Eliza Carthy - Queen fan to folk princess
Revenge, they say, is a dish best served cold. For Eliza Carthy, however, it’s a dish best served eventually, in your own good time.
Back in her early teens, Carthy, the daughter of English folk music’s leading couple Martin Carthy and Norma Waterson, took a shine to a Goth lad in her home town, Whitby. The shine appeared to be mutual. An assignation was arranged and Carthy, determined to look the part, bought a new black outfit and duly turned up at Whitby Bus Station to find that she’d been stood up.
“He was actually hiding round the corner and his mates kept pushing him out and laughing, and I felt, I don’t know, mortified, I suppose. It was very hurtful. Anyway, just recently I’ve been working on this song that has a kind of laughing, sneering chorus and that could be the story that makes up the verses.”
If she thought hard enough, she could probably think of other, similar episodes as the Carthy-Waterson clan didn’t quite fit in Whitby’s now chic holiday destination Robin Hood Bay.
“At first we lived on a farm and were into the whole self-sufficiency thing, so they probably thought we were a bunch of hippies,” she says with the throaty laugh that accompanies much of her conversation. “I only had one mate and we fell out when I was thirteen.”
By this time, though, having mates at home wasn’t quite so important as the young Eliza was accompanying her parents on the road as often as possible. She’d first joined them on stage at the age of six and with traditional music – and many other styles besides; the Carthy household was a regular refuge for touring musicians of all stripes – all around her, she could hardly fail to become involved.
“My folks encouraged me, of course, but there came a point when I was seventeen and wanted to leave college and be a musician,” she says. “My mum said, You know how I’ve always said I just want you to be happy? Well, I’d like you to be happy and have a degree as well. I’m afraid I disappointed her there.”
The teenage Eliza became the young face of traditional music. With a repertoire of songs passed down through her mother’s side of the family, she would go on to make a break-up album, Red Rice, that was entirely drawn from traditional songs. She had ambitions beyond singing, though, and it wasn’t until she met Nancy Kerr, a singer and fiddler her own age, that she felt she could be a musician as well as a singer.
“I’d been playing fiddle for years,” she says. “Unbeknownst to me, because he gave up when my grandmother told him she didn’t like it, apparently, my granddad Carthy had played fiddle, too. I never actually heard him play but when he died they found his fiddle and it got handed on to me. My mum was keen for me to play but there was nobody at school who was into the kind of music I was playing and I was kind of shy of playing and singing. Then I saw Nancy doing it and thought, well, if I’ve got peers who are doing it, I can do it too.”
These days she plays tenor guitar and button accordion as well, amongst other instruments, and it was armed with those that she sat down to write her latest album, Neptune. The third album of original songs that she’s released over the past ten years while still working within the tradition on albums such as last year’s Gift with her mother, it’s a continuation of her liking for songs and poetry that tell stories. She may sing of Britain being sold to the NCP parking company and bring ska, cabaret and pop influences into her music, but the narrative strains of folk ballads and epic poetry are still discernible.
“I was quite bookish when I was young,” she says, “and as well as being brought up on traditional songs and being Robin Hood Bay’s biggest Queen fan, I always loved those long story poems like The Hunting of the Snark. I’d always written things before I did my first album of my own songs. I’d keep a notebook and write stuff all the time. I like songs to be mysterious but I also want to communicate, so I start off with something poetic and then make it more conversational. It’s funny because my cousin Marry Waterson does it the other way round because her mum, Lal, who was a brilliant songwriter, taught her to remove the conversation part so that you’re left with poetry. But either way gets the job done, I suppose.”
Neptune was put together under an “office hours” regime. With two young daughters to look after and regular commuting between her home in Midlothian and Yorkshire while her mother recovers from the septicaemia that almost proved fatal six months ago, time has been precious. So she booked herself into a recording studio in Edinburgh and at the end of every five-to-six hour day she sent her band another two or three songs to work on and brought it all together within two weeks.
Carthy has had her own health issues as well. A cyst in her throat caused her to lose her voice in the middle of a tour three years ago and at one point she feared her career might be over. All is well again, however, and with the formation of her own record label and a vocal coach making sure she doesn’t put her voice under too much strain, she’s ready to take Neptune to the people.
“A new album, a new label and I’ve a new agent, too,” she says, “so it’s onwards and upwards.”
From The Herald, June 8, 2011.