It becomes obvious after a short time in Kate Rusby's company that she has a lot to say. It's not a case of unfiltered, big-star pontifications. It simply stands to reason that when you've lived and breathed music for the vast majority of your time on Earth, you're hardly short of a pertinent thought or ten. It's no journalistic hyperbole to suggest that we could have talked for ages, nailing endless pots of Yorkshire Tea en route.
Kate spoke to Contact Music recently from the HQ of her label, Pure Records (flanked by her loyal dog, Doris). Talking about the 25-year story so far inevitably involved some fond nostalgia, but far from making us both feel distinctly aged, what struck most from her manner was the effervescence and exuberance that she brings to the present. Despite being at the top of British folk for twenty years now, there's still a joyous sense that comes from immense job satisfaction and consistent renewal. After so long in the business and fifteen albums, you can definitely argue that Kate Rusby is just getting going.
This year is the 25th anniversary of your career and the 20th anniversary of your first solo album, “Hourglass”. How do you feel about such numbers and about the passage of time?
It’s frightening! In my head, I’ve only been doing it for ten years at the most, not actually twenty-five. This year, because of it being the 25th anniversary, we’ve been doing a thing called ‘Throwback Thursday’ on social media, where I’ve been trawling back through old photos and footage. It’s so strange seeing it with my own eyes, because in my head, I’m only just thirty and I haven’t been doing this long. On the other hand, I’m so proud that we’re still going, because there aren’t that many acts that have such longevity these days. So, despite feeling old, I’m dead chuffed.
You have your own record imprint, your base has always been in South Yorkshire and your brother mixes your records. How much has keeping it homely and familiar played a part?
It’s been of the utmost importance. It’s meant that from the word go, I’ve had complete control over what we’ve done, over every choice that we’ve made. We’ve done it all as a family. We set Pure Records up over twenty years ago now and my Dad is still at the helm. My sister works for us and my younger brother, Joe, does our sound. Mum did our accounts, but she’s retired now. So many artists don’t get to be in control unless they’ve made millions. Years back, when we started making some money, we decided we wanted to invest in a studio, which we still have now. We have more freedom about when we record, who we record with and what kind of music we record. All the choices have been ours, all the mistakes have been ours and it’s been so important, and I think that is the reason why we’re still going. I also own all the rights to my music. I heard Dolly Parton talking about it years ago and I made sure that happened.
Are there any other unexpected Dolly Parton comparisons?
Erm – no comment! I asked her to sing on the album “20” and she sent this lovely handwritten letter, saying she would love to, but she was touring and couldn’t get it done in time. We still might do something in the future. I’m such a big fan of hers.
You talk very much of music being part of your heritage. Can you tell us more about your parents’ influence?
Both my parents sing and play. If we go to a party now, we’ll bug them, when we know they’ve had enough wine, to get up and sing a duet together. Music was always in the house, before there was any outside influence, we were already singing – in our own accents, learning songs, making harmonies before we knew what harmonies were. My Dad was a sound engineer at festivals through the summer, so most weekends, we were in the back of the car, off to some exciting event, so we were witnessing live music too. It was never forced on us as an expectation, so we never got to that point of going, ‘Oh, that is SO uncool’.
Do you think that it was only a matter of time before music took over your life?
As a youngster, I never wanted to be a singer. I remember choosing GCSEs and saying to my friends, ‘How the hell do you know what you want to do for the rest of your life?’. The singing found me, really. All of us learned fiddle. I learned a bit at school, but I found it quite restrictive and rigid. I knew there was a more fun way to play, sitting at home in my kitchen learning tunes from my Mum and Dad and having a good old sing-song. My Dad taught me three chords on the guitar; when I’d exhausted those three, I just observed others and experimented. I taught myself piano. I really bugged my parents to buy one and they bought one that absolutely stank. It was so stinky that my Mum banished it out into the garage, so I would end up out there after school, playing away on the piano. It was on one such occasion that a family friend stuck her head in and said, ‘That sounds quite good, do you fancy doing a spot at my festival next weekend?’ My mouth said ‘Yes’ while my brain screamed ‘NO WAY!’ But I went, did it, and vowed I would never do it again because it was so terrifying. Straight afterwards, somebody else offered me another festival spot and again, I said yes. It grew like that. Instead of going to uni, I thought ‘I’ll have a year out and see where this goes’. And I’m still on my year out.
You sing in your own accent. People accept strong Scottish and Irish regional accents and dialects, so why do they get sniffy about English ones?
I think the whole English folk scene was sniffed at for a good long while. It was uncool. You couldn’t say in public that you liked folk music. The public’s image was of Arran sweaters, beards and tankards. The whole time I’ve been playing, that image has been alien to what I’ve known. There have been some beards, and when it was cold, some jumpers, but it wasn’t the norm. I think there’s been a struggle, within the last fifteen or twenty years, to get English folk back up there with other folk music, and I think it’s there now.
What’s taken folk towards the mainstream?
I think the mainstream media comes and has a peep at what’s going on in the folk scene every five years or so. Each time, it’s helpful, because folk music doesn’t get a lot of coverage, particularly on major radio stations. You go to America and there’s all kinds of music, all through the day, but here there’ll be one folk show or one country show, so it seems quite separate, even though people are essentially supportive. It’s all changing now with the Internet. Things are streamed and things can be shared a lot more easily and that’s helped a lot. In 1999, my “Sleepless” album was nominated for the Mercury Prize and that, in itself, opened me up to so many people who wouldn’t have heard my music. It only takes people hearing something that they might not have heard before to persuade them to invest in it and then go to gigs. If anyone says ‘I don’t like folk music’, it’s like a red rag to a bull. I grab myself a pen and I write them a list of things they should listen to.
People really identify with the emotional intensity of your songs. “Who Will Sing Me Lullabies” makes me cry. Are there any of your songs that get you going?
Two in particular - one I wrote quite a while ago for my grandma, called “My Young Man” about her nursing my grandad through long-term illness. He was a miner and had coal dust in his lungs. I wrote it sitting in a traffic jam, when it dawned in me what an amazing woman she was. If we do that live, the brass section can make me cry; I have to nip my hand to divert my brain from that emotional intensity. There’s a song called “Bitter Boy” that we did on “20”; my husband Damien sang harmonies on that one. Even though it sounds like a love song between a couple, I actually wrote it for my uncle who died suddenly. We were really close. I find it really, really difficult to sing. It’s hardly ever in the set list because I feel like I mightn’t get through it.
Will the forthcoming spring tour be based around “Life in a Paper Boat”, or more of a retrospective?
This tour follows on from the “Life in a Paper Boat” tour. As the album only came out in October, we’ll definitely be doing some of that. Because of the 25th anniversary, we’re going to be raking up some really old songs that we’ve not done in a while.
If you look at “Hourglass” and compare it to your 2016 album, you go from very traditional folk to Moog synthesisers and effects. Are you enjoying being a bit more experimental?
Yeah. The experimental side of it came through Damien, my husband. He’s really into dance music as well as folk. When he’s produced my last two records, I’ve given him more of an influential role from the producer’s chair. On the last album, he had the most free rein that he’s had so far. The next major album, aside from the Christmas one, is already in the planning and it’ll be even more experimental. As an artist, you do evolve. It’s a constant learning process, helped by working with different musicians over the years.
You’ve invented a popular new cartoon character, Big Brave Bill. How did he originate and what plans do you have for him?
We’ve got all sorts down the line for Bill! He’s become my bezzy mate! It started off just as a chorus I was singing to our girls at bedtimes. It also came from years of touring and people saying ‘Where do you come from?’ I’d say I came from just outside Barnsley and 99% of the time, people would respond, ‘Oh, poor you; it’s rubbish’ and I’d say ‘Shurrup, it’s beautiful – I absolutely love it’. I really wanted the girls to grow up being proud of where they come from. So, this hero was born – from Barnsley, who goes round saving people. It grew into verses, then it was a whole song, then we decided to record it, and now he’s got his own website and animation. There are all sorts of things in the pipeline; I’ve rewritten him for a song on the Christmas album that we’re doing now and there are plans afoot which I can’t quite mention now, just in case they don’t happen. People say ‘You can’t get a superhero from Barnsley’ but people round here are so kind and so generous. What else makes a superhero, besides a cape and a mask?
Ultimately, is there anything that the 2017 Kate Rusby would say to the 1992 one?
‘Don’t suffer fools. You don’t have to be nice to people who are horrible to you.’
Do you reckon there’s anything the 1992 Kate Rusby would say to you now?
I think she might say, ‘Hey, well done for still doing it after all these years.’ When I set off, it was never a big thing. I seriously am one of the least ambitious people that you could meet. The way it’s grown has been organic, from that festival, then folk clubs, then halls. There was never a time that my seventeen-year-old self was saying ‘You must achieve things or take the world by storm’.
As a tribute to your seventeen-year-old self, I thought we could finish with a silly, Smash Hits-style set of questions.
I can do silly ‘til the cows come home.
Right, then. If you had a spirit animal, what would it be?
What’s your favourite nickname you’ve ever been called?
If you had to do a different job, what would it be?
I’d work in a place that was half shoe-shop, half greengrocers.
Bob the Builder or Mr Blobby?
Bob the Builder.
If you could only eat one out of rice, pasta or potatoes, what would you choose?
Oooooh – pasta!
Which song would you cover if you thought you could get away with it?
Have you ever pretended to be someone else in front of a mirror?
I certainly have. Do you need names? There was definitely Jon Bon Jovi at one point.
That’s a confession enough.
And Dolly Parton!
And finally – most importantly – who’s your favourite Spice Girl?
Very Smash Hits, but I like it – it’d have to be Sporty.
Interview by Jon Kean
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