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A Magazine for Sheffield

Kate Rusby: Festive Folk from South Yorkshire

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With 15 solo albums to her name, Barnsley songwriter Kate Rusby has remained at the very top of the British folk scene for over 20 years. Her songs frequently make reference to her home county of South Yorkshire, particularly on her last studio album, Life in a Paper Boat, which introduced electronics to her sound for the first time.

Kate still lives around these parts, and you may hear her voice in the coming weeks singing 'Home' on Meadowhall's Christmas advert, with a limited-edition CD release in aid of the Bluebell Wood Children's Hospice.

I caught up with Kate from the studio as she rehearsed for her upcoming tour, which includes a now traditional visit to Sheffield's City Hall on 7 December.

How do you decide what songs you're going to play during the shows?

What we have to do at the beginning of each tour is get all the songs in a big list and pick and choose. It's really funny because when you've not done a song in a few years you always do it in a slightly different way, but at the same time it's like meeting up with an old friend you've not seen in ages and having a cup of tea and a good old natter.

Do you make records in the same way as you did earlier in your career?

My dad used to be a sound engineer, so every weekend and most summers we were at some festival or other. We were always around live music and always soaking it up. There's a whole load of songs in my brain that I'm sure came pre-installed, because I can't remember actually learning them. I'm still going at them, but also I have these ballad books that I've collected over the years from little obscure towns and second-hand bookshops. Quite often those songs in the book don't actually have tunes, or they've been lost, so I take songs out of the books that have been laying there for 200 years and give them a new tune and rewrite them a bit. Then there's the songs I write from scratch as well.

I think the way I write and approach songs is quite similar to how I started out, but when we're in the studio we're working with different producers over the years. The last few have been produced by my husband, Damien O'Kane, who's really influenced by modern technology in music, because he went to loads of discos as a kid.

You've started using synthesisers in your music. How did that come about?

Partly it's to do with Damien producing, but also me having ideas that somebody else is willing to take on. I really love having a big low-end going on, which we've never really been able to achieve in the past, but that's been in my head for a few years. Our incredibly talented double bass player is a fellow called Duncan Lyall and he's just an astonishing musician. He's mad into a thing called a Moog, which is like a primitive synthesiser. Now they make them to look like the old ones but they can do so much more.

Is it more important to stay sonically up-to-date or is authenticity more important when interpreting old songs?

I'm a big believer in the idea that the music has got to evolve and got to change, and that each generation that pick it up and run with it further have to make it their own or it's just going to be a museum piece. There are people I call the 'Folk Police', who think that because that song was written down in 1902 that is the only version that anybody should sing and it should not be changed anymore. But of course it was an oral tradition, passed on from singer to singer down the generations and everybody changed it. That's why there's so many different versions of the same song. It went to Canada, it went to Ireland, then up to Scotland, then down south. It's been all over.

Are there still topics or songs that you'd like to explore in the future?

There's two projects that I'm really looking forward to. I want to do a children's album of really interesting story songs and do them the way we'd make an album, but have songs that are more accessible to children. The other thing I'm really interested in is that here in South Yorkshire we've got this great tradition of singing carols in pubs. They used to exist in churches up and down the country, all these different versions of carols, but when the Victorians came along they wanted it to be a bit more serious, so they threw out most of the happy ones and it's now just one version of 'Hark! The Herald Angels Sing'.

But in South Yorkshire the people that loved singing the carols just took them to the pub, where you can combine it with mates and beer, and there they've remained and been passed on down the generations, where there's singing sessions every Christmas. The only other place it exists is down in Cornwall, so there's a whole other treasure box of songs that I would love to explore more. On a couple of my other Christmas albums I've done a couple of the Cornish ones, because I've got family down there. I'd love to do a whole album of the Cornish ones at some point.

Is South Yorkshire still an important source of inspiration for you?

I come from mining stock - uncles and granddads going back however long were all miners - so that side of things really interests me, with the brass bands being linked to the collieries to keep their lungs strong. I've always incorporated a lot of brass in my music as well, which I feel gives it a real Yorkshire flavour. I find the brass so emotive. Every Christmas tour we do we bring a brass quintet. They'll be tuning up in the back room and I'll just start weeping.

What have we got to look forward to at your City Hall show?

With having the Christmas album out there's a whole range of new songs that I can't wait to go and play. Especially in Sheffield, not only because it's on our doorstep and I absolutely love that hall, but also lots of the audience do already know the carols. And because we're celebrating 25 years of touring this year, there'll be lots of stories. We never takes ourselves too seriously. There's a lot of storytelling and joking going on. Just fun, fun, fun - that's what to expect.

What music are you currently listening to?

Well, I know it's very close to home, but my husband Damien O'Kane also sings and plays. He's from Northern Ireland and he plays a million different instruments in my band. He's just finished a new solo album that's going to be released called Avenging and Bright and it's the most exciting album to come out of the folk scene I think in a very long time. It's really innovative and he's taken it a step further with the electric sound of things, but still with really old songs. So I've been listening to that a lot. I have to put it on when he's not there or he just gets embarrassed.

Sam Gregory

Kate Rusby plays the City Hall on Thursday 7 December. Her new Christmas album, Angels and Men, is out now.

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