INTERVIEW: Eliza Carthy | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Last year Eliza Carthy received an MBE, and for good reason. She may be the daughter of folk royalty, but has more than earned her position as a bastion of tradition and crusader for innovation in English music.

Her forthcoming tour with American banjo player Tim Erikson kicks off in Stockton this week. “I’m very fond of Stockton obviously cos it’s kind of like my nearest big town,” she says. “I’ve been playing there years and years now on and off, and it’s good for this area, my area, to have a local arts centre like that, so I’m glad to be going back there, it might have been ten years actually!”

I’ve seen Eliza play a few times, but her style varies so much I wanted to know what this tour is going to be like. “We’ll be essentially playing the album which is a mixture of stuff. Some of it is more acoustic and melancholy, but one of the things me and Tim have been, I suppose, experimenting with, over the last couple of years is returning to both of our roots in a way. He plays electric guitar, and I play fiddle and bass drum, so we are kind of exploring this swampy, fairly dirty, rough and ready kind of traditional music thing. So it’s kind of Americana and what I call Anglicana as well.”

It sounds interesting, but anybody who knows me will know that I, as a trombone player, am diametrically opposed to the violin as an instrument, so I asked Eliza to persuade this non-folkie fiddlophobe to travel to Stockton to see her gig. “I do things kind of differently from other people, the combination of fiddle and bass drum which is what I’m kind of specialising in at the moment makes for a rhythmic experience,” she says. “I’ve always been one of these players that my right hand is more important than my left hand; for me the fiddle has to dance and, although I do go for the kind of beauty occasionally, what I really appreciate is a really strong, rhythmic, danceable right arm.”

eliza carthy and tim erikson

“if there are no older people then we have to be those older people out there making the good choices with the instrument and making good choices with the repertoire”

Eliza has recently released two albums, one with her dad (The Moral of the Elephant), and one with The Rails (Fair Warning), but if I was down to my last few beans, which I am, which should I buy? “It depends what you are into actually because they are both very different! The Rails, although they are a duo, it’s actually a band album, which is kind of folkie type rock, whereas my album with dad is the two of us,” she explains. “I’m not gonna say its sedate, but there are a lot of ballads on it. You put The Rails on if you’re doing the hoovering, dancing about the house, and you’d put me and dad on if you just wanted to listen to some stories, which is more of a late night, settle down with a glass of wine and listen to it kind of album.”

I may not be a folkie myself, but I am aware of a certain amount of unrest regarding its future. The talk is always of how new blood can be brought in and enthused to give this great English tradition the longevity it deserves, and it seems the current crop has taken up the issue in a very serious manner. I asked Eliza what she thought about the future of British folk. “Well, I think we are in the middle of a revival at the moment, which is fantastic. There’s a lot going on in English music, and I personally like to see the big bands, I like to see big ideas, I like to see people thinking outside the box and about different ways to do things.

“Having just spent five days with a load of fiddle players and having a semi-academic symposium at Sage Gateshead about English fiddle music, we came to one massive conclusion, which I really wasn’t expecting. But there was a conclusion reached which was that, as far as fiddles are concerned, we are very fond of saying there are no old players to learn from, nobody to aspire to, we don’t have anyone to learn from, we don’t know what kind of sound it’s supposed to make. One of the things we did, we tried to go 180 on that and say that, actually, that’s a really good thing because we have carte blanche now, we do have material, so that’s really good. And if there are no older people then we have to be those older people out there making the good choices with the instrument and making good choices with the repertoire, and we’re gonna have to start teaching and start organising events and stop moaning and get on with it, which is a really exciting thing. It just changes the world and means you can be an activist and not worry, so that was a fantastic thing.”

So what can be done? “I think the English have to look at our, for want of a better word, work ethic. Because I think we are quite behind in terms of virtuosity, and I think we need to start thinking about the tradition and the way we express that on our instruments, and not think that technique is going to leak tradition out of our brains. You just need the tools to do this better, which I think again is a better and more positive way of looking at it, and when we do it’s gonna be a cognitive leap that we’ve needed to make for a while.”

I think a cognitive leap is the least I can do, and a leap onto a train and down to Stockton seems in order, so I can see this fascinating and talented lady in action with Tim Erikson.

Eliza Carthy and Tim Erikson play at Stockton’s Arc on Friday 22nd May.

Image credits: BBC Music

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