ELIZA CARTHY HAS a strong work ethic. At 25, she's just released her sixth solo album, Angels & Cigarettes (Warner Bros.), the follow-up to 1998's>"/>
ELIZA CARTHY HAS a strong work ethic. At 25, she's just released her sixth solo album, Angels & Cigarettes (Warner Bros.), the follow-up to 1998's Red Rice, which garnered her a Mercury Prize nomination in her native England. And with her parents—Martin Carthy, M.B.E. (Member of the British Empire), and Norma Waterson—she's the core of the traditional folk group Waterson:Carthy. (The three will be performing together at the Tractor Tavern; Eliza Carthy will be back with her own band March 20 at the Sunset Tavern.)
Tractor Tavern, Tuesday, February 20
"We don't juggle time for the band anymore—we allocate it," she says of the busy schedule she and her parents have. "The Waterson:Carthy thing is sacrosanct as far as we're concerned. As long as we coordinate everything, I should be able to do everything as long as my parents want to. I want to keep up with the traditional music."
Traditional music has always been the family's stock-in-trade. Norma Waterson made her name as a member of the Watersons in the '60s, while Martin Carthy has enjoyed a long and lauded solo career as one of the best singers and guitarists in Britain. But it was their daughter who prodded them in the direction of specifically English, rather than Celtic, music. "They weren't necessarily interested in expressing purely English culture," she recalls. "I really got into it and enthused them with English music and was very vocal in the press about it."
The result has been three Waterson:Carthy albums and a much higher profile for English music. But the band aren't about to rest on their laurels. There's a new fourth member, accordion player Tim Van Eyken, and "a lot of new stuff," she says. "Tim isn't just learning, he's teaching too, which is great. He knows tunes, and he can sing and play guitar and tin whistle."
Eliza Carthy, a violinist, has also picked up another instrument to play on stage, the Leicestershire small pipes, a quieter, mellower English variant of the Scottish pipes.
"They were researched and developed from old church carvings by a pipemaker who lives close to me," she enthuses. "They have a lovely sound; he makes the reeds out of yogurt pots!"
With another Waterson:Carthy record due at the end of the year, many more young people making roots music, and a raised awareness of English traditional music, you'd think Carthy would be satisfied. But she's not. She wants more, since "there isn't a scene as such. There's a traditional English music scene but hardly any well-known English folk musicians. Mostly people think of the '70s—Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span—and that's a bit tired now. It's time to move on."
CARTHY HAS CERTAINLY tried to move the music along. On Red Rice, she updated old songs with arrangements that included dub and
drum-and-bass. The album also saw her dip her toes into the waters of composition with a pair on songs. On the just-released Angels & Cigarettes, she's plunged headlong into singer-songwriterdom, and she enjoys the freedom—"the sounds in my head and the creation part of it," as she puts it.
The record is very autobiographical, but don't expect a confessional girl and her guitar or Alanis Morissette-type vitriol.
"That wasn't the type of album I wanted to make," she explains. "It's as if you can't be an artist, you have to be a broken artist. And there's more to me than that." In songs like "Breathe," which bluntly explores the difficulty of living with asthma, she moves beyond the well-trodden path of failed romance.
The entire disc is an artistic leap. Her fiddle playing might not be as obviously in evidence as on previous outings, but "I'm not a virtuoso," she admits. "It's not about exhibitionism, but creating a texture. I arranged and played all the strings on that album, except for the two songs Van Dyke Parks did. I spent so much time thinking about it and how I could complement the songs. This is a songwriting album. It's another new skill, and I see my violin playing as part of that."
Parks—the legendary composer, arranger, and Brian Wilson collaborator, whom she met at a London concert celebrating Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music—worked his magic on a pair of tracks. But he wasn't the only celebrity guest: Martin Carthy dropped by the studio and was handed an electric guitar. In the end, his contribution to the track "Whole," as Carthy explains it, was "two seconds' worth of sound on an electric guitar, sampled and looped—it made him so happy!"
When she returns to the US next month with her own band, the focus will be on her own material. But, she says, "We want to work on incorporating traditional material into the songs. I really like the way the British and Asian music scenes cross between modern dance culture and traditional sounds. I want to integrate that in a tasteful, cool way, without making a fool of myself."