A profile of Eliza Carthy

Eliza Carthy has returned to the highwaymen and rogues of traditional folk songs. It's going to get rough, she tells Tim Cumming

'People think of the violin as this ethereal thing, and it's not an ethereal instrument at all," says Eliza Carthy . "You've got this massive tension going on all the time. Violins are quite difficult, quite shouty. Some days you need to fight with it. And everything affects it - the humidity, the atmosphere in the room. Everything affects the violin."

Carthy should know: she has spent most of her life playing fiddle in one band or another. She began performing at the age of 13 - "I grew up in pubs. For me they were a place of work" - in Waterson:Carthy, the band formed by her father, Martin Carthy, and mother, Norma Waterson, with Lal and Mike Waterson. In the 1960s, Carthy and the Watersons were at the heart of the original English folk revival - so it's not surprising that Eliza, now 29, has become one of the clearest, most assertive voices in promoting, defining and defending the English song tradition.

Eliza Carthy 's breakthrough album, Red:Rice, mixed the woody soup of traditional folk bands with digital beats and dance tracks and earned her a Mercury music prize nomination in 1998. It was followed in 2002 by Anglicana, in which songs from the depths of the English tradition collided with experimental percussion that could have been dragged from Tom Waits' boneyard. Recently, though, Carthy has taken a break from crossover experiments and digital manipulation, opting instead for the visceral pleasures of an acoustic four-piece.

She has spent two years on the road with the award-winning duo Jons Spiers and Boden on fiddle and melodeon, plus her partner and co-producer, viola player Ben Ivitsky. "It's a string band, really," she says. "Fiddles, viola and squeezebox. I've been getting back into the textures of all the things you get out of a box with strings on it: the woody noises, the tension, the rhythm. I love the spaces and percussiveness you can get from smacking the bow on to the strings. And the thing about having three violins is there's a lot of white noise, a lot of bow noise. We've been getting on stage and sawing the crap out of our instruments."

You can hear what she means on the band's new album, Rough Music. It was largely recorded in Carthy's home studio in Edinburgh, and has an unfettered spirit perfectly captured in the title. "A lot of what we did was improvisational, and I wanted to keep that element of risk in," says Carthy. "That's why it's called Rough Music. When we were doing Red:Rice, we were always thinking in the back of our heads about remixes, and I've become really dissatisfied with the limitations that puts on you. It's impossible to move in those circumstances. It's the tyranny of the four-on-the-floor kind of thing - there's absolutely no room for breathing or pausing. But some of the best performances are made of pauses."

The title also reflects an odd English tradition: "rough music" was the name for the street bands - armed with pots, pans and the like - who enacted a form of community punishment upon neighbourhood wrongdoers by beating up a cacophonous noise to drive them from their homes. Carthy says the practice was still documented in north Yorkshire when she and her family moved there in the 1970s.

Carthy is full of such bits of information, and well-versed in the tales behind her album's songs. Turpin Hero, the opening track, is a bit of 18th-century gangsta-style myth-making on behalf of the highwayman Dick Turpin, first performed some 40 years after his death. Carthy has no illusions about the song's anti-hero: "Turpin was an arsehole, basically. He stole from the rich and the poor." Hiding out in Yorkshire, Turpin was finally caught after shooting a cockerel in the street. He paid for a crowd to attend his execution, chatting with the hangman before leaping from the scaffold into his own carefully laid mythology. What drew her to the song was its qualities of disruption and outrage - it reminds her of Superman, she says. "No one's written a song about Superman, have they? They should."

It's followed by the cautionary tale of The Unfortunate Lass, culled from versions that migrated from England to the West Indies and American South, and the unlikely romanticism of The Gallant Hussar, who sheaths his sword for the love of a woman. Then there's The Maid on the Shore. A magical tale of a woman abducted by sailors that harks back to ancient myth, the song is "very mysterious. She sings them all to sleep to get herself out of a scrape - though why she got on the ship I don't know. He thinks he's getting the better of her but she gets him back.

"I like the superstition in these songs, the ambiguity," she adds. "And I love the imagery inherent in them - how certain flowers represent certain things, and certain trees are very bad luck. Birds always represent something, too - my great-grandmother was always very suspicious about birds."

Carthy hasn't abandoned experimentation altogether. One track, English Choice, meshes a couple of Celtic tunes with live morris dance steps used as percussion. "A lot of the morris tradition is about feet," says Carthy. "I really like that lolloping rhythm, it's almost a rock steady thing." She points to the surprisingly strong revival of morris: "There's a big youth movement, and bands using morris dancers in live acts, doing stuff for performance, not just for ritual. I think you need both for something to be understood and to develop."

Rough Music's sinuous, lived-in sound marks a maturation of this extraordinary singer and bandleader. Already Carthy has become a figurehead of contemporary English folk - and there's a whole wave of twentysomething players following in her footsteps. "There's lots of stuff happening, loads of new blood," Carthy agrees. "I still want to see more singers - there's the potential for some major divas out there. But there is a real feeling on the English folk scene that there is a revival going on." And she knows exactly what the appeal of this music is. "Songs like The Maid on the Shore are definitely older and more mysterious than the social drinking and falling-over songs. They're beyond time. They give you an idea of what this place was like before the Wetherspoons pubs."


Tim Cumming

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Eliza Carthy & the Wayward Band: Big Machine review – a bravura romp

Neil Spencer

29, Jan, 2017 @8:00 AM

Article image
Eliza Carthy & The Wayward Band: Big Machine review – furious, timely folk

Robin Denselow

02, Feb, 2017 @6:45 PM

Article image
Womad review – from Mexico to Mali, ska to the squeezebox, world music celebrates fusion
Seu Jorge did Bowie, Estonian folkies took on bagpiping and a knock-out celebration of global sounds was packed with highlights despite a rainy weekend

Robin Denselow

31, Jul, 2017 @2:26 PM

Article image
Cambridge folk festival review – verve and energy in a female-focused weekend
Rhiannon Giddens, Patti Smith and First Aid Kit kicked up a storm, but with mellower moments from the likes of Eric Bibb and Darlingside this was a wide-ranging and happy festival

Colin Irwin

06, Aug, 2018 @10:40 AM

Eliza Carthy & Jim Moray – review

It's 21 years since Eliza Carthy began her career, and the lady who kickstarted the still remarkably healthy contemporary British folk scene is celebrating in style, says Robin Denselow

Robin Denselow

17, May, 2013 @2:34 PM

Eliza Carthy: Neptune – review
The variety on Carthy's third set of self-written material is remarkable, and so is her vocal range, writes Robin Denselow

Robin Denselow

05, May, 2011 @9:50 PM

Article image
Topic Records at 75 review – passion and enthusiasm shine through
Norma Waterson's superb performance will linger in the memory, but the UK's most distinguished folk label deserves a bigger celebration, writes Robin Denselow

Robin Denselow

25, Aug, 2014 @11:49 AM

Article image
The battle over British folk music

Folk is seen as the preserve of the left - but the right is muscling in. Colin Irwin on why this weekend will see a showdown between Boris Johnson and Billy Bragg

Colin Irwin

22, Apr, 2009 @11:01 PM

Folk music is hip again

Often dismissed as parochial and conservative, this music is celebrated at festivals, awards ceremonies and on TV. But where does it come from, asks Rob Young

Rob Young

30, Jul, 2010 @11:06 PM

Article image
CD: Eliza Carthy, Dreams of Breathing Underwater


Robin Denselow

19, Jun, 2008 @11:14 PM