To call Lady Maisery (Hazel Askew, Hannah James and Rowan Rheingans) busy may be considered by some an understatement. Looking forwards they are currently on tour with O’Hooley and Tidow and Grace Petrie as Coven which will be followed by their own tour. They have been nominated for two BBC Folk Awards this year as part of the 10 piece band Songs of Separation (Best Album and Best Traditional Track). They were also recently announced as Artists in Residence at Halsway Manor, the National Centre for Folk Arts here in Somerset.
Looking back this looks like it’s pretty standard fare for them, Hannah was busy working on her Jigdoll show and album, Rowan is also in the Rheingans Sisters, Sweet Visitor Band, Trip the Light and Hazel is one-half of the Askew Sisters, and then there was the Songs of Separation project. I’m sure there are more. Despite all this, they managed to find time to release Cycle, ‘an album stuffed full of formidable singing and excellent musicianship.’
I asked them how they found the time and whether their time on the Songs of Separation project played a part.
HAZEL: Yes we’ve all been very busy over the last few years, but we usually work by blocking out time for touring and working with different acts. We did actually gather the material for Cycle quite slowly over a year or so, so it grew quite organically. Being involved in Songs of Separation was definitely very inspiring for us all and challenged us in lots of ways, so I think that experience has helped both the album and ourselves as musicians, to grow.
ROWAN: I’d just echo what Hazel says really, we have to plan our time together quite far in advance – we know our touring schedule at least a year ahead of time, sometimes more. And setting aside creative time is really important too, and can be challenging when we are all creatively working on other projects too. I think in general all our other musical projects feed into Lady Maisery in different ways. Personally, my experience in the collaborative work of Songs of Separation and the success of The Rheingans Sisters last album have really bolstered my confidence in composition and songwriting, which I think has fed into my contributions to Cycle, the album and the live show. It’s important for me to feel that creative projects feed into each other, inspire each other and influence each other. It’s somewhat a logistical necessity when doing this full time too.
HANNAH: It’s been tricky! That’s partly why it’s taken us a couple of years. We tend to get together for a few days here and there and work quite intensively. We gradually put new material together between other projects, until we almost had an album. Then we looked a bit more closely at the material and thought about ways to pull it all together, That’s when the ‘Cycle’ theme became clear.
Songs of separation was an amazing, creative experience, but there definitely wasn’t time to think about Lady Maisery on that residency! We were there as three individuals rather than a trio. I’m sure the experience and the material we were working with had some influence over the work we have all gone on to make though.
Can you talk us through how the album Cycle was developed, did you start with a concept?
ROWAN: The material for Cycle came together over a period of two years, really. It was about two years ago that we were first trying out early versions of the songs at gigs – I remember the first time we sang Sing For The Morning at a gig, I think that might have been the first or second song that was ready for Cycle. Having said this, I don’t think we began with the concept or themes of the album and certainly we didn’t have a title until very late in the making of it. What we did know, from the outset, is that we wanted to make an album that reflected more accurately the energy, warmth and rawness of our live show. While we’re fond of our first two albums, we’ve always felt (and others have said) that they sounded quite different to our live sound. We weren’t interested in making a ‘live album’ – that’s quite a different thing – but we did want to harness something of the energy of playing together in a room. So I think this influenced how Cycle developed – it meant we chose to work with a new engineer and producer, Dylan Fowler, who was really on board with this approach and I think he has captured something of our ‘aliveness’ that was missing on our last two albums. I think we also felt like making a more positive, hopeful album following ‘Mayday’ which had some politically quite dark material on it. Cycle is still political and as it’s about life cycles, there are still some dark themes in there – songs that deal with death and grief and getting through the colder seasons. But there’s overall a positive, hopeful theme in this album that I think we felt we all needed – the idea that songs (folk songs and other songs that are passed between people) can be sources of strength and hope in both light and dark times.
Hazel wrote quite an in-depth feature for Folk Radio UK on the song Order & Chaos (read it here), do you (Hannah and Rowan) share Hazel’s love of the sciences?
ROWAN: Well, before I was a folk singer, I was a Sociologist, and I do still have a love of the social sciences. I don’t think I watch quite as many space documentaries as Hazel, but we do all love discussing ideas and theories about life and the world. Me and Hazel definitely do share a love of the Philip Pullman trilogy of novels ‘His Dark Materials’ though and I remember we talked a lot about the beautiful ideas and images in those books while Hazel was working on the lyrics for Order & Chaos.
HANNAH: Yes, definitely. Science was my thing at school, more so than music probably. I still find it much easier to read and learn about science than about politics. With science you usually know that the person writing about it is interested in the truth and reality, when you read news it’s always a case of sifting through to work out what the truth might actually be, it feels like you have to waste a lot more time reading between lies and spin and still never know anything for definite…. except that we’re all doomed, of course!
In his Folk Radio UK review of Cycle, Thomas mentioned that the cover of Todd Rundgren’s ‘Honest Work’, at times like now, served as visceral protest music that hits all the harder for its formal and aesthetic beauty. He also touched on Diggers’ Song…describing it as ‘a rousing homage to the proto-anarchists of the seventeenth century.
How important is it to you to also share a political voice in your songs? Do you see this growing in folk music or is it something you’ve always associated with folk music?
HAZEL: I think it’s always been important for us to sing songs that have an important message or story that we want to share with people. We’ve always been interested in songs with a political message, whether it is overt or not, and the more time we have spent touring with each other over the years, the more we have realised the issues that are important to us all, and what we want our music to say. In today’s political climate I folksingers are increasingly exploring folk song’s potential to make political statements, there are definitely more artists exploring their political voices than a few years ago, which is a great thing, but partly a result of how tough times have become for many people.
ROWAN: That’s an interesting question. I think there has always been a well-worn place for political ideas in folk song, and for political singers in the folk scene. But I don’t think folk music is any more inherently political than any other form of art – it’s all about the intention of the singer/artist/dancer/writer and the reason they choose to make or present their art in the way they do. I’d like to think all our music is political in that we make very clear choices between traditional repertoire. We have a shared political voice in that we’re interested in presenting interesting, challenging voices in our songs and singing songs that criticise the current world order and wish for a more egalitarian society – on Cycle, for example, The Diggers Song is a great example of a very old (350 years!) text which could have been written yesterday… We’re also interested in changing and challenging material in our tradition which is steeped in sexism and bigotry – there’s quite a lot of that stuff (as well as the opposite!) in old folk songs and it’s a fascinating dilemma as a folk singer to know how to deal with it. Do you ignore the ‘darker bits’ of a tradition you love? Do you change them and pretend the attitudes they depict don’t exist anymore? Anyway – that’s the kind of thing we talk about in the car! We’re all very interested and engaged in what it means, politically, to make art and I think we understand being folk musicians as potentially as political a job as any other. Potentially being the important word here – it’s all about intention.
The cover of Cycle has got to be one of the most eye-catching covers of the year (designed by Kathleen Neeley and Thomas Shahan). What was the process of design and did you ask for certain elements to be with the image?
HAZEL: Yes we’re really pleased with the cover! We came up with quite a strong idea for an Alfonse Mucha inspired cover during the final stages of producing the album. The portrayal of women in his artworks is often very heavily symbolic; they are almost like secular icons and usually incorporate many natural forms, which really fitted with our ideas for the album. He also manages to intertwine beauty/art and politics, along with the idea that art should be affordable and accessible – both of these things are very important to us and are also echoed in the art of William Morris, who has been referenced in all our album covers.
We happened to come across some artwork by Thomas Shahan that was similar in style to what we imagined, so we got in touch on the off chance and were delighted when he agreed to work on the cover with Kathleen Neeley. They were immediately on board with all our ideas and took the concept and flew with it. The final image is based on real photos of us, but is full of plant imagery and symbolism related to the seasons and different cycles, as well some Hazel and Rowan leaves for good measure. There are also some acanthus leaves, which are a reference to William Morris (who has been referenced in different ways in the artwork of all our albums). We love the combination of his socialist vision and belief in creating beautiful things that are accessible for all.
In his review, Thomas concluded with “Lady Maisery are unafraid to challenge preconceptions about folk music but are aware of its cultural significance and its historical imperative. This album proves that they are worthy custodians and spirited agitators.”
HAZEL: That’s a great quote, thanks Thomas! I think that covers some things that are important to us – we have all been involved in traditional music in various different ways over the years, and we are very much aware of the importance of those, but we also think it’s really important for traditions to keep growing, and be challenged and added to.
ROWAN: Yeah that’s a lovely thing to say. I guess one of the things I love about folk music and being a folk musician is that those who do this job really well (in my opinion) have a strong sense of non-ownership of the material. Of course we’re all songwriters and composers too, but even in that sense, I think being a folk musician gives you a special relationship to the music you make in that you have to understand it ultimately is moving through you and will exist after you. Essentially, it’s not about you. After the concert, in other peoples’ heads, a song is already evolving and changing and (hopefully) getting ready to be shared and you can’t hold on too tightly to the ownership of any song – especially a traditional song, but I think too even if you wrote it. I like the word custodian – it means ‘looking after’ and ‘preserving’ but I think too it means ‘ensuring the development of this music’ so that it does change, evolve and therefore exist after us…. I think doing that well is something to aim for. I also like the term ‘spirited alligators’ which is how I first read that quote.
What has been the biggest challenge in making Cycle?
HAZEL: I suppose one of the biggest challenges has been writing original material for the album, something we’ve not in this band before, but it has been a great challenge and something we’ve really enjoyed and I’m sure will do more of in the future.
HANNAH: I suppose one of the biggest challenges was finding time to be creative as a trio when we are all so busy with other projects. But the biggest questions when we started thinking about an album were how it would be different from our previous ones and how we could capture the bigger, richer sound that has developed in our new material. We decided we wanted a more raw sound than we’d had on our previous albums and sought the help of sound engineer Dylan Fowler and mastering engineer Minerva Pappi. We think they made a bit of a dream team.
What are the next steps for Lady Maisery?
ROWAN: There are some really exciting things on the horizon for 2017 as Lady Maisery, as well as all our other projects. Perhaps most excitingly, Lady Maisery will be ‘Artists in Residence’ at Halsway Manor Centre for Folk Arts. It’s a fantastic place. As well as running singing and instrumental courses, we’re planning to compose a whole new piece that will hopefully turn into a new album or a show, or both. It’s all still in the working-out stages, but we’re all excited to get straight back to composing for Lady Maisery.
Click here for Lady Maisery’s latest tour dates including Coven who are on tour now: https://www.ladymaisery.com/tour-dates
Lady Maisery will be performing an intimate and informal ‘unplugged’ evening concert as part of their Singing Weekend at Halsway Manor on Saturday 1st April at 8pm.