The Big Interview: Eliza Carthy

Eliza Carthy with her mum Norma Waterson
Eliza Carthy with her mum Norma Waterson
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The daughter of folk’s first family, Eliza Carthy doesn’t fit neatly in any box. She talks to Sheena Hastings about finding her voice – and nearly losing it.

VISITING Eliza Carthy in Robin Hood’s Bay, in a large red brick house high up over the village, you can’t help but wonder how the celebrated singer/songwriter’s career has been influenced by these wondrous surroundings.

Eliza Carthy

Eliza Carthy

Exposed to the raw elements in this lofty spot, close to a small community with a seafaring tradition and the musical heritage that goes with it, it’s little wonder she has always been fascinated by maritime history, and among the gloriously wide range of her music making are many songs with titles such as Maid on the Shore, Cobbler’s Hornpipe and Jacky Tar.

Eliza’s taken her dad (folk music legend) Martin Carthy to the station in Whitby so he can travel onward to a music festival in Ireland. Her mum Norma Waterson, regarded by many as the queen of English folk music, is ensconced in a comfy throne-like chair, still recovering from a serious illness that kept her in hospital for several months last year.  She’s on good conversational form, finding ways to amuse Eliza’s three-year-old Florence and 17-month-old Isabella. They throw themselves on to grandma’s bosom, wheedling for a sweetie. Norma is soft as butter.

While Florence is drawing and Isabella’s pretending to eat her breakfast, Norma says she enjoys having two grandchildren in residence  “...and Eliza, too. It’s a gift to have her back with us. She is so full of life, and we love having children around again.” Eliza returned to Robin Hood’s Bay, after living for many years in Edinburgh, to help look after Norma in the wake of her illness.

Norma’s just in the middle of a tale about her days in the 60s as a radio DJ on the island of Montserrat when in walks Eliza. Now 36, and a great creative force of nature in her own right, she’s much like her music – passionate, earthy, witty. She also has a big, bellowing laugh that could easily blow a few seagulls off the chimney pots.

Settling down away from the household mélee, in a light-filled room that’s scattered with instruments and houses a library of recordings made by the family over many decades, Eliza looks back to when she made her first appearance on stage with her dad.

Although she officially first sang on stage aged 15 and went full-time at 17, she recalls begging Martin to let her go on with him at the Fylde Festival when she was just six. “He said ‘All right. Stand there quietly, and if you hear a song you know tug my trouser leg and you can join in.’ I tugged at his trousers soon after wards, and sang along to the rest of the concert.

“For a long time I didn’t want to be a musician though; I wanted to be a writer,” says the twice Mercury Prize-nominated singer. But fate probably always dictated that one of the four Carthy children would become a professional musician.

That one was Eliza, the youngest, who is best known for her voice and demon fiddle but also plays viola, mandolin, guitar, accordion, melodeon and ukelele – with her family and other close associates in the various permutations of the Waterson:Carthy Band, as well as penning and performing her own material with her own bands and collaborating with other artists including Billy Bragg, Paul Weller, Roger McGuin and Wilco. Family life for the young Eliza sounds idyllic in many ways. Norma and Martin got together in the very early 70s and moved from Norma’s native Hull, setting up a sort of musical commune on a farm on the east coast that included Norma’s late sister Lal and brother Mike, as well as various cousins. The extended family still lives close by, and they record their music in a small studio three doors away. “Life at home was very happy for me,” says Eliza. “It was other kids I didn’t get and they really didn’t get me. I was a bit shy, a bit weird, quite an unusual person. I liked Bob Dylan and Ian Dury, but also The Wombles – you didn’t say that, obviously. I grew up with a strong sense of belonging, full of romanticism cushioned by a sense of tradition. Not surprising, seeing as there were generations of musicians behind me – seven generations, in my dad’s case.”

Eliza didn’t enjoy violin lessons at school. But at 15 she met the purple-haired Nancy Kerr, daughter of another famous folk music dynasty in Northumberland and a girl of the same age who’d been playing the fiddle since the age of four.

The two began playing together and within 18 months Eliza had not only discovered the fun side of the instrument, but she was playing to a professional level and developing the highly distinctive style that so complements her warm, husky voice. Kerr and Carthy went on to record two albums together in the early 1990s.

Eliza’s plans to study music at university were scuppered when a long illness meant she couldn’t make up work she’d missed in time for her A-levels. Having decided not to continue, Eliza was launched into recording and touring. She says there was no pressure to become a musician, but when she did seriously take up music it was the history of songs that attracted her as much as the development of her own talent.

“My parents were always fond of telling me that history can’t be found in books – if you really want to know about the past, listen to the music your granny sang. As a kid I learned wonderful songs from old folk singers like Fred Jordan and Walter Pardon.” But as well as learning at the knee of some of the greats, Carthy has also spent long periods immersed in archives like the Vaughn Williams Memorial Library, ploughing through centuries-old collections of folk music to find gems that had fallen by the wayside.

“I was really into the idea of returning old music and songs that had been lost and forgotten back to the world. Although you find some that you just have to perform more or less as you find them, there are others that you take and adapt or you only find fragments of and add your own modern interpretation.

“The thing about more recent British folk music is that we lost a couple of generations of young men in wars and they were the keepers of music and dance at the time... to a great extent women took over.”

Yes, and people like the Waterson sisters, the McGarrigles and Eliza Carthy came along to rediscover and let old stories out for air. Carthy has also added world folk music, from the Appalachians to Eastern European traditions, to her repertoire. Her 21 albums so far reflect her eclectic tastes in traditional song, jazz, swing, calypso and many other genres.

In her two decades in the business (“young people coming into the folk music scene call me a veteran, which I find a bit odd...”) Carthy who, like her mother and father, has been a BBC Folk Singer of the Year and won many other accolades, has recorded many of her own compositions.

She gets a band together on a project-by-project basis, and also performs with Waterson:Carthy and in the unique collaboration that is Imagined Village, the brainchild of Simon Emmerson which fuses British and Asian musical traditions, mixing fiddles and squeezebox with sitars and dub beats.

For the last year she’s been touring the 2011 album Neptune, and before that she and Norma were performing songs from their duo collection The Gift. The family will be back on stage this summer, and this autumn Eliza tours Europe and the UK again with her next album, Wayward Daughter. Into this already breathtaking schedule she manages to shoehorn other projects like the writing of a 12-minute composition for the Cultural Olympiad which will be performed with an Early Music ensemble before a crowd of 25,000 in Weymouth. Now into her third decade as a performer and one of the leading voices of her generation, Eliza Carthy is counting her blessings that the voice is still there. Four years ago, while pregnant with Florence, she was afflicted with such pain in her throat that she cancelled a tour. Her voice was ravaged; both speaking and singing were excruciating. She went through a silent labour and shortly afterwards had a large cyst removed from her vocal chords by laser surgery. Months of rest and worry ensued.

“It was an awful time, and I realised that I’d been singing around the problem for maybe 10 years. My voice had been getting deeper, but after the treatment it gradually came back even deeper and richer. My range – which had narrowed – is bigger than ever. Now I really look after my voice, including daily exercises.”

Florence goes to school next year, so Carthy is planning to scale back her travels. As for the next generation of Carthy musicians – again there’ll be no pressure, says Eliza. “...but if their banging of pans and lids and dancing is anything to go by they’ve certainly got rhythm.”

Wayward Daughter – An Official Biography of Eliza Carthy by Sophie Parkes is published by Soundcheck Books on May 9, £12.99. To order from the Yorkshire Post Bookshop call 0800 0153232 or go to .age costs £2.85. The album Wayward Daughter will be released in September. Imagined Earth’s live album Bending the Dark is released on May 14. They play Holmfirth Picturedome on May 27.