Eliza Carthy on ‘Big Machine’, Bellowhead and folk song collecting in the 21st century

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.

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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.]
Did she say something wrong? Eliza and gang at Normafest

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.

Eliza and Martin Carthy opening Normafest 2017

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.

“Peggy Seeger asked me if I could dedicate it to women engineers everywhere, and I was like, ‘Fuck yeah! I can do 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’. 

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