For a woman of 25, Eliza Carthy has already achieved a good deal. Her five solo albums, including 1998's Mercury Prize-nominated Red Rice, have raised the profile of English roots music in her homeland.
And with Angels & Cigarettes, released Tuesday (January 30), the amber-voiced singer hopes to flex her relatively new songwriting chops and win over the United States.
"She’s as original as Portishead or PJ Harvey were, compared to the mainstream from which they emerged," observed Ian A. Anderson, editor of the U.K. magazine fRoots (formerly Folk Roots).
Of her new persona, Carthy said, "it’s different from doing interpretive work, but I’m enjoying the sounds in my head and the creation part of it." As much as she loves old folk songs, "they don’t necessarily truly express the things you want to say. It’s never going to be entirely about your own experiences."
Her new album, which kicks off with the poppy "Whispers of Summer" (RealAudio excerpt), is admittedly autobiographical, with many of the songs inspired by a relationship gone bad. But don’t expect Alanis Morissette-type anger from Carthy. "I didn’t want to make that type of record," she said. "There’s more to me than the broken-hearted artist."
The result is a series of bluntly honest tracks that explore more than just the end of romance. They also allowed the fiddle-playing Carthy to develop a variety of skills, including arranging for strings.
"I arranged and played all the strings on that album except for two songs Van Dyke Parks did," she recalled. Parks' contributions include "The Company of Men" (RealAudio excerpt). "I spent so much time thinking about how I could complement the songs."
Carthy met Parks, the legendary composer/arranger and Brian Wilson collaborator, at a London concert, where he offered his services. He’s not the only famous name on the record. Carthy’s father, folk musician Martin Carthy, M.B.E., puts in a brief appearance on "Whole" (RealAudio excerpt): "Two seconds’ worth of electric guitar sound, sampled and looped," Carthy said, laughing.
While Angels & Cigarettes signals a change of direction for Carthy, she hasn’t abandoned traditional music. She still performs with her parents in the much-lauded Waterson:Carthy group. The English tradition remains important to her, and Waterson:Carthy "is sacrosanct so long as my parents want to do it."
The Asian Underground, on the other hand, which melds dance culture with Indian instruments, fascinates Carthy, who'd like to "express an English version of that in the pop music I do, because I think it makes me unique, and that’s important. We want to work on incorporating traditional material into the songs."
The former self-described "folkbabe," once the member of four different bands simultaneously, has been forced to narrow her focus. This is partly due to her success and partly in reaction to the exhaustion that hospitalized her in 1996.
She admits to becoming easily bored, however, and challenges herself with such tasks as "learning the Leicestershire small pipes," an old instrument re-created by a pipe maker who lives near her in Edinburgh, Scotland. "They have a lovely sound," she said, "and he makes the reeds out of old yogurt pots!" She expects to integrate them into her band, “if it can be done tastefully."
Her willingness to experiment, and musical inclusiveness, sets her apart from the crowd. But it’s not the only reason she’s important, claimed Anderson.
"She's focused media attention on a young generation with a different attitude," he noted, adding that she’s "specifically doing English music, which has been ignored under the Celtobabble steamroller the past couple of decades. She doesn’t sound like anybody else."