Katy Carr: ‘I fell in love with old‑school glamour’ : The Nottingham-raised singer on her passion for the 40s, her Polish roots – and her pilot’s licence
Katy Carr describes herself as “an ambassador for the new Poland“, which seems odd given her accent is more east Midlands than east European. Raised in Nottingham, the 32-year-old singer currently finds herself feted as “the Polish Björk” in Poland – her mother’s homeland – thanks to her brilliant fourth album, Paszport, whose songs honour the nation’s courage during the torment of the second world war.
Talking over dumplings in Hammersmith’s Polish Centre, Carr proves an effervescent, offbeat presence, her retro chic chiming with the cold war decor here. The fascination with vintage fashion and the 1940s, she explains, goes back to her teenage years.
“My English grandmother regaled me with tales of dancehalls and airmen. I fell in love with old-school glamour, with torch singers, especially Edith Piaf, and with flying. Instead of pop stars I had Amelia Earhart on my bedroom wall.”
Carr, a qualified pilot, learned to fly with the Air Training Corps. “I was the only girl, and you had to wait hours to get your turn in the Chipmunk trainer, but it was worth it.”
Prone to wax lyrical about the Spitfire –”the machine that saved Britain from nazism” – Carr honours the RAF’s Polish air aces in Motylek (Butterfly) on an album whose other subjects include partisan fighters, composer Frédéric Chopin and the millions deported to Siberia by the Soviets (giving a new meaning to the bluesy lyric “I saw a black black train take my baby away”). Sung in English and Polish, with touches of Kate Bush in its vocals and klezmer and folk flavours in its string arrangements, Paszportis a concept album gone refreshingly right.
For Carr, the album has been “a quest to discover my heritage”, one that began four years back after watching a documentary about an audacious escape from Auschwitz in which four inmates stole SS uniforms and drove out of the death camp in the car of its infamous overseer, Rudolf Höss.
Having written Kommander’s Car for her third album, Coquette, Carr sought out the instigator of the escape, 90-year-old Kazik Piechowski, who survived the war only to be imprisoned for seven years by the Soviets.
“Meeting Kazik changed my life,” she says. “It’s been a very emotional journey since, like hearing my aunt talk about hiding from the SS in the forest with my grandmother. The stories are surprisingly little-known in Poland, because the Soviet occupation repressed them.
“What I have learned from Kazik and my family is how brave Polish people are. I just want to do my bit for the country.”
Katy Carr plays Celtic Connections, Glasgow, on 26 Jan and Green Note, London NW1 on 7 Feb; katycarr.com