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Eliza Carthy - in conversation with Trevor Buck

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I called Eliza at her home outside Fylingdales near Scarborough in the middle of a busy day.

“You know what it’s like when you’ve got to pack for a flight the next day; your mind won’t rest. Well, my brain has been racing all night. I was up at 5am. I’m driving to Edinburgh this afternoon to pick the others up (including Karine Polwart, Mary Macmaster and Jenn Butterworth) for an intensive week of rehearsing and recording up on Eigg, an island in the Hebrides.”

It’s about songs on Eigg. Are you taking instruments?

“Yes, because I’ll be accompanying singers. I’m taking lots of fiddles, including an octave violin that Tim Phillips made for me in Wales - the nearest you can get to sound like something between a viola and a cello without having a spike to stick in the ground!”

I’ve read about how Eliza got into the fiddle at the age of 11 after her granddad’s old fiddle was found in a cupboard after he died. With a family of mostly singers, plus her dad Martin on guitar, was the fiddle a bit of a departure?

“Yeah it was. I’d got interested in the instrumental side of things when Dad hooked up with Dave Swarbrick in about 1988 (Eliza was born in 1975), when they did their first farewell tour, which is still going on! They were rehearsing around the house. The next year, I met up with Nancy Kerr. She was the same age as me, but she’d been playing tunes from the age of four. She played in Alistair Anderson’s ceilidh band and could play tunes for four hours. I thought that was amazing and I started listening to fiddlers at festivals. About that time, Chris Wood started spending a lot of time at our house with Dad, who I suppose was mentoring him a bit. Chris set up my fiddle and showed me a few tricks for singing and playing fiddle at the same time. He was my inspiration, but then he stopped playing the violin in favour of singing with a guitar, which was so weird - my violin hero didn’t play the violin anymore! If you twist his arm, or if Andy Cutting’s in the room, he’ll pick the fiddle up again.”

You went from beginner to performer in such a short time? I saw you with Nancy in 1993. Your fiddle sound was established already?

“I took up the violin when I was 11 but I made no progress and only made Grade 2. I hated all that Associated Board exams stuff. It was really only from the age of 15 that I took the fiddle seriously and started playing for five hours at a time, sitting on the stairs. I recorded an album and was touring as a professional fiddler at 17! The singing on that album sounds like me on helium.”

Could I hear Dave Swarbrick in your playing at that time?

“Not really. Chris Wood was the big influence then. Dave was much too clever, with his virtuosity and wild improvisation. In fact, I actively tried to NOT sound like Dave, but I suppose these things sink in anyway. You can’t help what’s around you. At that time Nancy and I weren’t into virtuosity, just concentrating on playing steadily, with a steady, rather than a flying, bow arm. We’d play a single tune for 12 minutes with Séamus Ennis-type variations. I can definitely hear Dave in my playing now, though, as I improvise and play faster.”

Eliza has a ‘Best Of’ compilation out called Wayward Daughter. I saw you with the Wayward Band on the Meadows in Edinburgh last Sunday. You looked in fine form?

“They’re such a great band. We have seven dates in the summer and a mini-tour in the autumn. That was our first run out. We formed a bigger version of the band with Jim Moray two years ago. In fact, we played in Edinburgh then. We had a couple of days off so we came up early and Summerhall said we could sleep in our bus in their courtyard. It was brilliant.”

You’ve had a rough time recently?

“Yes, I’ve been really ill. I had a lot of back trouble. An operation fixed it OK at the end of 2014 but then I got a bronchitis infection, with four months on steroids and over six weeks in bed. I came up to Celtic Connections in January but I got ill the night of the BBC radio show. I was just burning up, it was ridiculous. I was sick until I went to the USA in March. The same thing had happened at the end of 2011 and beginning of 2012, when I had another six weeks in bed with flu. I’m back on my feet, but it feels like I’m crawling out from under a rock.”

You’re passionate about English music, but there are so many different kinds?

“Well, there are now, but not back then. At the English Fiddle Symposium that Catriona MacDonald and I organised recently at The Sage in Gateshead, Dave Swarbrick said that even he was not an English fiddler at all, rather Scottish, starting off with Beryl Marriott and the Ian Campbell Group.”

“We don’t yet have an agreed concept of what English fiddling is, and probably never will, but I love the fact that we’re solidifying around, say, five ideas. 70% of those at the Symposium were players and some were saying, ‘where are the English players we could model ourselves on?’ Well, maybe we’re all just individual players without any consistent English style, but that’s OK. Dave’s not a typical English player – and not a Scottish one either, as that’s just his origin. We just need to get on with it and get teaching what we do, even though we don’t know what an English style is. We are it. Dermot McLaughlin from the Donegal Fiddle School said something that struck home for me. He said: ‘You’re it. Traditions don’t have to be old and can be started by individuals.’”

So we’re all mongrels. I can’t hear any Morris on your playing?

“I play a sort of northern Morris, for sword dance, not bells-and-hankies stuff, though I was brought up going to Bampton. I can play Morris when I want to, like when I play with Saul Rose. When I play for my long sword dance team in Goathland, the music is brutish, without the same lilt as Morris, or without any lilt at all actually! The dance is a fast walk and the tunes are played flat and fast, though not as fast as in rapper sword. Here in the North East, I like the Scandinavian influence to come out, with lots of double stopping. The tunes come to life then.”

Last month I asked Chris Leslie, a prominent English fiddler with Fairport Convention, about your Symposium and he hadn’t heard of it.

“If Chris isn’t on Facebook etc, he could have missed it. Dave Swarbrick was there! Also, it was held on 1 May, so a lot of players for dance couldn’t be there. Everyone was fired up, and we may organise another one, but not on that weekend. All kudos to Reg Hall at the age of 82. He gave us a talk and then, as far as I know, he drove down from Gateshead to play for the Padstow. People were grumbling that they couldn’t come on May Day, but Reg Hall: hard core!”

You say you’d like to do more teaching. You’ve got a job at The Sage?

“Yes, I’m Folkworks Artistic Associate. I’d love to do more teaching and they’re easing me into it. I’ve done a bit of teaching at Ashokan in New York State and this summer I’m going back to the TradMaD camp in Pinewoods, Massachusetts. I’m writing a tune book of English tunes for Faber as part of my associateship. Once people find out that you’re collecting tunes, they send you out-of-print collections they’ve found in granny’s attic.”

All this ethnomusicology with no A-levels either?

“I know. Isn’t it weird? I’d really love to get more involved at Newcastle University, maybe teaching the students and even doing some learning myself and finally getting some qualifications. I did well on my GCSEs!”

I was reading about Tim Eriksen, the partner on your last CD, Bottle.

“Yes, he’s a doctor now, a musicologist. He’s got letters, well different letters.” (Eliza was awarded an MBE earlier this year.)

You’re thinking about an English Fiddle School?

“I am. I’m going over to Donegal in August to see how Dermot and co do things over there, with a week-long fiddle school plus two weekends in the spring and autumn. ‘It’s dead easy,’ he said. ‘You just get 10 people in one room and 10 in another and get on with it. It’s as simple as that.’ In fact, we were calling him Dermot ‘get on with it’ McLaughlin. He was an inspiration. People also wondered why we were involved with Shetlander Catriona MacDonald, but she was perfect. She looked forward to the Symposium because she had no idea what English fiddle was either. She worked really, really hard on it and threw in some interesting ‘curve balls’. Dermot was one of those: an outsider but someone who said, ‘this is how we revived the Donegal fiddle tradition.’”

Sometimes traditions are started or revived by a single person, or by just a few, like John Doherty in Donegal?

“Absolutely. That’s what Dermot said. They went round all the old players, scooped them up and stuck them in front of young players, and got a dialogue going. To make it easy for myself, I think I’ll organise it near my home. Goathland’s Plough Stots, the team I play for, is building an arts centre and community hub, with spaces for exhibition and performance. It won’t be ready for four or five years, but in the meantime I could get things started in Whitby. Eventually, my school could be part of the Sword Dance Union weekend in Goathland, where they’ll have year-round teaching of local sword dances. (You can read Eliza’s article about this in the Guardian, 11 Dec 2014.) You’ve got to reach out to individuals who may not be able to put a side together just now, but we can inspire them by putting them in front of the old dancers, and get them teaching. We’ve got three kids’ teams in Goathland now, and a ladies’ team. Lots of teams in the North East are folding and here we are fielding five teams. It’s inspirational.”

It looks as if you’ve reached the level now where you’ve got the knowledge and ability. You can do these things off the cuff, with little preparation. I see that you recorded Bottle in one afternoon plus a live recording?

“We’d decided to record our Edinburgh concert live, but I noticed that our tour took us close to Simon Emmerson’s shed studio in Dorset, so we recorded there as back-up in case the live recording wasn’t enough. We did three takes of everything, three takes an hour.”

Tim sounds like a fellow spirit, a sort of punk folkie?

“Yeah, I’m glad we made that connection. He was the lead guitarist with Cordelia’s Dad and he was obsessed with my dad’s music. Dad said he didn’t like the guy much, but he liked the stuff he listened to! Dad influenced Tim a lot, so we had a lot in common, in terms of attitude too, though I wasn’t really into the Seattle grunge scene. It’s refreshing, the way he just does things. He’ll record a song on a beach. When we were younger, around 1996/97, he’d send me tapes that he recorded by a stream either side of tea-time. We’ll do an album later on, based on these tapes.”

Tim’s fiddle technique is very different to your classical technique. He has his fiddle on his left breast?

“Well, not classical, but lots of the old trad players used to play like that. Folk classical! My technique’s OK but I must be doing all kinds of things wrong, because I have neck problems. Tim Phillips says I always break my bow hairs in exactly the same place every time, and that’s indicative of some fault. Jock Tyldesley got me to play with a shoulder rest because when I played with Nancy, the fiddle would slide lower and lower until my chin was on my chest.”

Lots of trad players and singers see modern music, young persons’ music, mostly from America, as a threat, but you’ve embraced punk and club dance beats?

“So punk’s American, is it? You know, I’ve come to that awful conclusion: all music’s folk music. When I made Angels And Cigarettes I wanted to find out what pop music would sound like minus the American blues. I grew up with southern English music and Caribbean music, which I think is the real British black influence, not African-American. It’s calypso two-step, not the blues. When I started playing in bands, I was listening to Edward The Second And The Red Hot Polkas, so I ended up playing with Barn Stradling, and you can hear that calypso rhythm in my tunes like Billy Boy. My mum, Norma, loved the blues, but spent four formative years as a DJ in Montserrat in the West Indies, bringing back a fantastic record collection. When I heard black British singers using a black American soul-type voice, this annoyed me. This was before Caribbean music made a come-back, i.e. post-ska, pre-Ms. Dynamite. But what do I know? The first track on Angels turned out to be an Appalachian tune, basically a blues turned into a pop song. But I don’t see such collaborations as compromises. If so, everybody’s compromising. Nothing’s pure. Everybody wins.”

How about your daughters Florence and Isabella (aged four and six)? Are they wayward too - are they going to be musicians?

“I think so. They both have violins. I need to find them a teacher because they won’t learn anything off me! They like playing the drums, writing songs and doing shows for me. Florence is very physical, very athletic, so she may be a drummer, who knows?”

by Trevor Buck

Published in Issue 109 of The Living Tradition, August 2015
Buy the printed version of this issue from our online shop