Music interview '“ Kate Rusby: '˜I think Underneath the Stars has surpassed anything we thought we could achieve'

As the Underneath the Stars festival gets underway on a farm near Barnsley next week its co-founder, folk singer Kate Rusby, talks to Duncan Seaman.

Kate Rusby will be appearing at Underneath The Stars.
Kate Rusby will be appearing at Underneath The Stars.

With only a week to go until the fifth edition of Underneath the Stars, folk singer Kate Rusby is brimming with excitement about the festival she helped found.

“I can’t wait,” she enthuses. “Each year it changes a little bit and matures as each year we learn a little bit more – how to improve the bits and bobs around the edges that I’m sure most people who go there wouldn’t even realise. So each year it’s even more exciting to see if this works or that works.”

This year’s bill is arguably the strongest yet – a fact for which Rusby gives great credit to her brother Joe, the festival’s creative director. She says she is “bowled over” by the prospect of seeing storied US singer-songwriter Steve Earle and The Dukes headline the opening night.

Maintaining the family feel of the event, 44-year-old Rusby will also be performing, as will her husband Damien O’Kane – who’ll form a duo with American banjo player Ron Block. Other attractions include George Hinchliffe’s Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, much-lauded folk trio Lau and best-selling author Joanne Harris and her Storytime Band. Globe-trotting DJ Andy Kershaw will also talking about his adventures in music.

Importantly space is left on the bill each year for up-and-coming talent. “Joe, like we do, believes that new music has to have a place as well,” says Rusby. “He’s obviously up for booking some headliners because you have to, but he’s also really up for music that he believes in and thinks is great or we think is great.

“That’s one of the fabulous things. Some of the feedback we get every year about the festival is people saying ‘I’ve gone home with a massive bag of CDs of people’s I’ve never heard before, brand new music and I’m so excited’ and that’s such a lovely thing. I’m dead proud of him for doing that.”

This year’s event – which runs from July 20-22 – will take place at a new venue, Cinderhill Farm in Cawthorne, near Barnsley. “We’re still in the same village but we’ve moved onto a different farm this year just because of logistics and the size of it, so we’re even more excited because it’s closer to the village and it’s on an actual working farm. They’re people we’ve known for years, we’ve been down as kids to watch the cows being milked and we played in those fields and that bit of river, so we’re absolutely buzzing.”

The seeds of Underneath the Stars were first planted 15 years ago when Rusby and her family put on a concert in Cawthorne to raise funds for a new pavilion for the village cricket team which her father used to captain. “Literally it was the back of a truck and we got in a few lights and sound and we sold tickets,” she remembers. “A couple of years later they needed a new machine shed so we said we’d do another gig. We did it every couple of years and each time that grew and grew. People were bringing their dining room tables and sitting with candelabras come rain or shine – there was no tent then.”

As the singer and her brother Joe and sister Emma toured the world, they began to pick up ideas for a festival. “We’ve always had this mental notebook, things we’ve seen that are fabulous that we’ll do at our own festivals when we’re grown up, that kind of dream. Six years ago Joe said, ‘Right, we’re doing it, we’re not talking about it any more. Come on, we can do this.’ It just felt like the right time, really, and we felt adult enough to get it together and do it. But it is down to Joe and Emma and Pete [Sharman], that got it off the ground with their determination.

“But I think it’s surpassed anything we thought we could achieve. The basics Joe was really precious about – it has to have a great PA so that everybody’s happy, the tent has to be great, it has to be seated so if it’s bad weather it doesn’t matter, there’s enough room in the tent for people to sit and watch a really good concert in comfort that sounds great and looks amazing. It has to have a great backstage bit where the artists are all looked after and taken care of, if they’re happy then the audience are going to have a better gig from the people playing.

“It has to have good food and great beer and amazing kids’ stuff – that’s the other thing we were passionate about. We grew up at a lot of festivals because our dad used to be a sound engineer, every weekend through the summer we’d be at a different folk festival, and they always had amazing workshops – all sorts of things from dancing and singing to storytelling, so we’ve tried to maintain that at our festival.”

Underneath the Stars festival runs from July 20-22.