Kate Rusby - folk music star on Yorkshire carols and why she loves Christmas

It’s that time of year where you can’t walk into a shop without hearing a ubiquitous Christmas song blasting out.

The folk singer is on tour in December. (Picture credit David Angel).

So if you’re one of those people fed up of hearing Noddy Holder bellow ‘‘It’s Christmas!” then the idea of a new festive record might not imbue you with the Yuletide spirit.

However, Kate Rusby’s Holly Head, which came out yesterday, isn’t your average Christmas record, but instead a modern folk album that has seasonal lyrics and local versions of traditional carols, with quirky songs such as Hippo For Christmas, Yorkshire Three Ships and a version of While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night sung to the tune of On Ilkla Moor Baht ‘at.

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Holly Head is Kate’s fifth festive album and continues a theme she started in 2008 with Sweet Bells, a carol with Yorkshire roots. “In South Yorkshire we have this tradition of going into pubs at this time of year and singing. A lot of the original versions of these songs came from churches and then the Victorians came along and they thought the happier tunes were too raucous for a choir, so people started taking them to the pubs where they could have a beer and a chat. It’s unique to South Yorkshire, the only other place I know that does something similar is Cornwall,” she says.

Kate Rusby has a new album, Holly Head, out now. (Picture credit David Lindsay).

“I’ve been touring around the country for 27 years and after talking to people about these old carols it dawned on me that it might be a good idea to get these carols back out there.

“Some people do a Christmas album to cash in, but these songs are from a different place. They come from me growing up, so for me to sing these carols feels perfectly natural.”

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that Kate is a big fan of the festive season. “I absolutely love Christmas and winter. I adore the whole season – it’s just ingrained in me. I think it’s inherent in us as humans to be sitting next to a fire chatting with friends and singing.”

As well as being Kate’s favourite time of year, it’s also one of her busiest. Her new tour, which includes a string of gigs in Yorkshire, starts tomorrow and on Monday she’s playing an acoustic set at BBC Radio Sheffield. Next week the English Folk Dance & Song Society will also present her with a gold badge (playwright and superfan Willy Russell will do the honours) in recognition of her 25-year contribution to folk music at her Sheffield City Hall gig.

Kate grew up in Penistone, near Barnsley, and 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. “My mum was in a band and my dad played a banjo, it was a match made in heaven,” she says, laughing. “My dad ran folk festivals and most weekends we were off somewhere and the music must have seeped into my brain. At Christmas time I was surrounded by these carols rather than the pop songs in the charts.”

It was her father who taught her a few chords on the guitar that started her off on her musical journey. “I had this old keyboard and I begged my parents for a real piano and one day my dad came back with one from a working men’s club. It stank of beer and fags and it was so bad I was forced to play in the garage.”

Rusby, nicknamed the Barnsley Nightingale by folk stalwart Mike Harding, is now one of the country’s best known folk artists, though despite her family’s musical roots her success took her by surprise to begin with. “I never thought I would be able to do it as a career, it found me rather than me finding it.”

She left school and studied performing arts and drama at Barnsley College and it was only when a family friend, who also happened to be the organiser of the Holmfirth Folk Festival, heard her tinkering on an old, rickety piano that she was persuaded to perform on her own in front of an audience.

“Afterwards I vowed I would never do it again because it felt like the most terrifying thing in the world. But then someone from another festival said they liked what I did and asked if I wanted to do a spot for them. I kept getting asked to do gigs and I’ve never really looked back.”

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. And even though she missed out (the prize went to Talvin Singh for his album Ok) she grabbed the attention of the country’s music critics. “I got a lot of press on the back of people asking about this lass from Barnsley.”

She received offers from a number of big record labels. All were politely turned down.

Instead, 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.

It’s interesting that for all that she enjoys touring and being out on the road with fellow musicians she is, she readily admits, a homebird at heart. “When I first started people would say ‘so you’ll be moving to London now?’ And I just said, ‘no, why would I?’”

Her family roots and her affinity with her home county run deep. “I always look forward to coming back to South Yorkshire. It’s where I live and where I grew up.”

Rusby has seen the folk scene change dramatically since her early days, and feels it is all the better for it. “When I started 27 years ago there were hardly any young people playing and most of the audience were from my parents’ generation, and part of the original Sixties folk movement. That’s all changed and now there are people from all walks of life and all ages. There are so many different influences like African, Indian and dance music and it’s so vibrant compared to what it used to be.”

And it’s something she’s proud to be part of. “I love performing for people and getting a reaction from people and I also love creating music – taking an old song that might be 200 years old and making it new. It’s like releasing a bird from a cage and watching it fly.”

Holly Head, released by Pure Records, is out now.

Kate Rusby plays Huddersfield Town Hall on December 3; Sheffield City Hall on December 4; Leeds Town Hall, December 13; and York Barbican on December 18.