From Dirty Linen magazine #97 (Dec '01/Jan '02).
Shock of the New
by Pamela Murray Winters
“Oh, I’m not a fiddler anymore.”
It’s hard to tell whether the woman on the other end of the phone, Eliza Carthy, is being serious or playful. She is adept at both states of being, and both are essential to who she is as an artist. In person, you might be clued in by a wry smile, a self-deprecating moue, or a flash in those dark elfin eyes. With just her voice as a guide, you can spot her joke by the smoky, infectious chuckle, sometimes erupting into a guffaw.
No, Carthy hasn’t given up the fiddle, or much else, lately. If anything, she’s taking on more and more, particularly by carving out a new identity as a pop artist with her Warner Bros. album Angels and Cigarettes. Touring this past summer with a seven-piece band (including herself) at festivals and small clubs, she offered a set list drawing heavily on Angels and with hints of similar new material for future recordings; the only hint of tradition in evidence was the Moog-driven arrangement of “Adieu, Adieu” that appeared on her 1998 album Red Rice.
When asked whether people were averse to her new direction — for there have been rumblings that she should stay in her little folky pigeonhole and not dabble in pop — she said, “I suppose it depends on how into human endeavor you are.
“I haven’t stopped doing the traditional music at all. I produced my mum’s traditional solo album [Bright Shiny Morning] last year, me and my accordion player have just made an album’s worth of traditional music as well, and Waterson:Carthy is scheduled to make another album in October. So as far as I’m concerned, I’m just trying to do a new thing. I’ve been doing the same job for 12 years! I’ve fancied learning a new skill. For instance, I fancied seeing whether I could write an album’s worth of my own songs, which is something I’ve never tried to do before.”
Carthy thrives on new things. It would be too easy to cite her ever-changing hair color as evidence of her chimerical nature; better to look at her discography, which boasts a surprising number of different lineups for one so young. “I’ve been making records since I was 17; I’ve been making, like, two records a year since I was 17. It’s very hard to sound the same from one week to the next when you’re that age, let alone one album to the next!”
Still, it’s a great leap from Waterson:Carthy’s a cappella rendition of “The Grey Cock” (learned from her mother, who learned it from a 1960s recording of Mrs. Cecilia Costello) to the full-bore trip-hop of Angels’ “Whole” (written with Barnaby Stradling, Sam Thomas, and Carthy beau/bandmate/Peatbog Faerie Ben Ivitsky):
Do you smell my breathing around you,
My body breathing you in
My self and my soul and grace, you are so still
So transient and so mine
If only I could breathe you all the time
“It would be much easier for everybody concerned if I just decided on one style and stuck to it,” Carthy acknowledged. “But it doesn’t interest me.”
The challenge to write an album’s worth of songs, for Angels, “ended up being quite hard. There’s all kinds of things involved in signing to a major label — all kinds of constraints involved. I was really quite attracted by some of those constraints — by some of the disciplines that you have to go through to record an album of that kind. You have to put yourself under a producer — which, of course, I chose, along with the record label. But you do have to be beholden to him, to a certain extent.
“I can write really very oblique songs, very mysterious songs. And sometimes I need somebody to tell me that they actually don’t know what I’m talking about! I need to make a bit more sense, you know, and perhaps have a chorus — that kind of thing. I can write existential poetry until I puke, but it’s a good idea to learn how to make things into songs with choruses that people can get a handle on and understand.
“You can be as oblique as you like in traditional music. That’s part of the attraction for me. It’s like, ‘When it says he bit into the apple, did he really bite into the apple, or did he go to bed with that woman?’ That sort of thing. You can keep elements of that in songwriting, but if you have too much of that, it becomes like listening to Alanis Morrisette’s second album!” She chuckled mischievously. “It’s like, ‘What’s going on? I don’t understand….’ So I had to tame my more wild and weird edges.
“To actually start from scratch, musically and lyrically and everything, and create a song, and certainly a cohesive album’s worth of songs, is very, very different from working with traditional music.”
Carthy is used to working with different materials — not her own thoughts and sketched-out melodies, but the snippets found in old manuscripts or on acetates of long-dead sources for Alan Lomax and Cecil Sharp. Concerning traditional music, she is serious to the point of near-zealotry. “Music is fun, but when you start to engage with something like traditional music, you do have to have an opinion, you do have to feel strongly about it. If you’re playing a marginalized music, which I am, then you have to be able to tell people why you do it. Ever since I first started doing this, I’ve been answering that question: Why do you play traditional music? And so, having worked out my response to that, to then swap and do a pop band and go sign to a major label and everything, people are gonna want to know why! And I’ve spent a long time really thinking about it and coming up with answers that I feel are honest and worthwhile.
“There’s certainly people who do come and see my traditional shows who wouldn’t come and see the pop band. But then I would very much expect that, and I don’t have a problem with that at all.” She does, however, admit to an ulterior motive for her singer/songwriter career, hoping that it will “feed back into my traditional work, in that I’ll be able to have a higher profile on which to base my proclamations that I’m taking traditional music to a wider audience. It is part of a plan for me. I’ve been playing to the converted for such a long time now that I really want to try to get some general public into traditional music. The only way I can see to do that is by actually sticking my neck out and sticking myself out there where it’s dangerous, where there is the chance that people will say I’ve sold out, and that sort of thing. I haven’t, as far as I’m concerned. But I’ve never been one to play it safe. My personal crusade is to do with getting people’s awareness increased of English traditional music, and I feel that I can do this through this project.”
It’s clear that Carthy has no plans to forget her roots. Noting that the British don’t yet have a counterpart to O Brother, Where Art Thou? she vowed “to teach people about the many varieties of English traditional music.
“There’s so much Celtic music around that’s so much fun, why would anybody want to plow through books of 9/4 hornpipes with 27 different variations and pick out the best ones and then figure out how to play it? Why would anybody want to do that? I dunno! Why would anybody want to do that when they could just go down the pub and play ‘Drowsy Maggie’ as many times as they like?
“There’s so much available music on the folk scene, I could understand why people aren’t necessarily interested in doing the research. But that was the way I was brought up. That’s how my parents work, and that’s how they taught me to work as well. Dig — find the versions that nobody knows. If you don’t like that verse, write another verse.”
Then again, this heir to a folk fortune has it easier than most of us when it comes to research: “I just phone up my mum and dad and say, ‘Come on then, show us your best songbooks,’ and they have got some good ones.”
Carthy grew up with the songbooks of Martin Carthy and Norma Waterson, as well as Waterson’s singing siblings in the Watersons. She first took to the stage some 12 years ago, with her aunt Lal’s daughter Maria, as the Waterdaughters, and turned professional at 17, doing solo work and fronting her own groups as well as joining her parents for Waterson:Carthy. “The thing about Waterson:Carthy is that I do ‘play the daughter’… I mean, some people prefer me in that sense, because I’m restricted in a way. Which is good — I don’t have a problem with that. There’s constraints involved in being in your parents’ band. Although I am an active member of the band, it’s my mum’s only performance outlet, for instance, so it’s kind of like standing back a little bit. Some people prefer me as a backing person, rather than fronting my own thing.”
While Maria offers backing vocals on Norma Waterson’s Bright Shiny Morning, of the next Waterson-Carthy generation only Eliza and Lal’s son Oliver Knight have made music a career. “My youngest cousin Eleanor is interested in perhaps singing with Waterson:Carthy, and I’m trying to orchestrate that — phoning my mum and saying ‘Have you spoken to Eleanor yet? Have you asked her?’ She’s 21. She’s got a lovely voice. So I’m trying to get another member of the family involved. What else would you do with all those genes, eh? Sloshing around there, being no use to anybody.”
If it seems odd that the headstrong Carthy capitulated so readily to her destiny at the forefront of English traditional music, she’ll tell you of her candle-brief musical rebellion.
“I went away for a year to a school — it was only about 25 miles away, but with the area that we lived being so weatherbeaten, it became quite hard to travel to school every day during the winter, for instance. So I moved into this boarding school about 25 miles from where we lived. For about six months I went through this period of readjustment. I’d never really been in the outside world before. I grew up on a farm, I grew up in this very insular environment, and I wasn’t very popular at my primary school. All the kids lived in the village, and all their families lived in the village. The local farmers’ kids, they had their things to do, they had their friends, and I was very different.
“I really retreated into myself for a very long time. And then when I went away to this school, when I was 11, I really had to adjust…My parents used to go away for the summer. Every two years they would go on tour in America, for instance. And I would stay with my aunt or with my best friend in the village. And all the kids were like, ‘Hang on a minute, your parents are going away for the entire summer, and they’re not taking you with them! What does that mean?’ And I would say, ‘They’re working. That’s what they do.’ And that wasn’t really understood at all. I do remember having a bit of a mental switch, when I was 11, thinking people do not understand and, not only that, but were really quite hostile toward the idea. People are very hostile toward itinerant musicians that live on farms.”
So, for about six months, “I kind of rejected the whole family thing for a while, in order to listen to Pepsi and Shirley, which was well worth it! I mean, it would have been cool if I’d have been listening to the Police or something.” Instead, it was Wham!’s backing singers — and more: “I know all of the words to [Europe’s] ‘The Final Countdown.’ Oh, and I bought Bat Out of Hell as well. I had a ‘leather and lace’ compilation, with Meat Loaf and Bonnie Tyler. I loved that record. And I still have it!”
Fortunately, she recovered, and although myriad influences are found on Angels, from Van Dyke Parks’s massed strings on “Fuse” to Dolphin Boy’s programming on “Beautiful Girl,” and from an almost-folky melody on the edgy, melancholy “Train Song” to a nod to punk-popster (and Pepsi’s predecessor Dee C. Lee’s ex-husband) Paul Weller on the album’s only cover song, “Wildwood,” there’s nary a hint of Meat Loaf to be found.
“It’s hard work, going from being at the top of your field to being at the bottom of somebody else’s field,” said Carthy about joining the ranks of singer/songwriters. “But I enjoy challenges. I’ve never played it safe. I’m sure there are many people in the world who would prefer it if I did.”
Apparently. Mike Ross of the Edmonton Sun gave Eliza’s new lineup a C+ with the comment “rough road from traditional folk to contemporary pop.” But Ellen Rawson at femmusic.com represented the viewpoint Carthy hoped to hear when, reviewing an early show by the Angels band, she noted that Carthy “hasn’t lost anything; she’s merely made a change.”
Carthy admitted to a certain uneasiness about how her new direction would be accepted. “When I was touring with my folk lineups,” she explained, “we were selling out venues everywhere we went. What I envisaged happening when I finally toured [with the new band] was people showing up for the first tour, and going away, and the audiences really dropping off, and people going away to make their minds up.” But that wasn’t what happened when she hit the U.K. tour circuit. “Nobody turned up! It was very quiet. Some very committed fans turned up, and some people who were merely curious, but we were playing for third- or half-full venues. And we got a couple of good reviews, and the second tour was a lot better and culminated in this really fantastic gig in London.”
The playing field was different in the U.S., where she was known to folkies from her work with her family or from her guest slot on Joan Baez’s spring 2000 tour. “Over in America, I don’t have to convince anybody. I’m merely another person at the bottom of a very long, very high ladder. And people will come out of curiosity — and our friends, and some of our established audiences, will come — some American folkies will come. They’re generally really lovely, really enthusiastic, really open-minded. I love American audiences; I always have. They really just want to let you do whatever it is that you want to do. They want to be pleased. You get a lot of chin-scratching in England. You get a lot of people who stand at the back and check you out and think about it.”
She calls the reception for her music in the U.K. and the United States “very different. People are really warming to the idea in the U.K. I said this thing about human endeavor…I’m really not going anywhere, and I think people are starting to figure that out. Certainly because I have more fans in the U.K. than I have in the U.S., there is a certain amount of convincing of people that needs to be done. Or maybe not — maybe they just need to make their minds up.”
Whatever they decide, it’s fine with her. She’ll continue making all sorts of music: “Drop me on a desert island, and I’ll make something out of a tree and some coconuts, and then I’ll play it.” She’s already got some 17 songs for a followup to Angels, including the sublimely lovely and erotic “Lazy Angel,” a favorite on her 2001 tours. And she’s recently fallen in love with Leicestershire smallpipes. While producing Bright Shiny Morning, Ivitsky brought in his family friend Julian Goodacre, a Scottish bagpipe maker, for some sessions. “We were all sitting in the kitchen, having a tune, and a few glasses of whisky, like one is apt to do, and I said, ‘Can I have a go on them?’ ” Emboldened by her success, she asked Goodacre for pipes of her very own. “He sorted me out a set. They’re cherry wood. They’re very beautiful. I love them, and I make a really horrible noise on them!” (They sounded charming when Carthy premiered them on a recent Waterson:Carthy tour.)
Carthy just keeps giving the audiences more to love — or at least keeping them on their toes. She acknowledges that her longtime fans have rolled with the changes, and will probably keep on rolling. “I require a lot from my audience. I feel very sorry for them sometimes!”