With their new Anchor album already out and having the critics dishing out stars liberally, we met with the peerless mother and daughter duo to discuss the recording of the project, musical censorship and making a follow-up.
With their first Gift album becoming absolutely cherished by fans and critics alike, it would have been understandable if Norma Waterson and Eliza Carthy played it safe on the follow-up, but that’s not the way with this pair, in fact, they didn’t even know they were going to do a new record. “Oh no, we didn’t decide to do it,” says Norma. “What happens with us is that we all the time look for songs to sing, and at that particular time I wasn’t feeling too bad, so we asked our friends Neill and Kate [MacColl and St. John, producers] if they had some time free to do it and they said yes, so Eliza went down to see the owner of the little tiny church in Robin Hood’s Bay which overlooks the sea, and we got it together quickly like that. It was lovely recording in the church because they have the original organ, which is absolutely beautiful; we got the organ on the record too.” “It was such a great experience making it,” Eliza agrees. “I wore myself out a bit at the beginning by taking on the business of cleaning the church and heating it; I scrubbed plaster off the walls, which meant that singing afterwards wasn’t that easy to do! I overshot myself, so they gave me a day off and I came back fighting. It was a dream though and Kate and Neill are such warm and generous people and it’s always great working with the Gift band; we’re a happy bunch.”
It’s the positivity that comes across on record, regardless of some of the heavier topics the songs tackle. “Yeah, despite all of the misery in the words, it’s a happy record,” laughs Eliza. “Because of the misery,” interjects Norma. “If we weren’t so cheerful, everybody would be miserable!” cackles Eliza. “But although we wanted to record this as a stand-alone experience, I’m really pleased that the passing hordes of Normafest got to be on there too. If you listen to the bonus recordings, which you can get online, particularly ‘We have an Anchor’, you’ve got loads of them on there singing away, which is great. What I wanted to do when I conceived recording in Robin Hood’s Bay at the church, was to wrap Mum in as much cotton wool as possible, so that she could sing and have no physical discomforts, and I think we really managed to do that. It sounds like we’ve surrounded Mum in love, which was very much the idea, and I’m glad we’ve succeeded in that.”
As well as the mix of voices heard on the record, there is also the range of songs chosen for Anchor, from Tom Waits to Ewan MacColl, which makes for a varied list. “Well, I’ve been on this Earth for nearly eighty years now,” Norma explains. “My grandmother, who brought us up, was half Irish and a travelling lady, and she was very eclectic in her musical tastes. She was a lovely singer and knew a lot of parlour ballads and musical songs she had learned from her childhood, and we all used to sing them. We also had an uncle who played lead cornet as a young man in the Pit bands in the early days of sound cinema; I had another uncle who played the banjo and organ and my dad played guitar and banjo. Most of them liked different things, so we had a very eclectic musical upbringing and there was no music we weren’t allowed to listen to. It wasn’t like ‘oh no you don’t want to listen to The Beatles or Elvis Presley!’ My grandmother didn’t care, she said ‘if it’s a good tune and a good song then it’s a good tune and a good song’. It’s better to let children choose what they listen to, because in the end, they will choose the good stuff.”
It is an album loaded with great songs, but a particularly clever point is midway through when Kurt Weill’s beautiful ‘Lost in the Stars’ slips into Monty Python’s ‘Galaxy Song’, an addition Eliza still finds funny. “That’s what happens when you turn your back for a day!” she laughs. “I got back and they were like [adopts slow drawl] ‘we’ve had an idea’. It’s usually me that comes up with daft stuff like that, but in this case, I came back to sing Eric Idle. But what a brilliant counterpoint, who would have known that Lotte Lenya would go into Eric Idle so well?” “I love every one of the songs on there,” says Norma. “I think Michael Marra’s ‘The Beast’ is just a wonderful song about falling in love. He writes it so well, this crazy feeling that you get when you fall in love with someone and you hope that they feel the same way about you. And ‘The Beast in Me’ by Nick Lowe was written for Johnny Cash about his drug addiction, and wow, that’s such a fantastic song.”
Another is ‘Nelly was a Lady’, a bold Stephen Foster piece from 1849. “Oh my goodness me that song is so prevalent today,” says Norma. “People think that his songs are fluffy, but if you listen to them, there’s stuff going on there that is very prevalent today. That one is poignant and truthful in a way that many modern songs aren’t. It tells a lot of stories if you listen to it.” “It’s a beautiful one that,” Eliza agrees. “And it is certainly very important now because people have such short memories, you know? Bigots like to imagine that the world was this certain way at any point, but it never ever was. People have always travelled around and fallen in love with people they weren’t supposed to and hearts have been broken all over the place for things that aren’t supposed to happen. But yes,” she continues, “it’s a great selection and we could have made a double album if we’d had more time. We could have done that Geordie boys song, the Jarrow lads, that you wanted to do Mum. But the whole theme of the album is songs that we’ve got from friends. ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ comes from our friends in New Mexico who put a Mexican swing version on a children’s album my kids listen to and it’s our take on that; every single song comes from a friend. We could have easily kept going; we had loads of other choices, things we didn’t want to get rid of. Maybe we’ll get a chance to make another one, eh Mum?”