This year our artist of the month for December, Kate Rusby, brought her 25th year in the business to an impressive conclusion with the fourth in her series of hugely popular Christmas albums, Angels & Men (reviewed here). Since 2008 Kate’s been recording occasional seasonal albums to accompany her annual Christmas Tour; celebrating and sharing her South Yorkshire festive heritage and providing added sparkle with wonderful self-written and contemporary songs.
We’re delighted at Folk Radio UK that, despite being in the midst of that very busy tour at the moment, Kate was able to spare us some time to reflect on what’s behind these special celebrations, the family and friends who take part, and her approach to the music itself. It’s probably best to start with the inspiration behind the whole glittering, fun-filled project…
“After touring round the country for years, it dawned on me that most people had no idea about the South Yorkshire Carols that we sing in pubs. They are fabulous songs and most of them were once known up and down the country, but the Victorians threw them out of the churches for being too happy! The people who loved singing them are also the beer drinkers so they took them to the pubs, where they could combine beer, songs and the company of friends. There they have remained 200 years on, passed on through the generations. It’s not a religious thing or even a folkie thing, it’s people from all walks of life who gather to sing every year. I was taken to these sings, along with my siblings, from being quite young, we would be sat with the other kids colouring and drinking pop, but all the while the songs were seeping in. Then like I said, it dawned on me the rest of the country had no idea, so I decided to get a tour together and take the songs out to share them and show them off”. This year the Christmas tour consisted of 14 performances throughout December, evidence of just how incredibly popular these shows are. “Yes, here we are 10 years on! We had no idea it would be so popular, we adore the Christmas tour, it’s always such great fun!”
Many people associate Christmas with last minute rushing about – bustling preparations for a big event. There’s nothing last minute about those Christmas releases though; each one as carefully crafted as you’d expect a Kate Rusby album to be. On Angels & Men, for instance, the combination of Josh Clark‘s programming and Duncan Lyall‘s Moog produced some very atmospheric sequences, especially in the sombre Paradise. Does a song like Paradise immediately lend itself to a heavily textured arrangement? “I suppose it does in a way, I love the textures you can achieve on such dark and moody songs. The moog is an incredibly diverse instrument, I love that it adds such depth of field to the songs”.
In contrast, there’s, See Amid the Winter Snow, a far more familiar song and another that comes straight from the South Yorkshire tradition. On Angels & Men, the song enjoys a far softer arrangement and avoids the more usual big choral and brass sound for which it’s known. Was that a difficult approach?
“No. I have sung that song from being young, it’s also sung at the pub sings in South Yorkshire, so I came to it from a different perspective. The tune of it is so calming and emotive. Damien’s electric tenor is perfect for it, then add the moog and our brass boys and it just felt lovely. I love singing that one live, I just stand back and listen to the brass boys playing away, sometimes I forget to come in, HA!! And usually, they make me cry!”
It’s great to see Ron Block back in the studio with Kate and Damien – especially with Sierra Hull (mandolin) for company. I’m guessing he was an immediate choice for the delightful Santa Never Brings Me A Banjo?
“Of course!! Ron Block is our go to 5 string banjo hero!! We adore Ron, not only as a musician but he’s the most chilled-out, wise, calm man I have ever met. We just love working with him. We were all laughing in the studio because in theory there shouldn’t be a banjo on it as that what the song is about, that he never gets one from Santa!! Ron is also on Hark Hark, the banjo is so cool on that one. He’s a genius”. Agreed. You could even say Ron Block is one of the family. And that’s one of the very special elements of those Christmas albums, there’s a genuine sense of kinship emanating from the music. Are those Yorkshire pub singing sessions still a part of family life? “I would like them to be a bigger part of my life but we are always busiest in December these days! We do go when we can because I want my girls to grow up knowing the songs too, I get the colouring out and off we go”.
As well as family, of course, there’s also fun. Kate’s own Yorkshire superhero, Big Brave Bill, returns in a special Christmas adventure. Like Kate, Bill is also fuelled by Yorkshire Tea, which prompts an important question: Teapot, tea bag in a mug, or just whatever suits the occasion? “Tea bag if I’m on my own, teapot if there’s more than one!!” I’m glad we cleared that up. A more surprising bit of fun was Chris Sugden‘s The Ivy And The Holly. It’s a great song, when did you come across that one? “He he he!! I’ve been listening to The Kipper Family for many, many years. My Dad used to be a sound engineer so we went to a lot of festivals when we were younger. They were on quite a lot back then, then Sid Kipper on his own. Totally hilarious. I’ve been meaning to do one of their songs for a couple of years so just delight we have one in the set now”.
Back to the tour, which comes to a close at The Sage in Gateshead, and includes a live internet stream of the show. Last year’s LiveStream must have gone down well, are you looking forward to repeating the event on the 20th?
“I can’t wait!! We are so excited about the live streaming it’s a whole new technology to take the music to a wider audience. People abroad tune in, people who can’t make the gigs for one reason or another. We have people who get in touch saying thank you for doing it as they can enjoy the music again with family members who have dementia, who can’t make the gigs anymore but yet still love the music, and it means they can still share the experience. Really lovely feedback about it”.
A new album and a busy tour is a great way to bring 25 years in the business to a conclusion. Having provided a great start to this year’s festivities for so many fans, will there be an extended Christmas break, or is the next album already at the planning stage?
“Always! I’m always thinking about the next album and new songs”.
And that, no doubt, is one of the many reasons Kate Rusby continues to delight her audience and remains one of our most productive and talented musicians. There’s even one more live show to look forward to when Kate and the band come to Glasgow for Celtic Connections on 31st January next year. Angels & Men is a delightful album, it has everything we’d expect from Kate, family and friends – and quite a bit more besides.
Angels and Men is out now on Pure Records
Available on Cd and Vinyl. Order via the Kate Rusby Store
Kate is performing at Celtic Connections on 31st January.
For more details, please visit: katerusby.com