James Turner recently spoke to folk performer Eliza Carthy about her latest album, the Mercury Music Prize, and her views on Englishness and English national identity.
Eliza Carthy is one of a new breed of young musicians who are reviving the English traditional music scene and bringing it to a wider audience. As well as being a highly acclaimed solo performer (having been twice nominated for the prestigious Mercury music prize), she is also a member of the family band Waterson:Carthy with her father, the folk guitar legend Martin Carthy, and her mother Norma Waterson, an erstwhile member of the 60s folk vocal group The Watersons and one of the best female singers in the country. Whilst touring the UK with folk award-winning duo Jon Spiers and John Boden, the folk icon kindly took the time to talk to me.
As the Mercury music prize was awarded a couple of months ago I asked Eliza about the prize and the awards.
“The awards were all right. It was work really, not like the first time, which was exciting; we were the last ones to leave that time. I was surprised when Anglicana was nominated --I didn't realise Tony [Engle, head of Topic records] had put it forward. There were three folk albums put forward this year: myself, Jim Moray’s, and Spiers and Boden's. The Mercury prize likes to represent a scene that’s doing well, which is why we were there. Although we didn't win I did find out we came in the top four.”
Anglicana is Eliza's latest solo album, and it is possibly her strongest solo work to date. I asked her about how she put the album together.
“I sourced the material from the Topic series The Voice of the People, which is a massive 20 CD series, released in 1999, of traditional singers and field recordings. I wanted to make an all-English album, because I think that English music needs a media-visible performer, and I want to be that person. I whittled the songs down to a three CD set and then chose my favourites. Getting them down to 10 tracks was difficult. As for recording, I wanted the music to be organic and natural, to play around with the sound to get an earthy organic feel. I spoke to the drummer during recording about the rhythms. Instead of the usual 4/4 or 3/4 beats I wanted the drums to wait for me to breath and to follow me, to make the sound ebb and flow and stretch the time. My favourites from the album have to be Willow Tree, Just as the Tide Was Flowing and Worcester City.”
Eliza's previous album, Angels and Cigarettes, was released by Warner Brothers and was an album of her own material (and a Paul Weller cover). I asked her about the fact that the album seems to have been airbrushed out of her recent history.
"Angels and Cigarettes is quite unfashionable for the folkies to like. I'm proud of it as an album, although there are things that I would change about it. That could be said about every album I've worked on.”
I asked Eliza about the current tour.
“We’re doing a three-and-a-half week tour of 20 shows, with an acoustic band, fiddle, viola, and squeezebox. We're doing mostly traditional material. It is a song based set although there are a couple of [fiddle] tunes in there. Using the three fiddles and a squeezebox you get a rich rhythmic sound. We did about 10 festivals this summer including Cambridge [Folk Festival], WOMAD, Reading [Festival], and Beverley [Folk Festival]. We didn't do the full season. By and large I like the really small tours and the big festivals.”
Eliza had raised the notion of performing English folk songs earlier, so I asked her about the concept of Englishness and what it means.
"I think that Englishness has become a bit of a talking point, and I'm looking to say something positive about the English. I still happen to believe that Stately Homes are pretty much irrelevant to the English people. It has nothing to do with the common history. Folk songs relate what happened; they come straight from the horse's mouth. Take Napoleon, for instance: he was made a fool of by the English upper and middle classes, and yet the peasants thought he would be a saviour and that he would liberate England after he liberated the French. That is why there are so many folk songs lamenting Napoleon’s death. It’s a fact that as a race the English are ignorant about our roots, and that’s a major hole in the national psyche. As a people the English are floundering; we have trouble establishing our identity and recognising our culture.”
I asked her about her plans for the next few months.
“I'd like to finish off my second songwriting project. It was started just before we parted company with Warners. I would have liked to have finished [it] earlier, but with the longevity of Anglicana and all the promotion and the touring it wasn't possible. It is all my own material. I started songwriting with Angels and Cigarettes and wanted to continue exploring that route. I intend to do another traditional folk album next year. I'm also going to be doing two duet albums, one with my Mum and one with my Dad. I've told them whoever gets the material ready first can record first with me, so it looks like my Mum's ahead at the moment!” –Interview conducted by James Turner.
Thank you to Eliza Carthy for her time and to Harriett Simms at Glass Ceiling PR for helping to arrange the interview.
Eliza Carthy (traditional) Anglicana Topic Records TSCD539
In the liner notes to this 2002 release, Eliza Carthy makes an interesting statement: “This album is an expression of Englishness as I feel it; with people who were there at the time, no border checkpoints, nobody pushed out, just what it is.” With this idea in mind I listened to the album with great interest, and was not disappointed. It is, I believe, one of her strongest and most distinctive releases to date.
It contains a wide range of material, from big ballads (Worcester City) to short up-tempo numbers (Little Gypsy Girl). It unfortunately (from the point of view of someone who is fascinated by Carthy’s fiddle technique) contains only one serious fiddle track (the No-Man’s Jig medley, performed with the duo Spiers and Boden), but it is a cracker. The album is diverse and fascinating, and frequently daring in arrangement and performance.
There are a number of highlights on the album. Just as the Tide Was Flowing has a meltingly beautiful tune that, under Eliza’s sure arrangement, never palls for any of its nearly eight minutes, from the gorgeous viola beginning to the gentle fade-out. Little Gypsy Girl has an irresistible bounce and sparkle; like much of the material on the album, it was sourced from Topic’s massive collection of field recordings called The Voice of the People, and it is fascinating to compare Carthy’s version with the original recording by Joseph Taylor. Both appeal for entirely different reasons, but Carthy gives the song an entirely new vitality with a delightful concertina accompaniment that freshens up the song. Pretty Ploughboy is also excellent, and Eliza’s fiddle tribute to her father, Dr McMBE, is gentle and charming. But the really staggering standout of the album is the jazz-tinged version of Willow Tree, an arrangement that is both brilliantly logical, given the tune’s natural swing, and audacious. This sort of radical rethinking of traditional songs is one of Carthy’s biggest strengths.
Not all the album’s tracks are brilliant; it could be argued that the arrangement of WorcesterCity is a bit too loud and drum-ridden and distracts from the lyric. Also In London so Fair (the only song on the album that is not English, as Eliza points out in the liner notes) does not have a sufficiently beautiful tune to be sustained for all of over eight minutes, and the live piano accompaniment is somewhat too sparse to carry it. However, in an album containing several monster tracks of over five minutes each not all of them are going to work, and it has more than enough superb tracks to warrant its purchase and repeated playing. Anglicana is a ringing affirmation of the musical beauty and lyrical depth of English folk music, as dusted off and overhauled by Ms Carthy. With music like this out there, one can only wonder at the continuing neglect of the native folk tradition by the mainstream music press. –Isabel Taylor