Kate Rusby is something of a legend, which is some going for someone who is the same age as I am (39, since you ask). Occasionally known as the Barnsley Nightingale, Rusby has been described as the “first lady of young folkies”. Whatever you choose to call her, there’s no denying her enormous talent. Northern Soul caught up with Rusby ahead of her upcoming performance at Bury Met’s Homegrown folk festival.
Northern Soul: How did you get into the music business?
Kate Rusby: Years ago, when I was first thinking of making a record, lots of people were saying to us to be careful, and not to sign your life away, and I was thinking, “what, this is folk music and surely everyone is honest!” But we had a sit and a think, and at the time my dad was lecturing on instrument repair at Leeds College of Music, but he was looking for something new to do, so we wondered if it was something we could do ourselves. So we looked into it, filled in some forms and created Pure Records. Pure, apparently, is the Greek meaning of the name Kate, that’s why we chose it.
NS: Over the past 20 years you have been in the industry, what has changed and what has stayed the same?
KR: Well there are a lot more young people interested in folk music for a start. When I first got going there were only a handful really, but gradually over the last ten years I’d say there are more young people both playing and listening to the music. Which of course is amazing as it means the music is safe, it will continue to be passed along down the generations. You only have to go to festivals like Cambridge, for instance, and you will see how healthy the scene is, and also the diversity of the audience, there’s people from all walks of life and of all ages, that’s why I love this scene, there’s something for everyone.
The other thing that has changed of course is the way in which we all listen to music too. My first recording was available on CD (wow the technology we thought!) and tape, which, of course, now just seems really silly. The technological advances in that time are just way beyond what we all thought possible, but of course you have to adapt and keep changing the way you promote and sell your music. Sadly music shops are vanishing, which I hate as I love browsing in them, and then I suppose it will all be internet based. If someone would have told me that 20 years ago I would never have believed them in a million years.
NS: What’s your writing style? What comes first, music or lyrics?
KR: I definitely don’t see myself as songwriter first and foremost, my first love is the traditional ballad and my songs have just kind of popped out along the way. I could never be someone who gets shut in a room to write an album, and there are so many old songs to go at I feel like I’ve only just begun digging.
When I do write though, it’s usually the music that comes first. I have to be on my own in the house and it’s always late in the evening. I will just sit down with my guitar and have a plink about, sometimes a song starts to form from a riff I have been playing or a set of chords, and if I still remember it in the morning then I will continue over the following few days to complete it.
NS: Could you briefly explain what is it about folk music in general that appeals to you and draws you to this particular genre of music?
KR: Without a doubt it’s the stories that appeal to me the most, and the simplicity. Folk music is music of the common man, and the themes that run the strongest through the tradition are everyday thoughts and lives. It addresses human emotions like no other genre of music, love, loss, happiness and on it goes. The songs are as relevant now as they were when they were written how ever long ago that was, we still have the same emotions running through our lives, and when we hear stories of people living their lives we can all relate to how they’re feeling, and the tunes are some of the prettiest I have ever heard.
NS: Do you like the challenge of taking an old song and making it your own?
KR: I love doing that. I have collected many old ballad books over the years and I sit and look through them and find fantastic little gems hidden in the pages. Very often they don’t have tunes anymore, or they have been lost, or even only half a song there, I love taking the song and writing a new tune for it so it can be sung again.
NS: Do you find people saying to you that they had always thought they hated folk music until they actually listened to it?
KR: I get that every time I play a concert, people drag their friends along kicking and screaming but they usually go away liking folk music , I think that’s great.
NS: Is Pure Records still very much a family affair?
KR: It is, my dad runs it, my mum does the accounts (and baby roadying too at the moment), my sister does all our PR and organises everyone, and my brother is our sound engineer both in the studio and on tour. It works really well, we all trust each other and, everyone is of equal importance, like cogs in a wheel, if there was one missing the wheel wouldn’t turn.
NS: Do you have any advice for people wanting to get into the music industry?
KR: Be humble, kind, and retain all the rights to your music.
NS: If someone were to summarise Kate Rusby’s typical day, what would they say?
KR: Rise early with the children, with not enough sleep but the morning smiles make up for it. Make sure everyone is fed, watered and cleaned. If it is a nursery morning, then get Daisy off to nursery, if not then it’s play time. Then all get togged up for walking Doris, arriving back with rosy cheeks, cold hands and snotty noses, wipe aforementioned noses. Play time again. Then make sure everyone is fed, watered and cleaned. Nap time/ housework and interview time. If it’s a gig day, drop Daisy at Gran’s house, get Phoebe in her car seat and pack her bag (remembering nappies and vom rag) as she usually comes with us, load up instruments, drive to gig, (I use the word ‘drive’ very loosely as we usually just queue on the motorway). Set up instruments, sound check, gig, pack up instruments, drive to hotel or home depending where we are (actually moving this time), give Phoebe her night feed, crawl into bed. All done with a smile…mostly…
NS: If you could sum your career up in one sentence, what would you say?
KR: To sum up my career in one sentence I would say, “like a trip to Alton Towers, including the queues, but with better food”.
Interview by Helen Nugent
What: Kate Rusby
Where: Bury Met’s Homegrown Festival
When: October 19, 2013