It’s a big weekend for folk music, especially if you’re in London and you’ve got a thing about The Watersons. On Friday, The Gift Band (made up, in part, of Norma Waterson, Eliza Carthy and Martin Carthy), release their latest album, Anchor, on Topic Records (you can order it by clicking here), and that’s swiftly followed by a launch party on Sunday (it’s at the Union Chapel, and you’re all invited).
At the same time, if you’re in the mood for full-on culture overload, you can take in a performance of The Two Noble Kinsmen at The Globe Theatre (grab your tickets here), which features plenty of Morris dancing and a whole suite of music composed – in a style that will appeal to fans of the tradition – by the aforementioned Eliza Carthy.
Strewth! They’re everywhere!
But it’s all good. The new album is a wonderfully jazzy (but decidedly emotional) affair that takes in a host of Norma’s favourite songs. You’ve got everything in there, from a Wayward-esque take on ‘The Elfin Knight’ to a delightful, music-hall spin around Monty Python’s ‘Galaxy Song’ (with Eliza sounding as though she’s rehearsing for a West End stage appearance). For history buffs, there’s Martin Carthy’s remarkable return to ‘Scarborough Fair’, which is both moving and fascinating (another great example of how the same folk song can differ entirely when collected from just a few miles further down the road).
It’s also an album that bears witness to the inevitable ravages of time, a subject that Eliza doesn’t shy away from in the following interview. With both Norma and Martin comfortably into their late 70s, these are the worn voices of two musicians who have cast an unfathomable influence over generation after generation, still trying to find interesting ways to tackle the songs they adore, but inevitably slowed up in the process. There’s an undeniable poignance in the contrast between the sound of their daughter powering out the big stage numbers, and the fragility of their own performances. You get a genuine sense of love – for the songs and among the musicians in the room. It reminds you what this family has achieved over the past six decades, but also, like any family, how dependent they are on one another.
I caught up with Eliza over a couple of lunch breaks in the week leading up to the opening of the Globe Theatre show. In this interview, we covered off her father’s relationship with that song, the things she thinks the world ought to know about Norma Waterson, what it’s like to have Shakespeare as a writing partner, the upcoming Union Chapel gig and the difficult realities involved in caring for your ageing parents. It wasn’t an easy interview. Hopefully it’ll be insightful nonetheless.
We’re sat here at The Globe Theatre. This is a pretty cushty job you’ve landed, isn’t it?
It’s wonderful. Absolutely wonderful. I’m having the best time. It’s different working with actors or dancers than it is working with band people. It’s the work ethic [cackles]. I have to admit, it really is the work ethic. Oh god! What have I done with my life?! Hahaha!
Everyone takes everything at face value, absorbs what you have to say whether or not it’s rubbish [laughs], and then positively and generously tries what you’ve suggested. And then they’ll come back to you if there’s anything that can be done to improve on the idea.
I love the openness, especially as this production has so much traditional-like music and dance in it. I’ve written it in a folk style in that I’ve only written the top line and I’ve employed the musicians to bring their skills and influences to bear on what I’ve written. It’s not your typical composer job. It seems to be working well, but it does take longer because theatre work is very involved. I have to work on the cues, right there alongside the director, Barrie Rutter. That’s how he likes to work: he consults me and I consult him. We’re also there working on where the band are going, which bits of the tunes to bring out and when. It’s very involved.
How is it, having Shakespeare as a lyricist?
Having Shakespeare is a lyricist is awesome. It’s a less well-known play and it has been judiciously edited, so people might not know the text so well. But we’ve really worked on it. In Emilia’s song, for example, we’ve taken this huge soliloquy and cut it down to a three-and-a-half minute song. Barrie would give me a couplet, I’d give him a couplet and we whittled it down, finding what was right for the character. I’d never done that before, and it was incredibly exciting.
Basically, I’ve spent the last 30 years reinterpreting old texts – it’s absolutely what I do, and without wanting to make too much of it, I feel like I’ve been building up to this. So the short answer to your question, “How is it, having Shakespeare as a lyricist?” It’s fucking amazing, actually! I’m in love. I’m absolutely in love.
It sounds like it, too! Do you actually read and write music, then? I make the assumption, I suppose, that as a traditional musician you wouldn’t need to.
I do, yes. I was classically trained. And then I dropped out and became a musician [cackles].
Who are you working with?
Dave Delarre is in it. Demus Donnelly from The Gift Band, and Dogan Mehmet. My friend, Andy Moore, from NoFit State Circus, and a lady called Abigail Newman. I’ve wangled her into playing these birch alpine horns. They look very strange and they sound very sonorous.
Tell me about the new album with The Gift Band. Last time we chatted, you were in the process of cleaning the church in preparation for recording. So let’s pick up from there, shall we?
Hahaha! OK then. So, I cleaned the church, and I realised that breathing in plaster dust for four days was not the best thing to do if you were going to be singing live. I actually got quite ill, quite quickly. Halfway through the recording I lost my voice, and we only had five days. It was quite stressful.
But I just wanted to make sure that everything was safe and comfortable for mum, you know? I shampooed the carpets and I washed the walls. We brought in a load of soft furnishings and we decorated the place with beautiful lamps. There’s this nice little shop halfway down the bank in Robin Hood’s Bay called Berties of Bay, and they do these beautiful bell jar lamps, so I decorated the church with those and with fairy lights.
It’s a wonder you got any recording done!
Well, then Mattie Foulds turned up and set up on the dais! There was all this gear, and it all just fit in there perfectly. It was like the church was a ship and he was at the helm of it. That was great.
Did you make use of any other ecclesiastical apparatus?
We found out that the church organ works, so we got that on the album, played by the marvellous Phil Alexander. We hired a house a few steps away so that there was somewhere we could cook and somewhere that mum could sit and watch Corrie until she was needed. It all went very, very well, my exhaustion notwithstanding.
Who produced the album?
Neill MacColl and Kate St John. They’re fabulously feely producers, but also – and here’s that work ethic again – they’re very, very meticulous. It was a lovely, calm team of efficient people to work with that just love you and have your best interests at heart. You can’t really beat that. They’re practically family these days. We love them so much.
The songs that you picked aren’t necessarily traditional are they? That’s not what the Gift Band does, really, is it?
Not so much, no, and especially since we’ve expanded to include Neill and Kate. I guess when I produced the Gift album, there was a lot more traditional stuff on that. But when mum made her solo records, and therefore when we toured, it was much more about any old song that she liked rather than just doing traditional music. She was taken under the wing of various producers, people like John Wood and Joe Boyd, and that was all about finding great songwriters that she’d known over the years. Loudon Wainwright wrote a song for her and she was gifted songs by various people. We got all of our favourite songwriters and put them altogether. Songs like ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’. Mum has always had a very, very broad palette. She’s always loved Billie Holiday. She’s always loved trad jazz and calypso music…
OK, but who’s choice was Monty Python for this album?!
Hahaha! How good is that? I went away for a day to rest, and when I got back they went, “Errrrrm… We’ve had this idea…” Honestly! You turn your back for five minutes…
They said, “Do you know ‘The Galaxy Song’”, and I said [nervously], “Errr, yeeeeesss…”. They said, “It’s going to segue out of Kurt Weil.” And I said, “Of course it is!” It was a brilliant idea.
The thing was, I wanted it to be a secret track. I wanted it to be on the end of ‘Lost In The Stars’, but you can’t do that – it has to be on the sleeve notes. I was hoping it’d go out to the reviewers as a white label, but you can’t even do that anymore. But I did get the experience at Normafest of singing it onstage, segueing from ‘Lost in the Stars’ to ‘The Galaxy Song’, and the audience pissed themselves. It was amazing! An experience I will never, ever forget.
The interesting song, from a folk music geek perspective, is your dad singing ‘Scarborough Fair’ again.
I know! Check that out!
The weird thing for me is that, when I interviewed him in February for this blog, he told me he couldn’t touch ‘Scarborough Fair’ ever again – that it had too much baggage for him. And then I get the review copy of this album and there it is: Martin Carthy singing ‘Scarborough Fair’ in 2018!
Ha! Well, to be honest, he’ll never sing the other version again. Simon Emerson tried to get him to do it with The Imagined Village, and dad’s compromise was to teach it to Chris Wood. So he’d play it, and Chris Wood would sing it. There’s been a lot of water under the bridge… [pauses] Ha!
Go on. I know you want to say it…
Hahaha! I was just wondering if I should try and get it in. OK… There’s been a lot of troubled water under the bridge since that happened. I remember growing up and finding the statistic: The Graduate was the biggest-selling movie soundtrack of all time, until The Bodyguard. [Cackles] It may have been swiftly pipped at the post by Bryan Adams. Pop-picker trivia! [Puts on exaggerated, spoilt rich kid voice] “It wasn’t trivial to me! I know I had a pony, but I could’ve had two ponies! Oh, my life is so bad!”
Anyway, that was the biggest bit of pop trivia for me. It was the biggest soundtrack of all time and we could’ve profited from it. But, of course, we couldn’t have profited from it all, and neither did Paul Simon. The person who profited from it was the clever man with the contract – Paul Simon’s manager. He’s dead now, and all the money will have gone to the estate. Neither Paul nor my dad will ever see a penny of it. It’s just one of those cautionary tales, really, and the best thing that came out of it was that, when Paul came here, the first thing he did was contact my dad and they became friends again.
So, he’s done an entirely different version of ‘Scarborough Fair’ for the Gift Band album?
He was contacted a few years ago by a producer called Ruth Garrett when she was making Remember Me in 2014 in Scarborough. They asked him to do this version of ‘Scarborough Fair’ which comes from Goathland – it’s local to us. He’d never heard that version of the song before, and that’s the version that’s on this album. I think it has helped him to exorcise a few more demons. It’s a great version as well.
The album is due to be released with a launch gig at Union Chapel in London. I know Norma has been unwell. Is she going to be up for it?
She’s certainly saying that she’s going to do it. She’s just come out of hospital. She’s had two strokes in the last two months.
They haven’t been big ones. They’re called TIAs – Transient Ischemic Attacks. Dave Delarre said that his grandad had 72 of them, so they happen a lot. They’re very frightening, though.
And she still wants to do the Union Chapel gig?
Well, we’ve had to cancel the tour, but for the Union Chapel we’ve invited Cathy Jordan and Alyth McCormack in order that, should mum not be well enough, we’ll have two superstar guest singers standing in for her. At that point it would become a tribute to mum. That’s what we do at Normafest, too. We provide enough of a bill so that the audience isn’t disappointed if she doesn’t show. And we perform her songs anyway, with her band but without her. Normafest is non-profit for that reason – we can’t guarantee that she’ll be there.
It’s all a big plot, really. She just wants to watch Corrie [cackles].
Would she be happier at home, then?
Well, no actually. She loves being onstage, but it takes a lot to get her there. She has to be comfortable and she has to rest the day before. If we were to tour, that would be time consuming and expensive. So she’ll come down to London the day before and rest for the day while we all rehearse, and then she will rehearse on the day of the show.
I thought we might have a little game in honour of your mum. Tell us as many things as you can think of that people ought to know about Norma Waterson.
Haha! OK. Well, she was born in 1939 in Hull, the eldest of three. Her parents died when she was eight and Mike [the middle child] was two. They were brought up by their grandmother and a mishmash of aunties, uncles and cousins that lived in the house with them. Her grandma was an Irish traveller who came over to Hull and married into an established textiles family that lived on West Street. She started off with a cart on the streets of Hull and ended up with four secondhand clothes shops. Secondhand clothes weren’t rationed, so she ended up doing very well out of that. She bought all of her children their own houses, all within a street of each other.
Did that include your mum’s generation?
No, no it didn’t. My mum married very young to a jazz drummer called Eddie Anderson. He played on the riverboats, which is where my mum’s love of jazz comes from.
And, presumably, where Lal’s song ‘Some Old Salty’ comes from?
Yeah. Riverboat jazz cruises. They used to go up and down the river, and they’d all dance on the steamboats. It sounds like a great time. It’s funny, I went to where Lal used to work – a heraldry company called GK Beulahs. She trained as a heraldic artist at one of the last such companies in Europe. They do insignias and badges for ships and stuff for the royal families of Europe. That was her artistic training. When she worked there, there were 45 women working there. When I went there, there were four left, and they all remembered her. They showed me where her desk had been.
And what was your mum doing then?
She was a nurse.
Was this pre-Watersons?
No, this was during The Watersons. They weren’t pro for very long – only for about four years – and they retired very early on. That’s the thing that people don’t realise about mum: she retired when she was in her 20s. They all had families. My uncle Mike and his wife had four children. He didn’t want to be going away all the time so he took on a trade, and he maintained that all through his gigging life.
It’s one of those weird things, isn’t it? Take a band like The Watersons… because they had such a wide-reaching influence, you make the assumption that they must’ve been successful in a financial sense, too.
Not at all. They were just influential. They were, for want of a better word, authentic as well. They were just a family that liked singing together. It wasn’t until they really took up an interest in the traditions of Yorkshire and Britain – the ceremonial stuff – that they decided to get stuck into it. Then they made albums like Frost And Fire and For Pence & Spicy Ale.
Presumably they were singing together as kids, then? Were they singing traditional songs without really knowing that that’s what they were singing?
I think they sang a lot of the stuff that their grandma liked to sing. Delia Murphy, ‘The Spinning Wheel’ – that kind of thing. Light romantic stuff like Josef Locke. Music hall things. Their dad was really into the American forces radio. He’d sit and play the banjo along to that, but he died 18 months after their mother died. He had a stroke the week after their mum died, was bed-ridden and died 18 months later. They also had an uncle who played cornet in the cinema.
There was a lot of music in Hull at that time – a lot of dancehalls – and the Three-Day Millionaire culture was very strong. You’d come in off the sea and you’d get three days to spend everything you’d just spent three months earning. In the meantime, your poor wife’s sat at home tearing her hair out.
At what point did she become interested in traditional folk music?
It happened out of curiosity after the skiffle boom. They were curious to know whether we had our own music after hearing the American folk tunes. I know that they started off in backrooms before they moved in to The Bluebell, because they realised that beer was essential. They’d been serving tea and biscuits in the interval and they realised that it wasn’t enough [laughs].
Beer and cigarettes, if the footage is to be believed.
Lots and lots of cigarettes. Dancing whilst smoking – now there’s a special skill that I didn’t know mum had. There’s something that people ought to know about Norma Waterson: she could step-dance and smoke at the same time.
That and the platypus…
Yes, that and the fact that the platypus on the board in Travelling For A Living was full of maggots.
From interview to interview you’re revealing more and more about that mysterious platypus. Maggots!?
Yes, maggots. It was quite damp in that van, apparently [laughs].
One of my favourite Watersons stories has to do with the recording of ‘Greenland Whale Fishery’. Apparently, their producer, Bill Leader, made them do it again and again. When Mike Waterson asked whether they’d got a take yet, Leader said…
“Yep, we got it ages ago. I was just enjoying listening to you!” Hahaha! Yes, that’s a great one. My favourite Watersons story was that they’d go down to Topic Records on Stroud Green Road, and it was just a house with a warren of warehouse stuff added behind it as time went by. They’d buy a load of vegetables from the market on the way to Topic, put on a pot of soup, record the first half of the album – not just the first song, but the first half of the album – eat the soup, and then go back and record the second side! [Laughs] Now that’s a way to make an album. That’s just amazing.
Well, we recorded the first Waterson:Carthy album in three days. I was just a more naive musician – open your mouth and see what comes out. It was all about the family experience.
Anyway, she retired after four years of being pro and went to the West Indies to become a radio DJ… of all things! When she came back on a holiday, she found my dad single. They’d been eyeing each other up for years, but every time there was a possible opportunity for them to get together, one or the other of them was married. She was married first, and he was single, and then when mum and Eddie split up, dad was married to Dorothy.
They got together on the Bright Phoebus sessions, didn’t they?
Yes. It wasn’t until she came back on holiday and found Mike and Lal working on that project. They found themselves in a studio, late at night, recording ‘Red Wine and Promises’. That was what did it, apparently – a midnight song about drinking red wine [giggles].
And romance blossomed.
Yes, that was it. She moved back.
But here’s a thing people might not know about Radio Antilles when Norma was working there. It used to broadcast in four languages. During the day it’d broadcast in French, Spanish in English, and then at night it would turn all of the dishes towards South America and broadcast in German. Mum always does a raising her eyebrows thing at that point in the story. A lot of exiled Nazis fled to South America.
Hitler included, if you believe that particular conspiracy theory…
That’s what they say, yes. It didn’t occur to mum until years later that that’s what was going on. “Why did they turn their things towards South America and broadcast in German? I wonder why they were doing… oh, hang on!”
Was there a point when you were a kid that you realised that you were connected to a family that had some importance to traditional music? I remember seeing Paul McCartney a few years ago, and there was a moment when the cameras panned into the audience and there was a little kid standing there looking gobsmacked. McCartney said, “That’s my grandson. He’s wondering what grandad’s doing up here onstage. I think he’s just twigged…”
Hahaha! Funny, isn’t it? I don’t think I had anything like that, because I grew up under, on, by the side of a stage. I grew up in this fishing and farming area in the 70s. It was isolated, and we stuck out like sore thumbs.
Why? Because you were a bit hippyish?
Yeah, because they were living this self-sufficiency dream on a farm. When I was growing up there were always biker gangs around the place and musicians coming and going. We were very different, and we were surrounded by these Yorkshire folk who thought we were a bit mental. And I was! I was a very strange child. I didn’t get on with anyone. One of the good things about Facebook, actually, is that I’m now friends with a lot of people I didn’t get on with then. We’ve all grown up a bit, and I’m a bit less, “I’m special!”
I like seeing my school friends now, but there was a long time when I didn’t understand them, they didn’t understand me, and there was going to be no middle ground. I had one good friend and we fell out when I was 13. She didn’t want to know me, didn’t want to have anything to do with me, and that’s what started me gigging. What was left? What I still had was music.
It was at that point that I left the area. I’ve been back now for seven years.
And you’re happier there now?
I like it, but it’s a choice I wouldn’t have made had mum not been ill. It’s my choice to take care of my family, to take care of my mum, to have the children in a place where there’s a wonderful support network. I have to take care of my mum now. It’s the time to do that.
I was asked on the radio the other day whether or not the choice is empowering. I answered that it’s not. It’s being a part-time carer and a full-time single mother. If I was in my right mind, I’d be proud of that all the time, and I am, but it’s not easy. It’s bloody hard.
You’re surprisingly open about it. It feels like a conversation that ought to be off record.
It doesn’t have to be. I am open about it. I’m a single mother; I’m a part-time carer. I’m a survivor of domestic abuse – two relationships – and I think it gives people comfort to hear it. I don’t think of it as self-indulgent.
I think people do imagine that we have a perfect life. It’s easy to see why. You see people who are, for want of a better word, in the public eye, and you think life must be great for them. But this isn’t a game. This is our lives’ work. It takes huge commitment.
Also… this is the only thing I can do [cackles]!
Sometimes it is empowering, absolutely. But at other times you’re sat there thinking, “Oh god! Why can’t I have a normal life?! Wouldn’t it be great to be… her on tele!” Haha!
I can understand that.
It’s life, isn’t it? It’s something we all have to do. I’ve had some dark days over the last 10 years, but I don’t mind people knowing. It’s important to look out for each other.
The assumption is made, I think, that because you’re doing a job that many people long to do, then you’re living a life that equates to a dream come true.
Well, it is a dream come true. Working for The Globe is a dream come true for me. This is my dream job, and there’s no ‘but’ at the end of that sentence.
Good! And a new album coming out…
Yes! And I’ve already written a new songwriting album, which I’ve written with Ben Seal, and that’s lovely. It’s really nice, but we’re not sure when that’ll come out, but it’ll be after the next Wayward album – I’ve got all the songs lined up for that – and, at some point, I’d like to make an album with my cousin, Marry. It’s been a long time coming. It’s about time we got around to that.
In the meantime, this Union Chapel gig is going to be something special. I’m really looking forward to that.
The new Gift Band album, Anchor, is out today on Topic Records. The launch gig will take place at Union Chapel this Sunday. The Two Noble Kinsmen runs until June 30th at The Globe Theatre, London.
Photo credits: Elly Lucas and Tom Howard.