friends. We were at the same convent school — St. Joseph’s Convent, in Reading — and we used to go off and play folk songs and read the Romantic poets. I played my guitar and Marianne and I would sing duets in harmony, songs like «The House of The Rising Sun» and a lot of Bob Dylan. But, it was really not a big deal at all to either of us.

But you became serious about Music while at University?

I gave up ballet and became passionate about poetry and philosophy, which disappointed my parents. Instead of the Royal Academy of Dance, I went to University at Bristol, right on the Atlantic on the west coast of England, and while I was at University, I had an experience that was totally life-changing.

It was in the last year of my studies at University, and what happened was that I was walking on the beach overlooking the Atlantic coast and I had a «near death experience,» although at the time I didn’t realize that that’s what it was.

I was looking at the light, the sunset, on the beach there, standing on a rock and it just seemed to open up — the light opened up into this infinite world — and I stood there in tears of wonder for what seemed like forever — I mean, I’ve never been able to explain it except that after this experience (which I understand now to be a mystical revelation), I went back to my flat in Bristol, picked up my guitar and all these songs started to pour out. I’d never even written a song before. I just used to sing standard folk songs but that experience seemed to open up a channel of inspiration that has never gone off. It opened a kind of doorway onto the mythical, wonderful magical world and it’s never left me.

It all happened just before I was about to do my finals for my degree. And I couldn’t focus on the questions as they were supposed to be answered (you’re supposed to learn all this stuff and then you spew it out on the exam papers) and I was just answering these questions — it was Philosophy and English Literature — in a whole new way. I don’t think it went down very well with my professors, because I didn’t get the degree that I had been working towards. In fact they asked me if I would like to re-sit the exams as obviously I had been temporarily unwell! When my father found out, again, he was very disappointed and I said to him, «Well, I don’t care. I’m going to be a singer,» and that’s when I really knew that that was my destiny. It was so clear then.

The «near death experience» that happened to you at University was about when?

It was in 1968 — and a lot of political things were happening. Vietnam, assassinations. It was a very powerful year…

So it must’ve been a positive and powerful revelation in the midst of this personal and global time of turmoil…

Oh, absolutely. It saved me. It saved my sanity because at that time my mother was REALLY in a bad way… she was just so damaged by the drugs… and my father was out of his mind with worry. Mike, my youngest brother was really suffering as he was only about 14 and often left alone with her. Music, in a way, became my own healing. I think without it I possibly would’ve gone the way of my mother — and the way of, unfortunately, a lot of artists. I think it saved me from that path because — such a beautiful, mystical universe opened up before my eyes and it came to me UNSOUGHT — almost like stumbling by accident upon an ancient timeless world that I knew to be more real than the so-called «reality» that modern civilization inhabits. It was a refuge maybe but most of all a revelation that completely changed the course of my life.

When I first had that experience I stayed in that positive state for, I think, about two years. Nothing could go wrong in my life. Then, I went back to stay with my family and it was a bit downhill from there as the tragedy of my mother’s approaching death was unfolding. But for two years, I dwelt permanently in that liberated place which is always in my music, but for two years it was in my life.

By the early 1970s, you form a duo with brother Mike called «The Sally­angie» and release an album, Children of the Sun. Your breakout as a soloist doesn’t happen until 1978 with the release of the album Water Bearer and the international hit single «Mirrors.» Did your mother live to see the respective musical successes of her children?

Not really, no. It’s actually quite sad because she died soon after Mike’s phenomenal success with Tubular Bells and I think she just about realized she had a son who was really going to «make it» in the world. But she didn’t live long enough to see what happened to me and my other brother Terry. Two years after she died I started having therapy to try and «work out» my problems and in that period I constantly had this feeling of her presence.

That would be about the time you’re starting to lay the groundwork for Water Bearer. Did you find your mother an influence on your music in a way that she never could be in your life?

It started a whole new musical expression in me probably inspired by my mother’s Celtic background. I think that’s when the Celtic inspiration really came through, suddenly connecting with my mother in spirit. She had cut off from her Celtic roots, but in her death it seemd to be re-released through me. I started to study the Celtic mythology and to sing a more Celtic way.

If you’d actually had an ideal mother-daughter relationship with her and experienced an equally ideal upbringing, do you suppose that it would have been as easy for you to access or respond to that mystical light that is the basis of your music and lyrics?

That’s a difficult question…because when I first accessed that place by way of my near-death experience, the very revelation of it — and not really understanding it at the time; that gave birth to my music. I mean, even to this day, every time trouble strikes, I just head out that door (so to speak) which the light first revealed to me. I write best when I’m in that space — when I have to go to that other world in the light. Having now studied and researched many spiritual paths I understand it better but often spiritual paths can “lead you up the garden path” of the intellect. That was the quantum leap that happened to me at University. I spontaneously went beyond the mind and let go into an infinite mystery without needing to understand it. To this day I will never know how or why it happened to me in such a lasting and permanent way. Immediately after it happened I would just pick up my guitar and songs effortlessly flowed — just flowing and singing — it was like breathing and I felt that nothing could ever go wrong in all the world.

It’s unique that your traumatic childhood is not the basis for the content or mood of your music…

People do say to me, «How is it that your music is so happy, so joyful, and so celestial?» You know, «You never put all of this trauma into your music.» —which most artists seem to do.

That’s what I mean. Your recorded works are so uplifting. enchanted, mysterious and positive. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest when I first heard the music of Sally Oldfield and you ARE still, quite a legend there. I mean before the Internet, you didn’t even seem quite human. We all assumed you were a fairy, an angel, something…

I think the worlds of my songs are mythical and mystical because I know that that is actually the true reality. Most people have had difficult childhoods and its getting a lot worse! But today more and more people are waking up to spiritual consciousness.

You release «Water Bearer,» a lyrical narrative-driven concept album that is not like any other recorded work in popular music in 1978. As a debut, it is the first and most famous of your sonic masterpieces.

It’s amazing «Water Bearer» even got released. When I first began in ’78, the world wasn’t really open to this kind of music.

«Water Bearer» is the catalyst of an entire movement that happened – and is still happening in popular music.

That’s rather unbelievable, isn’t it? Because when I was creating THAT album, I wasn’t listening to any other music. When I was at University I was listening to people like Donovan. The Incredible String Band, a band called King Crimson – do you remember them?

Oh, yes.

Who else…Bob Dylan, of course – a great hero of mine, but the music of «Water Bearer» itself seemed to come from…what I can only call this «light.»

Water Bearer is still to this day, a wondrous anomaly in contemporary music. It was ahead of its time in so many ways, predating the so-called «new age» music movement of the latter 1980s. There couldn’t have been anything to reference it to in 1978 as there remains nothing to reference it by in 2010. How did you do it?

Well, I had another spontaneous experience of infinite light when I began to write «Water Bearer.» I was living in Wales and was sitting at the piano one day. It was about twilight time and, looking out the window, I suddenly saw this bright light. It was actually somebody carrying a torch, you know, the gardener or somebody just shining this torch, but again, looking at the light…well, I seemed to go into the light. You following me?


I was just improvising at the piano, looking out the window and at the light, and it was really dark so I didn’t know the source of the light, I didn’t know it was somebody carrying a torch, and it was just light to me, and the light seemed to link to my fingers on the piano keys, and I found these two wonderful chords – which are the basis for the main part of «Water Bearer» (not the beginning but after the waterfall and the choir where it goes into a more classical part). These two chords – E minor with an A in the bass, changing to B minor first inversion – became like a mantra, you know, like a meditation mantra, and I kept changing those chords. They became the basis for the melody and then my voice started to sing these mysterious words over the top – the very words that became the actual chorus of «Water Bearer.»

I felt as if I had been taken to this incredible world where you could overcome any problem. That’s the world in «Water Bearer,» the album. I was riding this wave of inspiration that kept going and going and going – and felt unstoppable. The music just took off on its own. I’ll never forget it.

There is a «mythology» – you said the word earlier – to your body of music, as a whole, but nowhere is the potency of those mythological qualities more gilded than on the album and songs of «Water Bearer.» Did you intend to create a mythology for others and perhaps yourself on your debut album?

Not consciously, no not at all.

How do you define the mythology in and of your music?

The nearest I can explain the mythology of my music is some­how accessing ancient civilizations, like Atlantis and places like that where it was normal to walk around in the light. When I did that album, I was completely in that world of «Water Bearer.» People have often said to me, «Why didn’t you do more albums like that?,» and the problem was that at that time I felt so completely on my own in this totally different world, and there was a lot of pressure from my record company to do something that was more conformist. And that’s something I struggled with for every album afterwards. I was so fragile at the time of «Water Bearer.» When it was first released, they didn’t know what to do with it…

The record label or radio stations?

Both, but it started at the label. They didn’t know how to promote it and in fact it only really started to sell quite a few years later.

I have a hard time accepting the fact that you defined yourself as «fragile» when you recorded Water Bearer. You seem like such a strong, confident woman when you’re singing those words, creating that world…

But for an album like «Water Bearer» to survive in the milieu of the «rock» industry, I think posed a problem because in 1979 we were heading for the 80’s – outgoing, flamboyant glam­rock that dominated the music of the times. So, I was trying to write material like «Water Bearer» – in the midst of all that glamour – David Bowie etc. – and what I call full on ego-driven music. There’s nothing wrong with that because you’ve got to have an ego to take your music out there but it was soon to become very aggressive and for me to continue writing music like «Water Bearer,» was quite a challenge, it was an ego-less expression. I didn’t feel like an individual, I was just this flow of energy and I simply surrendered to it, and it was very difficult to articulate that in an A&R meeting!

Did Bronze Records allow you creative control over the music or did they try to suggest it be more mainstream and more pop-sounding?

They did a little bit…but I tried to stand my ground as long as I could.

How did you find Bronze Records as an outlet for the music?

Oh, that was really weird. I had been trying to find a record deal for over a year. I’d gone to every single record company in London with a demo of «Water Bearer.» They all said no way, you know, «we can’t sell this music.» Island Records was my last «port of call» and as I approached their office, I said to myself, «If they don’t sign me, I’m going to forget it.» I went to the appointment and this guy came out with spiky hair, wearing safety pins earrings, safety pins in his shoes, safety pins all over him. He was obviously into the Punk scene and that sort of music. I took one look at him and thought, «I’m not even going to play this for him.» I was just about to leave when he said, «No, come on, play it. You’ve come all this way…» and he listened to it absolutely transfixed. I couldn’t believe it. He said, «I love this…l’ve never heard anything like this. Look, I’m about to move to Bronze Records to take over their A&R department. You can either come with me and I’ll sign you to Bronze or I’ll sign you to Island, but I’m leaving.» I said, «I’ll go where you’re going. Take me with you.» And so he did. He signed me to Bronze – with whom I stayed for the first five albums – and then they went bankrupt.

Who was this…this «punk»?!

Howard Thompson was his name. He actually left the Bronze label soon after he signed me, which was a great shame.

What about the album cover photograph for «Water Bearer.» It looks as if you’re really at some mystical waterfall in another world…

That’s the Talybont Waterfalls in Wales. It’s a wonderful place. The photographer and I had to drive up there the night before and get up quite early to walk up the stream to the actual waterfall. I remember I was wearing this flimsy white dress and it was actually quite cold; it was in the springtime that we did the shoot, and I really suffered for my art in that photo! I had to climb all over these slippery rocks and stand under this freezing waterfall for hours on end. God, I’ll never forget it.

You look so serene in the cover photographs there by the waterfall…

I think I look frozen, don’t’ you?

You only looked «enchanted» to me.

(Sally laughs) Oh good. I was probably in my own world there because I just stood there as he took all the photographs. That’s a lovely cover photo, I think, with the scenery and the flowing water – and so fitting because I have a lot of fire in my astrological sign, mostly fire and air, actually. I always feel dehydrated except in that album cover photograph!

Your follow up album, Easy, was a more pop-oriented and romantic divergence from the otherworldly offering of Water Bearer…

Yes, that’s when I had «the boyfriend.» He said, «You mustn’t do all this mythological stuff. You’ve got to be much more grounded»…and I was silly enough to listen because I was passionately in love with him. THAT didn’t last, of course, but what endured was an album called «Easy.»

Is «the boyfriend» the gentleman depicted in the album cover art?

Oh, no; that’s my brother, Terry! (Sally laughs) It was a bit of a crazy photo shoot. We were trying to portray the concept that you should just let go and «fall off the wall» because life will hold you.

«Easy» is a complementary follow-up to «Water Bearer.» It retains the mystical chants and mythical qualities of the first album, though love – romantic love – is the theme throughout this time.

It was also autobiographical of where I was then, emotionally. Actually, the song «You Set My Gypsy Blood Free,» is based on a true event with «the boyfriend.» I was so passionately in love with him and it was springtime when I wrote it, and I had a karmic kind of experience; I gathered up all these daffodils – it was just in early spring — and I got up at the crack of dawn and ran through the fields with all these flowers and I laid them on his doorstep. He thought I was completely mad because I put these flowers all over his doorstep. When he woke up the next day and stepped outside, he tripped over them and messed up his business suit. He rang me and before I could even say, «Hello,» he shouted, «You are completely mad.»

Did he mean it as a flirtation, as if you were «madly» in love?

I’m not sure what he meant (Sally laughs) as he and I were on different planets but as I was running through the fields, I felt as if I was in a past life, you know, I really was kind of a gypsy… I don’t know if you ever have those experiences where you have an overlay of a past life… but that’s what it felt like to me.

Celebration is an album that is a return to the more tribal, more ancient characteristics of your mythical music roots but a few years and a few more albums later you release the final Bronze output: Strange Day in Berlin. It’s significant that it’s your final album for the label and also because it’s co-produced (heavily) by Hans Zimmer. I’m struck not so much by the strong production values and signature Zimmer touch of the latter title track, but by the mysterious story in the lyrics. Was there anything autobiographical about the lyric «Strange Day in Berlin» for you? It’s so dark and so alluring.

Yes I nearly got arrested. We were in Berlin. I was there to do some shows and it was in the early-Eighties – when they still had the Berlin Wall erected and you had to go through «Checkpoint Charlie» to go across the gate from West Berlin to East Berlin. We were actually at «Checkpoint Charlie,» and I was with my manager and the band. There was one of those German guards there – an East German guard, and in the East they didn’t’ have much money, and one of the legs of his trousers was way too short from the other leg. One of the band members (I think the bass player) cracked a joke in German about this guard’s silly trousers and we were all immediately hauled off to be interrogated; I mean they REALLY got angry. Our manager got us out of it by doing some fast talking, you know, «We’re here to do a concert, she’s Sally Oldfield, and could you please not arrest us.» Oh god, it was scary. They let us go and we went over into East Berlin and I was in this really strange head space. We had this huge rush of adrenalin going because we really thought we were in trouble and again, I suddenly had this karmic feeling of being in this world of spies and undercover work in another lifetime. I dreamt this kind of fantasy – half-real, half-imagined – that I was going to meet this lover who was a spy and we were trying to get a record deal or something, and it just built into this drama that became the lyrics «Strange Day in Berlin.»

The spy-espionage-romance theme recurs in your works like «Meet Me In Verona» –

YES! It’s exactly the same thread at «Strange Day in Berlin.» I think it’s a karmic thing, I often feel as if I’m in a world of spies and different identities and trying to protect myself in a dangerous world.

I used to travel a lot and do loads of interviews and TV shows – especially in the Eighties and early Nineties – and I was always spending hours and days in Germany, traveling between the West and the East. There was always this atmosphere in Germany of something dangerous lingering. I would get feelings of having been a prisoner of war, because I’d always feel ill on the road, so I’d build these scenarios up. I have a great love for Germany, but East Germany was quite a backwards state for years before the Berlin Wall came down. It provided a wonderful atmosphere anyway for writing songs because most of the cities then seemed like remnants of abandoned film sets.

And you lived in Germany for a time…

Yes, when Bronze Records went bankrupt, I was just immediately offered a record deal from a record company in Germany – a very good deal – so I just took it up. They were very supportive and I spent many years there. And then one day, I was told by my A&R Department that I was being dismissed from the label. They said, «Go. There’s no need for your music anymore.»

It’s strange to think that anybody could say there wasn’t a «need» for the music you do.

It was when my career was absolutely failing apart and the music industry was falling apart with the advent of the internet… Yes, I went through some very dark times and then it would pick up again. I think a lot of artists go through those, and I think you need that sort of darkness. I think I’ve just been through one and maybe my career’s about to pick up again. The world is much more open now… and we don’t need record companies anymore to get our music released.

Does that mean there may be another new album from Sally Oldfield perhaps in the works?

I live a reclusive life in a very quiet village, I don’t go out very much. I’m steeped in music and books and studying philosophy and healers like Deepak Chopra, Dr. David Hawkins, Carolyn Myss and many others. I meditate for hours a day, play my guitar and piano, but I don’t like the world we live in, really…

Maybe that’s why you need to do another album.

You’ve really inspired me because I think there must be another «Water Bearer» in me, somewhere…

I think you’d be surprised to find a lot of fans and listeners in the U.S. and elsewhere who have been waiting all this time for something from you.

To be honest, for the past couple of years I have been living like I don’t want to do any more music. I was very ill after my last German tour in 2004 and it seemed like inner guidance to take a serious break. I’ve got the back catalogue and stuff like that, but I had no idea that people might be interested in a new album…

The desire isn’t exclusively mine, it was only that before the Internet – and the Digital age of late – there was really no way to tell you, to convey how important and necessary your music is – particularly in The States.

It’s very strange because I thought my career has never really taken off in The States, although I get a lot of fan mail from there – especially on the west coast. I wish I’d been able to pursue my career in America because in some ways it would be a more fruitful kind of environment. I think America is much more open. Doing this interview with you, and you telling me about how appreciated my music is in America – which I don’t think I really knew until now – is a discovery to me. It makes me feel happy.

I thought you knew that…

No! I didn’t.

You look to the light, Miss Oldfield, and the world will listen. As you sang once before, «It’s dark on the mountain, waiting for the sun…» Be that sun for us, please.

«…The devil is sleeping and the lord of The Light is waking, the dawn is slowly breaking…» and so it is. Do you know this interview is having an incredible affect on me? It’s been like a reawakening in a way. I shall hold you responsible, David, as well, for this conversation that I might find myself committing to a new album! I was looking forward to a quiet reclusive life. You sound like an angel knocking on my ear saying, «Wake up, wake up, wake up!» (Sally laughs) It’s wonderful! It’s like «It’s not time to die yet. Sorry you’re not getting out yet. It’s not your time.»

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