‘Women fought and died for their cause’

Rising star of British Folk Maz O’Connor stops in at Clitheroe Grand next month. The BBC Folk Award nominee tells TONY DEWHURST how the suffragettes inspired her latest songwriting efforts
Maz O'ConnorMaz O'Connor
Maz O'Connor

Maz O’Connor’s touching interpretation of the 1913 Epsom Derby tragedy, when suffragette Emily Davison threw herself in front of King George’s horse, Anmer, shows she has a keen ear and eye for approaching tradition from alternative and inspiring angles.

O’Connor’s captivating song – Derby Day – begins with a patchy race commentary, while her enchanting vocals capture the excitement, chaos and ultimate sadness of that summer’s day a century ago.

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“I’m not a musician that’s big on protest or flag-waving, I just hope the song captures what it was like to be there without making a big political statement,” said O’Connor.

“The suffragettes were brave people, and they fought and died for their cause.

“Certainly 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 the narrative and the characters.”

O’Connor, from Barrow-in-Furness, has a rare talent for fusing traditional and contemporary folk sounds.

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Performing a medley of songs and thoughtful, poetic compositions, one of British folk’s rising stars is accompanied by guitar, piano and harmonium.

Having already forged a reputation on the folk scene through her BBC Radio 2 Folk Award nomination, the singer songwriter is back with another album, This Willowed Light, short-listed in the Daily Telegraph’s best folk albums of last year.

It is a collection of songs that deserves to be heard far and wide.

O’Connor’s visit to the county next month is part of a triple bill featuring a clutch of outstanding female singer song writers, also including Kathryn Williams and Georgia Ruth.

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The Womenfolk tour stops off at Clitheroe’s Grand Theatre on February 7.

“It is a great idea, to get the music around the theatres, giving it this fantastic showcase, especially in the north.

“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, so I don’t feel particularly connected to one part of the country.

“I feel it would be disingenuous to claim otherwise for the sake of some sort of sense of inherited authenticity.”

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O’Connor has been singing on the folk scene since she was 13 years old. Her first festival appearance was as an entrant to a young performers’ competition, previously won by Kate Rusby. She’s been gigging ever since.

“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.”

But it was while at Cambridge University reading English that she fell in love with the folk writers of the 1960s: Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young and she added: “My mum got me a Dylan album for Christmas when I was about 14 and my early obsession with his early records continues to this day.”

Womenfolk: Kathryn Williams, Maz O’Connor, Georgia Ruth. Clitheroe Grand Theatre, February 7. (£10) 01200 421599 or www.thegrandvenue.co.uk