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Losing her religion

Maz O’Connor told David Hennessy about her new single, her generation’s lack of spirituality and why  she doesn’t like being called ‘lovely’ or that she has ‘a beautiful voice’.

Originally from the Lake District, folk star Maz O’Connor was the recipient of a BBC Performing Arts Fund Fellowship, which enabled her to write, record and release her debut album, This Willowed Light in 2014.

The album earned her a nomination for the BBC Radio 2 Folk Horizon Award and launched her as a distinctive new voice on the scene.

She would follow her debut with The Longing Kind in 2016, and then the 2019 album, A Chosen Daughter.

Maz’s fourth album is due in May next year and ponders many themes such as isolation and anxiety as well as spirituality and consumerism.

Her new single Jessica sees Maz reflecting on an incident from her teenage years.

Raised in a household of strong Catholic faith, Maz would fight with her best friend because she was so certain she was on the wrong path.

Maz has since turned away from the religion herself due to her opposition to the church on important issues such as the treatment of women and acceptance of LGBT people.

Maz told The Irish World: “Catholicism was a big, big part of my childhood and adolescence.

“My dad was an RE teacher and I remember one time we missed mass for some reason so we had to have our own mass at home. That’s how religious we were.

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“It’s not something that I practice now.

“For me the Catholic Church is incredibly problematic for many reasons but for me personally from the feminist perspective and in terms of homophobia.

“That comes into the new single Jessica which would be me kind of reflecting on being a teenager.

“I remember when I was a teenager, my best friend at the time wasn’t a Catholic, and I really genuinely thought she was going to go to Hell.

“I remember us having an argument about it.

“I must have been 13 or something. It’s such an intense argument to be having when you’re 13.

“The song looks back at those ideas from where I’m at now and explores it from this perspective, which I hope is perhaps a more open-minded perspective.

“But it’s certainly taken me a long time to get myself free of a lot of the shame that I felt Catholicism gave me personally.”

Although she came to a point where she could no longer go along with a lot of church beliefs and ideology, it was in church that she discovered her passion for music.

“I was really quite independently into it because I sang in the church choir.

“I did go myself to mass without anyone taking me until I was 15 or 16.

“It’s a bit tricky, because it’s tied up with my music.

“I was so grateful for the opportunity to be involved in church music because I think without that, I don’t know if I would be a musician.

“That community was so supportive of me musically.

“I think it was when we learned about all the stuff around abortion and gay rights, it didn’t chime with who I am and who I was then, and who my parents were.

“I found it very confusing. So it just clicked and I thought, ‘No, no, no, not for me’.”

Maz found it hard to square the church’s message of forgiveness with the religion’s intolerance.

“I think those contradictions became very, very clear.

“There’s a lot of intolerance and a lot of suffering caused by the exclusion of women, the oppression of women and oppression of LGBT people.

“And it’s not right. I don’t think it’s what Jesus would have wanted.

“I’m open to the idea of some divine presence, but I don’t really buy that it just happens to fit with this patriarchal structure that did pre- exist Jesus.”

One of the themes dealt with in Maz’s forthcoming album is consumerism and how it is now sometimes sold or presented as modern spirituality to exploit a void that young generations have.

“I was already interested in themes like isolation, connection, absent friends, anxiety.

“And then of course, we were all sort of thrown into those themes more deeply (in the pandemic).

“While lyrically, it’s kind of inspired by that time, what I tried to do was musically find something that’s quite joyful because I thought people might need music that it’s going to lift their spirits.

“I suppose it really is a pandemic baby.

“What I ended up writing about a lot was consumerism.

“I’m interested in consumerism and what it does to society and what it does to us on an emotional and spiritual level.

“One of the songs is called Can’t Get Enough and it’s about that sense of nothing ever being enough that I think a lot of us have.

“What we’re sold all the time is to just consume and that will fill this hole.

“And actually what we have found during the pandemic is really that we need connection and we need other people.

“I certainly find, amongst my friends and other people, that people are trying to find things to fill the space that traditionally would have been God.

“You can go to an expensive yoga class or you can go on an ayahuasca trip.

“You can buy yourself a new set of clothes and see what that does to you.

“I noticed that among my generation that we are largely godless and trying to fill that hole with stuff that you can buy, but at the bottom of it, there’s still this yearning and longing for meaning.”

Maz delved deep into her Irish roots for her previous album, Chosen Daughter.

“With my last album, I had a song called San Francisco, which is about the story of my great aunt who left Ireland to go to America to become a nun when she was only 16 so that her younger sisters could get an education.

“I wrote a song for her and there’s songs on that album as well about adoption because my mother was adopted through a Catholic institution. There’s no evidence that there was any funny business in her case, but I think watching Philomena certainly made us think again about her context.

“On this new album, I think I’m sort of coming at those themes from a different direction and that it’s perhaps more about me.

“It’s less about my ancestors and that historical perspective and more about me now and what is the inheritance of that enforced spirituality?

“And where do I find it now?

“If I’m not Catholic, then where am I going to find that connection, that community and that meaning?

“And I hope that that will chime with lots of other people who probably find themselves in the same position.”

2020 was due to be a big year for Maz touring Chosen Daughter.

Of course, this did not happen but she counts her blessings rather than lamenting any lost opportunities.

“Actually, I feel lucky. My family were all safe. My friends were all safe. There was no sort of immediate panic in that sense so it gave me an opportunity to work creatively in a way that I haven’t been able to do for a long time.

“Because when you’re a gigging musician, you’re out of the house so much that you’re always traveling to the next thing, and to be able to stay still for a while and have a think and reflect on what kind of work you want to make was actually really useful.

“Creatively for me, it’s been really positive. And I hope I’ll be able to hold on to some of that time and space as things open up again.”

Maz, who spent time working with the Royal Shakespeare Company, performs the music from her play The Wife of Michael Cleary for the Liverpool Irish Festival tonight.

“We’re calling it The Wife of Michael Cleary, A Songbook.

“So it’s the songs from the show sung by me and Colm Gleeson, an actor/singer, with almost a full band.

“It’s based on a true story: The true story of a woman called Bridget Cleary who was a dressmaker living in Ballyvadlea in Co. Tipperary, very near to Clonmel.

“She was a very successful, very independent dressmaker, had her own little business.

“By all accounts was an independent spirit as well. Quite fierce, quite wild.”

Bridget would be killed in a gruesome way and for a bizarre reason.

“When she became ill, her husband and her family were convinced that she was a fairy changeling.

“So they did this so called fairy ritual to try and get the changeling out and it culminated with Michael, her husband, setting her night dress on fire.

“So she was killed, and she was only 26.

“I was drawn to the story. There were two themes that interested me. One is the power of folklore and how it connects us to a deeper, longer path.

“But also, the themes of patriarchy which I am very passionate about.

“It seemed to me to bring those two things together and to show how these greater powers culminate in violence against women and not only that, but in a kind of a culturally permissible way.

“So that’s what the piece explores.

“And also just the showcase Bridget and how brilliant she was, as a person.”

Maz had been writing the play since 2017. While lockdown gave her the chance to finish it, she looks forward to being able to put on a full production.

“That’s what we’re aiming for.

“That’s hopefully on the cards to 2022 but obviously it’s a huge undertaking. We need a lot of funding.

“Going forward we’re hoping that the pandemic hasn’t decimated the industry so much that we can’t get a production.”

Maz played Moseley Folk Festival recently and has an upcoming gig at Kings Place in London.

She says music is nothing without the live performance and a song is only a ‘half song’ until it gets to an audience.

“For me, I write music for the connection, to connect with other people.

“You might say it’s kind of a spiritual practice for me to share my experiences with an audience and get some feedback.

“And I think what was so hard about the pandemic is that you weren’t getting that back. You were getting a little bit through the screen but it’s not the same.

“And I think just to get to meet people, that is what it’s about for me.

“It’s almost like a song is only half a song unless there’s an audience.

The audience completes it, the audience makes it what it is.”

There has been much said about gender disparity in the music industry over the last year.

Has Maz experienced snobbery or worse as a solo female? “Oh, absolutely. Of course.

“I wouldn’t even know where to start it. It’s kind of big things and small things.

“It’s a thousand little things.

“For example, you might be described as ‘lovely’.

“Or you might be described as having ‘a beautiful voice’, which people mean nicely, but it’s not an empowering way to describe an artist. It doesn’t recognize the fact that you’re a writer. It doesn’t recognize the fact that you’re a singer actually because when you talk about somebody’s voice, it’s like talking about their hair. It’s not giving the singer agency.

“I definitely find that people talk a lot about my voice. And they describe it as being pure, which is pretty problematic.

“I don’t know if people talk about male singers’ voices being pure.

“It’s so many small things like that.

“But then there’s bigger things in terms of representation across the industry.

“I feel very differently if I’m showcasing to a room that is diverse in terms of gender as opposed to showcasing to a room of all men of a certain background of a certain age. That I find quite intimidating.

“If it’s a room that is more balanced, I feel a lot more comfortable.

“That has an effect on your career, it has an effect on your performance.

“I could go on. We’ve got a chronic lack of female producers, a chronic lack of female engineers, and that would affect how comfortable I would feel in a studio and how open I feel, whether I empowered or patronised.

“I’ve definitely found that has been a huge obstacle and one that I feel now able to tackle but for a long time, it just got me down and it really affected me.”

Maz says feeling that way is only quite a recent thing.

“Probably because I had been brought up Catholic and was feeling that strong sense of patriarchy already pushing down on me, I think perhaps I was more susceptible to it.

“It’s not empowering. And I think as an artist, you have to feel strong and open and brave and empowered. I didn’t until a couple years ago really.”
Music and particularly Irish music were a big part of Maz’s childhood. She has recently returned to the fiddle, an instrument of her youth.

“I loved playing but I didn’t think I was good enough so I stopped. But now I don’t care.

“There’s something about Irish music that speaks to me on a quite deep, emotional level like no other music seems to.

“There was music everywhere. We would be singing in the car. We were that really annoying family, like the Von Trapps that everyone else thinks is a bit of a nightmare.”

Maz would be too shy to play at sessions on the family’s Irish visits but her brother, a ‘prodigy’ on the melodeon, did play.

”My dad took us back to Ireland most summers.

“We went to Waterford mostly which is where my gran was from.

“We would stay on my cousin’s farm near Kilmacthomas which was brilliant.

“It was brilliant for me because I’m a vegan and I absolutely love animals.

“That’s my strongest memory of going there, picking up the kittens and trying to pet them like they’re cats.

Also when we were more into the music, dad would take us places where we could play in sessions and things.

“We went to Doolin. I was too shy to play but my brother played in a lot of sessions.

“It’s been a while since I’ve been. I’ve not been 2017 I think when I was researching my musical, but I’m playing Dublin in January. I’m really excited for that.”

If her application is processed in time, Maz could arrive in Dublin on an Irish passport which is something she and other family members are very keen to get post- Brexit.

“I’m in the process of getting my Irish citizenship.

“It was Brexit. It would have been nice to have for sentimental reasons but there was never any reason to go through with it until Brexit.

“And now the documents, my grandparents’ documents, are doing the rounds around all the cousins because we’re desperate for that EU citizenship.

“But also as a musician, I need it to tour abroad. It’ll be incredibly helpful for me.”

The single Jessica is out now. The album is coming in 2022

Maz plays Kings Place in London on 3 November.

For more information, click here.

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