Katy Carr is effervescent. And breathless. She’s dashed back from a meeting for this interview. But she’s become a woman in demand after the reception for her glorious new album, Paszport. It’s an unusual, idiosyncratic disc, and if it had come out earlier in 2012 it would probably have made a number of Best Of 2012 lists.
fRoots Feature March 2013 Katy Carr
Her fourth album, Paszport is about the Polish people (Carr’s mother is Polish) and their survival against the Nazi’s and then Stalin’s Communists. It’s a celebration of the ordinary people and what they did, their great resistance.
“It’s wonderful to do something that honours them in Poland and here. People have given me very emotional responses to the album. But the whole thing is inspired by ordinary people who fought for their country and even then they didn’t make it free. It’s dedicated to those who lost the right to a Polish passport under Communism.”
Carr’s been releasing albums since 2001, making a real impression with 2009’s Coquette, a disc that drew its ideas from British war veterans and the spirit of the people (her ‘40s vintage fashion fetish is coincidental). One of the songs from that disc, Kommander’s Car, unlocked what became Paszport. It began with a TV programme she saw when staying with her aunt in Poland and saw “an old gentleman and what seemed to be the reconstruction of an escape. I didn’t understand all the language but I was spellbound. I’d tried to write about Poland but the culture seemed closed. But the car and the story…my heart was beating fast. My aunt didn’t write down the man’s name. I scoured the Internet to find it. Someone found a YouTube clip with him – Kazik Piechowski – talking about how he and the others managed the last 80 metres of their escape from Auschwitz by dressing as officers and stealing the commander’s car. It became my obsession. I didn’t know if he was alive until I phoned the Holocause museum and they said he was, so I wrote to him.”
Kommander’s Car is reprised on the new disc, a tribute to the man who was a Polish boy scout (he’s also the subject of the film Kazik and the Kommander’s Car), and last September Carr travelled to his hometown to sing it for him and others, “and to see the places he’d talked about in our film. It had been my dream to sing it for him before anyone else. All these subjects are scarcely talked about in Poland. They might know vaguely about Polish RAF pilots but years of Communism has institutionalised them. When I was there they gave me doilies, homemade flowers, beautiful folk art. I’m so proud to have Polish blood, and British blood.”
It’s not a folk album, although there are distinctly Polish touches and a traditional song, but Carr does have some fairly strong folk roots. Born in Loughborough, she was “inspired by the folk scene, playing to small audiences. I loved Charlotte Grieg’s music and she introduced me to the music of Anne Briggs and to Eliza Carthy. At uni I met Steve Beresford and he introduced me to Pentangle. I loved them, then the Incredible String Band. And I adored Colin Wilkie and Shirley Hart and their sea shanties” (and to prove it she pops on an old cassette and sings along). Settled in London she started the Crow Club in Shoreditch.
“I gave Sam Lee his first gig. We put an album out on the Acid Jazz label. When I needed more time to make my own music, Sam asked if he could start a sister club, Magpie’s Nest. I thought that was lovely.”
Screwing Lies, Carr’s first album, was recorded in a converted toilet block at Epsom College, and “between then and 2009 my music developed. I’ve learnt as I’ve gone along and it’s all been independent on my own label, Deluce. I think that’ll have to change, though, to have the money to keep pressing up copies to meet demand now. But having that control is important to me because it meant I could develop the sound without pressure.”
There’s a touch or three of Kate Bush in Carr’s inflections and arrangements, but that’s certainly no bad thing. Indeed, at the London Music Awards, Carr was nominated in the same category as Bush “and I cried. It was such an amazing thing.”
Although things are taking off – she’d just returned from China where she’d spent part of the time entertaining people by playing 1930s song on ukulele – she’s still a woman who’ll go and play in old people’s homes and talk to the residents, listening to their memories. She has a very real reverence for a generation that was willing to sacrifice themselves, an understanding that they won’t be around much longer and when they’re all gone something will be lost. But she’s also giddily excited that she’ll be playing the opening of a performing space in Edinburgh dedicated to Wojtek, the Polish fighting bear. He was the mascot of the Polish army in World War II, and like many of his countrymen, unable to go home when the fighting ended. He finished his days in Edinburgh Zoo (and receives a track of his own on Paszport).
It’s impossible not to warm to her, a little overwhelmed by the media circus that’s building in the wake of this disc. And it’s impossible not to wish her every success along the way because she makes music from her heart.
Chris Nickson