Q&A with Eliza

To get your copy of the book, please visit Amazon or Eliza's online shop.

I've been asking Eliza lots of questions over the past year, but I haven't had chance to ask her what she thought about the actual project in hand. I thought now was the time...

1. When I first got in touch and touted the idea of a biography, what was your initial reaction?

2. Were you nervous at the prospect of a stranger contacting friends and colleagues old and new, not to mention family members, and talking about you? Or were you secretly looking forward to hearing what they had to say? 
A bit of both. I don't get to see people much, and as such, I am not entirely sure what they would say and don't entirely trust my memory, good or bad. I was hoping they would remember some good times I had forgotten, or some big reason for something I had forgotten.

3. What is the funniest anecdote from your career to date that you were looking forward to sharing?
The one about me and Saul in Peru with the bodyguard...oh, or the one about me and the London Community Gospel Choir and the unequalled Linton Kwesi Johnson discussing Coronation Street on a bus in the middle of nowhere in Ghana...oh...or the one about Joan Baez and the guy with a dozen copies of the same letter to Bob Dylan...oh...or the one about me sticking my finger up Walter Pardon's nose...or the one about the beef I have with Rob Newman...heehee...or what really happened with Bill Clinton that night...or any of the stories in the book.
     For all my moaning, it has been a fucking good life so far. You [Sophie] have the good stuff, and there is more good stuff as the book is not a page a day. I am satisfied that I am not entirely cloistered, or overworn.

4. What part of your professional or private life were you not looking forward to have to talk about?
 Well, my relationship with the folk scene and how I feel about it really. I have difficulty with being referred to as 'establishment' or 'old guard', but I also feel quite out of place in the new scene, which is much less to do with the traditional music process and much more to do with people having careers. Perhaps they have become their own traditional music process: something I lobbied passionately for - the use of good production values, good photos, an ability to engage with the wider media, digging around in the old tunes and learning more rather than learning just from your peers' or forebears' records.
     I wanted to throw myself out there in the world, to stick my neck out for something I loved and believed in, and in some ways while I was 'away' for want of a better word, things inevitably changed and it's necessary not to feel left behind. The trick is to see it as keeping up, seeing a challenge and continuing to look for the right thing. In the last few years, which have been quite hard on my family, we have very much taken, in the words of the Longfellow poem we set to music on the Gift album, 'a heart for any fate'. It's important to keep going, and to keep faith in what we have decided to do and our reasons behind it. There are wonderful moments to be had.
     I was brought up in a family - that is, a scene - a wider, global, musical family of people that believed in a process and traditional music, and everything connected with those things. I have been trying to reconcile my feelings about that ever since, as have my parents. Wanting to be part of something, to be loved and approved of, and wanting to be apart from it for the good of self and for the good of a music that is in need of dissemination are major parts of my growing up, something I did very much in public, if a small public.
     My criticisms of the 'scene' as such, my parents' criticisms of it, are coloured by a deep love and gratitude and a desire for excellence and unity. My need to be apart from it in some ways was fuelled by a need to see other people taking my place, the gene pool widening... and when it did, as well as feeling a sense of achievement, I naturally felt a sense of loss. I sometimes gently felt like someone who had held doors open for people, and watched those doors close before I could pass through them. Not bitter, but sad and proud at the same time; then with the realisation that I didn't do it alone, that I was and am actually part of a growing scene after all, and there it is, totally flourishing. 
     You can't force people to pay attention to every nuance of what you're up to: at the end of the day it's just music and people will either dig it or they won't, whoever you are, if it is available to them. Although for a while we did seriously consider putting things out anonymously; as in a weird sort of a double bind, my name can be mud, irrespective of the music I make. It is possible to be ubiquitous in some ways and hidden in others...I really would love to see more folks at the gigs, I really do work pretty hard...and that's why you should stay home and listen to your mother, kids!
     Head down, heart for any fate. I am very lucky in a lot of ways, and the folk scene is flourishing.
Game on!

5. Which photograph were you most pleased to unearth again?
I do love the picture of Dad and Ralph Steadman. I am glad that gets to be seen. That was a good night. Grateful to Ed Harcourt for the bottle of Wild Turkey that made at least part of it possible!

6. What did you make of the fan questionnaires at the back of the book?
I was surprised that someone thought I didn't want to be there. I was making a joke at the beginning of the show about how the first song, 'Thursday', could be construed that way, and forgot that sometimes people take what you say as the truth. Lesson!
     I was happy to learn that people do care when I am struggling, and that I was nice to them afterwards without knowing that's what they thought. Thanks, ladies.

7. What moments of your professional career are you most proud? Which moments would you like to relive?
I would like to have performed better with Chango Spasiuk at the Radio 3 World Music Awards. He is a sublime musician and I failed to understand in the afternoon I had  the musical form he represented; he was utterly, wordlessly generous (he didn't have enough English and I didn't have enough Argentinian Spanish...).
     Also the one time I got to perform with one of my childhood heroes, Suggs, along with Prince Buster and Rico Rodriguez, and completely fucked up coming in for my fiddle solo on Jools Holland and it is still out there on YouTube for all to see. Bleh bleh bleh...makes me want to crawl under a rock.
     I wish I had never done my best impersonation of Jarvis' funny leg-dangly dance at the Mercury awards. I couldn't pull it off mate, I'm sorry. I wish I had given a straight answer to an honest enquiry to Jennifer Saunders at the folk awards, instead of trying to be clever...I am not as funny as you!
     But you're not asking me about that! The best ever performance of 'Grey Gallito' by Salsa Celtica was impromptu, the night before we were supposed to do it, at WOMAD when I wasn't supposed to be there. My subsequent rum-soaked celebrations ruined the performance of it on TV the following day at Cambridge Festival and I have never forgiven myself. WOMAD was sublime, never matched. Sigh. Twat...
     I am glad I sang in Twi at the celebrations of the Bicentennial of the Abolition of the Slavery Act in Ghana, in fifty degrees heat, when all the other posh English buggers in the audience had gone home (and yes that means you, madame Speaker, not that you're probably reading this right now, dear) after many hours of speeches and the failure of the live satellite feed that would have linked whoever the fuck was the Prime Minister at the time to people who could be arsed to travel. I was unbelievably proud that Hugh Masekela gave me his card afterwards and told me to give him a call if I ever needed a trumpet player...
     I am glad I stripped naked and ran through the woods at Ashokan shouting 'The English are coming!' to anyone who would listen, even past the nice Quebecois man I quite liked at the time, after being accused of reservedness, just because my peers and everyone else was doing it (the running, that is). Sometimes it's just right to give in...
     I am glad of The Rogues Gallery, and all who sail in her. Thank you, Hal [Willner]. You are the reason for a lot of rare happiness in my life, including playing with Bill Frisell. Sigh again, but in a good way this time.
     I would like to relive any of the sunsets at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival I have experienced onstage. Always worth it.
     The moment of surprise when, having seen everyone leave and having had a while in the basement of Vinyl Japan in Tokyo alone, we left and found every member of the audience waiting outside for us with a gift instead of waiting at the merch stall. It was fifteen years ago and I still have some of the little parcels they gave us, unopened because they are so beautiful.
     Most shows with the Chipolata 5, all of them euphoric and idealistic.
     Laughing with Buffy Saint Marie's band onstage at a workshop in Canada over them making some fish'n'chips joke and me making a joke about silver jewellery... and watching the looks on two thousand Canadian faces as we all tried to work out if it was okay to roll around on the ground like we all needed to...
      Lulling some bishop or other to sleep in a warm courtyard in Bolivia. He was in the front row in all his bishop gear and softly snored all the way through the second set. It was a very balmy evening!
     Making Dinner with Martin Green. Eating dinner with Martin Green.
     Playing with the Ratcatchers in full flow. Totally unmatched.
     The musical solidity that Nancy and I used to have. I have never been able to rely on anyone as much as I could on her, she put up with a lot.
     I would like to relive every moment I was required to speak, so I could have prepared like a proper person and done it better.

8. What would you have done differently with the advantage of hindsight?
See above. And most hair. And stepping on Peter Gabriel's broken foot whilst singing with him in Cannes. So, so sorry...I really am a terrible dancer, and unused to sharing a mic...

9. What do you think your daughters will make of the biography when they are old enough to digest it for themselves?
God knows. I hope they know the history of their families, including the pioneering history of their paternal side. They have Irish pipe tunes and Gold Rush in their veins and I would never deny them either...

10. The past twenty-one years has brought with it award nominations and wins, collaborations with household names and appearances seemingly here, there and everywhere. What will the next twenty-one years bring?