Eliza Carthy: ‘There have never been so many ways to be a folk musician and to try and make a go of it’
On the eve of the release of her mighty new album we discussed the creation of Big Machine with the folk royalty that is Eliza Carthy
SF: The Wayward Band is a new venture for you. How did it come about and how did you manage to get such a fantastic group of accomplished musicians together?
EC: Four years ago Jim Moray and I were celebrating professional musical milestones – him ten years, me twenty-one. We came up with the idea of a flexible, large lineup that could represent all the different ideas we’d had with traditional music over the years, whether that be string arrangements, electronica or acoustic duets, and touring it together, both of us fronting th
e same band in the two halves of a show. We reasoned that we’d had a similar approach to things over the years, and similarly could never afford to do it on our own! That’s how it started, as a ‘Best Of’ concept. Almost everyone in the band represents some era of either Jim or me. Saul (Rose) and Barn (Stradling) and I have been playing together for decades now; Barn brought Yenyen in from groups he had been playing with in France.
SF: The Wayward Band seems to fill a Bellowhead-sized hole on the live circuit, was that in your head at all?
EC: When we started we pretty much assumed there was no future in Wayward, as Bellowhead was very much filling its own hole then! Last summer we were offered the chance to record and we jumped at it because the gigs had just been so much fun. It was only after that that we realised that we may have chosen a good moment. Sadly I don’t think the folk scene could sustain two bands of this size, so it’s luck more than anything.
SF: ‘You Know Me’ about the refugee crisis and ‘Devil in the Woman’ about domestic abuse are hugely powerful songs, what’s the background to them?
EC: It was Tom Robinson’s idea that we write a new song. It was two years ago and the refugee crisis was just kicking off; we were very affected by the images of Syrian children washing up on the beaches of the Mediterranean and by the often extraordinarily mean rhetoric of politicians and social commentators. A lot has been said about what ‘British values’ might be, and I have been dismayed by the gist of it. If British values are truly those of exclusivity and protectionism I frankly want nothing to do with them. But I was taught another history – that of protest, of unwillingness to buy what we are told by our ruling classes, that of generosity and inclusivity and the ancient notion of hospitality; the ancient tradition of setting an extra place at the dinner table, of keeping the door open, helping people less fortunate. That’s the history I own and believe in.
‘Devil in the Woman’ is a brilliantly horrible song! I found it in the broadside collections at Chetham’s Library in Manchester when I was asked to present a programme for Radio 4 about the Irish immigrant workers in that city during the famine. Essentially the original is very much an attempt to make beating up your wife funny ... I tried to turn it around, but found it fairly charmless whichever way I looked at it! The woman in this song is essentially a nightmare of femininity. But she certainly throws herself into her vileness! I have an admiration for that ... Lucy Farrell wrote the tune.
SF: In addition to the ‘big’ band you’ve also attracted some impressive guest vocalists in Teddy Thompson, Damien Dempsey and, perhaps more surprisingly, MC Dizraeli – did you know them before you started the album?
EC: I did! I have known Teddy for years through family and friends, and from working together on the Rogue’s Gallery pirate songs projects with Hal Wilner. We rarely see each other as he lives in New York; we got together one day when I was out there working on something else and forced the issue. We were very lucky to be filming in Yorkshire on the day he was passing through on tour too. Very serendipitous.
I met Damien through the MacColl family and Peggy Seeger, when we were touring last year for Ewan MacColl’s hundredth birthday. We had such a lovely time on the road I really wanted to sing with him again. He’s a generous soul, and a brave one! Daunting to throw yourself into a live situation with eleven people you’ve never met, and he had a chest infection that day to boot. It’s one of my favourite songs on the record, though our plans to play together more have been somewhat thwarted by the fact he is rapidly becoming a superstar in Ireland. Rightly so.
Diz I have been a fan of for a few years, and we finally met when we were both signed to the Lush/Simon Emmerson record label a few years ago. Diz was one of the guest vocalists on the final Imagined Village tour after Chris Wood left; it was a great and different experience to have him rapping the Chris Wood part on ‘Cold Hailey Windy Night’. Engurland: City Shanties is one of my favourite albums of all time. I’m so glad he could add his thoughts and words to the reboot of ‘You Know Me’, as I’d always heard the folk element to his work. Of course, hip-hop is a folk form, so it makes sense to us!
SF: The solo version of the ‘The Sea’ on Stick in the Wheel’s From Here project is very different to the Big Machine version. How did you get involved with doing the field recordings?
EC: They asked! It was nice to strip things back and do a solo version of ‘The Sea’ – working with such a big band you do realise sometimes that there is no way you can perform some things on your own. I don’t do much solo work. It was great, a different way of doing things. It was nice to get a big fire going in the back garden and sit in the dark and sing. God knows what the neighbours thought of it!
SF: This issue of Shire Folk is our 40th anniversary issue. Not that I’m suggesting that you’ve been going for the same length of time (!) but what are the biggest changes you’ve seen over your time in the business?
EC: Well obviously it’s easier for someone like me to assemble a larger project, though it’s still hard to finance! I think there’s less real trad kicking around which is a shame; however, the professional options are much better than they were, certainly in the eighties when I started out. I miss the old boys actually. I try to seek them out when I can, you can’t beat it. I’m not sure the new scene has quite found its feet yet – there’s a lot of questions raised by dance music on records, level of virtuosity, whether or not people should be ‘guaranteed’ a career or the opportunity to sell records just because they’re doing something that needs support ... the folk scene is very split between pros, semi-pros and ‘amateurs’, all of whom have a total right to be there, all of whom are parts of the whole, but I don’t know yet if we’re reconciled, if we have the structure right to support it all. Having said that, there have never been so many ways to be a folk musician and to try and make a go of it if you want, and that’s a great thing.
Eliza’s latest album, Big Machine by Eliza Carthy & the Wayward Band, is out now on Topic Records.
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