:: Article

Lady Maisery

By Paul Holman.


Lady Maisery: Cycle (RootBeat Records)

In the years since their formation in 2010, Lady Maisery have come to seem not so much a band as the nucleus of a collective which extends from all three members’ involvement in Coven and Songs of Separation to their various individual projects, including the Askew and Rheingans Sisters and Hannah James’ JigDoll. Although they are firmly located in the contemporary folk scene, they are not contained by it: when I first came across them, at a time when they were still testing their convergences and limits, they put me in mind of the Swingles performing Berio, or the Raincoats on Odyshape.

Cycle is their third album, and easily clears the high expectations set by 2013’s Mayday. If that was an avowedly political set, the new release is permeated by an everyday mysticism: it occupies a miraculous but knowable universe from the outset. At first hearing, Rowan Rheingans’ “Sing for the Morning” might be mistaken for some kind of hymn for the new aeon, with its allusions to opened gates and the mothers who made us all—and the band look very pagan indeed on the album’s magnificent artwork, where they preside over the wheel of the year and the phases of the moon—but the song is grounded: the mothers are flesh and blood and the cycle referenced here is quite definitely a pushbike, making its rattling journey from Sheffield to the south of France. Once beyond the main lyric, the music erupts unexpectedly into a rondeau, emphasising the degree to which this is a landscape rendered in sound, before subsiding into vocalese—the universal language in which a significant part of the Maiseries’ work is delivered.

That common tongue is drawn upon again for Hazel Askew’s song to the goddess Ēostre, which leads into “Order & Chaos”, her reflection upon death and continuity, both presocratic and utterly modern. An awareness of mortality permeates Cycle: a humanist take on the subject informs the excerpt of Emily Hall and Toby Litt’s Rest included here—the band performed the entire requiem when it was first produced at the Spitalfields Music Summer Festival in 2013. The three brief seasonal pieces which punctuate the album, snippets of found text accompanied by field recordings, bear elemental traces, the imprint of moments that resonate long past the lives in which they arose.

While instrumentation is precise and economical for much of the album, a token of the absolute rightness of the Maiseries’ sound, it flowers into sensuousness in their cover of Richard Fariña’s “Quiet Joys of Brotherhood”—in which, because the band takes no nonsense, the text is adapted to embrace the joys of sisterhood as well. Much of the appeal of this song lies in its marriage of a traditional melody with a fine lyric which, in its ambition to be timelessly archetypal, is unmistakably of its period. While Sandy Denny strove to make it sound very old indeed in her well- known version, the Maiseries highlight its ambiguities in a glorious, complex setting, dominated by the drone of Rowan’s bansitar, that both embraces Mimi Fariña’s original recording and makes the piece entirely their own: I find myself thinking of it as a companion to the Rheingans Sisters’ radical reading of the Incredible String Band’s “October Song” and the Maiseries’ hallucinatory performance of “Nottamun Fair” on their first release, Weave and Spin, which sounded like a recreation of a lost acid folk track.


[photo: James Fagan]

When Lady Maisery recorded Derroll Adams’ “Portland Town” on Weave and Spin, they effectively naturalised it, relocating it from Oregon to Dorset: in their lacerating version of Todd Rundgren’s “Honest Work” on this new album, they shed any attempt at impersonation to confer an abstract universality upon what is very evidently a male American blue collar narrative. The heroic persistence of the occupation movement is celebrated in the band’s performance of Gerrard Winstanley’s “Diggers’ Song”, a definitive piece of seventeenth century agitprop that, as they bleakly note on the CD sleeve, has not lost any of its relevance in the interim.

The album closes with an ominous interpretation of “Land on the Shore”. The separation anticipated in the source text, most probably a Shaker hymn, is read here in terms of contemporary scenarios of displacement and flight. While such acts of identification can seem crass, this is apt and unforced: the transformation of meaning is accomplished within the song, not imposed upon it. Despite the resilience and optimism expressed in the lyric, the effect is far from comforting as, with a last farewell to the mothers invoked at the outset, the unaccompanied voices of the band fall into silence.



Paul Holman has been engaged for some 20 years upon The Memory of the Drift, a shifting but ultimately circular work which is both a record of operations and a process in itself.

He is currently working on a modern emblem book, and a gallery project, in collaboration with the photographer Rich Cutler, on the lost River Fleet. The text he has made to accompany the Fleet show is now available to read in 3:AM Magazine.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, September 18th, 2016.