Maz O’Connor seems in a happy mood when we meet up for a chat ahead of her performance at the charming Kitchen Garden Café in Birmingham’s Kings Heath district. She’s in the first few days of a tour to launch her new album ‘The Longing Kind’ (read our Featured Album of the Month review here) and so far things seem to be going well…
Maz is joined on tour by the wonderfully animated John Parker on double-bass and Laura Carrivick on fiddle, lap-steel, banjo and backing vocals (image below). The decision to tour as a trio as opposed to a solo act was driven partially from a musical perspective and partly for company;
“I think it’s nice to have the option to do more arrangement-wise live” Maz explains, “particularly with the new album coming out…it’s nice to try and get things close to what the album sounds like which playing solo is a bit difficult. Also, touring on your own is quite tiring and difficult. There are also difficulties in co-ordinating other people, but at least now there are fun people to hang out with.”
‘The Longing Kind’ is Maz O’Connor’s third album, following 2012’s ‘Upon a Stranger Shore’ and 2014’s critically acclaimed ‘This Willowed Light’, with Folk Radio UK noting Maz’s “astonishing ability to fuse traditional and contemporary folk”. The new album continues Maz’s successful partnership with Jim Moray as producer…in fact, as Maz explains to me, the foundations of the new album were formed back before ‘This Willowed Light’ had even been released;
“There’s a big gap between finishing recording an album and the album coming out. When I’d finished recording This Willowed light there were a few months before it was released…I think I’d pretty much written most of this stuff by the time the last album came out.”
Whereas ‘This Willowed Light’ had been a mix of original and (albeit heavily interpreted) traditional material, this time Maz performs entirely original material on the album, most of it auto-biographic. Listening to the album, there are moments of fragility that give a sense of ‘the person’ behind the music, which only makes it all the more compelling as a body of work;
“The songs on the album are all thematically connected” Maz explains, “Listening back it makes sense to me that I wrote them all in quite quick succession. They’re of a particular period in time when I was out of University, out of the RSC, doing the professional musician thing for the first time, being out in the world on my own. They’re all about that, trying to find my way…”.
Maz and Jim started recording the album around a year ago with the support of a BBC Performing Arts fund grant. “The grant was amazing” Maz reflects, “it’s sad that they’re closing because they’ve run out of money, but what hasn’t run out of money?”.
The musical foundations of the record were laid by Maz and Jim before they introduced any further instrumentation. Maz’s vocal, guitar and piano parts were all completed in around two days, other musicians were then bought in over the course of two or three months to layer on their parts;
“We had pretty much the same bunch as last time” Maz explains, “Jim put a lot of stuff on it, then we got Beth Porter on Cello, Nick Malcom on Trumpet…we had Chris Hillman on pedal steel as well, Matt Downer on bass…so pretty much the same gang with a couple of extras”.
The result is an album with a rich and deep sound, but it’s Maz who shines throughout…with three albums and some extensive touring now under her belt, her performance and presence has clearly continued to to grow;
“I think of myself primarily as a singer…but this time around I was more confident as a player to think about the performance on guitar and piano as well as the vocal performance, which I don’t think I’ve had the confidence to do in the past. Actually on the last album I had a guitarist…I play guitar on it but I had a guitarist come in and do extra stuff. This time it’s just me on guitar.”
It’s not just in performance where Maz’s confidence has grown; “I think I feel a bit more empowered now, to know what sort of sound I want” she reflects, “I think it’s important to stay flexible to other people’s opinions because the difficulty is, when it’s your music you can’t really hear it…you’re so close to it, there are certain things that I want to hear that might actually be wrong. So it’s useful to stay flexible, to have other people’s opinions come in, to have Jim offer his ears. But I think I’m generally getting more confident in knowing what it is that I want.”
Maz has already made three videos to support the album; one containing archive footage, another features a small boy (family friend) dancing, and the third features a contemporary dance piece that was specifically choreographed for the song. It’s the first time Maz has taken on the role of director and working with film has given her the chance to work alongside creative people from other disciplines, something she particularly enjoys;
“It’s been a lot to take on, but I really enjoyed collaborating with other artists from other mediums. I like working with other musicians, but what really gets me going creatively is bringing your work into contact with other people’s work and creating something totally new. I think when you work with other songwriters, maybe your skillset can be a bit close to each other so it’s less exciting. I really like working with people who have a totally different skillset to me that I can really learn from.”
Continuing that theme, I’m keen to know where Maz draws inspiration from outside of music; “I do contemporary dance and ballet, I like to go and see a lot of dance as well, which is probably still linked to my work because it’s an expression to music. I did an English degree so I’ve always got that, I’m always reading. Poetry…oh I’m going to sound like a right nob!…I go to the theatre quite a lot, I’ve got a lot of actor friends. I’m think I’m quite intense in that I try and get into intense conversations with people a lot. I like talking about issues and ideas. I am inspired by other people musically, but most of my inspiration probably comes from other art forms.”
On the subject of musical collaboration, Maz was recently involved in the Sweet Liberties Project commissioned by Parliament, the English Folk Dance and Song Society and PRSF. As Maz explains, the project involved creating music to celebrate the pursuit of democracy;
“Last year was the eight hundredth anniversary of Magna Carta so they commissioned a bunch of artistic projects to commemorate it. We were the musical project…me, Nancy Kerr, Sam Carter, Martyn Joseph with Nick Cooke and Nancy Reid on instruments. It was great! We’d been given a PDF from parliament of important moments since Magna Carta…the rights and freedoms that have been won, things like the suffragettes, the chartists, abolition of slavery, right down to the race relations act, the anti-slavery act and stuff like that. So really cool stuff to get your teeth into. We had to write songs in response to those acts of parliament…which sounds quite dry but hopefully we made it interesting. We’re going to make an album…I think I can say that officially now…that will probably out in the Summer.”
Recording and promoting the album, arranging the tour, filming the videos and her other collaborative projects have not only kept Maz busy, they’ve also generated a fair amount of pressure on her…something that she’s acutely aware of;
“I’ve not got much time. Things are going well and they’re growing but I have to put an awful lot of time, energy and money into it in order to keep it growing. That can be quite disheartening sometimes, particularly because it’s just me. I don’t have a manager and I don’t have a team. I’m working on it…but I would really like a team now because everything being on me is really quite exhausting. There are so many balls in the air, I feel a lot of pressure. On this scene a lot of us do it all…you’ve therefore got to be good at a lot of things that you’re not naturally good at. Getting on stage and playing music for people, that bit is really great! And writing…I enjoy writing. Basically I enjoy the music…I don’t so much enjoy all the trappings around it.”
Achieving an appropriate balance between music and the business of making music is clearly something that’s been preying on Maz’ mind; “I’ve realised that I’ve got to keep my love for music alive, not matter what” she declares, “If that means eventually quitting and doing something else, then that’s what it means…but not letting everything else take over and eclipse the connection with the music. Remembering that I’m a musician and I love music. That could quite easily be eclipsed by all the other nonsense of how many likes you have, or whether you’re getting played on the radio…or whether you’re going to get to the venue on time!”
But for now, I’m pleased to say, there are no signs of Maz quitting which is good news for those who love her music. In fact, she seems more motivated than ever; “The album comes out end of February and then I’m going to Germany for two weeks to tour” she smiles, “Then I’m doing a little project with the Liverpool Philharmonic youth choir and orchestra…that’ll be fun, it’ll be my songs with them doing a choral arrangement which will be amazing. Then we’re recording the Sweet Liberties album…then festivals hopefully!” (Read more about the Sweet Liberties Album here).
Interview and Photography by: Rob Bridge
Maz is currently on tour in Germany and The Netherlands before returning to the UK on 17th March.
Thur 17 March – BATH, Chapel Arts Centre
For details of her dates in Germany and the Netherlands click here.
The Longing Kind is Out Now
Order the album, along with some other great goodies via: Maz O’Connor’s store here
This article is part of an ongoing series of photo / interview features on Folk Radio UK from Rob Bridge, a photographer, writer and film-maker specialising in folk, acoustic and Americana music. You can contact him on twitter @redwoodphotos and visit him here: www.redwoodphotography.co.uk