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About Norma Waterson
One of the great interpreters of traditional British fare, Norma Waterson's potent and majestically rough-hewn voice has been at the forefront of the U.K. folk scene since the mid-'60s.
Singing a cappella alongside her brother Mike and sister Lal in the Watersons, she became one of the most significant and influential voices of the British folk revivals. Following a hiatus, the group returned in the early '70s with a landmark album of U.K. folk, For Pence and Spicy Ale. Later, in the '90s, Norma found renewed success with her husband Martin Carthy and daughter Eliza Carthy, as part of the family group Waterson:Carthy, as well as launching a critically lauded solo career with her Mercury Prize-nominated 1996 debut. As a singer and head of the Waterson-Carthy musical dynasty, Norma has been hailed an icon of folk music.
Born on August 13, 1939, Norma is eldest of the three Waterson siblings. Orphaned at a young age, they were raised by their grandmother in the port town of Hull, East Riding of Yorkshire. Initially playing in local coffee houses as a skiffle group called the Mariners, Norma and her siblings soon gravitated to folk music, performing first as the Folksons, then simply using their surname. With the addition of their second cousin, John Harrison, the Watersons' rich, earthy vocal blend, innate charisma, and natural command of traditional fare attracted immediate attention from Melody Maker, which named their 1965 debut, Frost and Fire, Album of the Year. The group went on to record two more LPs, a self-titled set, and A Yorkshire Garland, in 1966 before disbanding two years later. Effectively removing herself from the British music scene, Norma fled to the West Indies, working as a radio DJ for several years before returning in the early '70s to give singing another go.
With former Steeleye Span member Martin Carthy replacing John Harrison, the Watersons re-formed in 1972 to record their landmark album, For Pence and Spicy Ale. With his reedy voice and deep vocabulary of traditional music, Carthy was a strong match for the group and by year's end was married to Norma. Following the birth of their daughter Eliza in 1975, Norma and Martin resumed work with the Watersons in 1977 with Sound, Sound Your Instruments of Joy. That same year, Norma joined her sister Lal for A True Hearted Girl, their only album as a duo. While they would continue to perform together through the '80s, the Watersons' recorded output ended with 1981's Green Fields.
With daughter Eliza already following in her mother's footsteps, the two joined forced in the late '80s alongside Lal and her daughter Marry Waterson, performing on occasion as the Waterdaughters. This ended up being one of the first of many post-Watersons iterations -- the supergroup Blue Murder was another -- Norma took part in, further establishing what has become known in British music as the Waterson-Carthy-Knight folk dynasty. In 1994, Norma, Martin, and Eliza formed the family folk trio Waterson:Carthy, releasing their debut album on Hannibal Records that same year. With a renewed public interested in British folk music, it was suggested that Norma finally record a solo album, and with both a label and producer (John Chelew) in place, sessions were booked and an ensemble of folk luminaries including Richard Thompson, Danny Thompson, and Roger Swallow was formed to join Norma, Martin, and Eliza. Rather than leaning heavily on traditional songs, Norma's self-titled 1996 debut largely featured interpretations of songs by Elvis Costello, the Grateful Dead, Billy Bragg, Richard Thompson, and her sister Lal. The album was a major critical success, earning her a Mercury Prize nomination and inspiring a similarly themed 1999 follow-up album, The Very Thought of You, that featured much of the same ensemble.
Meanwhile, she continued her collaboration with Martin and Eliza, adding two more Waterson:Carthy albums to her growing canon. 2001's Bright Shiny Morning on Topic Records, ended up being Norma's first solo release to include all traditional material. A trio of Waterson:Carthy albums, A Dark Light (2002), Fishes and Fine Yellow Sand (2004), and Holy Heathens and the Old Green Man (2006) followed in similar tradition. Joining forces with Eliza in 2010, she recorded the mother-daughter duo record The Gift for Topic Records.
Not long after the album's release, a serious illness left Norma in a coma, prompting a lengthy recovery period during which she had to relearn how to walk and talk. Eventually returning to the public eye, she was honored alongside another British icon, Joan Armatrading, for a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2016 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. Not long after, she resumed her music career as well, working again with Eliza and her husband on a poignant follow-up to The Gift. Recorded in a chapel in Robin Hood's Bay, the family's hometown, Anchor featured a rich assortment of songs from Tom Waits and Nick Lowe to traditional fare and even Monty Python. ~ Timothy Monger
- Kingston Upon Hull, East Riding,
- Aug 15, 1939
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