Folk singer-songwriter Maz O’Connor tells Shelley Marsden about getting experimental for album two with trumpets, shuti boxes and wine glass effects.
A low-key buzz continues to build around 23 year old folk artist Maz O’Connor, who was last year nominated for the Horizon Award in the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards.
It’s sure to continue with new album This Willowed Light, out July 7, a more eclectic offering, but one which continues to show off her angelic purity of voice to stunning effect.
Maz’s sound is more readily identified with English folk than Irish, but Irish traditional influences have seeped into her sound via her Waterford father, who came to Liverpool in the 60s.
Now London-based – Maz herself grew up in Cumbria – she says she owes her direct, uncluttered singing style to her father’s heritage. Working on a SOAS song collecting project earlier this year with the Irish community in London, she spent some time with some Irish singers.
“They told me they were always taught to sing in a way that discouraged ornamentation and any sort of affectation, and that style has influenced the way I sing.
“My dad sings as does a lot of my family; you know what it’s like at wakes and christenings – everyone’s encouraged to get up at one stage. That’s when I started learning my own songs and singing them.”
With her dad a regular session goer, particularly when he’s back Liverpool and her mum a music teacher in a secondary school, it’s small surprise that Maz and her brother, who plays the melodeon, are equally musically-minded.
She started gigging with a band at aged 16, but it was while studying English Literature at Cambridge that she began playing and making music in earnest, single-handedly setting up a folk society there where fellow musos would get together every other week, playing and sharing songs.
In what some might say was a rather masochist move, particularly at a university as demanding as Cambridge, Maz decided to record her debut album, 2012’s Upon A Stranger Shore, just before her final exams.
“That wasn’t stressful at ALL (I wonder whose daft idea that was!). But I was pleased with how it worked out, and I got my Folk Award nomination. I just wanted to do something. That was the thinking behind recording it at that stupid time. I’m quite an impatient person and I didn’t want to wait, so… I was lucky it all worked out.”
Two years on, This Willowed Light is almost ready to see the light of day. Her debut contained a scattering of Irish trad numbers. This one contains five or six traditional tracks but is a bolder, more self-assured offering with a little of the same diffidence of her debut– and even the trad tracks get brand new tunes.
Says Maz: “I tried to make them all ‘story’ songs with a really good narrative. I’m playing guitar mostly now, which is a change from the first album because I wasn’t confident enough so I got somebody else in to do that.
“There’s harmonium on there, and beautiful cello by a woman called Beth Porter, and a muted trumpet coming in and out on some of the tracks. We tried to be a bit more inventive. The last album was very traditional, Celtic-sounding with melodeon, fiddle, guitar and bodhran. This time, we’ve brought in some new elements…”
One of them is an M1 shruti box. What is that, it sounds Indian? “It is from India”, she laughs. “You’d be amazed how many people ask me, and I still don’t entirely know. It’s like a hand-held harmonium. Instead of sitting down ‘at’ the harmonium you put it on your lap. It’s basically bellows, and the keys in the front determine the drone – you can only make a drone, you can’t play a melody on it.”
One standout track is opener Awake, Awake, a traditional song she’s given a new melody to; a version of the famous American folk song The Silver Dagger which she came across in a collection of English folksongs put online this year, The Full English Collection.
“It’s really cool”, she says. “All the manuscripts of folk song collectors were put online so you can see the original manuscripts. So I found a version of that song there which I’d never heard anybody sing. That’s got harmonium, trumpet and, oh, wine glass effect as well.”
The wine glass effects were the idea of producer Jim Moray, a well English respected folk artist in his own right who Maz says she was drawn to for his love of experimenting.
The pair met while Maz was doing a creative fellowship with the English Folk Dance and Song Society, funded by the BBC Performing Arts Fund; Jim was her mentor for all things industry-related, and they got on so well they decided to work together musically.
“The great thing about Jim is, he’ll just go with it and try random things”, she says. “Because he’s got his own studio (in Bristol), we didn’t have that pressure of paying for studio time either.
“He’s fun because he’s forever doing really unexpected things. You’ll go and put your guitar and vocals down on a track, then a week later he might send you a mix that will now have three fiddles, a mandolin, all this other stuff and you’ll be like, ‘Wow’.”
Just 23 years old and already releasing album two, does she feels quite young to have all this experience under her belt? She thinks quite the opposite – that two years to make an album is an excruciating length of time (well she did say she was impatient).
To reiterate the point, she reveals she has another selection of songs written and ready to go, but admits it could be another couple of years before they can be recorded.
Other interesting experience since leaving uni included a summer as singer for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of As You Like it (with music penned by Laura Marling), something she describes as a baptism of fire, having never acted.
“I got there and there was a point when they just said, ‘Right-o, now we’re going to put Maz in the scene and I was like ‘What?!’ It was very scary but once I got into it, a lot of fun. It was just nice to be part of a band without the pressure of it being my music or my gig.”
Are there times she feels exposed, then, as a solo artist? “Possibly…. but I think if I felt that too much I wouldn’t choose to do it, you know? Every part of the process is on you though, yes; the writing, arranging. I book a lot of my own gigs and promote them myself, so there’s a lot of pressure.”
As for competition from other young folk artists, of which there are many, she says their sounds are different enough to dissuade any competitive streak, that they are more like a community.
Maz, who lives in Mile End, meets up with Bella Hardy on occasion for coffee and advice (“she’s been very nice to me recently”) and fellow BBC Folk nominees Josienne Clark and Ben Walker – two of the only folk singers she knows living in London. “Most are based elsewhere, probably because it’s folk music – none of us are making millions here!”
She’s off to Canada soon, she tells me, to collaborate with a singer there called Ashley Condon, but says shyly that the idea terrifies her: “Writing is a very personal thing and I don’t know how it will work writing with somebody else. I’m intrigued and petrified.”
After that, she has appearances coming up at Cambridge Folk Festival and Womad. And in the long-term, she has her eye on a producer she’s dying to work with, Ethan Johns, who has worked his magic on Laura Marling’s last two albums, and has one into the studio with The Staves and The Vaccines.
“He’s an amazing producer for voice and guitar, that’s his thing – he makes it sound full and beautiful”, she says. I wouldn’t be surprised if she gets him, she’s a determined sort.
This Willowed Light is out on July 7. Maz will be doing an online gig that day to launch it. See www.mazoconnor.com.