Kate Rusby and her band are now on their Christmas tour – bringing a Merry Yorkshire Christmas to venues around the country. Luckily, I was able to catch up with Kate before she set off and put a few questions to her about the new Christmas album The Frost Is All Over, about her annual festive concerts and the inspirations behind them.
The Frost Is all Over is Kate’s third Christmas album, but there are still plenty of songs from the Yorkshire tradition of pub singing at Christmas. I asked whether finding the right balance between the South Yorkshire tradition, more widespread seasonal favourites and new material ever becomes a challenge.
“Not a challenge at all as I love doing it! Like you say there are so many of the South Yorkshire carols still to go at it’ll keep me busy for years to come. I just love Christmas in general and the South Yorkshire carol tradition has been a huge part of my life, it’s in my blood. But I also like other Christmas songs and carols too, we have Louis Armstrong’s Christmas album on in our house and Ella Fitzgerald too, and of course Mr Christmas himself Monsier Buble. So I have influences coming from all over. I do like to make sure there is a nice mix of songs on the Christmas albums though, so about half of the new album is made up of Yorkshire carols and the rest from elsewhere”.
Speaking of elsewhere – the Cornish element brings yet another fresh voice to the music. Kate cites the song collection of Cornishman Ralph Dunstan as her source for those songs (Cornish Wassailing, Dilly Carol and Sunny Bank) and I wondered how she discovered the collection.
“I have family down in Cornwall so it was only from spending time down there that I discovered that they also have a tradition of going to pubs around Christmas time to drink beer and sing strange carols. So I thought I would do a bit of research into them to see if there were any similarities, which there are, but also of course a whole wealth of others I don’t know. I came across Ralph Dunstan’s collections whilst researching and he has now become my Cornish Carol Guru, it’s a shame he’s long dead though as I’d have loved to go to the pub and have a pint with him whilst picking his brain about this song and that song”.
From discovering a song to actually having a CD on the shelf isn’t a speedy process, though – an album doesn’t happen overnight. It must feel odd sometimes, planning for Christmas so early. “People often ask me if it’s a bit weird singing carols in summer (which, of course, is the time of year we have to record to have an album ready for Christmas) but no, it’s not that weird! I love the songs, so it’s just an excuse for me to have a good old sing of them at another point in the year! Although having said that, there was one point in this album when our bass player was almost fainting from overheating in the studio whilst recording carols, that’s obviously a little odd.
“It was the record hottest day of the year and he was in the studio, a converted barn, so not able to open windows or even have a fan on as the noise would be heard. So he persevered until he was about to cockle over and we had to stop and let him out! He he, or should it be Ho Ho?” And how do you get the right atmosphere during rehearsing and recording, do Damian and Joe dig out their Christmas jumpers? “We have a little Xmas tree that we put in the middle of the room for everyone to focus on whilst playing, just to get in the spirit of course. Ah it’s all good fun! Christmas jumpers are reserved for the tour only, and a necessity now, best jumper wins a prize at our Christmas tour party”.
The Frost Is All Over follows on very naturally from Ghost. From the listener’s perspective, having Damian O’Kane as co-producer/arranger, and much of the same crew as Ghost, has given the Christmas album a new, unexpected dimension. Were there any other factors that changed the album’s direction?
“When starting an album we never quite know how it will turn out. I always have a mental picture of each track, almost like a series of paintings, but inevitably whilst recording the tracks head off at tangents sometimes. That’s why I love working with the boys we have at the moment, they each bring a lovely feel to the songs I have found. Especially Stevie Iveson who plays the electric guitar, he has so many different noises and sounds to explore. Damian’s influence is evident though yes, he loves experimenting with sounds and delays etc. so it’s a really exciting time being in the studio with him. We are planning all sorts of things for my next “normal’ album, we are starting it in spring so looking forward to that!”
Some of those arrangements really stand out – like the lovely swing arrangement for Winter Wonderland or the accordion/banjo combination in Dilly Carol. Can we look forward to these being carried through to the Christmas tour? “Oh yes, it’s something we always have in mind when in the studio, always thinking how we can carry what we do in the studio out on tour. The only thing different will be no drum kit for Winter Wonderland but all the rest of the elements will be there including our lovely brass boys of course. I have always been a fan of Bluegrass music so that’s where the idea came from for Dilly Carol, from the word go I knew how I wanted that to sound.”
For most of your audience, the Christmas concerts are one of the main highlights of their festive season and, for many, probably as much a family tradition as a visit to the panto or a Christmas service. The way the shows come across you’re acutely aware of this. “I love taking the carols out there and singing them all around the country, one of the amazing things is that now when we go back to a town that we have played at Christmas before, the audience sing their hearts out as they have remembered the songs. It always makes me quite emotional to hear them all singing these South Yorkshire carols that we have taught them. I just love it.” Do the preparation and approach differ to a great extent from an album tour? “Totally. On a ‘normal’ tour I will be conscious of having the set list quite different to the last time we played a place, on the Christmas tour I like to make sure we have a lot in the set that the audience have heard as I know they want to sing along with them. I do always have a few new ones in there too though, but I suppose that would be the main difference in my approach. Also, we do go to a lot of effort to make it look and feel Christmassy too. We will have giant crocheted snowflakes on this tour and a lot of thought is put into the lighting and the sound too to make sure people come away feeling like Christmas has begun”.
Do Daisy and Phoebe come along to any of the Christmas concerts?
“We always try to get them along to at least one, and this year it will be the Huddersfield gig as that day is my birthday. So my sister is bringing them along to that one. It’s hilarious cos it’s just the norm for them, they usually get up and sing something too if they are at a gig, they can sing really great so they love it. Sometimes they have to be taken out though cos they will keep shouting out things like ‘mummy I’m here, can you see me, why are you not talking to me!’ things like that. They think we’re just at home!”
You’ve always attributed your love of folk music to your parents’ influence. Are you determined to ensure your girls enjoy a similarly enlightened childhood? “They are lucky to have some sort of music as part of every day, there is always music in our house so that in its self is the same as my upbringing, they have also been to plenty of gigs and festivals too so it follows that they both adore music and sing and dance at every chance they get. Sometimes it gets embarrassing when we are out, as anything is a stage for them, a man hole cover, steps, tree stump, they’re straight up and lashing into some song or another. We just stand a few steps away pretending we aren’t with them”.
Keeping your voice in such fine form must be a challenge sometimes. The Yorkshire Tea must be a significant help? “Oh my goodness it’s obviously the main worry on tour, but yes Yorkshire tea certainly powers our tours! I have just bought a huge bag of 500 Yorkshire tea bags especially for this tour. There are 17 of us on the Christmas tour so that is a lot of tea drunk and we have converted everyone to it, he he. I have to make sure that I’m careful with my voice though, not too much talking (always difficult) and no cheese (until the tour ends) and red wine is a good thing, don’t let anyone tell you any different!”
Finally, just before you head off to spread your Christmas cheer, are you able to share any of your plans for the coming year? “Well, as soon as Christmas and New Year are over in the Rusby/O’Kane household, I will be knuckling down to start work on my next album. Like I say, I’m so excited about it as we have plans to do a lot of experimenting with it. I’ll start the actual recording of it in March, so it’ll be interspersed with gigs through Spring. Then a few festivals in summer, including our very own Underneath The Stars Festival 22-24th July, I absolutely adore it, come if you’re free – you’ll have a ball. Then releasing the new album next Autumn, then before we know it, it will be Christmas again!!! And so it goes :-)”
Indeed it does, and Kate Rusby has never been someone to sit back. She obviously has a busy year ahead; a new album in the pipeline, the Underneath The Stars Festival in July and, of course, more touring. And before all that, we still have The Frost Is All Over and the Christmas tour to enjoy – what better Christmas gift could we hope for?
Review by: Neil McFadyen
Below are the remaining dates for Kate’s current tour.
09 – Sheffield City Hall
10 – Cambridge Corn Exchange
11 – Brighton Dome
14 – Manchester, Bridgewater Hall
15 – Liverpool Philharmonic Hall
16 – Leeds Town Hall
17 – York Barbican
19 – Malvern, Forum Theatre
20 – Nottingham, Theatre Royal Concert Hall
Full details and ticket links: http://www.katerusby.com/