Feisty female folk trio breathe their energetic new life into stories of past
by Sarah Pitt
Folk is a very old tradition, but its spirit is alive and well in the hands of up-and-coming feminist folk trio Lady Maisery.
Rowan Rheingans, Hannah James and Hazel Askew don't shy away from serious issues, with politics, war and rape among the subjects probed in angelic voices.
The innovative close harmony trio open their ambitious second album, Mayday, with their rendition of the famous anti-war lullaby by the late Sydney Carter, The Crow on the Cradle.
"A lot of the songs are quite meaningful to us, and even though they are old songs, they are relevant to life today," says Hannah, the band's accordion player.
Rowan plays the fiddle and banjo and Hazel the harp and concertina, and they all sing together, powerfully, doing away with the idea that folk harmonies need be ethereal or dreamy.
On latest album Mayday, they decry the way the powerful look after their own, lament the perennial problem of faithless young men and give a voice to the silent women of history.
One such is the tragic heroine of the song Lady Maisry, a noblewoman burnt at the stake by her family for being "with child to an English lord". The trio tell her story in their trademark close harmonies.
Lady Maisry, explains Hannah, is an archetypal female character who crops up in many traditional folk songs.
"She is a woman who appears in a lot of old ballads – the name Maisery or Maisry might have meant Margaret in Scottish dialect – and she is usually pretty strong-willed.
"Sometimes with historic folk songs you can dismiss the stories in them as fantasy. But the Lady Maisry ballad we recorded on the new album is a very harrowing story, there's no two ways about it. We sing the song in a cappella because we really wanted it to stand out – it is a powerful story of real human suffering."
Poor Lady Maisry might be of noble birth, but many of the trio's songs champion the ordinary people of history. The girls don't pull any punches here either.
"The songs are a great way of learning the real social history of the country, not just about kings and queens, but about real people and what they were up to," says Hannah.
Mayday, much praised by the critics, is their second album, following debut Weave and Spin, which was nominated for a BBC Radio 2 folk award for "best emerging act".
She says that the band's style has evolved through their two albums.
"On the first album we did, a lot of the singing was in harmony, and it was a bit more lighthearted.
"With the second album, we have really found our focus and what we want to say, and so I think it has got more of a point. We are all quite politically aware, and a lot of the songs are still very relevant today, even though they weren't written that recently."
And if they don't like where a song is going, they will simply give it a new direction.
"The Lady and The Blacksmith is quite a common folk song, it is basically one of those chase songs in which the woman changes into something and he then changes into something else to try and catch her," says Hannah.
"It is generally sung in quite a lighthearted way by men in folk clubs, but when you think about it is actually a ballad about rape, which is horrible. He wants to take her "maiden head" and in most versions he succeeds. But we changed the ending so she gets the better of him!"
Hannah says the band particularly enjoy touring. "That's our thing really, I think we really come into our own live and we like to talk," she says.
A lot of their gigs take place in village halls, through schemes which subsidise good cultural events in community venues. A number of Westcountry village halls feature on their forthcoming tour.
"There is a big scheme called 'live and local' in the Midlands and we have done a lot of gigs through them," says Hannah. "They are really, really, nice because it is not just the folkies that come to them. We get a different response from audiences in village halls, a lot of whom haven't listened to folk before.
"With the song Lady Maisry, for example, they respond in a much more natural way, getting really involved with the story because it is so harrowing. They don't just nod their heads like the folkies."
Lady Maisery play the Silver Street Sessions, Wiveliscombe, on November 4 (tickets: 01984 623308); the Glastonbury Assembly Rooms, Glastonbury, on November 5 (0117 929 9008); Highweek Village Hall, near Newton Abbot, on November 7 (01626 364268); Stoketeignhead Village Hall on November 8 (01626 873178); Cove Village Hall near Tiverton on November 9 (01398 331738); and Buckland-in-the-Moor Village Hall, Dartmoor,on November 10 (01364 653525).