Kate Rusby – pure acoustic superstar
More than 20 years after bursting onto the folk scene, Kate Rusby is still making the type of quality music that led to her being acclaimed “superstar of the British acoustic scene”.
If you are not conversant with her music or think folk is not for you, consider some of the artists who were queuing up to guest on her last album: Paul Weller, former Fairground Attraction singer Eddi Reader and Grammy Award winner Mary Chapin Carpenter.
Kate has no trace of pride nor pretentiousness when she recalls recording the double album ‘20’ on which she revisited some of her favourite songs as well as performing with some of the most famous names of British, Irish and American folk and bluegrass.
“It was such a pleasure and privilege to work with these people. I put together a dream list of who I would love to have on the album and all but one worked out. That was down to timings and tours – we just couldn’t get it done.
“But it was so humbling and astonishing for me that they all said yes. It was like being on ‘Jim’ll Fix It’ or ‘Surprise, Surprise’.
“All the guests on the album are musicians and singers that I listen to and adore, new and old, so it was a wonderful experience getting to work with my musical heroes!”
Kate Anna Rusby was born to a family of musicians in Sheffield in 1973. Her parents Steve and Ann both sang and played, so there was always music in their house.
Her father was also a sound engineer, working at many festivals up and down the country.
“They passed on their love of music without force or judgement, so I didn’t feel the need to rebel,” says Kate.
Family plays a hugely important part in Kate’s support team. She and her father set up Pure Records – Kate is from the Greek for pure – and after a while her mum joined to take over the accounts.
About 12 years ago Kate’s sister Emma gave up her job with a graphic design company to work for the family firm, joining brother Joe who is now in charge of sound.
“We’ve learned together to be able to trust our instinct and be confident that our decisions are the right ones,” reveals Kate.
It was with the help of her family that she recorded her first solo album, Hourglass, in 1997. Since then she has released a number of other works, been a winner at the BBC Radio 2 folk awards on four occasions and become one of the few folk singers to have been nominated for the prestigious Mercury Prize – awarded annually for the best album.
So how does she react to comments such as one on the BBC website which described her as “the first lady of young folkies”?
“For a start it’s very flattering indeed – but I don’t see myself as a role model as I don’t think myself above anybody else, young or old.
“The folk scene is made up of all kinds of musicians and singers – that’s what makes it such a diverse and exciting genre of music. Everyone is as important as the next and everyone learns from each other. That’s how the tradition is passed on. It would soon die out with only a few flag bearers.”
The Rusby family looks likely to continue that tradition as Kate’s two children with her husband, guitarist and producer Damien O’Kane – Daisy Delia is nearly four while Phoebe is two – are making noises about joining her band.
“Daisy is already singing constantly. She makes up songs for most of the day and dances about singing them.
“Even Phoebe is up dancing now as soon as there’s any music around. She sings along in a very deep voice, kind of like a Tibetan monk!”
Kate points out that it is very difficult combining and career and touring with bringing up young children.
“I’m not complaining. I love playing and I love being a mum, so I try to divide my time so it’s fair for all.
“There are some extra tough bits, though, mainly childcare, due to our working hours and irregular days. It proves very tough to make sure all bases are covered. Again, my family helps out a great deal and of course I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Kate’s fans can look forward to seeing her in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire over the next few months when she is on tour, taking in a couple of festivals, big halls and a number of intimate venues. So which does she prefer?
“They’re all lovely to play. They all have their own feel and audiences differ too.
“Festival audiences are louder and join in more, probably due to their intake of beer! Theatres are lovely too as you have more control over the sound. It’s fab that people get dressed up and come to see us on a night out – it’s very humbling. We just love playing live, so it doesn’t matter where.”
Kate will also be returning to Nottingham Playhouse for the fourth year in a row for a show which is described as “the perfect start to your festive season”. She says the audience draws her back.
“We love playing there – it’s so small and intimate. It’s been the last night of the Christmas tour for the past three years, so it’s now become a tradition to go there and play over Christmas.
“The people there have learned the carols over the years we’ve been going, so now they sing with great gusto.”
In the meantime, Kate is working on material for a new album which will consist of a few of her own songs with some traditional numbers thrown in. She is also putting the finishing touches to a live Christmas DVD.
She has her own studio in south Yorkshire which she regards as a “real luxury as it means you can make music at your leisure.
“There’s no time limit or deadlines or people insisting it should be done this way or that. Some of that is down to running our own record label too – we have complete control and ownership of all my work and time.
“As soon as we started to make money from albums way back when, we saved up and my dad who trained as an electrician and my uncle, a fantastic joiner, converted our barn into what we have now as our studio.
“They did such an amazing job. The view from up there on the hill is breathtaking.
“Most studios are dark and dingy but ours is bright and fresh with gorgeous views. The odd tractor stops play from time to time but we can live with that.
“I remember chasing bullocks away down the field once as they were all mooing along with the music coming out of the windows!”
That may not be the typical behaviour of a superstar – but the fact that Kate Rusby does not conform to stereotypes is one of the reasons she has so many dedicated followers.
Another is the way she speaks up for folk music which she feels does not get anywhere near enough exposure on radio and television.
“It’s usually frowned on by most of the bigwigs in mainstream media. They think it’s small time and insignificant but they don’t have the pleasure of knowing what we know.
“They only need to take a look at the thriving festival scene to understand how huge the genre is.
“I don’t understand why they feel the need to compartmentalise music. Do you know ANYONE who likes just one kind of music and that’s it? I very much doubt it.
“Music lovers love all kinds of music. So please, bigwigs, stop treating us like children. We really can cope with a bit of folk thrown in with our rock, pop, jazz, dance and indie.”
* This article appeared in the August 2013 issue of Country Images magazine