'Music has got us through lockdown' says Barnsley Nightingale Kate Rusby

Kate Rusby is back with a new album. She talks to Hazel Davis about cover versions and finding the positives during the recent lockdown.

Kate Rusby has produced an album of cover versions during lockdown from her home near Barnsley. Picture: David Angel.

When Kate Rusby’s parents began isolating back in March, she and her family turned up on their doorstep in beaks and wings and a rendition of the Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds. If you’ve ever seen the Barnsley folk singer live, it’s not an entirely unexpected image.

The 46-year-old Mercury Award-nominated singer-songwriter has played the song every morning during lockdown. “We get up and shout, ‘Alexa play Bob Marley!’” she laughs, and the track also appears on her new album, Hand Me Down (released next Friday) – an album of cover versions featuring everything from The Cure’s Friday I’m In Love and the Bangles’ Manic Monday, to the theme from 1980s TV shows Connie and the Littlest Hobo.

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If the purists are panicking, each song is still unmistakably recognisable as being sung by “the Barnsley Nightingale”.

Kate Rusbys Hand Me Down is released on August 14. Picture: David Angel

These are strange, unsettling times and Covid-19 has hit the music industry hard. Rusby had to cancel her spring tour and summer dates and says she doesn’t think her much-loved annual Christmas tour will happen.

“The Nottingham Royal, for example, is a 2,000-seater. With social distancing in place they can only manage 300 seats. They won’t be able to cover their costs and we won’t be able to cover our costs.”

But on a personal level, for Rusby and her family (she lives with folk musician Damien O’Kane and their two daughters just outside Barnsley), lockdown hasn’t been all that bad. “I keep saying to the kids, you’ll tell your grandkids about this,” she laughs.

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“I’ve actually enjoyed it more than I thought I was going to. I’m a bit of a homebird anyway, though I do love touring and travelling, and I was probably due a bit of downtime. We’ve all been really enjoying the slower pace. I’ve seen people in the village who I don’t usually have time to catch up with.”

Rusby finished her new album (which she only started in February) during lockdown, aided by the fact she has her own studio, a multi-instrumentalist whizz of a husband who produces, engineers and programmes, as well as two singing children. It was kind of a dream, she says. “We’d been meaning to do an album like this for about five years.”

The idea came after she sang Oasis’s Don’t Go Away, which made it on to her 2019 Philosophers, Poets & Kings album. “It kind of dawned on me that this is what I do; reinterpreting other people’s songs. They’re usually 200 years old but still some of these are precious songs from my own childhood that I am passing on to my kids.”

One of the songs, the theme from Connie, holds a particularly special place, as Rusby explains: “My mum was at teacher training college with Willy Russell’s wife Annie and we’ve grown up with them, staying at their house and going on trips.

"I remember this tape Willy had given to my mum and dad and it had a song for Blood Brothers – Dancing In The Dark – and the Connie theme. I nearly wore the tape out singing along to it with a hairbrush. Willy is such a brilliant writer. He rips your heart out sometimes.”

Rusby kept the song a surprise from Russell until they’d finished the album but he’s a fan, as is the Bangles’ Susanna Hoffs, who gave Manic Monday the thumbs up: “An Actual Bangle!” Rusby cries. “That was the best day ever. I used to dress up as her as a teenager. It’s like Ariana Grande getting in touch.”

Making an album in lockdown is unusual to say the least, even when you’re married to a record producer. “Usually we’d have had the rest of the band and we’d have our normal engineer,” Rusby says.

“But we still used our mixer Josh (Clark). He’s the master. Damien’s been learning all sorts of tricks and downloading software, and in fact the whole thing’s given us a sense of freedom. It’s just been us working on it in this little bubble.”

Well, them and the kids. The children are 10 and eight and so the pair had to home-school them at the same time. The girls have coped okay, she says. “Their school has been helpful in sending things for them to do. I am not a natural maths teacher, I will admit that, but my mum was a primary school teacher and my sister, Emma, is a qualified maths teacher so we’ve had a lot of Auntie Em Facetime.”

There were days when Rusby had to juggle this with focusing on laying down the vocals on the album, which was a challenge. Though again, there was an upside. “They got to see us at work and we had packed lunches. We had fun.”

The record really is very much a family affair. The girls appear on Manic Monday and Three Little Birds, along with her parents and sister, brother-in-law and nephew.

Music, says Rusby, has been important for her and her family, especially during the past few months. When one of the elderly villagers died and her husband wasn’t able to see her, Rusby dedicated a song to him.

“Humans need music and people have had more time to listen to it during lockdown. We’ve loved having the time to listen to whole albums. And we’ve had days when we’ve been teary. Music has got us through,” she says.

Throughout the last few months Rusby and O’Kane have been streaming weekly “Singy Songy Sessions” (“I wish I’d thought of a better name”) on YouTube. “That side of lockdown has been amazing. Everyone has been so creative. We’ve been joining a friend in Ireland for a Friday-night sing too.”

It’s helped make up for other disappointments like the cancellation of Rusby’s annual Underneath The Stars festival, which usually takes place in Cawthorne in July. The headliners were due to be Paul Carrack and Suzanne Vega.

“We kept meeting and talking about it and going round and round about it and we left it as long as we could but there comes a point when you have to start paying deposits,” Rusby says, sadly. “There were lots of tears. Now we know we would have had to cancel anyway.”

For those missing Underneath The Stars, all was not lost. The festival was back, albeit online, last weekend with a series of events, including music, crafts and storytelling. And there is more music to look forward to.

The band is planning to do a theatre gig, without an audience but live streamed, and, ever cheerful, Rusby reckons next year’s festival will be back, better than before. “It’s all been so heartbreaking for the whole industry and it’s not going to be normal again for a long while,” she says. “But eventually we’ll be able to play again.” Here’s hoping.

Kate Rusby’s Hand Me Down is released on August 14 on Pure Records.

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