Born and brought up in Barrow-in-Furness, Maz O'Connor is a young singer-songwriter, who, after studying at Cambridge University, moved to London a few years ago.

As befits an English graduate, O'Connor's music has an especially literary edge, her meticulously-crafted lyrics and crystallized vocals being backed by beautifully understated arrangements.

Her two albums to date, 'This Willowed Light'(2014), which consisted also of several traditional songs, and the much acclaimed 'The Longing Kind' (2016), which was composed of entirely her own material, both owed a debt to folk.

Recent download singles such as last year's 'Skin' and this year's 'Extraordinary' have, however, found her working with local London producer and musician NosaAppollo and experimenting with electronica.

Now she has released two more singles, two weeks apart. The first of these 'Young Hearts Run Free', which came out in late April, reworks Candi Staton's chart-topping 1976 disco anthem as a melancholic piano ballad. The latter 'Wasteland', which was released in early May and is set against a backdrop of chiming electronica and windswept strings, tells of the alienation of being both alone in a new city and also in a romance that is beginning to unfold ("Is this a wasteland after all?/Are you my wasteland after all?"

Pennyblackmusic spoke to Maz O'Connor about both singles and her forthcoming residency at the Harrison in Kings Cross in London

PB: You have known Candi Staton’s ‘Young Hearts Set Free’ apparently for years, yet only connected with its lyrics apparently more recently. What is the appeal to you of that song?

MO: I’ve always loved the song to dance to since hearing it in Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’, and liked the message of taking love easy while you’re young. So I started to learn it on piano, just for fun. Then as I was learning the lyrics I heard them properly for the first time; it tells a story of a woman broken by an unhappy relationship, pleading with younger people not to make the same mistakes. So instead of being a triumphant celebration, I can only hear it now as a cry of regret. I wanted to bring that out in my version.

PB: With ‘Young Hearts Set Free’ you have remained at one level true to the original yet at the same time done something entirely different with it? Was that what you were aiming for?

MO: I was interested in how different a song can sound, and how differently it can affect the person listening, without actually having to change the content. So I wanted it to sound new and familiar at the same time.

I like the idea of being surprised by something you thought you knew really well. I think it wakes you up. It started as an experiment, and I kept playing it live because people really connected with it. I decided to record it to be able to share it with more people.

PB: ‘Wasteland’ seems to be as much about the loneliness of being in a new and large city as it is about the loneliness of being in a relationship on the slide. Would you agree?

MO: Yes, the lyrics draw parallels between a love/hate relationship with a city, falling into Winter, and a love/hate relationship with another person, falling into Winter. I liked the neatness of the metaphor of feeling trapped in a city you can’t leave to express the slow fading of a romantic relationship. Or vice versa.

PB: Both singles have been produced by NosaAppollo. What do you think NosaAppollo has brought to these recordings?

MO: Nosa is a great creative collaborator and I really enjoy being in the studio with him. I take the songs in and we lay down vocals and guide piano, then work through it beginning to end, shaping it together. He has so many amazing ideas, and good taste, which helps! The general working aim we keep in mind is to keep the vocals pure and ethereal, and use production to undercut the sweetness, to add an edge. It’s the tension between the two that makes it interesting.

PB: Why did you decide to release both ‘Young Hearts Set Free’ and ‘Wasteland’ in such quick succession and just two weeks apart?

MO: I’m releasing them one after the other because they speak to each other. Lyrically they both explore the complexities of relationships, of feeling wedded to something, of wondering whether love has been wasted, and the bittersweet regret that comes with that. They’re both a reflection on time, individuality, freedom.

Musically, they exist in the same landscape for me. Stripped back to vocals and piano so that I can really expose the heart of the songs, with ‘Wasteland’ introducing a shifting layer of metallic beats underneath, and some beautifully dramatic strings undulating throughout. I also thought it would be fun to make the videos into a two-parter, so together they tell a short story of moving from darkness into light.

PB: Both singles have been released on the acclaimed singer-songwriter Blair Dunlop’s Gilded Lily Records. How did you first become involved with Blair?

MO: I’ve been aware of Blair and his music for a couple of years through mutual friends. I was introduced to his management recently and am really pleased to have been welcomed into the team. It’s a good fit as we’re both young singer-songwriters making music that means something to us.

PB: You come from an unusual background and education. You were brought up in the very working class town of Barrow-in-Furness and then went to Cambridge to study English Literature, having some of your tutorials in Coleridge’s old room. In what ways do you think both these upbringings have developed your song writing?

MO: In my lyrics I’m always looking to create a marriage between the direct and the poetic. I want to be clear, I want to connect, but I also want to find unusual imagery, interesting narratives and satisfying ambiguities. Maybe the tension in my background influences that. My English degree introduced me to a lot of writers and studying their styles (in relation to each other and in relation to their historical situations) definitely changed the way I think about language. The little tricks and surprises you can find in combinations of words, particularly when put to rhythm. I suppose everyone has a unique background, and it’s those tensions that create a distinctive voice.

PB: You’re doing three residency shows at the Harrison in King’s Cross on the 14th June, 28th June and the 12th July. What can both old and new fans expect from these shows? What are your plans for the immediate future after the shows? Will there be a third album?

MO: I’m really excited to get a chance to explore this new sound live: I’ll be playing my recent singles (‘Skin’, ‘Extraordinary’, ‘Young Hearts Run Free’ and ‘Wasteland’) as well as material from my previous albums. I’ll be joined by Jacob Stoney on keys, synths and other nefarious things, and we’ll be bringing the production of my new material alive onstage. So it will be a different live sound to anything I’ve done before, but old fans will still get to hear their favourites. I’ll also have a different special guest for each show joining me for a short collaboration. I’ll be announcing those names soon. And after that…we’ll see. There will be an EP by the end of the year I hope. It’s written, and I’m getting back in the studio to make it soon.

PB: Thank you.

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