Ghost is the first all new Kate Rusby album since 2010 and the release of Make The Light, which in itself was unusual in comprising all original songs written by Kate. But she’s been anything but idle since that release. There is the not so small matter of 20, an album released in 2012 to celebrate the appropriate landmark in her recording career, with songs plucked from the breadth of that 20 years, all re-recorded with a quite astonishing guest list. The recording plans sparked Island Records to revive its legendary pink label, which adhered to the centre of vinyl albums released in the late 60s and early 70s, including key releases by folk greats such as Fairport Convention, Nick Drake, John & Beverley Martyn and others. While the guests who enthusiastically lined up with her probably helped to seal the deal, the release rightly marked Kate’s own status amongst the current crop of the biggest names in folk music and with Island’s marketing support, the album charted at number 22. There has also been a second Christmas album, While Mortals Sleep, which follows on from Sweet Bells, continuing Kate’s interest in the carolling tradition of Yorkshire, with seasonal singing sessions organised in pubs and other secular, communal settings. Finally, there is a DVD of Christmas songs, but we’ll perhaps return to this later in the year.
In the meantime, on a personal level Kate now has a young family, with two young children and is married to artist and musician Damien O’Kane, whom naturally enough, she has worked with closely over these releases. Whilst the challenges of balancing the needs and demands of small children with life as a working musician can’t be easy, it’s joyful to hear that the family are enjoying music together, which she confirmed in her interview with FRUK back in 2012, carrying on the tradition Kate enjoyed herself as a child. Family is clearly important, combining with a strong grasp of her Yorkshire roots to keep Kate grounded in this often ephemeral world of music making.
For the making of 20 Kate got to work with some of her own heroes and modestly described the need to pinch herself while in the studio, lest it all turned out to be a dream. In truth however she has long been able to muster some outstanding musical talent to help flesh out her recordings. They recognise in Kate a kindred spirit and also a unique talent, as one of the most outstanding voices to grace these last 20 odd years, regardless of genre.
It’s reflected in a Mercury prize nomination, which even if you take the broadest definition of the folk is a rarity. If you take only those who work in and around the folksong tradition, then the 23 year history of the award can be whittled back to a bare handful of singers that fit the bill, further underlining Kate’s rare quality. More frequent recognition has naturally come through the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, with regular nominations and a clutch of triumphs to Kate’s name.
Whilst such recognition is doubtless good, it’s hardly an empirical measure of her career. You get closer to that with the consistent relationship that Kate has enjoyed with her audience, regularly touring and filling sizeable venues. Regretfully, within the folk world, that puts her amongst an elite almost as rarefied as the Mercury prize list. For the many thousands who connect to her exceptional voice and songcraft, such things are of course of little concern and that relationship has been reaffirmed time and time again, in many cases all the way back to Kate’s breakthrough duet with Kathryn Roberts released in 1995. Kate is an astonishingly consistent class act and Ghost is further proof of that.
The album is produced by both Kate and Damien, who naturally also contribute instrumentally, with Kate on guitar, but also piano on the title track, and Damien adding, guitar, tenor guitar and banjo. Michael McGoldrick, who has worked with Kate down the years provides flute and whistle and Duncan Lyle is on bass as required. Steven Byrnes adds bouzouki and tenor guitar, with accordion duties shared between Nick Cooke and Julian Sutton and electric guitar from both John Doyle and Steven Iveson. There’s room too for Union Station’s Ron Block to add a touch of banjo and Rex Preston on Mandolin. Finally, there’s a string quartet with some fine arrangements by Donald Grant.
As described above the last album of new material concentrated on Kate’s own songs, inspired to some extent by the work she had done sound tracking Jennifer Saunders TV series, Jam And Jerusalem. There are three Kate originals here, but mostly she slips into and around the tradition, arranging, tweaking and adding tunes as she goes much as has been done before, keeping the folk process rolling along.
One of the immediate things that strikes you is the attention to detail in the recording. The Outlandish Knight is a familiar enough Child Ballad, and also one of the oldest and most widespread folk tales going. With equivalents all over Europe, especially Scandinavia and Germany the story of the young, fair maiden outwitting a false suitor, who tries to drown her, possibly has origins in the myths of water sprites and faerie lords. It’s worth noting, however, that outlandish in this case means from the outlands or across the border, so it comes laced with an element of mistrust of foreign soii and the political marriage. Kate and Damien’s arrangement is mistily atmospheric, with Steven Iveson’s electric guitar adding a strange drone through the verse. There are pulses of echo lurking in the mix, as the accordion and strings lock into a spiralling melody that adds considerably to the drama. Even the last few seconds of the track oscillate into the ether, as if the living spirit of the would be tormentor is banished.
It sets up the intro of The Youthful Boy, which manages to sound both richly textured and gossamer light with Kate’s airy tones. There’s some beautiful guitar work from Iveson again, but this time adding inventive melodic filigrees that drift and glide around Kates voice and acoustic guitar work from Damien, with Ron Block’s banjo finding a perfect place within the soundstage, and the accordion adding a gentle swell. It’s one of two traditional songs about the iniquities of love, the other is the mournful I Am Sad, which is as melancholic as its title suggests, although it is even more simply arranged with just Kate’s gorgeous voice draped in velvety splendour over twin tenor guitars, as they pick an interlaced, syncopated course around the tune.
Two of Kate’s own songs seem to be caught between loves favours and fortunes. We Will Sing has a Celtic air and a merry gait as lines like, “And those in love can sing at last,” chime with a sense of the renewal of the spring season. After This is also about healing, albeit the bittersweet journey that has just begun, with just a hint of defiance in lines like, “Broken seems a solemn bird, but when she sings she’s always heard.”
Not everything is so downcast, however, and there are some delightful traditional arrangements like the jaunty Three Jolly Fishermen, with its rippling banjo and nicely contrasting string arrangement. The rhythmic interplay between guitar, bass and bouzouki on the drunkard’s folly Martin Said is quite brilliant, with the accordion adding a nice woozy swagger and sway. The Magic Penny and Silly Old Man both see the main protagonist get the better of their financial situation. The first features a lovely languid guitar line from John Doyle and the latter is driven along by banjo and acoustic guitar, with whistles and accordion adding delicious highlights, as the supposed fool turns the tables on a robber and makes off his ill gotten gains.
The Night Visit is simply gorgeous taking a tune from Scottish singer / guitarist Tony Cuffe that stretches the very fabric of the song, enhancing the sense of longing. Night visits are a common theme in folk and although it’s not explicit here, they are often the ghosts of lovers returning for a last night of passion. Of less doubt is The Bonnie Bairns who a lady encounters while walking in the woods. The two children lead her deeper into the trees and brambles and when she enquires where they are leading, they confess, “We live where woe it never comes, in a land to flesh unknown.” They bring her a message from beyond the grave as the sumptuous arrangement charts an elegiac course through the unfolding tragedy, as it carries the weight of their burden. That just leaves the closing title track and original composition Ghost, simply set, but beautifully recorded with just Kate and her piano. Heavy with a reverb and occasional otherworldly, ghostly interjections and harmonic embellishments, it’s a poignant finale that’s none the worse for its spare yet tender arrangement.
This is the perfect companion for the gathering autumn evenings, an album of luxuriant texture, charm and finesse that leads the clear narratives of the songs through a simply gorgeous set of tunes. So, plug this Ghost into the machine, let Kate be your guide and surrender to the mysteries and whispers of the other world contained therein. As the CD unfolds with a slow, supernatural grace, echoing and lingering long after the final chord, rebounding from ages past to futures unknown, with our tears and triumphs and all the emotional resonance of our complex little lives, it proves a beautiful, life enriching place to spend an hour of your here and now.
Review by: Simon Holland
03 – Theatr Hafren, Newtown
04 – The Spa, Scarborough
05 – Derby Folk Festival, Derby
07 – Darlington Civic Theatre, Darlington
08 – Whitley Bay Playhouse, Whitley Bay
16 – Anvil Arts, Basingstoke
17 – The Playhouse, Weston-Super-Mare
18 – Octagon Theatre, Yeovil
19 – Cheltenham Town Hall, Cheltenham
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