She was the pink-haired fiddler who punked up folk, but Covid almost sank her and her famous family. Eliza Carthy talks about going broke, bereavement and the healing power of boozy, bawdy music
By Dave Simpson
At the start of this year, things did not look good for the Waterson-Carthy folk dynasty. It was, as Eliza Carthy put it, “struggling to survive”. Her mother, the celebrated singer Norma Waterson, had been unable to tour for a decade after falling into a coma that left her having to re-learn how to walk and talk. She’d never returned to full health and had recently been hospitalised with pneumonia. Meanwhile, Covid lockdowns had deprived the MBE-awarded Eliza and her father, the revered singer-songwriter Martin Carthy, of their means of income. Being self-employed, like many artists, they didn’t qualify for furlough, just a small business grant that lasted six months.
“By the third lockdown,” says Carthy, “we were looking at selling our instruments.”
Then an old agent friend in the US suggested Carthy launch a public appeal for help. “You wouldn’t believe the people who gave us money,” she says. “It’s been comforting and heartbreaking.” Sadly, Waterson passed away in January, aged 82. “We weren’t allowed to see her until the last day,” says Carthy. “And she was gone by then. But we’d been FaceTiming and I got to tell her how much was in the fund. She looked at me and just said: ‘The children are going to be safe. The house is going to be safe.’ And that’s the first time we’d felt like that for a decade.” She reaches for a tissue, to wipe away the tears rolling down her face. “I’m sorry,” she says, “but it’s been really hard.”
We’re sitting in the kitchen of their congenially cluttered family home in Robin Hood’s Bay, a fishing village on the North Yorkshire coast. At the back door, her 81-year-old father – who influenced Bob Dylan and taught Paul Simon to play Scarborough Fair – is feeding chickens. Carthy moved back in 2011, becoming a “part-time carer and single mum”, as well as running her own band. On the wall are posters for NormaFest, the festival she set up in 2015 so her mother could at least perform locally. “She was a classic matriarch – loving but firm,” says Carthy, brightening at this happier memory. “When I moved back, she wanted me here but didn’t want me to touch anything.” She laughs and gestures towards a laptop plonked on a kitchen worktop. “She’d say: ‘This isn’t your office! It’s a food preparation area!’”
Lately, Carthy has thrown herself back into music. This month, she releases Queen of the Whirl, an album of fan favourites chosen by a Twitter poll and re-recorded with her crack band the Restitution, to celebrate the 30 years since she skipped her A-levels to become a professional musician. Her parents led the “folk revival” in the 60s, but Carthy is seeking to refashion the genre for a modern world, fusing traditional and contemporary music with rock guitars, reggae rhythms and sometimes edgy subjects, mixing in the bawdiness and vulnerability she displays in person.
“I object to the Brit-centric definition of folk,” she says, “which is very white and safe and fixated with acoustic instruments.” In her role as president of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, she has been keen to shake things up, diversity-wise. “To me, Ariana Grande is folk music. Bohemian Rhapsody is folk. I define folk as whatever you can sing in a pub – and for people to be able to join in and be as shit as you like. Folk music isn’t clean. It’s sexy and filthy and at the end of the night you fall over. And that’s how I like to live.”
Quite literally, in some instances. The song Blood on My Boots describes the night her friend, the comedian Stewart Lee, invited her to the premiere of Jerry Springer: The Opera, which he co-wrote. After four glasses of champagne, Eliza hit the cold night air and took a tumble. “They found me under a bridge,” she says with a laugh. “I literally had blood on my boots.”
She recalls the first time she picked up the fiddle, in her case one that had belonged to her grandfather. In the nicest possible way, she says: “I didn’t want to be my dad.” Female fiddlers – give or take a Kathryn Tickell or Helen O’Hara – were rarer in the late 80s and 90s, never mind sporting bovver boots and a buzz cut. “Someone said: ‘You’re trading on your youth and beauty.’ I was like: ‘You wot?’” She dyed her hair pink and blue and toured the folk clubs, getting by on four hours’ sleep on couches. “In some ways, it was punk,” she says. “At one point, I woke up in a bed and it was snowing on my face.” In another incident, when her vehicle broke down, she tested the old wives’ tale about sealing a leaky radiator with a dozen eggs. “It didn’t work. We just got a radiator full of scrambled eggs.”
Gradually, after encountering some resistance from the more traditional folk camp, she earned their respect as other younger musicians emerged, such as Seth Lakeman and Jock Tyldesley. “I credit the folk scene for that,” she says. “I think they realised that if they didn’t get new blood, it would just be a case of them waiting for the phone calls telling them another old artist has died. Instead, they let us in and said: ‘Show us what you’ve got.’ Sometimes we fell on our arses and sometimes we didn’t, but the great thing about folk clubs in the 80s and 90s is they held folk up and that’s why my dad still plays the clubs. These people weren’t professional promoters. They were social workers, nurses, teachers – decent people who built stages that kept us all alive.”
After 1998’s Red Rice, often called her “drum’n’bass album”, was nominated for the Mercury prize, as was Anglicana five years later, Warners signed her up, hoping for “a cross between Joni Mitchell and Judy Garland”. They perhaps weren’t expecting such songs as The Company of Men, which begins: “I’ve given blowjobs on couches / To men who didn’t want me any more / Why didn’t they tell me before?”
She laughs at the memory. “It’s interesting encountering your early 20s self. There are certainly things that I’m not prepared to do any more.” As she tells it, she’d been inspired by Ani DiFranco’s songs about “abortions and stuff” which gave her the desire to be “completely honest” about a real life incident. She’d had her heart broken and the line “I don’t want to be one of the beautiful people” is pointed. “I was still in love with him and he said: ‘It doesn’t matter, because we’re the beautiful people.’ I thought: ‘No. I’m a scrubby little asshole from Yorkshire and I don’t like you very much. I’m a punk and you’re an arsehole!’” Her mighty cackle fills the kitchen. When the time came to record the song, she says, another musician walked into the studio. “I thought: ‘Oh Jesus, it’s Nick Cave and I’m singing about blowjobs!’”
She now describes herself as a “carer”. When her band got ripped off and didn’t get paid, she recorded a solo album, 2019’s Restitute, in her bedroom and sold it on the web to compensate them. Lately, she’s been planning her father’s Covid-delayed 80th birthday gig at the Barbican in London, writing her next solo album and – after being further waylaid by the virus – teaching music at her old school in Robin Hood’s Bay. “You can’t put a value on the emotional and spiritual awareness that music brings from an early age,” she says. “Music is mathematics. You can actually learn about the science of how arpeggios affect your nervous system. Music is so undervalued. It can be life-changing.”
By playing it – and reaching out to people again – she’s starting to put this year’s sadnesses behind her. “I found coming out of the pandemic traumatic at first,” she says, “because it reminded me of all the pain and isolation. But whenever we’ve performed, I’ve felt that collectivism again – and laughter and people. The pandemic’s brought up a lot of stuff and I’ve thought: ‘Maybe I should call so-and-so.’ And that’s been really lovely.”