Ahead of her concert at Durham Cathedral tomorrow night, Eliza Carthy talks to 17 Seconds about teaching herself the violin, fitting in touring around half term and what folk music really means.
I catch up with Eliza Carthy on her mobile midway between gigs on her current tour. She’s currently on tour with Jim Moray [he’s celebrating 10 years in the business, she 21] and this year has released a compilation of material called Wayward Daughter. ‘It’s been good to revisit old material,’ she says, thoughtfully. ‘We’ve got four gigs left…including [the Greenbelt Festival at] Cheltenham racecourse. This week sees her playing at Durham Cathedral, which was, she reveals ‘a late addition to our tour.’ Despite hailing from Yorkshire, she surprisingly says that ‘Northern shows have been thin on the ground.’ These days as mother to two daughters she’s fitting in touring around half term, school holidays and weekends.
It’s been well-documented that she comes from a very musical family. Her father is Martin Carthy and her mother is Norma Waterson. They’re pretty much Britain’s first family of folk music, something she was aware of from an early age. ‘I always felt a part of the history of music in the family, she says. Not just in terms of this generation, either; she reveals that there are seven generations of music on her father’s side, while her mother comes from a travellers’ background with a deep-routed sense of musical tradition.
And the family friends and connections rubbed off on her. Amazingly -not least if you have ever studied the instrument – Eliza is actually a self-taught violinist. How did she manage this, I ask, in wonder?
‘I hung around people who were good at it,’ she explains. She was inspired by Nancy Kerr to play the violin, and the two of them produced two albums together while they were still in their teens. Chris Wood, who her father was mentoring in the mid to late eighties was another influence and the legendary Dave Swarbrick ‘was always around.’ She wasn’t averse to musical lessons -‘I studied classical piano up to grade six, she says, ‘and I absolutely loved that.’
Another family friend is Billy Bragg. ‘He’s been a friend of the family for a long time, ‘ Eliza says. If Bragg, coming from an background that owes as much to punk as to folk might seem an unlikely connection, this is way off the mark. ‘Because I wanted to be a songwriter, his approach to music wasn’t massively different.’
Well-versed in many folk traditions, one of her many collaborations was with Bragg and Wilco for two volumes of Mermaid Avenue which saw Bragg writing music to unrecorded Woody Guthrie songs. This leads me to ask her: what exactly does ‘folk’ music mean?
She’s considered in her response. ‘Nothing to do with acoustic guitars!’ she says (she doesn’t criticise any acts, and I don’t ask her to.) ‘I don’t know what it means…which makes it difficult for someone like me.’ She adds ‘ For me it’s about music being passed down; that’s traditional music.’ In an age where people are constantly trying to pigeonhole in order to understand she points out the absurdity of ‘music from these Islands being described as ‘world.’
After Durham Cathedral and Greenbelt, she’s not resting on her laurels. Her next big project is a tour with Tim Eriksen, which coincides with the October half term, and then she’s recording with her Dad again. Will she bring either Martin Carthy or Norma Waterson on stage for the Durham Cathedral gig, I ask?
I think she’s grinning down the ‘phone. ‘No involvement from parents!’ she tells me.