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Maz O'ConnorMaz O'Connor
Album: The Longing Kind
Label: Restless Head
Tracks: 13

First encountered Maz when I saw a youtube video of her performing at Twickfolk singing a Jake Thackray song and I have to confess I was intrigued. Amazed that such an obviously young person would even have heard of Jake Thackray, and amazed that if anyone was going to perform a cover of one of his songs that they would choose one of his rare serious songs (Tan Tan Tethera) rather than one of his comic songs such as Sister Josephine. Even before I'd seen her I realised that she was full of surprises.

Don’t know how old she actually was then, but even now she still seems to be far too young to be allowed out on her own. To give you an idea, she is so young that her facebook page lists “Driver” amongst her skills! Her songs, though, are steeped in a maturity few other musicians attain.

She grew up in Barrow-in-Furness, first performed in Newcastle, and now lives in London. Her earliest influence was Barnsley's own Kate Rusby. Her father's family came from Ireland, her mother's from Lancashire, with roots back to Wales, and so she doesn't feel particularly connected to any part of the country and her style is her own.

When I first saw her live, (also at Twickfolk) she had just finished recording her album “This Willowed Light”, but it was not yet released. She is such a prolific singer-songwriter that many of the songs that she performed then were so new that they didn’t appear on that album. When I saw her again in January of this year, she had just finished recording “The Longing Kind”, so I had expected that most of the songs on this album would be songs that were fresh in my mind from her recent concert, but as before, since recording the album she has continued to write, and so most of her new material is too new to appear on this album. Many of the tracks though, are ones that I heard her play back at Twickfolk.

Having seen her perform I had a clear expectation of what I would hear when I started to play "The Longing Kind". The first track, simply called "Intro", was a total surprise, being completely different to what I was expecting. It sounds almost classical, and the first thought in my head was that I had accidentally mixed up Maz with Mozart, (a simple alphabetical error). I actually heard myself physically exclaim "Wow" when I realised that this was indeed Maz's new album. All I can say is "Intro" is far too short. Love it, but wish it went on for longer.

"The Longing Kind" is Maz's third album and the first which is entirely her own material, apart from "Mother Make My Bed", which was co-written with Jim Moray, who also produced, recorded and mixed the album, along with background vocals, percussion, guitar, keyboards, mandolin, harmonium and banjo. addition, Maz is joined by Beth Porter, on cello, Matt Downer on double bass, Nick Malcolm on trumpet, Chris Hillman on steel, and Suzi Gage on backing vocals. Maz herself sings, plays guitar, tenor guitar, piano and harmonium. With so many varied instruments it is easy to see why I thought "Intro" might have been classical.

At least in my mind, Maz has a reputation of having a strong political bias. She was sponsored by the Broadstairs Folk festival to write some feminist songs, (resulting in "Derby Day", and "The Mississippi Woman" on "This Willowed Light"), and she was sponsored by the UK Parliament, as part of the "Sweet Liberties" project, to write songs celebrating important political events that have occurred since the signing of the Magna Carta as part of the 800 year anniversary of the birth of democracy. Maz has joked that she would like to be considered as the next Joan Baez. So I was quite surprised to find that none of the songs on "The Longing Kind" have any particular political undercurrents at all. Not only that, but the theme behind many of the songs are to do with the feeling of sadness and emptiness post relationship break-up. None of this Glora Gaynor I Will Survive feminism, and even the last track, "When The Whisky Runs Dry", implies that a woman can survive without a man, but may need to turn to alcohol to achieve this.

The songs are beautifully crafted, beautifully performed by Maz and the other musicians and are very erudite, drawing on a lot of cultural references, including Shakespeare's Macbeth - When shall we three meet again, and the Bible - building castles on sinking sand. There are effectively three sections to this album, (Maz describes it as 'like a three act play'): the first section dealing with growing up and coping with the big wide world, and the third section dealing with a more adult acceptance of self.

But it is the middle section that elevates this album from a being just a brilliant folk album to an absolute masterpiece. Like Mussorgsky's Pictures At An Exhibition, "Greenwood Side", "Emma" and "Jane Grey" are all themed around paintings. As you might expect from someone with a feminist reputation, Maz has a strong affinity for the women in the paintings and has mentally stepped inside the frames to give voice to the models.

"Greenwood Side" blows me away every time I listen to it. Lyrically, it feels as if it could have been a Child ballad. The model in the painting given voice by Maz is Effie Gray, the artist being John Everett Millais, and the painting is "Ophelia", one of the most beautiful paintings I know. Effie nearly died whilst sitting for it. And yes, the song is every bit as beautiful as the painting. Maz has an enormous vocal range (almost Cleo Lane like), so one second her voice is soaring up to the Greenwood tree tops, then swooping down to the roots.

My lack of erudition lets me down for "Emma". I am fairly certain that the model-come-muse inside the frame is Emma (nee Lyon), Lady Hamilton, and that the painter is George Romney, but I am unsure which of the many portraits of her is the one that the song is about. The lyrics refer to the fact that Emma was painted in blue, but I am not aware that Romney actually painted a portrait of her all in blue. Could be I'm wrong and that "Emma" is about someone else.

The final song in this section, "Jane Grey" is of a painting recently procured by the National Portrait gallery for £100,000, known as the "Streatham Portrait". The portrait was entitled, but only the first two letters are still legible - 'LA', but it is believed that the title once read "LADY JAYNE". Lady Jane Grey, was proclaimed Queen by protestant supporters after King Edward VI died in an attempt to ensure that the Catholic Mary Tudor did not take the throne, but nine days in to her reign she was usurped by Mary and beheaded. It was thought that Jane Grey was the only 16th century monarch to not have a contemporary portrait, hence the high value placed on this painting once it had been identified. Maz's song makes the assumption that it was Jane herself who wanted the painting to be anonymous, so that the world could look on her beauty without the image being tainted by her title.

Some of the lyrics on this album are wonderful. I adore the line in "A Rose" that says 'I turned my love on strangers, I turned my love on friends. Now Love she turns on me, to reclaim all the joys she lent.' I am fascinated by deliberate ambiguity in lyrics, and I don't think there is any finer than in "Emma" when she sings 'A momentary muse, to be moved, to be used and left unmade in bed.' Except she could be singing 'and left un-maid in bed' which would have a very different meaning. Pure genius.

To summarise: I approached this record with extremely high expectations, but Maz has completely trounced them. She would like to be known as the next Joan Baez. If it helps, if Joan was playing in a room to my left, and Maz was playing in a room to my right, I would be bitterly torn, but would select the room on the right every time.

Pete Bradley