An the beginning of this year, things were not looking good for the Waterson-Carthy folk dynasty. It was, as Eliza Carthy put it, “fighting to survive.” Her mother, acclaimed singer Norma Waterson, was unable to tour for a decade after she fell into a coma and had to walk and talk again. She had never fully recovered and had recently been hospitalized with pneumonia. Meanwhile, the Covid lockdowns had deprived MBE-winning Eliza and her father, the adored singer-songwriter Martin Carthy, of their sources of income. As freelancers, like many artists, they were not entitled to vacation leave, only a six-month small business grant.
“The third lockdown,” says Carthy, “we wanted to sell our instruments.”
Then an old agent friend in the US suggested Carthy start a public appeal for help. “You wouldn’t believe the people who gave us money,” she says. “It was comforting and heartbreaking.” Sadly, Waterson passed away in January at the age of 82. “We weren’t allowed to see her until the last day,” says Carthy. “And then she was gone. But we FaceTimed and I had to tell her how much was in the till. She looked at me and just said, ‘The kids will be safe. The house will be safe.’ And it’s the first time we’ve felt that way in a decade.” She reaches for a tissue to wipe away the tears that are rolling down her face. “I’m sorry,” she says, “but it was really tough.”
We are sitting in the kitchen of her sympathetically cluttered family home in Robin Hood’s Bay, a fishing village on the North Yorkshire coast. At the back door, her 81-year-old father – who influenced Bob Dylan and taught Paul Simon to play Scarborough Fair – is feeding chickens. Carthy moved back in 2011, becoming a “part-time carer and single mom” and leading her own band. Posters for NormaFest hang on the wall, the festival she founded in 2015 so that her mother could at least perform on site. “She was a classic matriarch—loving but firm,” Carthy says, enjoying the happier memory. “When I moved away, she wanted me here, but she didn’t want me to touch anything.” She laughs, pointing to a laptop sitting on a kitchen counter. “She said, ‘This isn’t your office! It’s a food prep area!’”
Recently, Carthy has thrown herself back into music. This month she’s releasing Queen of the Whirl, an album of fan-favorites chosen in a Twitter poll and re-recorded with her crack band The Restitution to celebrate 30 years since skipping her high school diploma to become a professional musician. Her parents spearheaded the “folk revival” of the ’60s, but Carthy is trying to re-imagine the genre for a modern world, fusing traditional and contemporary music with rock guitars, reggae rhythms, and sometimes offbeat themes, and the lewdness and Vulnerability she shows interferes person.
“I reject the British-centric definition of folk,” she says, “which is very white and secure and fixated on acoustic instruments.” In her role as President of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, she has been keen to push things into things to shake up diversity. “To me, Ariana Grande is folk music. Bohemian Rhapsody is folk. I define folk as anything you can sing in a bar and let people join in and be as shitty as you want. Folk music is not clean. It’s sexy and dirty and by the end of the night you’ll fall over. And that’s how I like to live.”
In some cases literally. The song Blood on My Boots describes the night her boyfriend, comedian Stewart Lee, invited her to the premiere of Jerry Springer: The Opera, which he co-wrote. After four glasses of champagne, Eliza hit the cold night air and fell. “They found me under a bridge,” she says, laughing. “I literally had blood on my boots.”
She remembers the first time she picked up the violin, in her case one that had belonged to her grandfather. As she says most beautifully, “I didn’t want to be my daddy.” Female violinists — more or less Kathryn Tickell or Helen O’Hara — were rarer in the late ’80s and ’90s, not to mention sporty boots and a buzz cut. “Someone said, ‘You’re trading in your youth and beauty.’ I was like, ‘What?’” She dyed her hair pink and blue and toured folk clubs, making ends meet by sleeping four hours on couches. “It was punk in a way,” she says. “At one point I woke up in a bed and it was snowing on my face.” In another incident, when her vehicle broke down, she tested the old wives’ tale about sealing a leaking radiator with a dozen eggs. “It did not work. We just got a radiator full of scrambled eggs.”
Gradually, after encountering some resistance from the more traditional folk camp, she earned her respect as other younger musicians emerged, such as Seth Lakeman and Jock Tyldesley. “I owe that to the folk scene,” she says. “I think they realized that if they didn’t get new blood, they would just wait for the calls telling them another old artist had died. Instead they let us in and said, ‘Show us what you’ve got.’ Sometimes we fell flat and sometimes we didn’t, but the great thing about folk clubs in the 80’s and 90’s is that they embraced folk and that’s why my dad still plays in the clubs. These people weren’t professional promoters. They were social workers, nurses, teachers — decent people building platforms that kept us all alive.”
After Red Rice, often referred to as their “drum ‘n’ bass album,” was nominated for a Mercury Prize in 1998, as was Anglicana five years later, Warners signed them on in hopes of “a cross between Joni Mitchell and Judy Garland.” . You might not have expected songs like The Company of Men, which begin, “I gave blowjobs on sofas / To men who didn’t want me anymore / Why didn’t they tell me before?”
She laughs at the memory. “It’s interesting to meet yourself in your early 20s. There are definitely things I’m not ready for anymore.” She says she was inspired by Ani DiFranco’s songs about “abortions and such,” which gave her the desire to be “completely honest” about a real-life incident . Her heart was broken and the sentence “I don’t want to belong to the beautiful” is pointed. “I was still in love with him and he said, ‘It doesn’t matter because we’re the beautiful people.’ I thought, ‘No. I’m a shabby little asshole from Yorkshire and I don’t like you very much. I’m a punk and you’re an asshole!’” Her mighty cackle fills the kitchen. When it came time to record the song, another musician came into the studio, she says. “I was like, ‘Oh god, this is Nick Cave and I’m singing about blowjobs!'”
Today she describes herself as a “supervisor”. When her band was ripped off and not paid, she recorded a solo album, 2019’s Restitute, in her bedroom and sold it online to compensate them. Lately she’s been planning her father’s Covid-delayed 80th birthday gig at the Barbican in London, writing her next solo album and – having continued to be dogged by the virus – teaching music at her old school in Robin Hood’s Bay. “You can’t appreciate the emotional and spiritual awareness that music brings from an early age,” she says. “Music is mathematics. You can actually learn about the science of how arpeggios affect your nervous system. Music is so underrated. It can be life changing.”
By playing it – and reaching out to people again – she begins to put the sadness of that year behind her. “I found coming out of the pandemic traumatic at first,” she says, “because it reminded me of all the pain and isolation. But every time we’ve performed, I’ve felt that collectivism again – and laughter and people. The pandemic has thrown up a lot of things and I was like, ‘Maybe I should call so-and-so.’ And that was really nice.”
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