We aren’t often treated to biographies of folk musicians. Perhaps it’s the idea that the songs are the stars, the singers largely anonymous ‘folk’ who wouldn’t necessarily make interesting subjects. Maybe it’s just thought that the audience isn’t there. Either way, Sophie Parkes’ Wayward Daughter: An Official Biography of Eliza Carthy is a welcome exception to the rule.
While she is, of course, an excellent musician and singer, Eliza Carthy is rather more than that. She’s certainly not anonymous, for a start; her parentage has put her in an intriguing position, bringing with it interesting opportunities, but unique pressures too. She has responded with a fascinating, varied musical career, packed with twists, turns and collaborations. And she’s also proven an unconventional, thoughtful and outspoken figure; offering intelligent commentary on subjects from folk snobbery to the concept of Englishness, too. Perfect fodder for a biography, then.
Parkes does not disappoint. Wayward Daughter offers a fascinating, diligently researched and well written take on Carthy’s life story so far. We are taken from the building of the family homes near Robin Hood’s Bay before Eliza’s birth, through childhood stories, first musical forays, heartbreak, career and motherhood to current and even future musical projects.
The official nature of the book means Parkes has had full access to her subject, and her interviews with the likes of Norma Waterson, Martin Carthy, Jon Boden and Nancy Kerr are revealing and often surprising. And she’s done the job thoroughly, too, even visiting Eliza’s school to catch up with an old music teacher, who offers some interesting insight into the talented but occasionally “infuriating” pupil, who would sometimes improvise harmonies in the school choir.
The book is packed with stories that illuminate Eliza’s career and allow the reader to see her work in a different light. It’s a surprise, for example, to learn of Carthy’s difficulties making friends at school, while some eyebrow-raising stories of her time signed to Warners make some of the major-label unhappiness voiced on 2008’s Dreams of Breathing Underwater much easier to understand. Stories of her bond with her family are more expected, but still make for heartwarming reading. Elsewhere, the tale of Carthy’s first Mercury Music Prize nomination is a hilarious one, while some outrageous – rather unpleasant – behaviour on the part of Joan Baez is revealed, too.
While Parkes (a self-confessed Eliza fan) tends towards an uncritical view of Carthy’s work, and is perhaps a little over-keen to use her Twitter as a source, she is confident enough to mix up the order in which she tells the story, and to devote some time looking to the future as well – Carthy is only 36, after all – in a slightly rambly, but nonetheless absorbing final chapter. An epilogue in which a variety of Carthy’s Facebook fans answer a questionnaire could be a tiresome exercise in the lavishing of praise, but instead serves to remind the reader of the varied, rather wonderful effect she has had on a wide range of music fans, from a “proud beard owner” to an “Eliza virgin”.
Good presentation and the inclusion of some lovely, previously unseen photographs are the icing on the cake. Wayward Daughter is a great read, and should inspire further interest in this singular, inspiring musician. Highly recommended.