Hazel O’Connor’s recent tour, which included a visit to Buxton’s Pavilion Arts Centre and Birmingham Town Hall, was a rare chance for fans to see the award-winning singer-songwriter and actress perform with a band. Nowadays Hazel usually plays with long-time allies Clare Hirst (sax) and Sarah Fisher (keyboards and vocals) but, for this tour, a 5-piece band included Hazel’s brother Neil on guitar. The tour also gave Hazel the opportunity to revisit her iconic early ‘80s albums Breaking Glass, Son And Lovers and Cover Plus when, something she has not done for a long time.
The set opened with D-Days, which Hazel delivered in her typical high-energy style, and she looked like she was having a ball! So were the fans, as Hazel rolled back the years with Monsters In Disguise, Calls The Tune and Glass Houses, a song Hazel said she had not played for over thirty years.
Hazel O’Connor broke through as part of the New Wave movement in 1980 playing Kate, the lead role in the movie Breaking Glass. She wrote all the music for the film and scored a sequence of hits with Eighth Day, D-Days and Will You?, but her recording deal left her penniless and fighting the record company in the courts.
“Oh, it’s going to be funny,” Hazel said when I caught up with her a few weeks before her visit to Buxton. “Interesting! I haven’t even got those records! That’s what really upsets me. I was trying to get them all together to send out to the musicians and I got really sad because I’d not even got them, not on CD, anyway. My mum used to have them but I can’t find them in her things. There was a double album of Cover Plus and Sons And Lovers and I thought ‘I’ll use that as a reference,’ but for a while I couldn’t find any reference stuff.
“Now I’ve found it and I’ve been going through the lists. I’m choosing about seven from each album and it is very exciting, yes! Some of the things I’d forgotten I’d written, which sounds a bit mad! There’s a song I’d written called Why Don’t You Do? on Sons And Lovers and I really like the words of that song and the idea of it, so I’m really happy to be doing that.”
Hazel’s 2017 tour actually came in three distinctly different sections: dates with Claire and Sarah and a week with Irish harpist Cormac De Barra before the final leg with the band. “I’ve worked for the last eight years with Clare and Sarah. We do my songs plus some more jazzier things. I guess it’s getting around that it’s quite a good ticket to come to, because we’re selling out now.”
The dates with Cormac have a distinctly folky flavour. “We’ve just released a small album, See You Again, just him and I. We have quite a few fans from 15 or 16 years ago when we started out with a show called Beyond Breaking Glass. We just wanted to do some stuff on the road together, but it’s really weird because the tours have all come in succession.”
For the final leg, Hazel was particularly excited to be working again with her brother Neil who played guitar on those early works. “Oh, I am!” she said. “I haven’t seen him since our mum died seven years ago, this Christmas. For me, it’s really exciting to get to see him. Both of us as musicians, we’ve never made anything out of this industry, but we’re both still doing it. He’s a producer in Montreal and I’m in my early sixties – and on tour again! I have to continue because there is no other way of having an income. Having said that, I don’t think I could bear it if I couldn’t go out and sing.”
My conversation with Hazel came as she took a break, back home in Ireland, after the first leg of the tour. She told me about life on the road, not quite what one thinks of as a rock and roll lifestyle…
“Yes, it’s a little weird. I was driving back from France with my dogs, we’ve been for a month together in my house there, and I thought ‘Do I drive all the way back to Ireland then drive back to England for the tour? No! The dogs can become rock and roll chicks,’ which they kind of did.
“Here in Ireland I just have to open the door and out go the dogs, running around, but when you’re in a travel lodge every night, you’re going round the car park hoping the dogs will relieve themselves so you can go to bed!” she laughs. “Before you do anything for yourself, it’s back outside again, in the morning, round the car park.
“Not as glamorous as people imagine, is it?” she laughs, again. “Luckily, all the theatres we’ve just been in were all dog lovers. I said ‘I’ll leave the dogs in the car’ and they went ‘Oh, no! We love dogs! Bring them in!’ But at one of the gigs, one of my dogs is a bit of a free spirit and she just did a-runner after we’d finished. We were sitting in the dressing room, it was really hot and we’d left the door open. She just took off, the cheeky bitch!
“She nearly never came back, but one of my friends ran after her and found her running down the street in the town. That’s life on the road!”
Whilst her CV boasts an impressive list of acting credits, Hazel considers herself as a singer-songwriter first and foremost. It is singing that has helped her through some difficult times.
“It did, and it brought me through the latest hard times with my mother dying of cancer. It’s been really important to me, it’s my rock. My songs are my children. The one song that has always upset me was when I was sued over Will You? It was like having your parentage of a song questioned. Maybe if I had been stronger, or less battered at that time, maybe I would have stood up, but I stood up for such a long time – 13 or 14 years of trying to stand up against the machine – and in the end I thought ‘Oh sod it, I just don’t care, have your bit of the song and good luck to you.’”
Working with Clare and Sarah, and Cormac, helps to keeps things fresh for Hazel, a big contrast to working with the band. “Sometimes they say necessity is the mother of invention and I think, for me, I did start off inventing because I had to, because I was being sued by Albion Records in 1982. It was impossible to work, nobody would help me, nobody would touch me. When I did tours with a full band, it cost so much and I wouldn’t get paid, I was the last person to be paid.
“Suddenly I’m just able to do something different. I started to hone stuff down at the beginning of the nineties and I thought ‘I really like that, it works!’ and then it’s very exciting again when you go back to the big band stuff. Now, I think I’ve got the best of both worlds because, when you do things with a few people it’s like running naked down the halls – there is nothing hidden. You have to prove your worth or you’ll be laughed off the stage.
“The songs stand up, don’t they? I think a lot of people do that because, besides the production and it being a fashion of the time, electronic or punk music, new wave or pop, if the song stands up, my belief is it has to stand up under all scrutiny. I love doing it, I love the idea of taking things down to next-to-nothing, musically, but also to be able to whack it out with the band.
“When we’re doing the band tour, I’ve born all that in mind, so I’m going to do one song that was a single, Time (Ain’t On Our Side), not with the whole band but just with our Neil and a guitar and vocal. There’s a couple that the girls and I do and I want to do those, just the three of us. That brings it in and out of intimate moments and big verbosity.”
Having closed her main set with Eighth Day, Hazel returned with Claire and Sarah for a lovely version of Snow Patrol’s Chasing Cars before the rest of the band joined them for Who Needs It? and That’s Life.
A great end to a great night of entertainment. Let’s hope it’s not too long till Hazel and the band hit the road again.
Content credit: Geoff Ford.