AHe early this year was not looking good for the Waterson-Carthy folk dynasty. It was, as Eliza Carthy put it, “struggle to survive”. Her mother, celebrated singer Norma Waterson, had been unable to tour for ten years after falling into a coma that forced her to relearn how to walk and talk. She had never fully recovered and had recently been hospitalized with pneumonia. Meanwhile, Covid lockdowns had robbed MBE-awarded Eliza and her father, respected singer-songwriter Martin Carthy, of their income. As self-employed, like many artists, they didn’t qualify for a leave of absence, only for a six-month small business grant.
“At the third close,” Carthy says, “we were looking at the sale of our instruments.”
Then an old agent friend in the US suggested Carthy make 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 at the age of 82. “We weren’t allowed to see her until the last day,” Carthy says. ‘And then she was already gone. But we had been FaceTiming and I had to tell her how much was in the fund. She looked at me and just said, “The kids will be safe. The house will be safe.’ And that’s the first time in ten years we’ve felt that way.” She reaches for a tissue to wipe away the tears rolling down her face. “I’m sorry,” she says, “but it’s been very difficult.”
We’re in the kitchen of their cozy 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 how to play Scarborough Fair – is feeding chickens. Carthy moved back in 2011 and became a “part-time caregiver and single mother”, running her own band. Posters hang on the walls for NormaFest, the festival she set up in 2015 so that her mother could at least perform locally. “She was a classic matriarch — loving but determined,” Carthy says, cheering at this happier memory. “When I went back, she wanted me here, but she didn’t want me to touch anything.” She smiles and gestures at a laptop on a counter in the kitchen. ‘She’d say, ‘This isn’t your office! It’s an area where food is prepared!’”
Lately Carthy has turned to music again. This month she releases Queen of the Whirl, an album of fan favorites chosen by a Twitter poll and re-recorded with her crack band The Restitution, every 30 years since she skipped her A-levels to become a professional musician. , to celebrate. Her parents led the ‘folk revival’ in the 60s, but Carthy is trying to reshape the genre for a modern world, mixing traditional and contemporary music with rock guitars, reggae rhythms and sometimes edgy subjects, mixing with the brutality and fragility which she exhibits in person.
“I object to the Brit-centered definition of folk,” she says, “which is very white and safe and fixated on acoustic instruments.” In her role as president of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, she has wanted to shake things up when it comes to diversity. “For me, Ariana Grande is folk music. Bohemian Rhapsody is folk. I define folk as anything you can sing in a bar – and people can join in and be as shit as you want. Folk music is not clean. It’s sexy and nasty and at the end of the night you’ll fall over. And that’s how I like to live.”
Quite literally, in some cases. The song Blood on My Boots describes the night her boyfriend, 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 fell to the ground. “They found me under a bridge,” she says with a laugh. “I literally had blood on my boots.”
She remembers the first time she picked up the violin, in her case one that belonged to her grandfather. In the nicest possible way, she says, “I didn’t want to be my father.” Female fiddlers—give or take a Kathryn Tickell or Helen O’Hara—were rarer in the late 80s and 90s, let alone sporty boots and a buzz cut. ‘Someone said, ‘You act on your youth and beauty.’ I was like, ‘You know?” She dyed her hair pink and blue and toured the folk clubs, getting by on four hours of sleep on the couches. “In some ways it was punk,” she says. “At one point I woke up in a bed and it snowed on my face.” In another incident, when her vehicle broke down, she tested the old woman’s story of sealing a leaking radiator with a dozen eggs. “It did not 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 came forward, such as Seth Lakeman and Jock Tyldesley. “I credit the folk scene for that,” she says. “I think they realized that if they didn’t get new blood they just had to wait for the phone calls telling them that another old artist has passed away. Instead, they let us in and said, ‘Show us what you’ve got.’ Sometimes we fell on our ass and sometimes we didn’t, but the great thing about folk clubs in the 80’s and 90’s is that they held back folk and that’s why my dad still plays in clubs. These people were not professional promoters. They were social workers, nurses, teachers – decent people who built podiums that kept us all alive.”
After 1998’s Red Rice, her often dubbed “drum’n’bass album,” was nominated for the Mercury award, and five years later Anglicana, Warners signed her up, hoping for “a cross between Joni Mitchell and Judy Garland”. They might not have expected songs like The Company of Men, which begins with “I gave blow jobs on the couch / To men who didn’t want me anymore / Why didn’t they tell me before?”
She laughs at the memory. “It’s interesting to meet your early twenties yourself. There are certainly things I am no longer willing to do.” As she tells it, she was inspired by Ani DiFranco’s songs about “abortions and stuff,” which gave her a desire to be “totally honest” about a real-life incident. Her heart was broken and the line “I don’t want to be one of the beautiful people” is spoken. “I was still in love with him and he said, ‘It doesn’t matter, because we are the beautiful people.’ I thought, ‘No. I’m a dirty little bastard from Yorkshire and I don’t like you that much. I’m a punk and you’re a bastard!’” Her mighty cackle fills the kitchen. When the time came to start the song taking, she says, another musician came walking into the studio. “I thought, ‘Oh Jesus, it’s Nick Cave and I’m singing about blowjobs!'”
She now describes herself as a ‘caregiver’. When her band got scammed and not paid, she recorded a solo album, 2019’s Restitute, in her bedroom and sold it on the internet 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 besieged by the virus – teaching music at her old school in Robin Hood’s Bay. “You can’t value the emotional and spiritual awareness that music brings from an early age,” she says. “Music is math. You can really 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 begins to put this year’s sadness behind her. “I found it traumatic to come out of the pandemic at first,” she says, “because it reminded me of all the pain and isolation. But every time we perform, I’ve felt that collectivism again—and laughter and people. pandemic has brought up a lot of things and I thought, ‘Maybe I should call so-and-so.’ And that has been very nice.”