Eliza Carthy: 'We'd been waiting for mam to get better, but we had to come to terms with the fact that wasn't going to happen.'

Folk musician Eliza Carthy tells Sarah Freeman why she is helping lead the charge for Hull in its year as UK City of Culture.

Eliza Carthy, Errollyn Wallen, Brian Irvine three of the 20 composers whose work will be featured in the New Music Biennial.

A few minutes into our interview Eliza Carthy says: “You know the guy who founded Vancouver was from Hull.” She’s talking about John Deighton, a failed gold miner who owed his ‘Gassy Jack’ nickname to a liking for storytelling, and it’s a fact – among many others – that the folk singer has had cause to drop into numerous conversations of late.

“I am on a bit of mission this year to let people know what a great city it is,” she adds by way of explanation. “Hull tends to get dismissed as a fish and chip shop at the end of a railway sidings, but there is so much more to the place. ”

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It’s perhaps no surprise that Scarborough-born Carthy has become something of a champion for Hull and its year as UK City of Culture. Her mother Norma Waterson was born there and, along with her father Martin Carthy, it’s a place the first family of English folk know well. So when Carthy was approached by the PRS Foundation to write a new piece of music inspired by the city she didn’t hesitate.

The result, Rivers and Railways, will be premiered next month as part of the PRS’s New Music Biennial and it is a blend of music, song and spoken word.

“City of Culture isn’t about someone coming up and dumping a load of culture on Hull and saying, ‘There you go, enjoy it’. It’s about shining a spotlight on and celebrating what’s already there. As part of Rivers and Railways I have been talking to lots of community groups and what really comes across is how the opening event in January, where the history of the city was told through various projections on key buildings, really struck a chord. It made them feel that City of Culture belonged to them and that’s exactly as it should be.”

Some of those interviews will be weaved into the final piece with the Moulettes music ensemble adding their trademark electronic element. It’s not a genre Carthy has worked in before, but she has long had a reputation for experimentation. During 25 years in the music business she has brought traditional English folk face to face with world music, jazz, salsa and 90s dance and four years ago formed a big band.

“It all started when Sophie Parkes had the frankly mad idea of writing my biography,” says the 39 year old. “She called it Wayward Daughter and it got me thinking. I have never been one for looking back or marking anniversaries, I’d rather be trying new things. But Sophie’s book reminded me of all things I’d done and made me want to revisit some of those past chapters.”

Never one to sit for too long on an idea, Carthy quickly assembled the Wayward Band. Featuring the likes of Andrew Waite on piano accordion and melodeon player Saul Rose, what began as a one-off to mark 21 years on the road has turned into a fully fledged side project with a new tour later this year.

“It is pretty mental and a total logistical nightmare to get everyone together, but the reason we have kept going is because it’s great fun. All we need now is to find a way to make it pay.”

Before Carthy reunites with the Wayward Band there’s a few folk festival dates with her dad. A few years ago, Norma would also have joined them, but in 2011 she fell ill and spent two months in intensive care. While she made a brief return to the stage, continued illness has now left father and daughter to carry on the family’s musical heritage.

“A couple of years ago, dad and I recorded the first album as just the two of us,” she says of The Morals of the Elephant. “We’d been waiting for mam to get better, but when we came to terms with the fact that wasn’t going to happen, we thought, ‘Right we need a new act, we best get on with it’. It was and still is strange when it’s just us on stage, I think sometimes we are both waiting for mam to appear, but it’s still good fun. Dad and I drive around the country to gigs eating pasties and doing the crossword. It’s much more relaxing than it is at home.”

Carthy is only half joking. When Norma became ill, Carthy returned to Robin Hood’s Bay and now lives in the family home with her own two daughters Florence, eight, and six year old Isabella, juggling her roles as a mother, singer-songwriter and a carer. “I won’t lie, it’s been tough on all of us. When mam was first in hospital, dad was by her bedside every day. He didn’t work for three months and being a folk singer isn’t the most lucrative of careers. We did have some financial help from Help Musicians UK, but it wasn’t easy.”

While Norma, who suffers from a number of degenerative conditions, may not be able to perform, her name lives on not just through Eliza and the countless folk artists she has influenced, but also through NormaFest. Taking place on the first weekend in January the two-day folk festival is an antidote to the New Year blues and having begun in Whitby, next year the family will bring it home to Robin Hood’s Bay.

“I spend so much time away that it is hard to integrate into village life,” says Carthy, who as well as being responsible for programming the event also acts as taxi driver and caterer. “It takes time, but I can now walk down the street and say good morning to people I actually know the names of and it feels right that it should be here.

“Last year we booked out the Grosvenor Hotel in the Bay for the various artists to stay and we had some of the best impromptu gigs there. I fully imagine that next year we will end up having a session in our kitchen.”

While Eliza insists that there was never any pressure from her parents to follow in their musical footsteps, she was acutely aware of the weight of expectation from audiences. “I wanted that. Any pressure surrounding my music has come from me. I wanted my generation to see how sexy, frightening and meaningful folk music can be. I wanted to say, ‘Hey come and listen to this’.”

It worked. When Eliza was starting out, folk was marginalised but more recently it has been embraced by the mainstream.

“In terms of recognisable faces I guess there’s me, Kate Rusby and Bellowhead, but we are just like the scum which rises to the top. That doesn’t sound quite right does it? But what I mean is that it wasn’t for the sessions which take place in folk clubs every night of the week we wouldn’t be here. We are standing on the shoulders of every folk musician there has ever been. To be honest I like to see those of us whose heads do poke through to the mainstream as a gateway drug to all the undergound, more interesting stuff underneath.”

Performing and writing has always been much more than a job, but it was almost taken away from Carthy a few years ago when she developed a cyst on her vocal chords. The operation was successful, but for a long time she didn’t know whether she would be able to sing again. “I had no idea what I was going to do and I had some pretty dark times. I started gigging at 13, turned professional at 17 and I have never done anything else. However, I have always lived by the philosophy that if you you work hard and look after those you love, things will probably turn out ok.”

■ Rivers and Railways, Hull, various venues, June 30 to July 2. Newmusicbiennial.com.

■ Eliza and Martin Carthy play Beverley Folk Festival June 18, beverleyfolkfestival.com

■ The Wayward Band will be