Eliza Carthy – Interview 2017

Eliza CarthyThe daughter of Martin Carthy and Norma Waterson, Eliza’s clan is rightly described as folk’s royal family. While Eliza Carthy MBE is perhaps the most famous of them all. Since releasing her debut album (with Nancy Kerr) in 1993, she’s helped spearhead the folk revival, winning two Mercury nominations along the way, as well as releasing the ill-fated Angels & Cigarettes on a major label in 2000. Ill health has dogged much of her later career but she’s back on top of her game with her 12-piece band, The Wayward Band, releasing both a career retrospective in 2013, and Wayward Daughter earlier this year on the most famous independent label of them all, Topic.

Sorry you have to speak to me on your day off!
No, that’s alright. I’m still in my jammies, to be honest. It’s no hardship!

Tell me how Wayward Daughter came about?
In 2012, for some reason a lady (Sophie Parkes) thought it would be a good idea to write a book about me. And she called it Wayward Daughter. Around about that time I had been quite ill, had a couple of children, and I was quite exhausted. I read the book when it came out and it made me feel quite sad. I’ve always had this very militant thing about never re-covering old ground. For me, working with traditional music was always about widening the pool of the music. I always went into old collections, old recordings that people had forgotten about in order to bring material that had maybe got left by the wayside, for whatever reason. It’s the reason why I had never brought out an Eliza Carthy songbook. It’s not really about me at the end of the day. It’s all about participation, not a cult of personality, like it is in the pop world. It always felt a bit self-indulgent doing that sort of thing. But re-visiting some of these stories has made me feel nostalgic for some of the material. Some of it has been blighted by ill-health, some things dropped out of the set because I physically couldn’t do it any more, because my voice was so damaged. I had a cist and a load of polyps on my vocal chords. I was suffering for about ten years, but I didn’t even know it. I thought I was just tired, I didn’t realise I had something that could be fixed. After I had an operation and a load of physiotherapy in 2013, I thought maybe it was time to give this stuff another go.

Although I can still sing the things I could sing when I was 19, I now have a whole different tonal range. It is new ground in a lot of ways. And I’m actually having fun with music again. I realised that I had actually started to associate music with pain, and performing with pain, stress and unhappiness, and had been doing that for seven or eight years, without realising it.

I had this anniversary coming up and I asked Jim Moray if he fancied putting together a big band in order to cover our back catalogue. We did that in 2013, brought out a Best of, called it Wayward Daughter. The tour went well, we made a film, and got on so well. Musically we had such as great time and we decided to continue. It’s not the most sound financial decision I’ve made, but I’m not sorry.

How many of you on stage?
12 on stage. 15 on the road.

Why was the book called Wayward Daughter?
I don’t know. It’s not particularly appropriate in my case. I literally went into the family business.

Are some of the songs you took from the Broadside Ballad collection, Chetham’s Library in Manchester?
I was a making a programme for Radio 4 about the Manchester Ballads and the Irish immigrant experience in Manchester, from the 1820s to the 1840s. It was like being in a sweet shop for me. When everyone is working from the same pool of material things can get a bit samey. You can stuck on the same thing, the shepherd down the woods, or songs about sailors. Ghettos you get stuck in. To find a whole new pool of human voices from the past is, for me, glorious. And there were no tunes! It was great to be able to write new music to that stuff. There’s four of these on the album.

You also collaborated with Dizraeli on the album…
I knew him because we were on the same record label for a while, Simon Emmerson’s (Afro-Celt Sound System) label with Mark Constantine from Lush. We were on that label with The Imagined Village. I like the way he has folk music roots in what he does. Engurland (City Shanties) is one of my favourite albums. I like the fact a hip-hop artist can see the roots music connections. Hip-hop is folk music. It’s a modern folk music form. He makes genuine social commentary, and has genuinely profound things to say about the world. He’s a very creative man. I really like his energy.

And you did a version of Rory McLeod’s ‘Hug You Like A Mountain’. Why?
I’ve been singing that for a long time. Rory was my big hero when I was 13 years old. He was such an exotic presence on the folk scene in the late 80s. He had all these incredible stories about being in the circus in Mexico and places. I love a good storyteller. He’s such a larger-than-life character. He brought world music and roots music from around the world to my doorstep. My musical experience at home had always been very broad, but back in the early 80s folk music wasn’t that broad. It wasn’t until world music hit big that you would start to see musicians from different counties coming here and playing. That was where my mind got blown, by seeing Baaba Maal, people from around the world, doing different things with their roots music and blending it with modern folk music, and creating their own communities. Rory was my foretaste of that. He was the first genuine fusion musician I ever met. He’s a real gypsy, a real troubadour.

It took me a while to be convinced to do it again. The thing that convinced me was going out for lunch with Teddy Thompson (who sings it on the album). We had sung together just the once, years and years ago at Cambridge Folk Festival. Our families have been friends for years. My dad (Martin) used to go out with Linda (Teddy’s mum)… we just looked each other in the eye and decided to have a crack at this, to do it as a duet.

And ‘Mrs. Dyer, The Baby Farmer’. Quite a shock to find out about this person (one of Britain’s most prolific serial killers)!
It’s another Broadside Ballad, but not from Manchester. It’s a scary jolly tune, which I learned from my dad! ‘You’ll love this’, he said. I was vaguely aware of her, and had demo’ed the song about ten years ago. I brought it out for this album. It turns out that Dave’s (David Delarre is one of The Wayward Band) girlfriend is some ancestor. She’s a Dyer! For a laugh we looked her up, and it was like, ‘Oh, my God! (Dyer murdered infants in her care during the Victorian period, possibly more than 400).

So, carrying on the folk tradition of recording murder ballads!
Yeah, I’m not ready to do a happy album yet!

This record has been released on Topic, the oldest independent label in the world. Tell me why they are so close to your heart…
Their history is fascinating. And they are very proud of carrying on the legacy of making traditional music available to the general public, as a force for good. Even under the new management. They’ve merged with Proper, who are one of the biggest music distributers in the country, and which was in fact started by Topic. I’m very proud to work for them, and proud to have come out with a record – as political as it is – and to have creative conversations with the label.

Your experiences with Warners weren’t so good, were they?
With Warners it was completely impossible to have creative conversations with them, and we always fell at the first hurdle. It should have been a dream, working with Andrew Wickham, who was a creative soul, very much artist-focussed, and supporting the growth of an artist. But he had so many arseholes around him, people who are used to mauling artists to get what they want. I remember when we were due to appear on Conan O’Brien’s Late Show and I tried to have a conversation with someone about what song we should do, and this person came down on me like a tonne of the most disgraceful bricks, at the fact that I even raised my hand. I had been nurtured in the Topic Records environment where every decision made was part of a greater agenda, both Topic’s and mine, and even for folk music in general. We got two Mercury Prize nominations out of that. I went to Warners as an empowered artist and an empowered woman, and I came out of it two years later, broken. The label fell apart around me. It was a conveyor belt of doom at the time.

I’m in the business of making socially conscious art, and with Topic that’s where I want to be.

Jeff Hemmings

Website: eliza-carthy.com
Facebook: facebook.com/elizacarthy
Twitter: twitter.com/elizacarthy