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Maz O’Connor on Nina Simone

Maz O’Connor is an award winning singer/songwriter. Her latest album, Chosen Daughter, is a wonderful collection of true stories brought to life in song. Her live shows are intimate affairs where her wit and charm wow audiences. Here, she discusses her love of Nina Simone and how she has influenced her.

manchester folk festival maz o'connor 3
Maz O’Connor on stage at Manchester Folk Festival.

Picture: Mike Ainscoe for At The Barrier

Like all artists, I have many musical influences, but to me the three artists that I worship most of all are Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and Nina Simone. The Mighty Triumvirate, I call them; their tour posters hang on my wall and I ask them to keep me true whenever I sit down to write.

I think to myself most days a day, ‘what would Joni / Bob / Nina do?’ It helps me to keep in touch with the point of what I’m doing as a musician: trying to be truthful, and trying to connect.

Of these three it is Nina Simone who is the epitome of an authentic artist. Her performances overflow with personality. She shows you who she is, without apology, through her music.

I probably first heard Nina on an advert. When I was growing up ‘My Baby Just Cares for Me’ and ‘Ain’t Got No, I Got Life’ were both used on TV adverts. Her voice and soul were immediately arresting. But it wasn’t until a few years later when I started watching live videos of her that I fell completely in love.

With all three of these artists, I don’t just admire their music, I admire them as people. I don’t mean necessarily what they say or what they do, as I’m sure they’re not perfect and they have all experienced their fair share of controversy, I mean that they seem to totally know who they are and totally not give a shit whether you like them or not. That is such a powerfully inspiring thing for an artist to show us. It is especially powerful woman to woman.

Nina was a proud black woman. She was proud during a time when black people in her country didn’t have basic human rights. She compromised her career in order to say what she really wanted to say (the documentary, ‘What Happened, Miss Simone?’ emphasises how much of a risk this was for her at the time). That is a really hard thing for any artist to do, never mind a black female artist during an overtly racist and sexist era. But she knew that music is much more than entertainment; it is a means for connection, perhaps even a means for change. 

The overwhelming feeling I receive from Nina’s work is how much she loved music, and that has been a huge influence on me. She had roots in classical music, and they influenced her performances in such a playful way. Like she’s winking to us and saying: ‘oh that was nothing; just a little bit of a Bach-fugue-cum-jazz-improv section, no biggie.’

She also grew up surrounded by spiritual music, and communicated a longing for transcendence in a deeply felt way. She showed her love of music in her many covers: The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Bee Gees… and time after time she pulls off that very difficult thing; to cover a song and make it sound like it’s her own. 

She was a true musician and a true artist. Authentic in her voice, clear about what she was doing on stage, and totally at home in music. That’s why I have her picture on my wall to look at every day. That’s why I often start my mornings by putting on ‘I wish I knew how it would feel to be free’ and thinking: ‘thanks for showing me how it’s done, Nina’.

Many thanks to Maz for writing about Nina Simone. A true great. You can listen to Maz O’Connor’s latest single and watch the video below.

Maz O’Connor: Website / Facebook / Twitter / Instagram

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