We talk to two generations of the UK Carthy folk dynasty about working on their first duo album The Moral of the Elephant after a collective 50 years in the music business.
For more than 40 years, Martin Carthy has been one of folk music’s greatest innovators, one of its best loved, most enthusiastic and, at times, most quietly controversial figures. His skill, stage presence and natural charm have won him many admirers, not only from within the folk scene, but also far beyond it.
Trailblasing musical partnerships with, among others, Steeleye Span, Dave Swarbrick and his award-winning wife (Norma Waterson) and daughter Eliza Carthy have resulted in more than 40 albums, but Martin has only recorded 10 solo albums. Whether in the folk clubs (which he continues to champion), on the concert stage or making TV appearances (he was the subject of the acclaimed Originals music documentary strand on BBC Two), there are few roles that Martin Carthy hasn’t played. Perhaps, most significant of all, are his settings of traditional songs with guitar, which have influenced a generation of artists, including Bob Dylan and Paul Simon, on both sides of the Atlantic. Q Magazine recently called Martin “the greatest English folk song performer, writer, collector, and editor of them all.”
In 2014, Martin was awarded for lifetime achievement at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. Martin and his twice Mercury nominated and multiple BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards winning daughter Eliza Carthy have joined forces to perform songs from their first duo album – a new CD of traditional material entitled The Moral Of The Elephant which sees them touring the breadth of the country. It’s nearly 50 years since Martin Carthy recorded his iconic, eponymous first album and more than 20 years since his daughter Eliza Carthy’s recording debut, but throughout their respective careers both have toured and recorded with many others (Eliza shared the bill with her acclaimed mother, Norma Waterson, on their award-winning Gift album in 2010). She has also recorded and performed with Paul Weller, Rufus and Martha Wainwright, Nick Cave, Patrick Wolf and Bob Neuwirth. More than most, Eliza Carthy has revitalised folk music and captured the most hardened of dissenters with intelligent, charismatic and boundary-crossing performance.
Eliza grew up immersed in the world of traditional music. She still divides her time between touring and recording with her legendary parents as well as engaging in numerous pioneering solo and band projects, including work with Pere Ubu and Melanie Challenger, an artist in residence in Antarctica.
In what has become something of a parallel career, Eliza has co-presented the BBC Radio 3 World Music Awards, been a regular guest-presenter on the BBC Radio 2 Mark Radcliffe Show and has made many appearances on Later… With Jools Holland.
Martin is a ballad singer, a groundbreaking acoustic and electric guitarist and an authoritative interpreter of newly composed material. He always prefers to follow an insatiable musical curiosity rather than cash in on his unrivalled position – something Eliza is well aware of. ‘I have been on at him for years about getting paid properly,’ says Eliza. ‘Since I became a teenager and got cocky, I was always telling him to get someone who would get him the fees he deserved for his talent,’ she says.
Unsurprisingly, Martin’s view is a little modest. ‘I have always made it clear that I was going to work for a low fee. I always saw it as my role to help out folk clubs. I think you have to strike a balance, while you are on a mission. I am still on a bit of a mission to be honest. This is weird music and I love weird music and I think the public should love it as well because it is fascinating and I want to help people to understand it,’ Martin says.
‘As I grew up, it gradually dawned on me that my dad was a professional musician which is why he was away so much on tour. I grew up in a very staid farming and fishing community in Yorkshire, so I was seen as a bit odd; my family were the hippies who loved to be out on the moor. A teenage rebellion would have been pointless because normal role models for a teenage rebellion were right there – they were my parents. I couldn’t possibly be more hardcore than my mum and dad. For me to rebel, I would have had to run away and join a chamber orchestra, or sign up to train as an accountant,’ Eliza laughs.
The Moral Of The Elephant was released in June last year and it is the first time Martin and Eliza Carthy have worked together as a duo, despite working together on albums under the guise of Waterson:Carthy.
‘We have been in a family band for so many years,’ says Eliza. ‘When we worked promoting my last solo album, mum became ill, so we were dealing with that. Then there is just life: raising kids, playing music, and there has never really been a “right” time to do a duo album to be honest. We didn’t have enough time to properly rehearse before we went into the studio, although I did really like recording that way. There is a perfect balance point when learning a new song where you arrive and it’s still fresh and exciting, like newlywed exciting, but it’s accomplished enough to have some flair and not to be at a point of numbness. I like to sing a song where it’s at the point where it absolutely breaks your heart and makes you cry. It’s rare to be at that stage when you get to record a song, but if you are, then you hope that the feeling you get is transferred to the listener hearing it.’
‘I have always believed that the first time you sing a song through from beginning to end with the accompaniment that there’s a magic experience in it, and you should try and capture that if you can,’ Martin continues. ‘I have managed it a couple of times recording but then I got cocky and fell on my face! It’s a great thing to go for, but you mustn’t get cocky about it.’
‘I’m a “two-take” person,’ Eliza laughs. ‘When I have tried something 30 times, I go back and it’s usually the second take that is the one I am pleased with and the one we end up using. We were limited for time for this album, so we did a maximum of five takes for everything, and then chose the best one – very little tinkering took place. I like all approaches from micro-editing to constructing something from scratch on the screen in front of you, but this time we were disciplined and focused.’
The full album features 11 (mostly) traditional music tracks, including ‘The Elephant’ on which the title of the album is based. It’s an interpretation of a setting of the 19th poem by John Godfrey Saxe, which itself is an adaptation of an ancient Indian parable. Produced by Oliver Knight with Martin and Eliza, the duo reinterpret and revisit a number of songs. Fittingly, several of the songs on The Moral Of The Elephant take the form of conversation between parent and child.
One potential area of familial conflict has been firmly set aside by the Carthy duo – no over-thinking things.
‘I discuss things as little as possible,’ Eliza confirms with conviction. ‘I get embarrassed at talking about the technicalities because I have such limited technical knowledge. I sing all around the beat, so any band or musicians I work with, I ask them to hold the beat steady, and I will work around it, behind or in front or on it, depending how I feel it works best, but when they ask me to explain why I work that way, I can’t do it.’
‘I think when you have been a musician for a while, you learn to trust people that you work with,’ Martin says. ‘Being family is a wonderful experience because you have that instinctive bond that comes from your biological link; you know how your family member is going to go with a song or a line, or a melody, because you can feel it with them at the same time. That is what has been so enjoyable about working with Eliza as she has grown up, but she just takes it for granted because she has never known anything different.’
‘I love ‘Monkey Hair’,’ replies Martin when asked about his favourite track from the album. ‘I have a very special fondness for ‘Died For Love’ too because we have used Mike’s [Waterson – Martin’s brother-in-law who died of cancer in 2011] arrangement. He never recorded the song, but someone sent us a recording of him playing and singing it live, so we used that for our version.’
There’s a moment’s pause when we ask if there are any downsides to working with one another. ‘He doesn’t drive,’ Eliza jokes with an affectionate glance toward her father. ‘No, I never learned,’ Martin confirms with a rueful smile. ‘I used to visit a friend in Northern Ireland in the 1970s and she insisted that I learn to drive, so I went down to the post office and applied for my provisional licence, and did a bit of driving, and when I went back 12 months later for another visit, I had forgotten everything, so I never pursued it. Not driving didn’t matter in the 1960s because the train network was so much better, until all of the cuts. Beeching’s ethos was crazy – he simply asked any station how many tickets they had sold, and if the sales were below a certain number, the station got closed. So everyone who bought a return ticket to the seaside lost their seaside station!’
The glint in Martin’s eye proves – if there were any doubt – that the steel that forged Martin Cathy’s determination in the 1960s is still there, strong as it ever was.
Martin and Eliza Carthy’s The Moral of the Elephant is out now. Martin plays the 2015 London Acoustic Show.