First-class return to Holly Head, and beyond – the Kate Rusby interview

After a successful 2022 on the back of her most recent LP, 30: Happy Returns, Kate Rusby is rounding off the year with her latest festive tour, hailed as the start of Christmas for many.

The ‘Barnsley Nightingale’ will be entertaining audiences across the land with her adaptations of carols traditionally sung in the pubs of South Yorkshire at this time of year, her band including husband, Damien O’Kane and the Brass Boys quintet.

And this Mercury Prize nominee and four-time BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards winner clearly knows where she’s at, having sat in the corner of those crowded public houses as a child, feeling the songs she brings to these shows are ‘in her bones’.

For more than 200 years, from late-November to New Year’s Day, North Derbyshire and South Yorkshire communities would congregate on Sunday lunchtimes to belt out their takes on familiar carols, some frowned upon by the church in Victorian times as ‘too happy’.

Kate has long since appealed to fans beyond the folk scene and her Yorkshire roots, headlining in the UK and internationally, performing with major music stars across various genres, with a number of TV, radio and film credits to her name, plus her own label, Pure Records, and festival, Underneath the Stars. 

Born into a family of musicians in 1973 in Penistone, in Yorkshire’s West Riding, learning to sing, play guitar, fiddle and piano from a young age, Kate was already playing local folk festivals before a spell as lead vocalist of all-female Celtic folk band The Poozies.

Then, 1995 saw the release of her breakthrough co-release, Kate Rusby & Kathryn Roberts, with a close friend and fellow Barnsley folk singer. And two years later, Kate released her first solo album, Hourglass, going on to acclaim at home and overseas, her family continuing to guide her professional career behind the scenes.

She also joined folk group The Equation with Kathryn, invited by Devonian brothers Sean, Sam and Seth Lakeman, a major deal with WEA following before she went her own way, Cara Dillon taking over.

By late 2004, Kate’s ‘Wandering Soul’ had featured on the soundtrack of BBC television series Billy Connolly’s World Tour of New Zealand, while in a busy 2006 she scored a first mainstream hit, her duet with Ronan Keating on ‘All Over Again’ reaching No.6 on the UK singles chart, contributed to Idlewild lead vocalist Roddy Woomble’s debut solo LP, and saw her cover of The Kinks’ ‘Village Green Preservation Society’ become the theme tune to BBC sitcom Jam & Jerusalem.

It was in 2008 that she released her first album of reinterpreted traditional Christmas songs, with Sweet Bells followed by four more, the most recent, 2019’s Holly Head, only now receiving a vinyl release.

And then I’ll fast forward to 2020, the release of Hand Me Down coinciding with the pandemic lockdown, Kate reinterpreting a number of popular songs, including Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake It Off’, Coldplay’s ‘Everglow’ and The Cure’s ‘Friday I’m In Love’, reaching No.12 in the mainstream UK album chart.

As for this year, May saw the release of 30: Happy Returns, Kate celebrating three successful decades as a professional musician, re-recording self-penned favourites from across her career, her guests on the record including Richard Hawley, KT Tunstall, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

That said, perhaps it wasn’t my best opening gambit, letting slip while asking how she was doing that I was calling from Lancashire.

“Lovely. Absolutely brilliant … apart from you said the word Lancashire. Apart from that, it was a good call.”

Is it better or worse to admit I’m originally from Surrey?

“Do you know what? That’s loads better. We’ll go with that!”

Excellent, and if December is around the corner, there must be another Kate Rusby tour coming up.

“Absolutely, and it’s been the start of getting all the Christmas songs out in our house. So yes, even my girls are playing Christmas music constantly. We feel like we’re already in December.”

I have an issue with any publicity about Christmas before my late October birthday, but beyond that I guess I can handle it.

“Well, we like to get Hallowe’en out of the way, then Bonfire Night, but if it’s a year that we’re making a Christmas album, I’ll be doing Christmas music the whole year. I’ll be writing and researching, then recording it in the height of summer. You just have to get on with it.”

There’s something in that. I mean, Slade recorded ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’ in searing late summer heat in New York in 1973, part-way through a US east coast tour.

“Yeah, because to have them ready for that end of the year, you’ve got to record them out of season. It takes a long time to get over that thing of everybody saying, ‘No, it’s bad luck if you play Christmas music at this time of year.’ But in our studio, we have this tiny Christmas tree that whenever we’re making a Christmas album, we put in the middle of the floor and we all have to sit round it, get in the Christmas spirit.”

Tickets are going well for this tour, not least selling out the Union Chapel in North London, among the dates rolled over from last year when Damien and another bandmate followed Kate’s lead and caught Covid, both having avoided the dreaded virus until then. But this time, ‘hopefully, fingers crossed, touching word,’ she’s hoping all will go to plan.

“We did a big tour in the spring, through April and May, and then the festival season felt quite lovely and normal, so hopefully … we can’t wait to get back out on the Christmas tour.”

We like to think we know what we get from you these days, not least at this time of year, an intimate show guaranteed, with brass in tow. In fact, when chatting to Katy J. Pearson in late summer about her LP, Sound of the Morning, and a song on there, ‘Storm to Pass’, with added brass, I suggested to her it was ‘Rusby-esque’. As far as I’m concerned that’s an official description now.

“Yes! I will own this – I will own that lovely little brass band thing!”

It’s a great song too, from one of my albums of the year. Maybe you could perform it together at some point. I’d recommend a listen.

“Ah, I will do. I’ll write that down.”

And while I’m talking of LPs by solo female artists, you have my sympathy over the timing of Adele half-inching your album title a few months before you could release your own 30.

“She bloomin’ did! I think she was taping us, or something? Yes, I was absolutely raging. Actually though, we already had a subtitle to ours – Happy Returns.

“The 30 album is in the same ilk as the 10 and 20 albums – a reflective look back – so it was a happy return to songs and it was so lovely to take them all to pieces, do brand new versions of them. But also, it was happy return to touring. So it all just kind of fitted, and hopefully nobody got muddled up and listened to me instead of Adele!”

Well, she could do with the added publicity, a slice of your superior record-buying traffic. And there were a few of your inspirations on that album that you got to record with, not least local-ish, lad, Richard Hawley. Is that someone you’ve kept an eye on, career-wise, for some time?

“Yes, we have mutual friends in and around Sheffield, and he’s asked me to do a thing he does at Christmas in Sheffield every year, featuring three or four bands. But every December we’re always so full on that we’ve not made it, because of our Christmas tour. We had those links already though, and I just love his voice – the most deepest, mellowest, loveliest voice. I was looking for somebody to sing the male part of that song, and it was, ‘Oh, I know the perfect man!’

“I was thinking there’s no way he’s gonna do this, but he said yeah, and he was free, so he came along to the studio. I think he’d been there five minutes when there was this power cut, so we all sat around in the studio, around a candle, singing through the song, him learning it, getting used to it, then the lights came on and he was like, ‘Right, come on, let’s go and do this.’

“He started singing, and we were just in bits – he just hit the nail on the head. Asking me about it, we had this lovely chat, him saying, ‘When I sing somebody else’s song, I like to get right inside somebody’s head, and it’s like going through the front door and having a walk around the house.’ What a lovely day we had. It was brilliant.”

Like yourself, Richard oftens turn up on the soundtrack of a documentary or drama, it seems, offering poignant moments here and there.

“Oh, it’s always lovely when somebody uses your music for something, and quite often you don’t even know it’s happening – it’s only after the fact that you find out. And to have that emotion seen in a different way, how it fits into whatever show they’re using it for …”

I must admit I was relatively late to the party, regarding your back catalogue, working backwards after hearing you duet with Paul Weller on ‘The Sun Grazers’.

“Oh, wow. Yeah, that’s 10 years old now, being on my 20 album. And again, it’s so lovely when you’ve been touring for 30 years, you meet so many other musicians and singers, whether at festivals, or do’s, or award ceremonies or things like that, and mostly you get on great with people. Then, rarely, you leave each other going, ‘Oh, we need to stay friends and record something one day.’ And Paul was like that.

“He came to a folk club gig I did, years ago, and I remember there was a raffle. He even bought raffle tickets. I don’t know what the prize was … it was probably a meat raffle! But he stayed in touch, in and out of what we were doing, and all that. And again, when we got in touch to say, ‘Do you fancy doing it? I know, you’re busy …’ It’s kind of such a small thing, compared to his world, but he accepted and just did it, and it was so lovely, it really worked.”

You suggest a fellowship of friendship between musicians, and that’s something I put recently to Dave Pegg, of Fairport Convention fame, someone who’s worked with many friends and on ex-bandmates’ solo records and so on, playing or producing. And that’s not just a folk music kinship.

“Yeah, I think musicians and singers are fans of other people’s music. If you love music, you mostly love all music … mostly! When you come across somebody else’s music that you really like, it’s natural that you kind of gel in a different way with people. It’s the music that talks then, and it’s a lovely thing to be able to work with other people.”

I like the idea of your 2020 LP, Hand Me Down, reinterpreting in your own style well-known songs – what traditional folk music was about – but in this case what you could argue are the folk songs of today, from Prince to Ray Davies numbers, Taylor Swift to Cyndi Lauper, Robert Smith to Bob Marley.

“Yeah, as I said on the sleeve notes for that album, what we do as folk musicians is take existing songs and reinvent them each time. That’s why there are so many different versions of lots of old folk songs – people have made them their own, changed bits, passed them on, they’ve been all around the world and back again, and that’s something we do day in, day out.

“I had a list of 200 songs in the first instance, possibilities, but wanted to make sure we had ideas for the songs we ultimately chose, to make them a little, make them our own, but hopefully not upset the people who wrote or performed them, or the people that love listening to the original versions. Thankfully, hopefully, we didn’t upset too many people. And on some our girls were with us as well, singing in the studio.”

Will they be part of this tour, outside school commitments?

“There are quite a lot of weekends, so they might come to some of those. Mostly this summer, when we’ve had festivals, they came with us, got up and sung with us, like on ‘Three Little Birds’. So they’ve been earning pocket money. They take after my dad, who managed me for years before he retired from our record company. When we’re in the studio, and also when I’ve asked them to sing at gigs, first thing they say is, ‘Alright, mum, how much?’ And I’m like, ‘Ooh, you’re just like your Grandpa!”

How should we address fan letters these days? To the Barnsley Nightingale, the UK’s First Lady of Folk, or something else? What do your posties know you as?

“Ha! I’ve been called all sorts. I get letters every now and again that just say ‘Kate Rusby, Barnsley’, and they actually find their way, which is lovely!”

While born in Craigavon, Northern Ireland, fellow Mercury Prize nominee – and fellow past WriteWyattUK interviewee – Hannah Peel was brought up in Barnsley. Perhaps there’s something in the water around there.

“Oh right! Do you know what, I know so many musicians from around here, and when we were kids there was a session scene around here, people getting together and playing tunes, and the folk clubs around here, and also those South Yorkshire carols being sung in pubs. There’s so much music, and especially that South Yorkshire carol thing is just going so strong. You can’t get in many of the pubs now unless you queue. It’s so lovely that they’re still going strong.”

And you’re bringing that vibe to the nation now, good news for those of us who can’t get into those pubs.

“Yeah, I grew up going to those carol singing sessions, because my parents took us as kids, and we’d be just sat with the other kids, colouring, eating crisps, drinking pop, you know, in the tap room while all the adults were crammed in, singing away. From a really young age we were hearing the songs, learning them without even realising we were. It was only in the first 10 years of touring, talking to people as we toured around Christmas time, saying, ‘Do you know this version of ‘While My Shepherds Watched’?’ and them going, ‘There’s more than one version?’

“It was that that really set the Christmas thing off. ‘Crikey, people really don’t know these songs!’ And it’s in my blood really – part of our family Christmas in the Rusby household, down the years. It was so fabulous to get some of them songs, make them our own, Rusby-fy them, and now we have the brass quintet with us as well. It’s a full band.”

Rusby-fy? I’m claiming Rusby-esque, but you can have Rusby-fy. That’s great.

“Thank you very much! Also, we’ve been doing that tour for, I don’t know, 17/18 years, something like that, and we’ve done five Christmas albums to date, but there are still so many songs to go over. And it’s so lovely when we go back to theatres now, even really far down south, and they’re singing choruses back at us from these South Yorkshire carols. That makes me very happy!”

You’re clearly making an impact. Do you see your true arrival as the day debut album Hourglass was released in 1997, when you reached the UK top 40 for the first time with Awkward Annie a decade later, got even higher with 20 in 2012, or before all that? Was there a moment you thought, ‘I can do this!’ or ‘We’re doing this!’?

“It was really organic. When I look back, I really believe music chose me. I grew up in a musical household, my parents both sing and play, there were always instruments, they were teaching us songs when we were young, and me, my older sister and younger brother all started the fiddle when we were six or seven. But the stories in the songs are the thing that intrigued me. I always found them like mini-films, and we had them for bedtime stories.

“When I was growing up, I remember GCSE and A-level time, everybody seeming to know what they were going to do. I was kind of just drifting about, thinking, ‘How do you know though? Does it come to you in the night?’ But I went to performing arts college in Barnsley, did a BTech in performing arts, majored in drama. I did a bit of music, some dancing, and technical – my dad was a sound engineer – so thought, ‘I’ll have a go at that.’ I wasn’t very good at all, but loved my time there, and it really gave me a confidence to stand on a stage and play and sing.

“It was while I was there that a friend running Holmfirth Folk Festival called at my folks’ house, and I was sat in the garage at this piano. I’d begged mum and dad for a piano, and dad bought it from this pub – it absolutely stank of cigarettes and booze, mum like, ‘No, that has to stay in the garage,’ but I loved it in there, because the reverb was brilliant.

“Anyway, she came around to visit, stuck her head in the garage and said, ‘Ooh, you’re getting quite good at that.’ I used to make up chords to songs I made. She said, ‘Do you fancy playing at the festival? Bring your piano, your keyboard and guitar, come and do us a spot.’ I kind of nodded, and soon as she left the garage was going, ‘What on earth am I doing?’

“But I went along and did it, played for about half an hour, was nearly sick with fear, came off and went, ‘I’m never doing this again.’ Half an hour later, somebody from another festival came up and said, ‘Do you fancy playing our festival in a month’s time?’ And again, I said, ‘Oh, yeah, alright,’ then told myself, ‘Shurrup, stop saying yes!’ And it just went like that – every gig I was doing, somebody else would say, ’Do you fancy doing a slot at our folk club?’ It just grew and grew, really steady.

“Then we made our first album, me and Kathryn Roberts, the first on our record label. At the time, my dad was looking for something new to do. He was lecturing at Leeds College of Music, and the politics of it had all kind of gone a bit downhill for him.

“A good friend from Barnsley, Dave Burland, a folk singer – Uncle Dave, we called him – was saying, ‘Just be careful, if you’re going to make an album, don’t be signing anything,’ and ‘They’re going to rob them girls.’ So we decided to set up our own label, and never looked back. With each gig, we would go back to the same town, and it grew and grew, really steadily, really gently. Then we moved on, me and Kathryn. She carried on with The Equation, I left and went solo. I’m like the least ambitious person in the world. My dad always said, ‘Can you not just be a bit more ambitious?’

“But at every stage, we’ve felt so lucky, and kept it in the family. My mum did the accounts for the record company for years, my sister now runs the record company and has worked for us 20-odd years, and my younger brother Joe did sound for me until recently. So really, it’s our little family thing, and 30 years later, we’re like, ‘Oh, crikey, this is so lovely that we can still be doing it.”

I chatted this time last year to fellow Mercury Prize nominee and BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards winner Seth Lakeman, and wondered if you felt those days were as much an apprenticeship for you as him? Were you taking it all in back then?

“He’s a bit younger, and I’d already been doing some solo stuff, then ended up getting together with Kathryn, doing duo gigs. There were the three boys, and I think quite a lot of gigs and venues said to them, ‘We don’t want to book you, because you don’t have a singer.’ Back then, Seth wasn’t singing, he was just playing.

“They rang, asking if I fancied joining the band. I said, ‘Possibly, but I’ve just started this duo with Kathryn, and I’m really into it, really loving it. I don’t really want to split that up … but we could both possibly come up – have two singers, see how it goes.’ They said, ‘Absolutely, that would be amazing.’ So we joined up with them, but then it went down a different route for me. I wasn’t enjoying the music at the time, nor some of the company.

“A five-album deal is like so many years, and they were laying all that stuff on thick that I’ve never believed, being brought up in Barnsley. You know, ‘You can have Bjork’s photographer and these people …’ I’m just sat there, going, ‘This is not for me, and I don’t believe you!’ I chose the folk side for me, and I’m so pleased.

“Kathryn decided to continue, and she’s had such a lovely time, she married Sean, and they’ve got two girls. I still see her every now and again, bumping into her at a festival up in the lakes recently, had a right good chinwag, catching up. It was lovely to see her. It’s funny how things go in different directions.”

Speaking of past working relationships, is Ronan Keating still in touch? Might we see you co-present The One Show when Alex Jones is off?

“Ha! I don’t think so. Do you know what, Ronan is somebody I haven’t really kept in touch with over the years. I’ve still got numbers for him and his manager, but … It was such a privilege to have a peer into that kind of world though. You know, that pop music world was amazing. I really enjoyed it.”

And when this tour’s done and dusted following your December 21st finale in Nottingham, where will you spend Christmas? I’m guessing home is still near Barnsley.

“Absolutely. We live in a village where Rusbys have dwelt for generations and generations, and there’s still lots of my family in that village. Christmas Eve is mum and dad’s wedding anniversary, so we always get together then, and because we’re all in the same village, we start at one person’s house, then everybody goes to the pub, we have dinner at somebody else’s, then back to the pub, then call in at somebody else’s if we haven’t all fallen asleep.

“There’s not one household that has to host the whole thing. It’s great. We sing all day, including those South Yorkshire carols, and I just love Christmas. Also, it’s my birthday in December. It’s my favourite time of year.”

How long are you off this year? Is it straight back to work afterwards?

“I think this time around, when the girls go back to school in January, we’ll carry on with the new Christmas album we’re working on. So we’re gonna be doing Christmas until June! Ha!”

I was going to ask if there’s a possibility of you being Christmas’d out, but I’m guessing not.

“It’s never gonna happen! I absolutely love it.”

As for the rest of 2023, maybe you could rush out your 40 LP nine years early, get your own back on Adele, get in there first while she’s swanning around in Las Vegas.

“Ha! That’s exactly what I should do. That is a good idea. And I’ll patent the name!”

Get it done.

“We’re gonna start the Christmas album, and there are a couple of festivals in January, like Celtic Connections in Glasgow. I’ve played that for years and really love going back, and we’re doing an ‘and friends’ gig at the end of this 30 celebration, so there will be lots of people playing with us, including Jason Manford. We’ve known Jason a few years, I was on a track of his on his album, and he was at our festival this year. He’s absolutely brilliant, what an amazing voice. Jason’s doing it, and Eddi Reader, and Beth Nielsen Chapman. There’s also Trad Fest in Dublin in January. Then we’re back in the studio, and we’re touring all the way through April and May, then there are the festivals … and before you know it, it’s time to be rehearsing for Christmas again!”

Probably recording your next but one Christmas album by then.

“Absolutely, and on it goes! All the happiness. And if we’re lucky enough to keep going, that will do me fine.”

Kate Rusby’s December 2022 dates: 9th – Bath, Forum; 10th – Birmingham, Town Hall (matinee and evening shows); 11th – Liverpool, Philharmonic; 12th – London, Islington, Union Chapel; 14th – Bradford, St George’s Hall; 15th – Gateshead, Sage; 17th – Cambridge, Corn Exchange; 18th – York, Barbican; 20th – London, Croydon, Fairfield Halls; 21st – Nottingham, Royal Concert Hall. For ticket details and all the latest from Kate, visit her websitewww.katerusby.com. You can also follow her via Facebook at officialkaterusby, Twitter at @katerusby, and Instagram at @katerusby, with examples of her work via YouTube at katerusbyofficial.

About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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