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A Folkie Like Her Parents (OK, Not Exactly Like Them)

Eliza Carthy's solo work adds pop elements to her family's folk ways.

March 11, 2001|STEVE HOCHMAN | Steve Hochman is a regular contributor to Calendar

"Stop biting your nails," Martin Carthy scolds his daughter, Eliza, as they and Eliza's mother, Norma Waterson, pose for a family photo at McCabe's Guitar Shop in Santa Monica.

The daughter rolls her eyes, and an observer might expect more chastising to come. Here are two parents, an earthy pair of sixtysomething English folk singers, with a 25-year-old daughter who is staking her own ground--exhibited physically in her blond-dyed hair, eyelids colored to match her Jell-O red flip-flops, and metal jewelry stuck in her nose and under her lower lip.

Then there's the path singer-violinist Eliza is taking with music. Her new album, "Angels and Cigarettes," adds pop production that's anathema to her parents' acoustic traditions.

And that's not to mention the song "The Company of Men," a frank, remorseful confession of loveless oral sex.

Maybe in some families that would be a problem. Not this one.

"My father provided the melody for ["The Company of Men"] and played guitar on it," says Eliza after the photo session and before a performance with her parents and accordionist Tim Van Eyken as the group Waterson:Carthy.

"She's a big girl," says the elder Carthy. "It's nothing to do with me what she sings about. And it would be fairly hypocritical of me to say anything against that. It's not shocking. It's astonishing that she's able to communicate those things so affectingly."

The fact is there's more sex and violence in the historical English ballads and humorous ditties Waterson:Carthy draw from 400 years of tradition than in both of Eminem's albums combined. And any assumption that the younger Carthy's style and subject matter are rebellious is mistaken.

"I guess you have very little to rebel against when your parents are already itinerant musicians," she says, laughing.

Eliza Carthy's induction into that life came in her mid-teens. Her parents were already among the most respected figures in English folk before she was born. Martin Carthy was one of the sparks of the English folk revival of the '60s. He's credited with teaching "Scarborough Fair" to Paul Simon, and Bob Dylan used a melody he heard from Carthy for "Bob Dylan's Dream." Waterson, her brother Mike and sister Lal were at the forefront of rural balladry as the Watersons.

Growing up on the family's farm on the north Yorkshire moors, Eliza was surrounded by music--Billie Holiday and Puccini as much as folk songs--as a way of life.

"My mom used the threat of a 'proper job' to frighten me--'If you're not good and eat your greens, a proper job will come and get you,' " she says. "They took me to a folk festival in Vancouver when I was 13 or 14 and I was hooked. My mom kind of nagged me to play the violin. I hated it at first, but once I decided I wanted to do it, that was it."

By 16, she'd formed a duo with fellow teen violinist Nancy Kerr, and with their first independent album in 1994, they were heralded as leaders of a new folk generation. Eliza embraced the role, playing with Kerr, Waterson:Carthy and the more rock-inflected folk band Kings of Calicutt.

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Through it all she was regularly tinkering with new spins on ancient songs, culminating with 1998's double package of two albums, "Red" and "Rice," the first one bringing in elements of techno and reggae on a handful of tracks. The package earned her a nomination for the prestigious Mercury Music Prize--matching the honor her mother had received just two years before with a solo album of her own.

Though she won praise for several tradition-derived songs she wrote along the way, her focus was by and large on working with old material. She'd never really thought about making songwriting a priority until Andrew Wickham, an executive of Warner Bros. Records in England, approached her when she was 18.

"He said that what interested him most was that at 18 I could command the room," says Carthy, who performs with her own band at the Getty Center on Friday and the Viper Room on Saturday. "But he said, 'I don't know what kind of music you'd do for us. We don't want traditional music.' I'd been dabbling with songwriting and said I'd think about it."

Three years later, Wickham called again. This time, she said yes.

"Why not?" she says. "I'd been given an opportunity for something most people would kill to do."

But she still had misgivings about trying to write songs from her own experiences.

"I always thought that singer-songwriters were too self-indulgent," she says. " 'Who wants to hear about that?' But I've been singing traditional songs where horrible things happen to people, and if no one wants to hear it, well, it's 400 years later and we're still singing them."

Hence such bald honesty as "The Company of Men," anchoring a running theme of self-betrayal in romance.

"People really do notice if you're having them on, if you're not genuine," she says. "I'm already coming from a place where I'm set up for a whole bunch of brickbats--sell-out and everything. And the one thing I could make sure is that it was all genuine."

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