The past few months have seen a flurry of activity from folk singer Kate Rusby. Just weeks after playing a string of shows to mark the release of her 12th solo album, Life in a Paper Boat, the ‘Barnsley Nightingale’ is on the road again on a Christmas tour.
She feels proud of her latest record, an impressive collection of self-penned and traditional songs. “It kind of feels a bit more grown up, that’s the only way I can describe it in my head,” she says.
Alongside her familiar palette of acoustic instruments there are even shades of electronica – thanks to bass player Duncan Lyall and his Moog. “It’s like a retro synthesiser, and it’s only a tiny thing but it’s got good flashing lights on, it’s amazing. It makes all these weird sounds, so we had loads of that on it,” says Rusby. “Also my husband, Damien O’Kane, had more time in the producer’s seat on this one and he’s been experimenting with a lot of effects and different sounds. Now he’s learned to use the ProTools system while I’ve gone to do the school run [for their two daughters] he’s been sat there tweaking and inventing. It’s been really great, it’s been a total eye-opener for me, it’s opened the sound right up. With introducing the Moog we’ve got loads more bottom end going on, and with all the effects and twinkly bits going on right up top we’ve shoved those boundaries up as well, so there’s even more scope for experimenting and for the songs to sit in as well.”
Rusby’s Christmas tours are fast becoming part and parcel of the season of goodwill. The singer, who turns 43 on Sunday, says she “absolutely loves” the festivities. “My face lights up up when anybody speaks to me about Christmas,” she enthuses. “I’m sure it extends back to being a child because our Christmases were so magical.
“It was not like we had loads of money, because we didn’t, but my mum and dad just made it so special when we were kids and that’s how I remember it – really twinkly and snow every Christmas Day, which obviously there was not, but in my mind that’s how it was.”
An essential ingredient of Christmas for the Rusby family was the traditional South Yorkshire singing session. “They happen in pubs – only certain little ones dotted around – and people have gathered there for over 100 years to sing these carols. They sound strange to somebody that’s never heard them before – there are over 30 different versions of While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night with different choruses and tunes – but we were always taken along to these as kids, we would be sat there with the other kids colouring and drinking pop, but all the while the music was seeping in there. We thought it was a normal thing but as I was going around touring – it’s my 25th year next year – I was talking to people around the country about these carols and they were like, ‘I’ve no idea what you’re talking about’. So for the last nine or ten years we’ve been doing a Christmas tour based around these South Yorkshire carols.
“They were always sung in our house at Christmas and now they’re sung in our house still when we have our own family Christmases. It’s such a massive part of it and real big social thing. In the pubs I think people think it’s another section of folk music going on but it’s people from all walks of life and it’s just been passed on through the generations. Most of the carols were thrown out of the church by the Victorians because they were far too happy but people that loved singing them took them to the pubs where you could also combine it with beer – the perfect combination – and this carried on.”
Rusby will again be bringing a brass quintet with her for the festive concerts. The warm timbre of brass seems to be part of her musical DNA. “In Yorkshire it’s such a massive sound for this area because of the coal mines – bands were associated with the mines, so that also has been a massive part of my upbringing,” she says. “My dad used to repair brass instruments at one point so we’ve have people from different brass bands turning up on the doorstep handing over tubas and this that and the other. I used to go with my dad to some of the band rehearsals like Grimethorpe taking instruments back to them and picking up others that needed fixing and I just used to think ‘This is amazing’ so it’s always been part of my life that brass band sound.
“In pubs round here when it’s the carol singing sessions sometimes it’s led by somebody on a piano or an organ in the corner but a lot of the time you’ll actually have a brass quintet or quartet that are leading all the carols. To me it’s a massive part of those carols anyway so it was the perfect thing to bring the brass on the Christmas tour.
“I have used brass on other albums over the years because it’s part of my music and my heritage but definitely brass has been on every Christmas tour and it’s such a lovely time of year to catch up with them as well.”
Kate Rusby plays at Sheffield City Hall on December 6, Harrogate Royal Hall on December 15, Huddersfield Town Hall on December 17 and York Barbican on December 18. www.katerusby.com