Big interview: Kate Rusby - a Barnsley Nightingale in full flight

Kate Rusby.
Kate Rusby.
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Kate Rusby this year celebrates 25 years in music. Known as the Barnsley Nightingale, the singer talks to Sarah Freeman about a career in full flight.

It’s one of the hottest days of the year so far, but inside Kate Rusby’s studio it’s Christmas and has been for a couple of months.

“That’s our inspiration,” says the Barnsley folk singer pointing to a minimalist artificial tree. “We look at that and think Christmas.”

Rusby is working on her fourth festive album in nine years and, along with her December tour, it has become one of her busiest times of the year.

“Even if I wanted to skip those Christmas concerts, which I don’t, I’m not sure they’d let me. I love that time of year and this year of all years seemed right to release a new album.”

Hard to believe, but 2017 is Rusby’s 25th in the music business and, as well as that album, there are a few other events in the making to mark the landmark anniversary, including a first-ever vinyl release.

“At 43 years old I am officially retro,” she says, drinking cups of tea in the stone cottage, near Penistone, which as well as housing her studio also operates as the headquarters of her label Pure Records. “In the early days when it was just me carrying the merchandise to every gig, vinyl wasn’t practical and it was also pretty costly.

“However, in the last few years things have changed. We’ve decided to release the latest album Life in a Paper Boat first and then work backwards. It’s been lovely to do. We had all the artwork spread out on the kitchen table and it was a reminder of those days as a kid when I’d go down to the Casa Disco record shop in Barnsley with my pocket money. Every record, every cassette I bought was prized and no, it wasn’t all folk, one of my first ever purchases was a Bon Jovi album.”

If Rusby, who was famously nicknamed the Barnsley Nightingale by folk stalwart Mike Harding, is feeling a little nostalgic it’s with good reason. While she is now one of the country’s best-selling folk artists, when she talks about the early years, her career seems to have happened more by accident rather than design. While music was always an important part of the Rusby household – before younger brother Joe came along, Kate and sister Emma would perform with their parents’ ceilidh band and spent most weekends at some folk festival or other – she never thought it would be a way to make a living.

“When I was doing my GCSEs I would hear friends say, ‘I’m going to go to university to study veterinary science’ and I remember thinking, ‘How do you know what you want to do? And how do you that is still what you’ll want to do when you’re 20?’. I just didn’t have that sense of certainty.”

Kate headed instead to Barnsley College and a drama course and it was only when a family friend heard her tinkering on an old, rickety piano that she was persuade to perform on her own in front of an audience.

“As well as being my best friend’s mum, she also happened to be the organiser of the Holmfirth Folk Festival. The piano was a pretty stinky old instrument which mum had banished to the garage and I remember her popping her head around the door and saying, ‘You sound like you have got pretty good at that, do you fancy doing a spot at this year’s festival?’. I said, ‘Oh yes, that would be lovely’, but when she left I felt sick and was physically shaking.”

After that debut performance more bookings followed, Kate released her debut album with friend and fellow Barnsley singer Kathryn Roberts in 1995 and by the end of the decade her second solo album, Sleepless, had been nominated for the Mercury Music Prize.

It went in the end to Talvin Singh’s Ox, but being shortlisted alone was enough to see her flattered with offers from a number of big record labels. All were politely turned down.

“I don’t know, maybe it comes from growing up in a pretty tight-knit working class family, but I was never going to be one of those people who runs off to the bright lights of London. This is home. These are the people I belong with.”

And so Rusby enterprises was born. It was her dad and uncle who built the studio, sister Emma is what she calls the brains of the outfit and Joe is her sound engineer. Kate’s husband, the Northern Irish musician Damien O’Kane, is the lead member of her band, chief collaborator and sounding board and every member of the extended family eventually finds themselves roped into help.

“I liken it to be being from a family of butchers or bakers. I’m not saying we don’t have our moments, we do. But we have always been pretty good at apologising or at least clearing the air even if we still think we were right. It wouldn’t work for everyone, but it works for us.” Currently the focus is on that Christmas album and the next Underneath the Stars Festival. Now in its fourth year, it takes its name from Rusby’s 2003 album and was the culmination of the family’s long-held ambition to stage their own music festival.

“I can see the marquees going up from our house and I still get excited. Joe has been coming to gigs with me since he was a teenger and we both had mental notebook of things we liked and Underneath the Stars is all the best parts of every other festival we have been to.

“Joe and Emma really deserve the credit for bringing it to life though, now I just get told when to turn up and do my bit.”

While Rusby is sworn to secrecy, she says she has a couple of surprises planned for this year’s event. Speaking to her now with the next Underneath the Stars taking shape and the finishing touches being put to her Christmas album it all seems pretty seamless, but she admits that there have been moments of self-doubt.

“Years ago when I was working almost every night I suffered from total exhaustion. I was at a gig and was halfway through a song and I just thought, ‘I can’t do this anymore’.

“The guy who was organising the night was a friend and at the interval he said ‘right sit there for 10 minutes and then see if you want to go back on’. I did and that was one of the proudest moments of my career, but I knew I couldn’t continue working as hard as I had been. We cancelled an upcoming tour which I felt really guilty about, but I had to give myself a bit of time. I had to take my foot of the pedal for a bit.

Kate now builds in periods of time off into her recording and performing schedule but, with two young daughters, life remains a juggling act.

“I do think I am more confident, I think that comes with age. As you grow older you care less about what people think, although having said that I still can’t bring myself to read reviews. Whenever a new album is out I see the bags of CDs ready for the post and I think, ‘Ok good it must be doing ok’, but that’s as much as I want to know.

“It probably sounds silly but a record is a private thing. It comes from a place that no one else knows about, it’s like having a child and sending out into the world, you don’t want people to be mean. I’ve always said that if we are happy with what we have done then that’s good enough for me.”

And after 25 years it’s a philosophy which has served Kate and the rest of the Rusby tribe well.

Underneath the Stars Festival, Cannon Hall Farm, Barnsley, July 21 to 23. Underthestarsfest.co.uk. Kate’s Christmas tour takes in a series of Yorkshire dates. For full details go to katerusby.com.