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Interview: Maz O’Connor on new album, touring and songwriting

Maz O'Connor
Credit: Elly Lucas

Originally from the Lake District, Maz O’Connor spent her teenage years singing in folk clubs and studied literature at Cambridge. In 2014, she became the recipient of a BBC Performing Arts Fund Fellowship, which enabled her to write, record and release her debut album, This Willowed Light. This earned her a nomination for the BBC Radio 2 Folk Horizon Award and catapulted her into becoming one of the most respected and popular artists on the scene.

But now it’s her Irish roots that are coming to the forefront. Her third album, Chosen Daughter, tells the story of the women in her family and their fascinating history through a collection of story songs that take the listener all over the world.

Ahead of the album’s release, I caught up with Maz to talk about making the record, her approach to songwriting, upcoming projects and her UK tour.

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You’ve just released your latest album – what can you tell us about it?

Yeah, so the album’s called Chosen Daughter, and it’s my third album. It’s over three years since my last album came out, and over four years since I finished writing that last one, so it’s taken me a long time to put this new one together [laughs]. It was inspired by learning some more about my family history and in particular the women in my family, and my grandmothers on both sides. That was sort of the starting point for the album. And then that sort of made me think more about my inheritance as a woman, I suppose, in both negative and positive ways. So the songs on the album are a mixture of being directly about women in my family and then also my experiences and how they might be related, in the light of all these new feminist movements that have been happening in the last few years – my reflections on that really.

You’ve mentioned it’s a mix of family history and your own experiences. How did you develop that as the concept of the album?

I think I had been writing for about three years, aiming towards an album, but I’m quite an album kind of artist. If I’m gonna make a record I want it to have themes that tie it together. I want it to be a whole piece of work, and it wasn’t really popping out to me. I was like, ‘I’ve written so many songs!’ I must have written about 50 songs. I just didn’t know where the album was.

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And then one day I was feeling quite down about patriarchy, I suppose [laughs] – you have days where it hits you harder than others – and I wanted to listen to some music that would soothe me and speak to me. And it would be a woman speaking to me as a woman, saying ‘we’re all in this together and we all feel this sometimes, and yes it’s s**t but you’re stronger than you thought’ and all of this stuff. And I couldn’t find that album, basically [laughs]. I was like, ‘oh OK, maybe that’s the album I need to make then’.

That was when I started to pull it all together and go, ‘OK, what if this is’ – what I was calling in my head my personal patriarchy project [laughs] which is not a very sexy album title! That’s the framework I started to put it through. The patriarchy thing made me think about that word, about structures and systems outside of ourselves, and maybe sort of governments or societal structures.

But for me in the last few years I’ve realised how much of it is internalised. It’s a very personal experience and I had a process, as I think lots of women do, particularly in their 20s when they try and exorcise all of these messages about gender from within. It’s like an inside out process rather than trying to change the world. It’s trying to change myself. And from there maybe the world is changed bit by bit, but it’s an inside out process rather than an outside in process.

So with that in mind I started to see how I could pull this album together and that’s what it would be. It would have a political aspect in that it would be a feminist piece of work but it would be very personal and maybe a young woman, maybe a teenage girl could put this album on and it might speak to her when she needs to hear it.

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Is this typical of how you approach making a record?

It’s interesting. It’s kind of all part of the same thing. I think the luxury that artists have is that our process as an artist is sort of the process of self-realisation as a person. So as you grow in confidence as an artist you grow more confident as a person and vice versa. I think my previous record, I would write these songs and be like, ‘thank God there’s enough songs for an album!’ [laughs] And then I would step back and go, ‘OK, I think this album is about these themes’. But it felt like they were playing me rather than the other way round.

With this album, because I’m older, because I’ve had that process of exorcising my insecurities that were largely given to me because of patriarchal structures that I internalised, going through the process of exorcising those was a personal and an artistic journey all in one. So as a result approaching this album was much more like, ‘I am in charge here, I’m the one that is curating what this is going to be, and I’m stepping back and I’m going, “OK, I’ve got this many songs, how I am gonna make a record from it?”‘ So I’d say it was different in that sense. And it felt much more empowered and confident – less sort of just thankful that there’s anything at all [laughs].

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Was it challenging to cut the 50 songs you’d written down to an album? Or was it a relatively easy decision once you found the concept?

I think once I had the concept… it’s funny, I almost made an album loads of times. I had all these playlists that were entirely different, made of entirely different songs, and I thought, ‘oh yeah, that’s the album. That’s the next album’. And then three months later it’d be like, whole new playlist, ‘that’s the new album’. And this sort of went on without much direction for a while. And then it was quite sudden that I thought, ‘oh no, I’ve got it, and these are the songs, and this makes sense to me, and it hangs together as a whole’. And then from that point I contacted the producer, Matthew Folds, and I sent him all the songs, and I don’t think there were any songs that didn’t get on the album. I think I’m quite like that – sort of floaty and unsure for a long time, and then when I make a decision it’s like ‘nah, that’s it, that’s the decision made’. And then once I had that concept it was quite clear to me what the record was.

Are there any songs you didn’t use for this one but that might appear on a future project?

No, I don’t know. I think if they didn’t make it then maybe they weren’t good enough. But when you work in a conceptual way, that’s not always the case. I’ve got loads that I’ve written and when I think about the next album I’m having to think thematically again, because otherwise I don’t know how on earth you make a decision. So there probably will be some songs that will go on. But when they don’t feel immediate it’s very hard to get passionate about them. When you wrote something three years ago, it’s like, ‘well I’m a totally different person now’. And yes you get up on stage and sing that with authenticity and with passion, and it’s much easier to do that when it’s closer to who you are now. So we’ll see. There might be some changing or some polishing or whatever. But yeah, I do have a bank of songs that might just die [laughs].

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Do you feel your writing process has evolved since your last record?

Oh my God, yes. So much. That was a very conscious thing. I wanted to step back and think about what kind of music I wanted to make. I’d grown up making quite kind of traditional folk music and I came from that background. I just didn’t want to be creatively limited to that so early in my career, and I felt like that was happening a bit and I was writing with an audience in mind, and I just didn’t think that was creatively a good place to be in for any artist. I think you need to be free at the point of creation. And thoughts of who’s going to connect with it, how they might connect with it.

So I needed to step back from that and explore other kinds of music. I spent a couple of years working with different producers and I got some funding from a charity called Help Musicians to go and work with a pop producer. We made some demos which I released as one-off singles and others I didn’t, and they will probably live on my computer for ever and no-one will ever hear them. But it was that process of just expanding the limits of my music, and figuring out what style I wanted to make and what my voice was.

I learnt a huge amount working with a pop producer – I thought a lot more about production. Previously I hadn’t thought that much about production and how much it contributes to the writing process. So my writing changed a lot. I now redraft so many times. I’m a much slower writer and the song isn’t done until I’ve demoed it with a bit of production myself at home and harmonies and ideas for instrumentation and stuff like that. So it’s a much slower process, a much more expansive process in terms of musical palette, and more sort of confident less floaty process.

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Would you want to do more production in future – either for yourself or other artists?

Yeah. I mean, I don’t know. Maybe. I think it’s so interesting, what you think you have the confidence to do. Immediately when you say that I get a bit of an imposter syndrome shock through my body. It’s like ‘oh! I couldn’t do that’. And then it’s like, ‘why do I think that? Why do I have these ideas of what I can and can’t do?’ I think it’s important to interrogate those impulses and preconceptions. But I certainly enjoy co-producing my stuff. I don’t think I have a co-producer credit on this record but I’m there, I’m in the room the whole time. I very much have arranged songs before I go into the studio. So I very much will continue to do that. It would be fun to work with other artists but it’s not something I feel confident enough about doing yet.

Were there any songs on this album that were particularly easy or particularly difficult to write?

It’s so funny with writing because I’m sure every writer says this – there’s that famous phrase of you don’t enjoy writing but you enjoy having written. And you’re asking me at a time when I’m in a writing period at the moment. So when I think about writing I just think about pain and frustration [laughs]. But these songs on the album, now that they’re done, I can’t remember the pain and frustration. I think there probably were songs that were horrible to birth, but once they’re birthed you forget all of that.

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I do remember San Francisco being very easy, and that’s barely changed from the moment it came to being on the record. I think I changed one word, maybe. And that came very, very quickly. And I didn’t know what it was. I say it came because that was one of those magic moments you sometimes get as a songwriter where it seems like you’re a channel and you’re receiving something, and I do get quite hippy-dippy about that stuff. I feel with that song, because it’s the story of my family and my auntie Mona, it had to be me that wrote it. And I think there are some songs that want to be written and they’re looking for the right person to be there to write it.

So that felt like a very profound thing to have happened. I felt like the song had been given to me. Which is partly why I think I came to the album title, which has lots of resonances, but one of them was that feeling that I was being given this song because I was the one that was there to tell the story, and feeling so incredibly grateful that this song chose to come to me. So I think that’s why with those songs, you don’t feel like you take any credit for them. It almost came fully formed and I was just there to catch it.

You’ve written for outside projects as well. Is your approach to those different to how you write for yourself?

In a way it’s nicer and it’s easier. I think one of the hardest things about writing for yourself is putting limitations on the writing process. If I sit down to write something with no concept, no plan, no subject, no commission, I could write anything. And you would think that that is liberating but it’s not liberating a lot of the time. It’s just quite paralysing. I always think about songs in the way that they talk about sculpture. The sculpture is in the rock, you just have to chip away at all the bits of the rock that are not the sculpture. And that’s how songwriting feels to me. But when you don’t know what song you’re looking for it’s really hard to chip the bits off that aren’t the song [laughs].

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But when you’ve got a commission there’s boundaries to it and limitations to it, and maybe they’ve given you a person they want you to write about. Or when I wrote for Parliament the commissioned project was about Acts of Parliament. You’ve got so much material, you’ve got the limitations and you just have to decide how you’re gonna tell the story. Which character is gonna tell this story? Is it gonna be in your voice, somebody else’s voice? Is it gonna be a narrative, is it gonna be more lyrical? That’s just the technique then. So in a way that can be much easier and more satisfying.

You’re working on a music theatre piece at the moment. What can you tell us about that?

Yes. I’m slightly reluctant to just because I need to finish it! [laughs] But no, it’s based on the story of a woman who was killed in Tipperary – it’s a true story and there was superstition about her being a changeling. So it’s quite dark subject matter but also for me very much connects with my interest in making feminist work and my interest in my Irish heritage, particularly the stories of Irish women. I’m working on it slowly and I’m trying to get it workshopped next year, and I’m hoping to have the first draft totally finished by the end of this year. But obviously these things are a very long process. But I’ve really enjoyed it and I feel very passionately about the story and the music that I’ve written.

You’re going out on tour over the next few months – what can people coming to see your live shows expect?

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Yeah, so most of them are solo shows, but there are a few band shows that I’m gonna be announcing soon. The nice thing is they’re all after the album has come out so it’ll give people a chance to get to know the songs a bit before we tour. Because it’s always nice to know the songs. If you tour as the album is coming out it’s a bit tricky because people haven’t heard the songs yet, but most of this tour is next year so people have a nice time to get to know the album. It’ll be mostly new stuff but I’ll throw in a few from previous albums as well.

Are there any songs from the new album you’re particularly looking forward to playing live?

I’m looking forward to playing the piano songs. Some of the venues have lovely pianos in. We’ll be announcing more dates soon and we’re booking more venues that are more sort of theatre-style venues with in-house pianos, some of them have lovely grand pianos. So I’m very much looking forward to doing that because a lot of the time in smaller venues you don’t get the opportunity to have piano songs on an actual grand piano.

What song do you wish you’d written?

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I think… I’m gonna change my mind as soon as I say this of course, but for the sake of this interview I’m going to say A Case Of You by Joni Mitchell. What a heartbreaker! Although I’d take any Joni Mitchell song to be fair. But particularly that one.

What do the next few months look like for you? Is the album the main focus right now?

Yes. There’s a couple of other things in the works that I’ll be able to announce soon, but the tour will be extended. There’ll be more dates into April and May as well, and festivals in the summer. And then I’ll need to start thinking about making another album and that’ll be released in 2021, all being well.

Maz O’Connor’s new album, Chosen Daughter, is out now.

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See Maz on tour in the UK this autumn/winter:

Friday 15 November – London, The Courtyard Theatre
Friday 29 November – Hay-on-Wye, The Globe (as part of Hay Winter Festival)
Wednesday 4 December – Birmingham, Kitchen Garden Cafe
Thursday 5 December – Bath, Chapel Arts
Tuesday 4 February 2020 – Cambridge, Junction 2
Wednesday 5 February 2020 – Sheffield, Greystones
Thursday 6 February 2020 – Barrow, Forum
Friday 14 February 2020 – Milton Keynes, Stables
Sunday 16 February 2020 – Cardiff, Acapela Studio
Sunday 23 February 2020 – Walton-on-Thames, Riverhouse Barn (matinee)

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