Kate Rusby is one of the best and rightly one of the most celebrated voices on the English folk scene. She’s kept audiences entranced for over 20 years, with a consistent level of live performance and a series of CDs that few can equal. Her latest album Ghost (read our review here) finds Kate pushing into new territory and adding new layers to her sound, but as ever, it’s her voice that shines through. Whether singing folksong from the tradition or her own unique compositions, she brings the songs to life with a spell binding skill that gets to the very essence of the stories. With her autumn tour underway and a series of Christmas concerts to come, Kate tells us more about the making of Ghost, her inspirations, plans and the 20 years and more that have created the star that she undoubtedly is.
What is the biggest draw of the folk tradition for you? Is it too big a question to ask why it is so important?
I have always loved the stories in the songs. From being a small girl, I have been fascinated with the characters and their lives, it’s like lots of mini films. Folk music is so very important because it’s music of the people, music of the common man. The raw emotion and sentiment comes through today even in songs written hundreds of years ago, the landscape may have changed and now we live in a world of technology, but nonetheless, we as humans still feel happiness, heart wrenching sadness, and all that goes in between. We will never change, so folk music will always be relevant. Not to mention it is our heritage so is precious for that reason alone.
How do you find and select songs? Do you always know how you are going to treat and arrange them? Do you feel there are any limits for arrangement?
I have built up a collection of ballad books over the years. All those years of touring and finding myself on Sunday afternoons in second hand bookshops in small towns have meant I have found quite a few. So I sit and look through these for songs and inspiration. I have also learned so many songs from my parents, they both sing and play so us kids were all singing from an early age. I also write songs so there is always a mixed pot floating around.
I always have a good idea where a song will go when we record it, it’s hard to explain it but I always have a very visual picture of how a song will look when finished, so I go about building up the layers to achieve that goal. I love being in the studio and shaping and moulding the songs. It was a great experience this time with Ghost as I had Damien O’Kane sharing the producers seat, he had fantastic ideas for the songs so it was a total delight from start to finish.
Who has been the biggest influence on your music? Are there fresh faces on the folk circuit that you admire. Push comes to shove, who are your favourite singers and interpreters?
The biggest influence for me has to be my parents, they have taught me so many songs and introduced me to so many artists as I was growing up, and not even consciously, they just always had music playing in the house or they would be singing themselves so we just soaked it up.
My musical hero is Nic Jones though, I have listened to Nic’s music since I was born and never tire of it. His albums are those rare few that never date, he’s a very clever man. His ability to tell a story and never let the accompaniment get in the way is something I have always admired, he keeps you hooked to the very end. He has always been my favourite singer/interpreter. He remains unmatched.
I have to say Damien O’Kane is incredible, I haven’t come across anyone of late that comes near the quality of music that he creates. Again, his interpretation of traditional song is something to behold, I have heard some of his new album and I am very excited to hear the final thing, he has a new fresh sound.
What have you done differently with this album and what were you aiming for? There seem to be some bold new sounds.
We have been experimenting with different sounds and textures for this album, again that side of it mainly came from Damien but it’s something I have been wanting to do for a while. We also have a friend of ours, Stevie Iveson, playing electric guitar on this album, it’s a whole different dimension of sound for the songs. The range of layers and sounds he can create is so vast, it’s astonishing. It was really lovely to have all that to experiment with for the songs.
Tell me about the other players on the album. Are they all people you have worked with before? What did you ask them to bring to the sessions?
There are a few usual suspects on the album, Damien O’Kane on guitar and tenor guitar, Duncan Lyall on Bass, Julian Sutton and Nick Cooke share the accordion, Michael McGoldrick on flutes and whistles, John Doyle plays guitar on a track, Ron Block and Leon Hunt both play 5-string banjo on there, Donald Grant has written some gorgeous string parts too, and new to the fold Stevie Iveson on electric guitar, Stevie Byrnes on tenor guitar and bouzouki and Rex Preston and mandolin on a track.
I go way back with Mike McGoldrick and John Doyle, in fact I think Mike and John have played on every album I have made over the years, that’s such a great thing to have in the studio, that musical relationship where we all know the ins and outs of each other’s music it’s so special to have that link with musicians, they are incredibly talented and it’s always so lovely to see them when we get together. Balanced with working with new musicians too it all makes for a very creative atmosphere in the studio.
There are three outstanding Rusby originals We Will Sing, After This and the title track, are they linked? Tell me more about the songs.
No they aren’t linked. They were all written at different times. We Will Sing is a Mayday song, written when I was longing for spring to come during all the rain at the beginning of the year, After This was written down in Cornwall, we spend a lot of time down there as we have family there, being by the sea is an inspirational place to be, your mind can wander and songs are born more easily than in the hustle and bustle of home.
Ghost was written in the piano at home in the room where our ghost lives. We have seen it a few times and after asking about it we know it’s been there for a very long time. I thought it deserved a song so sat in there and serenaded him until the song was formed.
Can you tell me a little about the 20 project a landmark for anyone and a special way to celebrate. How did the recording go and what did it mean to you?
We recorded 20 two years ago now, to celebrate it being 20 years in the business. The idea behind it was to choose 20 songs from my past catalogue, take them into the studio and record brand new versions from scratch, each with a guest singer, and there are guest musicians all over the place. It was the best fun recording the album. All the guests were singers and musicians we have met and/or adored over the years so it was a real privilege to work with them all. It was a mammoth task as it was like recording two albums in one, not to mention I was pregnant at the time, in fact Phoebe arrived about half way through so she came along to the studio every day for her first weeks! Thankfully she didn’t mind.
How have the live shows been going? Who has joined you on tour?
The tour is going great thank you, we are having a ball! We have the pleasure of Damien O’Kane, Duncan Lyall, Aaron Jones, Nick Cooke and Stevie Iveson. My brother Joe does live sound for us too which is great as he engineered the album so knows how we want the songs to sound, we’re very lucky to have that link on tour.
What are the plans for the year end? What have you got lined up for Christmas and why have you been exploring that strand of folk and carrolling in particular? What’s the plan for the shows?
Every December we do a Christmas tour, the bulk of the songs on that tour are from South Yorkshire. We have a tradition here of gathering in certain pubs and singing carols that are unknown in other areas of the country. Some are different versions of popular carols, and some are completely different.
I have been going to these Christmas “sings” from being very young as my parents took us along. We would be in the tap room with the other kids colouring and drinking pop, while all the parents were in the other room singing, of course the songs seeped into our brains without us all noticing! I love these carols, they are the carols sung in our home at Christmas and when I realised people around the country had never heard of them I set about organising musicians for a tour to take these songs out on the road. This year will be the 7th tour. It’s great to go back to a town and the people there know the songs and sing along now, it feels great. We always have our brass lads with us too in the Christmas tour so it’s like a big Christmas party for us! I love it.
What are your other plans?
Plans are to finish the Christmas tour, then play with my girls, watch telly and eat goose. In the new year we will be touring some more and starting a new Christmas album, then touring some more, festivals in the summer and touring in autumn, then Christmas tour again!
Interview by: Simon Holland
30 – The Lowry, Salford Quays
05 – Sheffield City Hall, Sheffield
06 – St George’s Hall, Bradford
11 – Birmingham Symphony Hall, Birmingham
12 – Barbican, York
13 – Emmanuel Church, Barnsley
16 – Barbican, London
17 – The Forum, Bath
18 – The Forum, Malvern
19 – Harrogate International Centre, Harrogate
20 – Huddersfield Town Hall, Huddersfield
21 – Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham
Full details and Ticket Links can be found here: www.katerusby.com/tour-dates