MTTM caught up with Eliza Carthy before her Oxford tour date last month to talk about her latest album, Neptune, and attitudes towards classifying music.
More Than The Music: Some of the latest album is quite wacky, it’s almost like folk on LSD. How on earth did you come up with that, particularly the likes of Britain Is A Carpark?
Eliza Carthy: I don’t know. I don’t see any difference between what I do with my self written stuff and what I do with the traditional stuff in terms of the music and the arranging. When I’ve made fiddle and accordion albums for the traditional stuff it’s been because I’ve liked the sound of the fiddle and accordion, rather than thinking that they belong on a traditional music album. Wacky’s kind of a funny word. Britain Is A Carpark is a political song. Me and Jon Boden always have big fights about political songs and how to thump your tub. I guess Britain Is A Carpark is my attempt to be oblique. It’s my attempt to have a song that’s good for singing and good for having a dance to without being too blatant, but it does have a point and a sense of humour. I don’t like to be too po-faced. I like to be incredibly miserablist and dramatic, but I don’t like to be po-faced.
MTTM: You used to have different hair colours and styles, and it all seemed to be a bit crazy in terms of your image, but it almost feels like you have calmed whilst your music has gotten more eccentric.
EC: I like to think that my solo material has always had an element of doing what other people wouldn’t. I don’t know if I’m any zanier or any different than I was then, apart from that I’m just mature and I know how to do more. There’s people that think my second album is really out there. I enjoyed playing around with different sounds, with moothes and synthesizers. I guess that’s not very original but there wasn’t really anyone else doing that in English folk music at the time. I just wanted to make some interesting noises. I’ve always been like that. My primary interest at the moment is melody. I’m really into melody and lyrical storytelling. I guess I dress more conservatively, I mean I’m 35 and I’ve had two kids. There’s only a certain amount you can get away with at my age.
MTTM: It’s interesting what you should say about the different genres within folk music. A lot of people are asking what folk music is these days and whether people like Laura Marling fit into that. Do you think it matters how it’s classified? Do you think labeling within a genre is useful or do you just do what you like and not care what people call it?
EC: Well I think there’s a certain element, I always insist on doing what I like. I always get stroppy when someone tries to call it something. I’d be a hypocrite if I disagreed with you there. At the same time I think the word folk describes a process. The term traditional also describes a process, although they can overlap. That’s the way I look at it. People might think that Laura Marling is folk music because she’s come from somewhere out of the idea of the mainstream, she’s independent, she was independent. It’s hard to tell how independent anyone is these days. Some major label owns most of the independent labels around. It’s all very incestuous, the mainstream music business. I see Laura Marling as pop music, but then I see what I do as pop music.
MTTM: But surely anything that’s popular in a given time is pop music?
EC: I see any self written stuff as pop music. I like to boil things down to their essential parts. It’s either traditional music or it’s pop music for me. The traditional music is something that’s been handed down through generations and pop music is something that hasn’t. People get really wound up but actually I just think it boils down to that. When it comes to folk music, folk music is a different thing. Folk music is whatever the zeitgeist happens to be at the time. Folk music is whatever is happening right now. There are very authentic strains. Rap is folk music. Grime is folk music. There’s a lot of folk music kicking around that is also pop music, and people get very wound up about that too. I don’t know if those people are interested in music or they’re just interested in classifying. People get very angry when someone like me steps into some sort of area that I’m not supposed to be in. Why am I not supposed to be there? I’m a musician. Why can’t I be wherever I want to be?
MTTM: I suppose also, coming from a musical family there’s an expectation that you should fit in with what they’re doing too?
EC: Yes, but I am doing what they do. That’s the thing about my family. My Dad was one of the first people to play electric guitar in traditional music with Steeleye Span. People used to go on about how he was a lightweight because he wore jeans and a leather jacket and played guitar. People used to say to the Watersons ‘you can’t sing in harmony, that’s not traditional’. I am doing what they do. My whole family write. I don’t understand why I’m not supposed to get involved in music at any level. I don’t think it’s a falsity for me to want to make an album like Neptune, I’m not genre hopping or anything like that. Someone could say to me it’s not authentic because you’re not writing where you come from but yes I am, I absolutely am. I live in the same world as everybody else.
MTTM: There’s a difference though between taking on influences and working in a completely different genre.
EC: Well I recognise the purity of wanting to be part of a tribe and the purity of a tribe creating something new and brilliant that comes out of nowhere. Like punk for instance. I think that’s fine for children, but what do we all do when we get to my age? What do musicians do when they get to 35? When you’ve toured all over the world, what is your experience? What is your authentic tribe?
MTTM: Do you think though that when someone says I’m a fan of rock music or a fan of indie music, that it’s not necessarily just about the music? They fit into the lifestyle and everything that goes with it.
EC: some people like that kind of thing. I don’t. I never have. My parents don’t. They’ve always sat very uncomfortably within the folk scene. It serves a purpose and it’s a very lovely community. It is where I come from to a certain extent, but it’s not the only place I come from.
MTTM: So where do you see it going next, are there any plans for another album yet?
EC: The next project is the Imagined Village, which is half written. I’ve written two songs. I felt like, on the last Imagined Village album, I spent a lot of time arranging strings and things like that. Doing a lot of instrumentals. I really wanted to get my teeth into something on this album. Simon Emmerson wanted this next album to be more about writing rather than traditional music. The Imagined Village is going to record in November/December and that should be out in the Spring. And then I have a couple of projects beyond that, that I’m thinking about. At some point I should make another songwriting album, I haven’t got any songs for that yet. There’s other things to be getting on with. One of which is a duo album with my Dad, it’s time I did that. I’m also really looking forward to getting into some serious rewriting, interpretting traditional stuff. I did a couple of things on Gift, as did my Mother. The tour for that really went well and we’ve got a DVD coming out. There’s also a Watersons Hull Truck DVD coming out, which will be hard to watch what with Michael having just died. I’m glad we did it, even though I was massively pregnant, like a Weeble on legs. I’m also hoping to get out in Europe with the band.