It was always more a question of when than if Eliza Carthy and Tim Erikson would work together. Despite the Atlantic Ocean between them they have enjoyed a firm friendship, based on a mutual respect, added to a keen, highly individual appetite for exploring the many nooks and crannies of folk music of all stripes, although at the same time, neither would consider that the bounds of their musical world and both have confounded any attempted constraints with apparent glee. As it happens, Eliza’s dad seems to have played an important role in their meeting of minds, but more fundamentally an adventurous festival booker’s “What if?” set in motion a chain of events captured on the superb album Bottle. Logistics were brushed aside as the collaboration produced the kind of magic that was hoped for and became a tour, a record, another tour and – who knows? But before we get ahead of ourselves, this latest duo to add to the Carthy family history for outstanding collaborations is this time with one of American folk’s most fortunate (in the sense of gifted) sons, they both agreed to answer a few questions.
We start by rewinding the clocks as I’m trying to get the sense of how they first met and whether they already knew about each other. Needless to say, it was some tears ago and things are at least a little hazy as Tim reveals, “I don’t remember, but it was probably around 1988, and just in passing. Eliza hadn’t recorded anything at that point, but I was very familiar with her parents’ music. I think we met more officially around 1990 or so.” Eliza echoes, “I don’t remember the first time,” but then she continues, “I do remember a radio show we did together in the states, and being struck by seeing these scruffy, punky people in that very kind of cosy, quilted folk music environment: that’s kind of how I spent my youth feeling.”
Eliza recalls, “I was familiar with Tim’s work through Dad. Dad quite often points people out to me that he thinks I might like, and he was one of those. But I thought he was a bit scary and I didn’t really like punk rock guitar at that time. I have since changed my mind. Comet was a really well regarded album among my circle of friends and influenced a lot of people in my generation. Nancy [Kerr] and I used to listen to it a lot on our first couple of tours.” It seemed natural, despite Eliza’s temporary guitar aversion, that they would hit it off as Tim explains, “Well, at the time there basically wasn’t anyone else remotely our age (or with green hair) who cared to sing the old songs, so that was a natural connection. We also share an incredibly sophisticated sense of humour.” Eliza takes the bait, adding, “Yes, we quickly found a rapport bonding over Team American World Police, South Park and Groucho Marx. We’re also mutual fans of my dad, which helps.” She adds an intriguing aside, “And we both like food.”
Distance of course paid its part in their friendship as Tim explains, “Our communications were few and far between, including cassette tapes, postcards and occasional encounters on the road. We’d talked about playing together more for a very long time, and finally got around to it.” Eliza counters, “I was an enthusiastic letter writer, although I think Tim beat me in that. I believe he once wrote me a postcard while sitting in a hot tub in Helsinki. He sent me random tapes periodically, which I still have, and I’ve even kept a cassette player so I can listen to them. Well, them and Now That’s What I Call Music, 1987 which has the best version ever of Peter Gunn on it.”
Explaining the thinking that led to their current musical union, Tim tells me, “Music! Fun! The tour came together in the wake of a gig at the wonderful Festival in Namest and Oslavou, Czech Republic, that booked us unseen because they liked us each individually and wanted to see what we would do together.” Elza is somewhat pithier in offering simply, “Eat more food. Tell more stupid jokes.”
The decision to record and the way the album came together seem almost off the cuff ideas, although there was obviously some pre-planning. None the less Tim reveals, “It was a whirlwind! We didn’t have a choice but to do it on the fly since we were working every day and could only find a short afternoon and one gig for recording. We didn’t know it would turn into an album until we heard what we had and loved it.” Eliza fills in a little detail, “I postulated that if we went down to Dorset the night before our gig in Bridport hat we’d have almost a half a day in Simon Emmerson’s shed at the bottom of his garden, and since we were planning on recording the Sound House gig it seemed like a good idea to have some safeties. They turned out so well we ended up using all of them, and then Dave Wah and I spent a lot of time live-ifying the studio recordings and studio-ifying the live recordings. I’d never recorded that way before, but it worked well because you get the best of both worlds- the excitement of live recording with the care taken in the studio as well.” I wonder if there were any extra challenges and Tim assures, “Time! That’s really all I can think of, since it’s relatively easy to mix across the Atlantic these days,” which Eliza simply affirms.
I asked Tim, what was the thinking in going electric, was it harking back to Cordelia’s Dad or was there another motivation? He replied, “I just love the electric guitar and always have. Eliza and I sat around trading songs, playing with instrumentation ideas and some stuff sounded really good with electric- that’s about it, really. I did have one insight though. I’ve never liked fiddle in rock bands, because for it to compete with the other instruments requires miking it and turning it up so it sounds like an out of tune electric guitar- pointless, I think. It occurred to me to try turning the electric down to the volume of the fiddle, which worked shockingly well. Several front of house engineers said it was the first time they’d ever had to ask a guitar player to turn up. I’ve been playing punk rock since I was twelve, so it was a bit of a revelation, but it turns out I really like the sound of very distorted, very quiet electric guitar.”
When it came to chosing the material to record, it seems that each put the other first, although Tim also confesses, “Finding material that works is often harder than it might sound, even though both of us know hundreds of songs we’ve never recorded. We each came with a handful of songs we thought might work, and just hammered away until we had a set.” Eliza is more straightforward simply stating, “I tried to imagine what Tim would like.” Tim then picks up on that and continues, “Yes! I did that too- looked for songs I thought Eliza would like, or might enjoy singing. I think we came up with a rather different bunch of songs that we would have otherwise.”
I’m interested to know whether this meant that they looked for differences and what if any the similarities and differences in the UK and US traditions and archives are. As Tim points out, “That’s an interesting question with a hundred long answers! We each drew on a number of related kinds of music that share a lot in terms of musical and narrative style, but it wasn’t so much by design as it was drawing on what we knew and looking for connections. The songs obviously reflect the people and circumstances they grew up around and changed with over time, which are obviously different from place to place.
The sleeve notes make the point that some of the common characters of folk songs (Lords and Ladies, Kings And Queens) as well as castles and so forth don’t really fit, which makes the Boston version of Castle By The Sea a surprise. I suppose the plotline is still good however. Tim agrees, “Yeah, not a lot of castles around Boston. But people like singing about far-away places as well as nearby ones, and like you say it’s a good enough story.”
I ask is there is perhaps a wider European influence too and Eliza confirms, “Well, all European traditions are connected in some way, and a lot of those European traditions were transported to the United States so it’s natural that the songs would share a lot of common elements.” Tim also considers Eliza’s and his own perspectives, “There are definitely other influences kicking around, some of which are more on the surface than others. It’s probably true for everyone to a degree, but Eliza and I have both been around so much other music for so long that some of that influence is bound to come out. I think for me the most obvious other European influence is music from what used to be Yugoslavia.” He stretches the boundaries further, telling me, “Then there’s punk and experimental stuff, South Indian music and the fact I played for six years in an East African gospel band.”
I ask if there is there naturally a big tradition based on the stories of the frontier within Folk, Buffalo and Logan’s Lament are a great pairing to start. Tim affirms, “The various frontiers generated a lot of songs over the years. Buffalo seems to come out of a practice of emigration and anti-emigration broadsides that goes back to the 1630s, while Logan’s Lament came out of a single event and a particular set of ideas about native people. The difference in the depiction of Native Americans is pretty striking- it was completely serendipitous, but it seemed a natural way to start the album, both musically and thematically. The New World sparked the imagination of songwriters on both sides of the Atlantic as Eliza points out, “It’s interesting that people think Buffalo is an American song. It’s not: it’s a nineteenth century broadside that comes from the streets of London.”
I ask Tim, to explain a little about Shape Note and Sacred Harp. There are a couple of great examples on the album and his passions also come across in the sleeve notes, but how do those traditions survive today? He explains, “Shape note music is a broad term for anything printed in several different kinds of 19th century notational systems developed in the United States. The Sacred Harp is a book in the old “four shape” notational system that is at the centre of the most vital shape note singing tradition. The book was first published in Georgia in 1844, and is very much a product of that time and place. But the mostly sacred songs it contains come from a number of sources with a wide range of cultural influences: 18th century New England compositions, harmonisations of the ‘camp meeting’ songs of the Second Great Awakening, African, Anglo, Celtic, Moravian…”
He makes an interesting distinction, “Broadly speaking, the tunes are mostly the sort you might play on the fiddle rather than the violin, as it were. The most famous is probably Amazing Grace, the first printing of which was in an American shape-note book, and Wayfaring Stranger, which is a translation from German of a Moravian American song. Sacred Harp continues to be what it always has been: social singing of sacred music in three and four part harmony, sung in an inward facing hollow square with one harmony part per side, often in day long or two day “conventions” that feature little else but singing, good food and friendship. For me what’s attractive is the genius of the music and the singing practices that have grown up around it. I don’t care about it much as a tradition, I’d love it just as much if it had been invented yesterday.”
Turning to something far more secular and even sexual, I tell Eliza, I love the title track Bottle. Her sleeve notes make a good point that the women’s viewpoint of sex is generally ignored, but Are all of the sex romp songs generally as bad as you suggest? Are they simply honest or moralistic as the consequences for the maid are often more severe? She’s forthright in suggesting, “Eh… It’s always struck me as really odd that. The choice made by so many blokes in an era when there was no contraception was to just have a shag and then run away-given that, the songs are not all that surprising actually. Generally most of those songs serve as a warning rather than a moral judgement. But, yeah, it’s quite rare to discover a song where a woman has a nice time in one of those liaisons. She didn’t have nearly as much fun in the original. I guess after 400 years I wanted to give her a break.”
I ask whether there was much material on the cutting room floor so to speak and Tim admits, “Not too much! But there are a couple of great tracks that just didn’t make sense to include. Maybe they’ll show up somewhere else in the future.” Eliza adds, “Or if we remember what they were they’ll show up in the live show.”
That last remark begs the question, what comes next for you as duo and individually? Tim replies, “We have a US tour in the fall and are talking about other opportunities to play together. It would be great to do some more recording – we’ll have to see. I’m busy with my own music too, of course. Most often these days I’m bush playing old and new music from a fictional New England village with the Trio de Pumpkintown, and looking for any excuse I can to play more electric guitar. I just finished a PhD dissertation in ethnomusicology, so presumably I’ll be doing something with that- maybe even getting a job or something.”
For Eliza there is a typically busy schedule as well and she reveals, “I’m working at Sage Gateshead as artistic associate until September 2016, and I’m curating different events including a festival of European music next summer to tie in with a collaborative album of European and British music that I’m making. I’ve been offered some film work and I’ve really enjoyed working on a few Hollywood feature films this past year, so I’m looking forward to getting into some full score work. For which I will have to study! And I have a single coming out this summer with the Wayward Band.”
They must be pleased with the record’s reception, it is after all an album that is as bold as anything made under the folk umbrella. Eliza confirms, “I like the fact that we wound up calling the album bottle because of its dual meaning: ship in a bottle, having to do with the sea, and bottle meaning bravery. I think it’s a brave album – it shouldn’t be, but it is.” Having answered my questions with all seriousness, Tim finally cracks and can’t resist concluding with, “Really? I thought it was about sandwiches.” Perhaps that was the secret all along.
Interview by: Simon Holland
Bottle is Out Now on Navigator Records
Pre-Order via Proper Music