Lady Maisery – Folk Songs in the Key of Life

Posted on May 8th, 2017 in Features, Recent posts by .

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English folk trio Lady Maisery speak to Julian May about their latest album that blurs the line between traditional and contemporary song in order to tackle that most daunting of subjects, the cycle of life (photograph: James Fagan)

We came together through a love of singing,” says Rowan Rheingans, “and songs and their messages, the power of songs and the sharing of songs.” Between them, Lady Maisery, a trio of Rheingans, Hannah James and Hazel Askew, play the harp, concertina, accordion, fiddle, viola, banjo, bansitar and piano. And ankle bells and some foot percussion. Most importantly, though, they all sing, in gorgeous harmony, often without any of those instruments. They’re renowned for reviving diddling, singing tunes wordlessly, using their voices as instruments, an art that had all but disappeared in the UK.

Though youthful, all three are seasoned artists. James worked with the band Kerfuffle for nine years, then continued with Sam Sweeney, Bellowhead’s fiddle player. Askew and Rheingans are both in successful duos with their respective sisters. The Rheingans Sisters won the Best Original Track Award at this year’s BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards with their song ‘Mackerel’. All three are participants in the Songs of Separation project, which brought together ten female musicians from Scotland and England to work on songs of dislocation and parting. They grew up with folk music and knew one another as teenagers from meeting at festivals and summer schools.

“We all ended up going to Newcastle University, though we weren’t all there at the same time,” says Askew. “I had spoken to Hannah a few times about starting a vocal trio, but we weren’t sure who we could get to sing low. Then I ended up sharing a flat with Rowan so it all fell into place.”

Lady Maisery released their first album, Weave and Spin, in 2011 and their second, the dark and powerful Mayday, in 2013 (a Top of the World review in #94). The singing on both was highly praised. “We love singing,” Askew reiterates. “We spend a long time arranging, coming up with harmonies. Singing a song in different ways, listening back and picking out this harmony, that chord that we thought worked. We all sing and we all play, so we have lots of possibilities.”

Lady Maisery take their name from a woman in a song who, in the face of familial opposition, refuses to give up the man she loves, the man of her choosing. The song, centuries old, is absolutely contemporary. She falls victim to what today is known as ‘honour killing.’ The band’s name encapsulates the engagement of these young women with traditional song, human rights, and gender politics. Mayday explored all of these.

“People think of us as a group dealing mainly with folk songs, and folk music is an amazing situation to explore these things in,” Rheingans says. “That’s a very strong and important part of our work. But we’re also all very interested in other kinds of music, other kinds of literature.” James studied at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki with accordionist Maria Kalaniemi. Rheingans also loves Scandinavian music and has studied in Sweden. Askew plays medieval harp with the early music ensemble, The Dufay Collective. They compose for the theatre and James, steeped in clog, Irish and Appalachian dance, created and performed Jig Doll, a solo percussive dance show.

“We come across songs and images in those realms that we want to explore,” says Rheingans. “They come into our repertoire quite naturally.” So, Cycle, Lady Maisery’s new and very impressive album, includes traditional material gathered by Frank Kidson (who travelled widely as a landscape painter, collecting folk songs as he went) and Sabine Baring-Gould, the extraordinary West Country vicar (he fathered 15 children, collected volumes of songs and has more than 1,240 publications to his name). But there is also a lyric by the contemporary novelist Toby Litt, a song by American rocker Todd Rundgren, a hymn by the Reverend John Newton (who wrote ‘Amazing Grace’), and Gerrard Winstanley’s ’Diggers’ Song’. There are songs of their own, too, and some beautiful tunes.

“We started to work, after Mayday, on songs that for various reasons we all wanted to do,” Askew, the harp and concertina player, says. “When we had the group of songs we thought, what links these?” James jumps in. “We found the theme. It was subconscious at first, then became clearer. Life, the cycle of life!”

And I thought their last album, with its juxtapositions and multiplicity of meanings, was ambitious. Cycle could have been daunting, but Lady Maisery handle their monumental theme deftly as well as bravely. Songs are arranged around the turning of the year, reflecting our relation with the natural world and the land, our place in the cycle. Woven within this is the progress of our lives, from the vigour of our springtime, in Rheingans’ song ‘Sing for the Morning’, to ‘The Winter of Life’, a vision of a contented old age. Baring-Gould collected this from Charles Arscott, clearly a wise man, in South Zeal, Devon, on March 20 1896.

“We live in times of such uncertainty,” James says. “Everyone feels uncertain. This is an attempt to get back to those things we all have in common and can lean on: the cycle of life.”

Lady Maisery sing songs of solidarity: Richard Fariña’s ‘Quiet Joys of Brotherhood’, ‘Diggers’ Song’, and the album ends with ‘Land on the Shore’. This is a Shaker hymn, full of hope and faith that we will, together, get to wherever that far shore lies. Given what is happening now between North Africa and the far shore of Europe, this song resonates politically, as well as spiritually.

“Not that it’s a ‘happy album,’” Rheingans insists. “But it’s not dwelling on hardship, more on strength, and the whole picture. The basics of life – that’s what it’s about.”

Cycle is certainly not superficially upbeat: there is no skirting round the fact that the cycle of life is rounded by death. ‘So Far’ is taken from a secular requiem. Askew’s ‘Order and Chaos’ grapples, like many folk songs, with death and what might follow, but she was inspired by Aaron Freeman’s scientific eulogy ‘You Want a Physicist to Speak at your Funeral’ – offering comfort from the fact that while energy and matter change, they cannot be destroyed. Cycle is akin to Maria Rainer Rilke’s great sequence, Sonnets to Orpheus, a celebration of creation, sung into being, without God.

Right in the middle is ‘A Father’s Lullaby’, a remarkable song by Askew that exemplifies Lady Maisery’s approach. Askew wrote it after visiting the Foundling Museum in London, the UK’s first children’s charity. From 1741 until 1954, the Foundling Hospital cared for abandoned children. Most who took their infants there because they were unable to look after them were women. But there were many men too, fathers left holding the baby because the mother had died in childbirth. This double desolation moved Askew to write. Her song, though, is wrapped like a baby’s shawl around a folk song. Frank Collinson collected ‘A Lullaby’ from F Kitching of Guildford in Surrey. You can find it, as Askew did, in the English Folk Dance and Song Society’s marvellous online archive, The Full English.

That song speaks of a mother who has gone ‘down the green lane…Over the common and through the green moor.’ In Askew’s hands these words accrue a deeper meaning: the mother is not off on a country jaunt. Her journey is out of this world. She will never come ‘back to her baby once more.’ The lullaby the father sings to his baby is also a lament for the child’s mother. This is brilliantly achieved by Askew, who augments the traditional song with words of her own.

“We started with traditional songs. Now we’re picking out what is relevant about them, and probing what a folk song is,” says James. “The Todd Rundgren song doesn’t seem so different from a traditional song.” It is about the collapse of old industry and the old securities it provided. ‘Diggers’ Song’ protests the dispossession of people when land is enclosed. Both have significance beyond the economic, in the fracturing of relationships, with society and the earth.

Over this past summer, Lady Maisery have performed these songs at different festivals and venues, to all sorts of audiences. “We’re in an interesting position,” Rheingans says. “We have quite a political message, but we’re not seen as political singers. We’re singing to an audience with a wide range of views. Some of the people in our audiences voted to leave the European Union. They’re not all reading the same papers.”

But she recalls Lady Maisery’s performance at the Cambridge Folk Festival, soon after the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union. “People were very emotional when we sang our songs about pulling down walls. They were very engaged. And with ‘Land on the Shore’, it’s very simple, easy for people to join in with, and there’s a kind of shared meaning – we will all end up in the same place, so let’s just be thankful, and kind to each other. I think folk songs are good at bringing people together in some kind of essential friendship. At those times I feel very grateful to be involved in singing them.”

This article originally appeared in Songlines #123. To find out more about subscribing to Songlines, please visit: www.songlines.co.uk/subs

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