Ahead of her gig at Cecil Sharp House on 30 January, we ask Maz O'Connor about her year-long BBC Performing Art Fund Fellowship with the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS), her 2013 highlights and what lies in store for the coming year.
Going to Folk Alliance in Toronto in February was an amazing experience, where I discovered lots of inspiring folk artists I'd never come across before. It was the first part of my BBC Performing Arts Fund fellowship with EFDSS, and it was a real eye opener in terms of seeing what's out there industry-wise. It's also where Jim Moray and I hatched a plan to work on an album together, and that process turned out to be lots of fun; Jim's a great producer and I'm really proud of the outcome.
I also spent the summer singing in the RSC's 'As You Like It' in Stratford-upon-Avon, which was totally different to anything I've done before, but I've always loved theatre so that was an amazing opportunity for me.
There's way too much to list here! The fellowship was a fantastic opportunity to work on new material, develop my performance skills and collaborate with brilliant musicians along the way, some of which will be joining me for my end-of-fellowship gig at Cecil Sharp House on 30 January. It's been an invaluable opportunity to take the time to work on my songwriting and work with all sorts of new people, as well as get involved in some of EFDSS' education projects. I feel very lucky and can't wait to celebrate with the gig at the end of the month.
When I was at school my brother and I used to go over to Newcastle to play with Folkestra North, the youth folk ensemble run by Kathryn Tickell, so I'd say that the scene over in the North-East was more of an influence than Cumbrian folk music. That said, there were folk groups run in Cumbria that certainly piqued my interest. On a more general note I have to say that I'm suspicious of the idea of 'roots' in music, particularly as my background is a bit piecemeal: my dad's family are Irish and my mum's are originally from Lancashire, further back than that you get to Wales and who knows before then...so I don't feel particularly connected to any one part of the country and I feel it would be disingenuous to claim otherwise for the sake of some sort of sense of inherited authenticity.
The first folk singer I heard was Kate Rusby, and I was enchanted by her sweet and simple style of singing and her emphasis on storytelling. Her albums stood out as an antidote to the manufactured pop you're fed when you're a kid. Then my mum got me a Bob Dylan CD for Christmas when I was about 13 and my obsession with his early records continues...again I think it's the storytelling that engages me, so I suppose that would be what inspires me when I'm writing and adapting songs -to create and/or emphasise the narrative and the characters.
I think the most important thing to do at first is to play as often as you can in public, because you can only really tell how good your stuff is when you play it for real live people! Then you'll begin to hone your performance style. I've found that your musical priorities become clearer the more you gig, by which I mean you realise what sort of songs you want to sing to people, what sort of performer you want to be and what you want your audience (and you) to get out of your gigs.
I've had lots of support from organisations like Folkworks and EFDSS, so I also think it's important to identify those opportunities and sign up for all the workshops, summer schools, youth ensembles etc that you physically have time to attend!
My favourite songwriter (probably in the world) is Anais Mitchell. I also love American artists like Sarah Jarosz and Bon Iver. however, what I'd really love to do, is collaborate with artists from a different musical genre just to mix expectations up a bit. There are great things about playing solo, but it would be cool to be part of a band, on the road in a tour bus, playing guitars and playing X-Box. Though maybe I've watched the Spice Girls movie too many times and I'm romanticising...
I really loved playing at the Green Note back in October as it's pretty local to me and lots of friends came out to the gig. It makes a real difference to feel that support coming from your audience before you even start singing!
Well first off I'm going on tour with my trio in February and March, and the dates can be found on my website, www.mazoconnor.com/gigs.
Then my new album, produced by Jim Moray, will be out in April. It's called This Willowed Light and is a mixture of original and re-worked traditional songs, most of which were written during my fellowship with EFDSS.
Hopefully lots of festivals in the summer and after that there are a couple of projects in the pipeline. So all in all 2014 should be a busy and interesting year!
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