Maz O’Connor interview part one: new album The Longing Kind, the writing process and folk heroines

Following the success of 2014’s This Willowed Light, Maz O’Connor is back with a new album, The Longing Kind. It’s a more personal affair, and her first LP comprised of entirely self-penned songs. “I’m not going to pretend not to be young,” says Maz. “For this album I didn’t want to hide behind historical disasters and mythological beasts at the expense of my own experience.”

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Youth is a key theme, and the album’s literary three-act structure – broadly: songs of uncertainty, songs inspired by works of art, often with a ‘tragic heroine’ theme, and songs of resolution and clarity – gives Maz a framework to explore her subject with a wisdom beyond her years, as well as the immediacy and insight that comes from actually being 25.

So, for example, we get the joyful Mother Make My Bed (“when you’re young and when you’re poor, the only thing you want is more”), a thoughtful examination of the story of Lady Jane Grey, and the self-assured, reassuring closer When the Whisky Runs Dry. And a whole lot more.

There’s a little of early period Bob Dylan about Maz’s guitar style, and her honest, smart and insightful lyrics. It’s easy to see her having a lengthy, Dylanesque career, with The Longing Kind providing what will come to be seen as an ‘early’ indication of a prodigious songwriting talent.

The Longing Kind is complicated, thought-provoking stuff – and Maz puts it better than we can… She had lots of interesting things to say, so we’ve decided to split our interview with her into two parts. Here’s the first, in which Maz gives us an insight into the album, tells us about the songwriting process, and discusses getting inspiration from the National Portrait Gallery.

Folk Witness: For this album you’ve moved away from traditional material. Was that a deliberate move, a way to make a record that was more personal to you?

Maz O’Connor: It wasn’t a deliberate move not to include traditional material, I’ve just written a lot of songs since my last album came out. In early drafts there was a Child ballad on the album, but it became clear listening to the finished thing that it didn’t make sense to have just one traditional track on there, and an album of fully original material felt more consistent. I’m certainly not done with traditional material, though, and it still heavily informs my writing in lots of ways. I just wanted to ride the writing wave while it was there, because you never know when it will disappear from underneath you…

At what point did you decide on the album’s three-act structure, and why?

That came quite early, before getting into the studio to record, although the exact order of the songs within the acts was decided after they were all mastered. It was, though, a realised concept at the start of the recording process.

I felt that the songs I had written over the past year or so all connected in themes of youth, longing and identity, and so it made sense to me to try and draw together some sense of narrative, or development, over the album. Given there are many references to seasons and times of year, it would have irked me to have the album jumping from winter to spring and back again, so I arranged it chronologically. They’re also pretty much arranged in the order in which I wrote them.

The middle act, which is composed of songs inspired by paintings of various people, sits there to break up the narrative, interrupt and therefore emphasise the passing of that time, and hopefully provide interesting counterpoints for the songs in the other two, more personal acts.
I heard an interview with Stephen Sondheim in which he said that he needs his characters to have learned or figured something out between the beginning and end of a song. That’s what I hope happens over the course of the album.

How did the process of writing songs on this album compare with something like Derby Day, which is (ostensibly) less personal? How long does it take you to write a song?

Derby Day was a commission. I enjoy commissions because they lead you to people and events that you weren’t necessarily aware of before, and the challenge given to you is to tell an old story in a new and idiosyncratic way. But when I’m writing for a brief it inevitably changes where the song goes, because you have a commissioner to please and certain details to honour. I think it’s fair to say that the pressure of presenting and performing the work sits in my head from the moment I start to write the song. Whereas with songs I write off my own bat, there’s no pressure, no necessity for it to be performed or even heard by anyone else. That means, I think, that there’s a freedom and intimacy in that writing. The personal investment is there either way, you’d hope, but with songs that just push themselves to the front of my head, there are no points I have to hit other than those the song itself demands. That makes it easier, in a way, but there’s also nothing to hide behind, of course.

How did you come across Delaroche’s The Execution of Lady Jane Grey and Millais’ Ophelia? What about them inspired you to compose songs?

Ah well the painting behind the song is in fact her portrait in the National Portrait Gallery, and I’m afraid I don’t know who the artist is. Though I have seen the Delaroche on one of my National Gallery wanderings. The portrait is fascinating because her name has been scratched out from beside her face; that’s what inspired the song – who removed the name and why? What if she did it before she was arrested, so that people would see her for herself, and not the hysterical rumours surrounding her?

Millais’ Ophelia was on temporary display at the NPG, too. In fact, it was my plan to develop a songwriting project inspired by portraits of women in the NPG, but I couldn’t get the funding together, so I included a couple I had written on this album. With Ophelia I liked the idea of linking the painting’s muse Lizzie Siddal and her own tragic story, with that of the character she was depicting. And linking that to the many anonymous folk song heroines undone ‘by the greenwood side’. And I felt that both of these young women (Jane Grey and Lizzie Siddall, as well as the muse in Emma) were searching for meaning and identity in ways I could relate to. How other people can shape your identity through love, control, rumour, cruelty, and it’s hard to tell when it’s true, or when it’s helpful, hard to tell what’s you and what’s them. I wanted to give a voice to those women as a way of counter-acting the identity fixed to them by the men that painted them.

The Longing Kind is out on February 26 on Restless Head. Maz O’Connor is on tour now – check out her dates here.

Click here for part two of the interview. Don’t forget you can follow us on Twitter and Facebook for updates.

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