KATE RUSBY: a biography
Of all the stars in Folk Music’s wondrous firmament few shine as brightly as Yorkshire’s Kate Rusby.
A remarkable interpretive singer, Kate’s soulful vocals resonate with the wistful beauty of an earthbound angel. Inhabiting a lyric with unforced conviction – no matter how old or how modern – she has that rare ability to transport her audience, of touching them emotionally and making each tune live vividly within their experience and imagination. It’s a precious gift attained not by resource to decibel blasting or histrionics but through simplicity, understatement and faith in the narrative drive of the songs she chooses to sing.
No wonder then that even as early as 1999, aged just 26, Kate was named as one of the Top Ten Folk Voices of the Century. Everything she has done since has confirmed the foresight of those who bestowed that honour. From being a nominee for 1999’s Mercury prize – almost unheard of for a folk singer both then and now – for her stunningly assured second solo album, Sleepless, to 2014’s captivating Ghost, Kate has stayed true to her folk and acoustic roots. This despite the temptations such early recognition placed in her path: “Around the time of Sleepless various people waved contracts at me, all saying ‘Come with us, we’ll make you a star’. They wanted me to cut a ‘pop’ record, but I’d just reply, ‘you must be joking – why would I do another kind of music just as I am starting to succeed with I want to do?’ I’m from a strong, close family in a small village just outside Barnsley: that whole celebrity, music chart, be as famous as you can hullabaloo is so far from the things I care about in life. For me it was the worst idea in the world!”
Such resolution underlined not only Kate’s unwavering love of folk music but also her strength of character. Such clear-headed vision of what was important to her, of who she was as an artist and just where she wanted her talent to take her was, and is, rare in one so young. But as the years have passed the wisdom of her choice has been proven every time she has released a new record or set foot upon a stage.
Those close to Kate would not have been surprised by her determination to keep the faith. They would have pointed out that folk was in her blood from the moment she was born, indeed it is very much a family affair. Kate’s parents, Ann and Steve, from being teenagers had played in a ceilidh band while Steve was also a ‘sound man’ – a skill passed on to son Joe. Hence at weekends and holidays while her friends were off to Bon Jovi concerts or the local disco Kate, along with siblings Emma and Joe, would be packed into the back of the family car en route to a folk festival somewhere in the UK. To while away the time on the road Mum and Dad would lead the children in family sing-songs: “Us kids would sing along, making up harmonies before we even knew what the word meant…siblings have the same vibrato so the sound they make together is almost inseparable.”
Thus Kate’s love affair with folk and the Tradition had begun: she had been introduced to a wondrous treasure house of stories and tunes that have fired her imagination and proved a constant source of inspiration ever since. From the fantastic, through the romantic, humourous and – most especially the tragic – singing or hearing such ‘castle-knocking down’ tunes enthrals her: “What appeals to me about the old songs are the stories and the simple way they were written. Some are painfully sad and it is those that draw me in the most.”
From sing-alongs in the back of the car Kate was soon treading the boards herself: solo, as a duo with friend Kathryn Roberts plus stints as singer with Equation and the all-female Celtic folksters, The Poozies. And so her arrival on the larger music scene in 1999 with her second solo release, Sleepless, was not a case of ‘overnight success’ but the result of many years previous spent learning and honing her craft.
During an interview for R2 magazine in 2015 Kate fondly reflected upon the integral role her parents have played in her musical direction: “My parents passed on so many songs and continue to do so. They are always humming and singing things I’ve never heard before and from time to time I also remember lines from songs they used to sing. I always pop round and ask them about it and then sneakily pinch the song! No, seriously, they have always been fantastic at passing on songs. I’m very lucky!”
Now, as a parent herself, Kate keeps this family tradition alive: “I have already begun passing this on with our girls, Daisy and Phoebe – they already know a few folk songs …… as well as songs from ‘Frozen’!”
The spirit, language and atmosphere of those old tunes have inevitably informed Kate’s own writing. From the start of her solo career she has not only been the interpreter and arranger of traditional airs – and of contemporary tunes such as Iris Dement’s ‘My Town’ or Richard Thompson’s ‘Withered And Died’ – but she has also been the creator of new songs. Her writing is so finely attuned to the vocabulary, rhythms and cadences of the Tradition it sometimes comes as quite a surprise to discover that songs as transcendent as ‘Daughter Of Heaven’ or ‘Ghost’ are not gems plucked from one of Kate’s treasured ballad books but indeed brand new, achingly beautiful originals.
In 2015 Kate’s career remains in the ascendant: surrounding herself with husband Damien O’Kane, her beloved and trusted family (who run and administer Kate’s record label, Pure) and the UK’s very best folk musicians on stage and on record her career has gone from strength to strength. Four times winner of BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards (most notably, Folk Singer Of The Year in 2000 and Best live Act in 2006) in 2014 she was recipient of the prestigious British Academy of Songwriters, Composers & Authors’ Gold Badge Award in honour of her ‘unique contribution to music’. A richly deserved honour it reflected the fact that for over the twenty plus years of her recording career Kate has released a series of dazzling, critically acclaimed albums that remain true to the Tradition and have proved popular with audiences beyond folk’s usual remit (2008’s Awkward Annie climbed to number 2 in the Indie charts). Thus Kate has become a ‘star’ in her own right and – most importantly – on her own terms.
Indeed the crossover appeal Kate enjoys is unprecedented for a folk singer and has been achieved without resort to compromise. When Q magazine famously quipped, ‘Folk Music doesn’t get any cooler than Kate Rusby’, Kate was not fazed. She had no problem with the attention her Mercury nomination brought nor with appearing on ‘Later With Jools Holland’ or, in 2006, recording a Top Ten duet, ‘All Over Again’, with Ronan Keating: each incursion into the mainstream has been done with no hint of sell-out and – much to her delight – has only served to broaden the genre’s appeal: “It’s brilliant to get the music out there. Folk music’s main problem is that it’s so hard to get people to hear it – there are so few opportunities to do so on UK radio. Controllers of radio stations are convinced that their listeners aren’t interested in it, that people have this huge stigma about ‘Folk’ but when people actually get to hear it they usually like it because there really is something in it for everybody. So going on those shows opened up my music and folk in general to people who would never have usually heard it.”
Kate’s collaborations with artists beyond folk – Eddi Reader, Blur’s Graham Coxon, Idlewild’s Roddy Woomble, Ronan Keating and Ella Edmondson have not been calculated career moves but naturally occurring consequences of being a working musician in the UK: “I quickly learned that the British music scene is a very small world, when you tour as much as I have done you bump into all sorts of people, some of them are musicians, some more famous than others. But be they famous or not, if something clicks and you would like to work with each other then that’s always an exciting thing.”
Alongside the collaborations with musicians have been enjoyable excursions into film (‘Heartlands’) and television (the BBC’s animation of ‘Jack Frost’ and recording Ray Davies’ ‘The Village Green Preservation Society’ as the theme tune for the series, ‘Jam and Jerusalem’): all the result of others from beyond folk being inspired by Kate’s singing.
How far and wide Kate’s music has travelled was acknowledged in 2012 by the amazing array of stellar artists from across the spectrum of popular music who featured on that year’s double album celebration of Kate’s twenty years in the music business, the appropriately titled 20. Paul Brady, Dave Burland, Jim Causley, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Jerry Douglas, Bob Fox, Stephen Fretwell, Dick Gaughan, Grimethorpe Colliery Band, Sarah Jarosz, Aoife O’Donovan, Declan O’Rourke, Eddi Reader, Philip Selway, Chris Thile, Richard Thompson, Sara Watkins, Paul Weller, husband Damien, brother Joe and most poignantly of all her mentor and musical hero, the great Nic Jones: “I have such happy memories from those recordings. It was a mammoth task with wonderful guest singers and musicians all over it.”
In conversation Kate’s refreshingly forthright attitude to life underlines her Yorkshire upbringing: disarming and humourous in equal measure her on stage banter is endearing and cheeky, while offstage, in interview, she wastes no time in getting to the point. Her candour as refreshing as it is rare.
Typical was her response to her collaboration with Ronan Keating and the eyebrows it raised among those known humourously within the folk community as the ‘Folk Police’. “I thought, why not? Ronan’s a lovely fella – clued up, hard working, polite, funny – with a cute little bum! What is there not to like? Plus it gave me a chance to look into that crazy world of pop music and was really good fun. And I got to be on ‘Top of the Pops’ which I thought was quite cool really – something to tell the grandchildren! As for the couple of criticisms I heard, I don’t care. I don’t take direction from people I haven’t even met.”
Helping her to achieve all that she has Kate eagerly acknowledges the mighty support and love she has received from those around her: friends, fellow musicians, family near and far – “especially Mum, Dad, sister Emma and brother Joe”, her beloved nephews, Joshua and Jacob – “my sunshine!” and lest we should forget – Doris the dog: a never ending source of humourous anecdotes.
Kate is especially touched by the affection she receives from her audience – her ‘extended family’ – who hold such a special place in her heart: “I am always amazed at how many people turn out in theatres up and down the country to come and hear my music. They have chosen to get their tickets, have their tea, get dressed up, get in their cars and travel to come and see me. I have to stop myself thinking about it ‘cos I get a bit worried about the responsibility of making somebody’s night as good as I can.”
Such determination to give of her best is not lost on her fans. They and all who know and love Kate and her husband Damien O’Kane were thrilled to learn of the births of their beautiful daughters Daisy Delia and Phoebe Summer. Born on the 15th, September, 2009 and the 30th, April, 2012 respectively in the most blessed ways possible they have changed Kate and Damien’s lives forever.
As for all parents accommodating the new dimension children bring to family life has been challenging – and as Kate acknowledges very much a ‘team-Rusby’ affair! “I just kind of bumble my way through it all, but with precision planning of course! Luckily I have my family living in the same village so between them, school, nursery and a child minder (who is my sister Emma’s sister-in-law!) we have it covered. While they were both babies they just came with us on tour – while they are so young they are so portable. It’s also set Daisy and Phoebe up to be very used to travelling and staying in unfamiliar hotel rooms. They are both great with new faces too so all that is quite handy at times. There is no way I could have kept touring without my family as our work is so erratic compared to normal. After Daisy was born I rang a nanny agency to enquire if it would be a possibility for someone to help when we were working. I explained the hours and that it’s some days on some weeks, then over nights sometimes, different times, etc., – they just laughed at me! So it’s definitely like organising the troops when we are touring and recording. But of course I wouldn’t have it any other way. My girls are brilliant fun.”
Rather than interrupt her music-making giving birth to both Daisy and Phoebe seems to have both inspired and energised Kate. In 2010 Kate found herself in a very good place: not only was she a Mum but taking time out ahead of Daisy’s birth helped focus thoughts on that year’s new studio album, Make The Light. “Pregnancy agreed with my creative side. I wrote a lot. I took some time off touring so had more time than usual to write and ended up with a big bunch of my own songs which I’d never had before. Usually I only write every now and again but all of a sudden I had lots of my own songs.”
Originally planning Make The Light “to be a mix of traditional and my own songs – as my albums usually are,” Kate was reminded of a comment Jennifer Saunders made to her that she should record an album of all her own songs. “I thought it was a good idea except when she said it I didn’t have enough tunes. After my wonderful Daisy was born I did – so it became the right time!”
Kate’s first album of entirely self-penned songs, Make The Light proved a landmark event in more ways than one. Not only did it captivate critics and fans alike artistically it introduced her to a different way of working: “It was a totally refreshing experience. As the main guitar player Damien and I could sit every evening while Daisy was in bed and work away on the arrangements. Not once did he complain about being bossed about by the ‘Mrs’, well not that he said anyway! In this way I had a very clear vision of how I wanted the songs to look when completed – I say ‘look’ because it was more visual than audible. It’s very difficult to explain but I see a song like a painting almost, with the different layers and dynamics. Usually I go into the studio with a good idea of how something will turn out, but not quite knowing where a song will end up and that’s part of the thrill of it, the thrill is chasing original picture or vision I had! Bouncing ideas around with Damien really enhanced this process.”
Further inspiring Kate and adding to the stimulus of making a record of all her own songs was the fact that she was also working with new musicians. “My band line up has changed since Awkward Annie to feature Damien on guitar, tenor guitar, tenor banjo and vocals, Malcolm Stitt on bouzouki and guitar, Julian Sutton on diatonic accordion and Kevin McGuire on double bass. So, even that side of things was fresh. Malcolm I had worked with in the past on a couple of tracks but the others I hadn’t really recorded with before. Every musician works in a different way and brings their own style of playing, so it was really refreshing to work with these boys and really exciting to be creative with new people. I loved it.”
Co-produced by brother Joe, Make The Light came at the end of a very busy and productive personal time for Kate – as she was to comment: “So much happened between Awkward Annie (2007) and Make The Light – we had Daisy, Damien and I married (12/06/2010) and the album reflects these things. Mainly songs of hope and positivity it is quite different to my others, some of it is gritty, some of it is pretty and some of it is a bit wacky! But what fun we had making it.”
Four more intensely busy years were to pass before Kate recorded Ghost, the follow-up to Make The Light, but as she says, “Oh crikey! Soooo much happened during that time! For a start we released a new Christmas album called While Mortals Sleep in 2011 (the follow-up to 2008’s Sweet Bells) then after that we made 20! The year after we released a Christmas DVD – I love Christmas so it was the next step really. We filmed it in Harrogate at the Royal Hall which is so beautiful and the perfect setting for it. Then in 2014 we released Ghost. So don’t be thinking I have been resting!”
“The other very lovely thing that happened is we have a gorgeous new daughter called Phoebe. Born about two-thirds of the way through the recording of 20 I was back in the studio as soon as they let me out of hospital. I had a C-section with her which meant two days in hospital. I’m not one for sitting around so had my computer with me working on the album between feeds and nappies. The poor little mite had to listen to the songs while she was inside me and then when she was out in the world! She’s very musical so perhaps that’s why. In between the recording of albums we have been touring of course and I’ve been fitting time in to be a Mother to our other daughter Daisy too, so busy, busy as usual!”
As for Make The Light Damien was integral to the genesis of Ghost: “Damien is just so fantastic to live with. I like to find a collection of songs that compliment each other, which I did for Ghost. Once I have them I sit down with Damien who is an amazing guitar player who also plays so many other stringed instruments there is always a different feel to try. He’s also a gorgeous singer who is very sympathetic to the story. It’s very rare to find musicians who love songs as much as singers! But when you do come across one it’s so exciting – it’s as if they can get inside your head and feel where the song is going and so it all falls into place. It’s a great privilege to live with one of these musicians and of course Damien co-produced Ghost. He has listened to a lot of dance music over the years and this has given him great ideas for effects and sounds that I wouldn’t have thought about – like using an electric guitar! I was astounded by the noises and layers Damien’s friend and electric guitarist Stevie Iveson could create from the same instrument, it brought another dimension to my music on Ghost. Bringing in Stevie was Damien’s idea – his input allows me to see songs through a different pair of eyes and explore new ground.”
Never one to rest on her laurels 2014 also found Kate, Damien and family embark on a major initiative. In conjunction with the Nicholson family – who run nearby top South Yorkshire visitor attraction Cannon Hall Open Farm – they established the Underneath The Stars Festival (named after Kate’s 2003 album). Meticulously and lovingly planned the idea grew from a series of concerts held on the farm in previous years to raise funds for local charities. The inaugural event proved hugely popular, Kate’s enthusiasm for the venture palpable: “It was just so beautiful and gorgeous. The music was amazing, the tents were amazing and stripy and fab, the food stalls were just to die for and the sun shone down for us! Everyone I spoke to just adored it and thought it was beautiful too. I’m so looking forward to the next one!”
With the challenges and delights of parenthood, albums to record, tours and now a family run festival to organise the future promises much for Kate, her family, friends, band and fans to look forward to and enjoy. As ever Kate’s passion for music remains a given. Fiercely proud to be called a folk singer, she recognises and appreciates the direction it has given her life: “I play the music I want to play, work with incredibly talented musicians and make a living from doing something I love.”
And the great thing is – every time Kate Rusby sings not only is the world a better place but some of that love touches us all.