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.
You can read it below, or hit play on the embedded app and listen to the interview as a podcast. See you in Whitby!
Intro: Hello there, and welcome to the second in the Grizzly Folk podcast. This week I’ve been thinking a little bit about Christmas, and I’ve been finding out a little bit about how folkies in this country do Christmas. It seems to me that quite often the way it works is that they have Christmas, then New Year comes up, then they start to thinking about wassailing – which we’ll talk about another time – and then for about four days they don’t do anything. And then around about the first weekend in January quite a lot of them head North to Normafest, up in Whitby.
To find out more about Normafest, I thought I’d give Eliza Carthy a random phone call. Please excuse the quality of the sound. I had to use my telephone recorder – I’m still quite new to this – I’ll sort that out for next time. In the meantime, here she is.
[Sound of Skype ringing.]
It’s Eliza Carthy!
How are you?
I’m OK. How are you?
I’m OK. Is it warm up in Whitby? It’s freezing down in Hampshire.
No! It’s freezing cold. It went from 12 or 13 degrees overnight to about six degrees.
Er, no, not really! [Evil cackle]
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.
Interruption from studio Jon: So, it’s me again, back in the studio. I’m just going to interrupt from time to time and play a little bit of music. It’s worth knowing what exactly what Eliza is talking about here when she talks about her mam and the different styles she’s been involved in. There’s a great track from the Bright Phoebus album, which was released in September 1972 originally, but has had a re-release this year. It’s a great track called ‘Red Wine and Promises’, which shows a little bit of that sort of jazzy style that Eliza is talking about here. It’s also Eliza’s dad, Martin, on the guitar. This is ‘Red Wine and Promises’.
Eliza: So, 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.
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.
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!
Interruption from studio Jon: So, it’s me back in the studio again. Obviously it’s hard to get a word in edgeways when Eliza’s on a role, but I thought it might be quite a good idea to listen to Dervish, as that’s who she’s saying is the headline act. You had Topette there, you had the Lisa Knapp Band, but let’s have a listen to some Dervish.
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.
Interruption from studio Jon: So, as you heard earlier in the interview, Eliza was also really keen to tell us about the next Gift Band album. The first Gift album, which was a collaboration between her mam, Norma Waterson, herself and a group of her musician friends, came out in the summer of 2010, and was followed by a live album. So it’s great that they’re going back into the studio to do a follow-up to that. And also a great chance to chat to Eliza. Tell us about it.
Erm, we’ve been building it 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.
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.
Interruption from studio Jon: Now, as you may or may not know if you read my blog, grizzlyfolk.com, I’m rather obsessed with a lot of the revivalist singers of the 1950s and 1960s, and one of the great artefacts of the time is a film that the BBC made called ‘Traveling For a Living’, which follows The Watersons around in their little van as they tour around the folk clubs of the country. They meet up with people like Louis Killen and Anne Briggs – really seminal performers from the time. I’ve always wondered what people who are the subject of those kind of documentaries think when they look back on them. They must see them so many, many times. So I wondered what Norma thinks when she looks back on something like ‘Traveling for a Living’. Can she even watch it?
Eliza: 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.
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.
Anyway, it’s time for you to go and cook the sausages.
See you soon!
Normafest 2018 will take place in and around Robin Hood’s Bay and Whitby, January 5-7. Tickets are yet to be announced, but watch this space. We’ll have all the news when we get it.