Listening to This Willowed Light, it’s hard not to be struck by the way Maz O’Connor’s sheer enthusiasm for music permeates the record. It infuses even the more downbeat songs and the listener becomes aware that she is listening to living music, at once very much Maz’s own creations while still being part of a much older tradition. Maz has clearly made good use of her recent BBC Performing Arts/EFDSS fellowship to soak up some of the great material curated by the EFDSS, but she’s enough of an individual to put her own stamp on things and write some highly original contemporary folk compositions.
Opening track Awake Awake is a fine showcase for Maz’s talents: taking a traditional lyric from The Full English Collection and arranging it for harmonium and some carefully placed trumpet by Nick Malcolm, the effect is like watching a time-lapse sequence of a flower unfurling and blooming in the morning sun.
It’s followed by The Mississippi Woman, a retelling of an age-old creation myth from a distinctly feminist viewpoint. Commissioned by Broadstairs Folk Week, the arrangement flows like its namesake, thanks in no small part to Bethany Porter’s cello, while producer Jim Moray’s drumming gives it a powerful insistency. Maz puts her high, sweet voice to good use and Matt Jones’ guitar rounds off one of the highlights of the album.
The theme of strong, independent women continues in Derby Day, another of the standout tracks and a former FRUK Song of the Day. Commemorating the death of militant suffragist activist Emily Wilding Davison after stepping in front of the king’s horse at the 1913 Derby, it’s written from the perspective of a small boy viewing the races from his father’s shoulders. Bethany Porter’s cello twines like a banner around Maz’s voice, which is clear and upfront in the mix with only a hint of reverb to soften the sad tale of Ms Wilding’s action.
A more introspective mood is evoked by London Lights, a traditional lullaby taken from the singing of the Aberdeenshire ballad singer Lizzie Higgins, which is well-suited to Maz’s uncluttered arrangement of piano and cello. By contrast, Bold Undaunted Youth – “inspired by an older song living in The Voice Of People collection” – benefits from a full band interpretation. Rowan Rheingans’ fiddle fluidly shadows the melody as Matt Jones’ guitar holds down the rhythm on this good-naturedly raucous folk-rock number.
Softly Softly, a self-penned song, is given an unusual treatment with what sounds like a kalimba and pizzicato strings providing some very different timbres, over which Maz’s multi-tracked harmonies soar. Rowan Rheingans’ banjo and Jim Moray’s sensitive percussion underpin the quiet beauty of the traditional Appalachian Bird Song, while Barcelona foregrounds Maz’s warm vocals above a simple, strummed acoustic guitar and some delicately entwined strings in an evocative tale of wandering beneath blue Catalonian skies. Matt Downer’s thoughtful bass and Maz’s fingerstyle electric guitar are at the heart of The Singing of the Ocean, a tale of a woman left behind while her man goes roving.
In the Child Ballad The Grey Selkie, Maz once again demonstrates her flair for setting traditional songs to very modern arrangements to create a quite unique take on a song which has been covered many times by a diverse range of musicians, from Pete Seeger to Steeleye Span, The Byrds to June Tabor. Matt Jones’ mandolin drives the song onwards as Rowan Rheingans’ bansitar makes a shimmering counterfoil to Nick Malcolm’s trumpet on this ancient Orcadian tale of shape-shifters, gold and personal tragedy.
Appropriately enough, the album closes with Nightcap, a tale of inebriated after-hours capers with Maz’s banjo and Jim Moray’s mandolin carrying the rhythm as Nick Malcolm’s trumpet lets rip against the singalong chorus of the assembled musicians to bring home to bed what is a mature yet lively record, which offers something for every taste without ever losing its focus. Time and again through This Willowed Light, Maz O’Connor effortlessly demonstrates an astonishing ability to fuse traditional and contemporary folk to create a very fresh sound which respects both styles of music. This Willowed Light is well worth seeking out and deserves to be heard far and wide.
Review by: Helen Gregory
This Willowed Light is released 7th July via Wild Sound Recordings