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Eliza Carthy – The Mega Interview

Last updated on April 5, 2021

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I interviewed Eliza Carthy three times over the course of two years, and I’m sure I’ll do so again. What appears on this page is an amalgamation of the first three interviews, put together in one place so that you don’t have to keep pinging about and looking on different pages. 

Eliza Carthy, the Mega Interview, Pt 1

Originally published on the Grizzly Folk blog, February 13th, 2017

I doubt Eliza Carthy would take too kindly to being called ‘Folk Royalty’ – it seems a little too hoity-toity, somehow – but there’s no denying her influence. I’m due to interview her over Skype one Friday lunchtime in early February, and five minutes before the agreed time, I’m still trying to find a quiet corner of Cecil Sharp House in which to crank up the laptop and get the old dictaphone out. With only seconds to spare, it occurs to me that her name might open doors – quite literally. “I’ve got an interview with Eliza Carthy,” I mention in a slightly panicked voice to someone offering to help, and within seconds I’m shown into the committee room, where I’ve all the peace, quiet and calm I need.

On the other end of a crackly line, Eliza is in precisely the opposite situation, sat on a busy station platform in Glasgow, recovering from the launch party of her brand new album, Big Machine, poised to deconstruct a greasy burger. Still, she’s all bonhomie and excitement, clearly enjoying the initial fruits of a delightful journey that will see the album break into the UK top 30 only a week later.

You had your release party last night, didn’t you? 

We did!

Have you recovered? 

Err… no. [Laughs a wicked laugh.] I’m sitting on the platform at Glasgow Central Station, about to stuff a really dirty burger into my face as a reward.

Ha! Did it go well? 

It was amazing. Me and Glasgow have a… well, not a love/hate relationship, but a relationship where sometimes things go absolutely brilliantly, and then other times it’ll be a gig with 12 people wondering who I am. Last night was the first. It was so good.

Are you taking the album on tour? 

We already toured it, back in November.

Yes, I saw that, but I was wondering if this is like a hiatus and you’ll be taking it out again. 

Well, we’ve got a couple gigs in the spring and then we’ve got a load of festivals. We’re doing Boomtown and Womad, Towersey, Beautiful Days, Wickham, Folk by the Oak, and a few other places. So, yeah, I’m really looking forward to bashing a load of festival stages, and then we’ll get back on the road again in December.

It has been an amazingly well-received album, hasn’t it? 

Oh god, yeah! I haven’t seen a duff review so far. It’s all been four and five stars. Even when they’re being snotty about it, they’re still giving us five stars. It’s like, “I like it, but only grudgingly.” [Laughs that wicked laugh again.] “I don’t want to like it, but I just do!” 

Why do you think that is? Is it to do with the performance? Do you think you’ve caught a particular moment?

I think it’s both of those things, to be honest. I’m up in Scotland, and I’m not sure if you’re aware but there’s been a lot of debate around gender politics in folk and live music in the UK in general, but particularly in Scotland, over the last week or so. There’ve been articles in The Guardian, particularly one by Kate Molleson, and a lot of discussion online. I think it’s time for a really strong front-woman as well, so there’s a timeliness about that, definitely. But also, we live in a post-Bellowhead world. People are looking for another big band to follow. We’re definitely different, but we’re just as big. If people are seeing a 12-person-shaped hole, we could definitely fill that.

Was that a conscious decision with the Wayward Band? Did you look at Bellowhead and think, ‘that looks fun – I wanna part of that’? 

Well, no. You see, you forget that when Jon and John actually conceived of Bellowhead, they were actually touring with me. So this is a conversation we had a long time ago, about big bands and how to do them. It was a regular topic of conversation in the Ratcatchers’ tour bus. It’s so funny – I heard Bellowhead described as the original folk big band the other day* and I thought, “Dude! Don’t you remember La Bottine Souriante?”, who are still going, by the way? I mean, La Bottine Souriante were a major influence on John Spiers, Jon Boden and me. We listened to them a lot, we talked about them a lot. And, of course, La Bottine Souriante were inspired by [Martin Carthy‘s former band] Brass Monkey, so these things go around.

I guess I have to be honest, though. I have been waiting for there to be room for me to do my thing. And I have to say that Bellowhead really smoothed the way for me in a lot of ways, because there are now stages for me to play on. It’s funny, I was talking to someone about this the other day. People often say that I held doors open for people. Well, I feel like Bellowhead have returned the favour as far as the Wayward Band is concerned.

[*Sorry, Eliza… I think that might’ve been me – I stand corrected. For the benefit of similarly undereducated readers, Eliza later pinged me on Facebook and recommended ‘En Spectacle‘ as a good place for newbies to start.]

You were talking earlier about gender politics. When you were choosing the songs, and you picked out things like ‘Devil in a Woman’, was that front-of-mind for you? 

There are a lot of badass women on the album, actually. There’s the downright evil in ‘Mrs Dyer the Baby Farmer’, and there’s ‘Devil in a Woman’… there’s a lot of strength and darkness represented. Despite the fact that the Wayward Band is mostly men, I think there’s a lot of female energy on this album. Which is good.

How do you go about picking or finding new material when you already have such a large repertoire? As an amateur folk musician myself, whenever I’m looking for new songs to sing, it seems as you’ve done them all already! 

Ha! I just try and find new places, you know? Making a programme for the BBC about the Manchester ballads provided me with a massive resource. Michael Powell, the librarian at Chethams Library, gave me the whole collection on disc. That’s 4,500 new songs. When I made Heat, Light & Sound, I went to Cecil Sharp House and I went through the collection there. When I made Anglicana, I used the Voice of the People series. I look for things that people haven’t done before, and I think it’s important to do that because it widens the call, rather than having 10 million versions of something everyone knows. Of course, there’s a merit to doing songs that people know, because then you’re gelling with your community, but at the same time it’s good to widen the call and to introduce new stuff.

A few years ago I met your dad at a gig and he told me how he’d collect folk songs back in the 50s by heading to South London, or wherever, because he’d heard that somebody knew such and such a song. By contrast, I was speaking to somebody recently who learns their songs off Youtube…

Hahaha! That’s the 21st century way.

You’ve never ‘collected’ a song from Youtube? 

Err, no. [There’s that wicked laugh again.]

Go on, admit it: you do! 

No! [Laughs] But I respect those that do. I think that’s hilarious! It’s a great way to find songs.

With the new album, I was particularly struck by the power of the performance. Was it recorded live? Did you spend a lot of time on it? 

It was largely done live, yeah. We did it in two sections, really. We had the core band doing live recordings at Real World Studios – essentially drums, bass, guitar, and then either the trumpet or the first violin, me, and sometimes the accordion, sometimes the melodion. Then the strings and brass went on afterwards. And actually, we ended up using most of the original vocal takes, which was really cool. I was expecting to go back in and do everything again, and I didn’t have to because the original performances were so in the moment, so vibey. You can actually hear me really fucking up and laughing my arse off on ‘The Fitter’s Song’. I really go for something and spectacularly fall off the tune and just piss myself laughing! All that stuff’s natural. We didn’t construct any of that.

‘The Fitter’s Song’ was suggested to you by Peggy Seeger. How did that come about? 

It came about through the Blood and Roses Tour – the Ewan Maccoll tribute tour I did with Damien Dempsey, Seth Lakeman and the Unthanks. The Maccoll family, Peggy and my mum and dad were on a gig and they were choosing songs, and Peggy sent over ‘The Fitter’s Song’, saying it hadn’t made the album but would I liked to sing it? On the tour I had Damien and Seth as my burly engineer backing singers, but on the album, obviously it’s the Wayward Band. So, yes, Peggy asked me if I could dedicate it to women engineers everywhere, and I was like, “Fuck yeah! I can do that!” It was around the time that [Tim Hunt] made that unsavoury remark about women scientists distracting men in the workplace by being sexy.

Following a conversation I had with David Suff of Topic Records recently, I was interested in how your relationship will continue with the label now that they’re going over to Proper Music. Do you go with them? 

I absolutely do, yeah. I think it’s nice that Topic are looking for a new direction whereby they’re going to be able to support more new interpretations of traditional music alongside the archive that they have. Certainly, when I first joined the label, they decided to have a big push in that direction and I think that worked very well. Over the last few years, that’s kind of fallen off a little bit. The thing about Topic is that everything they do is geared towards protecting the archive and preserving the tradition. I’m behind that 100%, and Proper want to take that on in the same spirit, so I’m all for it.

How do you balance your songwriter/traditional sides? Is it a one album on, one album off situation? 

At the moment that’s how I do it, yeah, as far as my solo records go. My last solo album was Neptune, which was a songwriting album, and Big Machine is traditional, mainly.

So are you constantly writing and stockpiling for the next songwriting album? 

Well, I’m in the middle of writing a songwriting album just now. I’m not sure when it’s going to come out yet. Bella Hardy‘s last album was produced by Ben Seal, who goes out as Urban Farm Hand. His album came out last week, actually. He’s been coming down from Fife to Whitby to write with me, and it’s the first time I’ve really let someone else take the reigns as far as instrumentation is concerned. It’s a really interesting process, with him just staying around and seeing what happens. And I get to play with Phil Alexander from the Gift Band again, so that’s always a pleasure.

And you’re also on the new Stick In The Wheel field recordings album, From Herearen’t you? How did that come about? 

It came about because they asked me, I think it’s a great idea and I was very happy to do it!

It’s that simple!

Yeah, very much so. As a concept, I think it’s really nice. We went out in the back garden and I built a fire, about 10 o’clock at night. I sat there with the fire crackling in the background and I sang my song. Great!

Eliza Carthy’s new ‘Big Machine‘ album is out now on Topic Records. Keep an eye open for the forthcoming Stick in the Wheel compilation, on which she gives a stripped-down, raw and ready performance of ‘The Sea’. 

Eliza Carthy, the Mega Interview, Pt 2

Originally published on the Grizzly Folk blog, November 6th, 2017 

Ahead of Normafest 2018, I chatted with Eliza Carthy about the festival’s history, the lineup for the coming event, the where to goes and what to knows. Along the way she chatted openly about her mother’s illness, the importance of the Bright Phoebus album, the contraband on sale in pubs around Robin Hood’s Bay, the new Gift Band album, a forthcoming and very exciting tour, and why Norma Waterson was once seen carrying a platypus on a board. Just a typical conversation with Eliza Carthy, then.

So, then… Normafest! What is Normafest? 

OK! Normafest is an event that exists solely to get my mother onto a stage.

Who’s your mother? Should I know her? 

[Cackles] My mother’s name is Norma Waterson and she is a singer of traditional songs and sometimes jazz standards and other surprising things, as you’ll learn when the new Gift Band album comes out. We are talking to each other a week before the new Gift Band album starts. There are some interesting new songs on that. She’s mainly known for singing in a singing group with her family – with her brother and her sister and her husband, whose name is Martin Carthy. He plays the guitar.

Do you know him? Is he a relative of yours? 

I’ve never met him, but I hear he’s quite nice [laughs].

OK. Cool. I’d like to meet him someday.  

Haha! So, anyway, that’s who she is, and Normafest exists to get her on to a stage. The reason I say that is because seven years ago my mam was in a coma – she was in a coma for four months. She got septicemia and she came out of it much physically impaired, as you can imagine, along with crippling arthritis, which she already had. She taught herself how to walk again, how to talk again, how to lift a cup. You know, simple things like that.

She can still sing, and she in fact comes alive when she sings. But the one thing she can’t do is travel. So I started Normafest in order to give her a local opportunity to get on a stage and do what she loves. Everybody facilitates that, essentially. We sell tickets in order to pay bands to come here and augment the bill, so that if she isn’t able to perform – which does sometimes happen – she was able to perform the first two years but last year she didn’t, for instance. The idea is that if she is not able to perform there is still an extremely strong supporting bill of music around her.

Normafest is entirely non-profit, so these are people that have agreed to also be entirely non-profit, so we’ve had some fabulous people on the bill. We pay the headliner a small fee in addition to their expenses and everybody else goes into a pot… with the exception of last year because Peggy Seeger waived her fee and also went into the pot, as is her wont – that’s the kind of person she is. The first couple of years were very successful, and last year was very successful because it was lots of fun and we had lots of amazing musicians, but everyone ended up with £9.75 each.

It’s better than a kick in the balls, Eliza. 

[Cackles.]

No one goes away with nothing! And everyone gets fed by Hardeep Singh Kohli, who is a wonderful Indian celebrity chef and actor and broadcaster, who for some reason likes hanging out in our kitchen. I think he likes my mam’s spice collection . And then everyone stays in the Grosvenor Hotel, which is just around the corner for our house and I know that you’re very familiar with, having sat at a table with Lankum for… how many hours was it?

About three hours. Actually, that was my fortieth birthday, so that was my fortieth birthday present. 

Yay! Sitting next to Lankum in the pub!

Lankum were fantastic. I kind of knew who they were but Ian was sitting there telling me how they’d been on Jools Holland the night before, as though it was nothing, and I just realised how down-to-earth and nice they were. 

Yeah, absolutely. Very much so.

Amazing musicians. 

Yes. Well, that’s it, really. I guess this will be the fourth year, and we’re adding things all the time. Last year was the big folkie one. We had Stick in the Wheel, we had Lankum, we had Peggy Seeger with Neil MacColl. We had Hardeep giving a cooking demonstration – he made breakfast for everyone, which was very, very nice. We had DJs. We showed two movies last year. So we’re going to try and replicate some of that.

The big thing about this year is that we’re going to be moving half into the village – half into Robin Hood’s Bay – so we’re going to be making it even more of a slipper gig than it already was [laughs]. So, on the Friday we’re going to have a reception down at Tea, Toast and Post [see map above], which is a little cafe and venue down at the bottom of the Bay, which normally does sandwiches and crumpets and local beers and coffee, stuff like that. They’re going to push all the chairs away and we’re going to have a bit of a reception with my mam and Ian Clayton having a chat and talking about music, which is going to be really fun. Then we’re all going to go up to St Stephen’s Church [see map], which is in the middle of the village, and we’ll have a concert there with The Rails and Tommy McCarthy and The Gift Band – a mini version of The Gift Band this year.

And that’s all on the Friday? 

That’s all on the Friday. And then on the Saturday we’ll move to the Spa Pavillion in Whitby, where we were last year. We’re going to show some more films, and Hardeep this year is going to do like a live radio show. He’s going to come to our house and interview my mam about their incredible record collection. My parents have the most eclectic and brilliant record collection. They’ve got about 3,500 records, a load of tapes, a load of CDs… they’ve got a library downstairs, basically. Of course, mam was a DJ on Radio Antilles in the 1960s, so she’s got a great calypso record collection, loads of Motown, loads of rock’n’roll, so he’s going to broadcast bits of that interview and play some of her influences – Betty Smith and Marty Sparrow.

And then there’s going to be a big concert afterwards with Lisa Knapp and Gerry Driver and… Oh gosh, I can’t remember everybody that’s on it! Oh, we’re going to do a mini Bright Phoebus launch as well with the new Bright Phoebus Band. And hopefully Dervish are going to close the evening for us.

Also on the Friday and Saturday we’re adding two new things. We’re adding dances to the picture as well. We’re almost a real folk festival now! We’re having a French Bal in the village hall [see map] on Friday night with Topette, and then on the Saturday night we’re having a ceilidh with Banter, so I’m very much looking forward to that.

And then we’ll pile into the Grosvenor at the end of the night for tunes, and hopefully buying some more contraband off the barman. He’s selling USB fidget spinners at the moment, and was selling socks last year. Really good socks, which Lankum were very grateful for. You always get that at the end of the tour, you know – everyone’s out of socks and the windows on the bus don’t open… It’s a problem for the touring musician!

Good to know!

[Cackles]

So where do we stay if we’re going to Normafest, if it’s all over the place? 

OK, so I can recommend a couple of places. It is the quietest weekend of the year for the area, but it depends if you want to be where everyone is on the Friday night or you want to be where everyone is on the Saturday night. If you want to be where everyone is on the Friday night, you stay in the Bay [Robin Hood’s Bay]; if you want to be where everyone is on the Saturday night, then I would definitely stay at La Rosa Hotel, which is on the cliffs above the Spa. It’s about a five minute walk from the Spa.

Nice. And if you want to be crashing in on the sessions in The Grosvenor, you have to be in the Bay, right? 

There’s the Victoria Hotel which is a five minute walk from the pub [The Grosvenor]. You get the benefit of the fabulous view if you stay at the Victoria. You wake up and you look out over the Bay and it’s absolutely gorgeous.

At this point the conversation turned to a forthcoming album Eliza and her parents were recording as The Gift Band – the first since 2010’s initial offering. This turned out to be ‘Anchor’. 

We’ve been building this new album for the last couple of months. We’ve got about 20 songs that we’re choosing from, and some of them are trad and some of them are less trad.

Are there any songs left that you and your mam can sing that you haven’t already sung? 

Apparently so, yeah! There’s some Lotte Lenya out there; there’s some Alan Price out there, which I’m very much looking forward to.

Nice. 

Yeah, well you know, my great-grandfather was on Jarrow March, so we’re having a look at ‘The Jarrow Boys’. It’s a very, very appropriate song for the times, despite the fact that it was written in 1974. These things never go away.

Do you record at home, like you did with your dad? 

No, we can’t do that anymore because my cousin Oliver has retired officially as a sound engineer and he’s put all his stuff into storage. He’s officially working for George, Lal’s widower.

What we’ve done is we’ve hired out Fisherhead Church, which is an old Methodist chapel about halfway down the bank. I’m in the process of heating it and cleaning it out and making it look nice. We’ve got fairy lights and we’re going to make it look really lovely. Then Matty Foulds of Mobile With a Home, which is a mobile studio based up in the borders in Scotland – Matty Foulds has actually played on a few of my records (he played on Rough Music and he may have guested on Anglicana as well)… he was our neighbour when I lived up in the borders. He’s Karine Polwart’s ex-husband… Canadian… plays the drums… his mum runs the Celtic Colors Festival in Nova Scotia… and he’s a very, very good sound engineer. He’s coming down with a load of gear from Scotland and we’re going to set up studio space in the chapel and we’re going to try and record everything as live.

We’re also going to film bits of it. Elly Lucas is coming to do some live photography and some bits and pieces of behind the scenes filming as well. It’s going to look and sound really beautiful. We’re trying to make the experience as homely and as lovely for my mam as we can. We’ve hired a house right next door to the church so she can basically be watching Corrie and then come in and do her parts and then go back out again [laughs]. While we do all the boring stuff, she can be resting and relaxing in a nice warm place, then we’ll get her back into the church and crack the whip!

What I can tell you is that when the new Gift album comes out, there will be a tour to support that.

Oh, so you’ll be able to get her to travel for that? 

We’re going to do five gigs and we’re going to make sure everyone’s happy. It might mean spreading it out over a month so she’s only doing one gig every weekend. We have to be really careful when it comes to mam, but we said that we’d definitely do five major cities.

Can your mam still look back and comfortably watch things like the 1966 Watersons film, Travelling for a Living

Yeah, I think she can. I think she likes to see Mike and Lal as young people, you know? She misses them very much. For a long time it was just the three of them, you know? She’s certainly found it very, very difficult since they both died. I guess, when you come from such a big family, in some ways you don’t need mates – you’ve got your little gang all built, you know? My mam’s family has always been her gang, so she’s lost her gang and she’s lost her family. So we just try and be that new gang now.

I think she can watch it, because she can admire her old hair [cackles]. And also, you know, all those BBC stylisations are really good. That bit with John doing his hair in front of the mirror, and stuff like that. When you watch it with her she gives you all the backstory and it’s really funny. Like that bit with the platypus on a board that she was carrying around. Nobody says anything about that! You see her getting out of the van and she’s holding a stuffed platypus, and no one ever says, “What’s that all about?” No one ever says that, and I will never tell!

Can you remember the first time you saw that film? 

No. No, I can’t. I’ve seen it so many times now.

That’s one of the great things, I thought, about Normafest last year. You get to see what remains of The Watersons singing unaccompanied. It’s quite a moving experience. 

It really is. We won’t be doing that this year. What we will be doing is singing Bright Phoebus, and we’ll be doing some of the other family stuff. It’s Bright Phoebus’s year, this year.

Absolutely. 

We’re very much looking forward to seeing how it flies. Of course, we’re doing Celtic Connections in January, and we’re doing a launch up in Glasgow. That’s the official launch. This one’s going to be the family do.

Well that’ll be worth the ticket price alone. 

We’ve waited a long time. This family has waited a long time for this album to finally come out and be seen in its best light, you know?

It’s amazing. Easily one of my all-time favourites. 

Yeah, me too. Can’t wait. It’s going to be good.

Eliza Carthy, the Mega Interview, Pt 3

Originally published on the Grizzly Folk blog, June 1st, 2018

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). 

Eliza Carthy and Norma Waterson sit together for photographer, Elly Lucas

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.

Oh, wow!

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.

Glamorous!

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]!

Hahaha! 

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. 


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