The Big Interview: Kate Rusby

IN many families, music – especially the musical choices of teenagers in the house – can be a source of tension.

But the stand-off between two generations positioned uncomprehendingly on either side of something being played so loudly that it shakes the house never happened in the Rusby household.

Except perhaps for her momentary lapse into Bon Jovi, Kate Rusby says music very much united the family. Parents Steve and Anne had themselves met when she sang and he played banjo on the Barnsley folk scene.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

At their home in South Yorkshire, music was a way of life, something that came as naturally as breathing. Kate remembers rudimentary music lessons at primary school, when the small fry had to clap the rhythm of a simple tune.

“I saw that some people had quite a bit of difficulty with the idea,” she says. “And it was then that I first sort of realised that not all families were like mine. From as far back as I can remember, mum and dad would get us all singing in the car wherever we went – partly to keep us busy and prevent any scraps.

“At weekends and during the school holidays, we’d go to folk festivals. Mum and dad sang and played in ceilidh bands, and dad would help with sound engineering. Or we kids would sit in a side room at a pub around Barnsley with pop and crisps while the folk session happened in the room next door.”

Kate looks it as a special childhood, with she and her older sister Emma and younger brother Joe running wild in the fields around their home near Penistone.

Today, at 38, she still lives close to the rest of her family, and she and her Northern Irish singer/songwriter/banjo and guitar-playing husband Damien O’Kane are hoping to give their two young daughters, three-year-old Daisy and six-month-old Phoebe a similarly free-wheeling upbringing.

In the years between Kate’s own blissful childhood and the arrival of children who may continue the Rusby/O’Kane musical heritage is a two-decade story of the blossoming of one of English folk music’s brightest talents, enabled in huge part by the support and hard work of a close-knit family.

Catching up with Kate at her brother’s home, which also houses the recording studio belonging to the family label Pure Records, it’s Emma who answers the door, puts the kettle on and starts off the banter about how the family business works.

“Dad’s about somewhere and Mum’s out shopping, I think,” says Emma. “She used to be a teacher, but now she does the books for the business. Dad left his job as a lecturer and books venues for Kate’s concerts, as well as overseeing the logistics on the road. Joe’s the sound engineer, and I do a lot of the admin.”

At the centre of all of this is the diminutive Kate, whose job is to write and learn songs and record material which she and her band then tour. Without her voice and its bell-like clarity, the whole edifice would never have been built.

“It all works because we’re mostly easy-going people and pull in the same direction,” says Emma. “We also love and believe in the music.”

Kate bounds into the room in relaxed jeans and sweatshirt. All bouncing curls, glowing cheeks and dancing brown eyes, she’s the best advert for juggling work, unsocial hours and childcare you could possibly meet.

“Phoebe’s had a bad night – look at me eye bags!” She leans across the kitchen table. Nope, can’t see anything there, Kate.

So this is the Barnsley Nightingale – the woman who’s also been called “The Queen of folk”. Her career has been credited with reinvigorating the genre, and sell-out gigs from Sheffield City Hall to the Royal Festival Hall are testament to her power.

“No-one person is responsible for the healthy shape of folk music,” she says brightly. “There are a lot of young people with great talent carrying on the tradition and giving new direction to folk. There are also more and more young people coming to gigs, which is so encouraging.”

It’s been said of Kate Rusby that she gets homesick if she goes down the road to post a letter. Thanks to Anne Rusby’s other job as “baby roadie”, Daisy and Phoebe join mum and dad and the band on the road. But still, for every few days away a few are spent at home.

Kate’s been touring songs from her 20th anniversary solo album (her12th, including two collections of Christmas songs) entitled 20. It’s a double disc selection of favourite numbers from her career so far, reworked and performed with a new band and guest artists who are her own musical icons.

They include Chris Thile, Paul Weller, Nic Jones (“my all-time hero”), Richard Thompson, Paul Brady, Barnsley’s Dave Burland, Mary Chapin Carpenter and the Grimethorpe Colliery Band.

The purity of Rusby’s voice seems to have been designed to tell the stories that abound in folk music. She continually finds old material to rework in ballad books hunted down in second-hand shops. “The attraction of folk music is the wonderful poetry of it, the telling of real human stories full of raw human emotion. Some are funny or lively or political, but I am more than anything attracted to the melancholy ones.”

As a young teen she nagged her parents to buy a piano, and they put the instrument in the garage for her to bang away at while developing her vocal style.

All the while she listened and drank in the music and wisdom of seasoned musicians who visited the house – like family friend Dave Burland – and found songs to fit into the three guitar chords she knew.

“Listening was so important, as it was about the music but also hearing musicians talking about the ups and downs of the musical life,” 
says Kate. Undeterred, the almost 18-year-old accepted an invitation to appear at the Holmfirth Folk Festival, and other festival promoters heard her there. She and Emma had been singing with their parents’ ceilidh band for a few years, but going solo made Kate “sick with fear, literally sick.”

However, she went down a storm and, effectively that was the beginning of her professional career. She took a year off to try the full-time musician’s life before applying to university. After 12 months, she chose music and has no regrets.

“Back then you couldn’t go to uni and study the kind of music I was interested in. Now there are places like Newcastle where you can study folklore and folk music. But along the way I have studied the history of song and its various traditions.”

Her first album was made with another local singer, Kathryn Roberts, and Kate’s debut solo album, Hourglass, was released in 1995. Since then, she’s sold well over a million records, won a Mercury Prize nomination and four Radio 2 Folk Awards.

She has also dipped her musical toes into other waters – a 2006 duet with Ronan Keating that reached number six in the charts and recording a new version of the Kinks song The Village Green Preservation Society for the Jennifer Saunders comedy series Jam and Jerusalem.

It’s only in relatively recent years that Kate Rusby says she’s had the courage to slip her own compositions into gigs. She pours feelings into them and they have been well-received, but they are never about herself, she says.

“I’m really a very shy person, so they may sound personal but they are always about someone else,” she says. On stage the shyness is forgotten and she’s known for her easy, witty chat. “It’s easy to talk about the music, and I think people want to relate to you as a person just as I want to relate to the audience. But it’s different if I’m stopped in the street. That doesn’t happen much, luckily.”

She met Damien, her second husband, when he came to talk about being the new banjo player in the band. “He walked in, and I remember thinking ‘Hmm, you’ve got lovely eyes...’”

Pure Records was set up so that Kate could control every aspect of her music. “What we do is take the risk out of it, and we can book a 1,000-capacity venue if we want to without a promoter saying ‘folk music won’t sell that many tickets’. We know it can.”

Does she ever feel burdened by the responsibility of so much of the family income being dependent on her voice?

“Yes, it’s a big thing, and there have 
been three gigs where I’ve lost my voice and couldn’t go on. I felt terrible each time, but luckily it’s rare.”

She touches the wooden table superstitiously. “We do what we love and it works because we’re a good team. I’ve never been ambitious – I just want to keep making the kind of music I love.”

It was veteran broadcaster Mike Harding who dubbed Kate “The Barnsley Nightingale”. She giggles when it’s mentioned. “It’s sweet, really. And let’s face it, there are far, far worse things to be called.”

Kate Rusby will be performing concerts of Christmas songs at: Huddersfield Town Hall on December 1, 01484 223200, www.kirklees.gov.uk; Harrogate Royal Hall, December 8, 01423 502116, www.royalhall.co.uk and York Barbican, December 14, 0844 854 2757, www.yorkbarbican.co.uk. The album 20 has just been released.