“We’ve encouraged people to feel like the festival is theirs.” Folk singer-songwriter Kate Rusby talks about Underneath the Stars
As festival destinations go, Underneath the Stars takes place at one of the UK’s most attractively named places: Cinderhill Farm. This carefully crafted three-day music and arts event in Cawthorne, South Yorkshire is only in its sixth year but has already became a mainstay of the summer festival scene. In fact, with less than a week to go before it opens its doors, it has sold out. So, what led folk singer-songwriter Kate Rusby and her family to set up a festival?
“It’s always been a dream of ours,” says Rusby. “We’ve been keeping a little imaginary notepad of all the things we would do when we have our own festival when we are grown-ups. We had previously put on big concerts up at the farm, to raise money for local causes like a new cricket pavilion. They were always so well supported that the next step really was to make that into a festival. So, our little brother Joe decided ‘right that’s it, we’re doing it’.
“I’ve been touring for 27 years now, which means we’ve met so many great singers and musicians all over the world, so now we have little links all over and it’s so lovely to invite bands to our own wee bit of paradise for the festival. It’s also really important to us to pass the music and stories on to kids, so we make sure there is plenty to do for them. And, of course quality food and drink too, always important. But it is a mammoth thing to organise and takes the whole year and hundreds of amazing volunteers on the weekend.”
Even ten years ago, the prospect of attending a folk festival may have seemed a bit niche, and perhaps a little intimidating if you couldn’t tell your Nyckelharpa from your Northumbrian Pipes. But the popularity of folk music has since come on apace. Despite worrying about getting a thick ear, I ask Rusby why that is. Could it be something to do with the times we’re living through – and has she helped to broaden folk’s appeal?
“Over the last 27 years, folk music has become more and more popular. It’s brilliant. The scene is so vibrant. I am only a small part of the folk scene, it takes so many different styles and ages to make up the scene. The music is being passed around, shared and experimented with, so that each makes it their own.
“There are so many young people playing and singing and, most importantly, really enjoying folk music. You only have to go to one of the many folk festivals out there to see for yourself how healthy the scene actually is. Perhaps with the wider press coverage I have had over the years, it’s helped spread the word about how amazing folk music is. I hope I’ve nudged some people at least into diving into the scene, even just one I’d be very happy.”
Rusby’s father, Steve Rusby, has a festival pedigree both as a performer and a sound engineer and he’s obviously been crucial to the Rusby success story. Was he able to dispel myths, highlights and pitfalls around staging a high-profile outdoor event I wonder?
“Dad certainly keeps us all grounded. He’s every inch a Yorkshire man. He’s definitely a trailblazer. We set up our own record company all those years ago, partly due to trusting no-one with our money and career, which he is still at the helm of. I own all my own music that’s down to him. We’ve also been promoting our own gigs in venues up and down the country for years as venues back then wouldn’t take the risk on putting on folk music so we would say, ‘right, can we book your venue then and we’ll take the risk’. On top of that, as I said earlier, we’ve promoted large concerts before in the village so, when my brother Joe had the idea to develop it into a weekend festival, we went for it and haven’t looked back since.”
All festivals mean a lot to those involved, but Underneath The Stars has a heart that beats in South Yorkshire, and in Cawthorne and Barnsley in particular. Even this year, the biggest and most impressive yet, the roots of what the team behind Underneath the Stars have achieved burrow deeper and deeper into the Barnsley earth. Is it simply because everyone in the area is proud that Rusby is ‘one of us’?
“We just absolutely love this little bit of the world, and of course the festival, and I think that beams out into every corner of the field. I think we’ve encouraged people to feel like the festival is theirs. They have come and supported it and, through word of mouth, they’ve helped to grow it into the beautiful event that it is now. They’ve been creating their own memories each year and we encourage them to share their stories. It is a feeling of ‘we’re all in this together’ which is a very special thing. Also, the support we’ve had over the six years from the volunteers, locals and the council has been unbelievable. People have embraced it and they’re rightly proud of their input. People travel from all over the world to come to it now and this year is set to be the biggest yet. This area is just so beautiful and vibrant with such gorgeous souls. I love that people are coming to see our amazing little bit of paradise.”
The Yorkshire ‘thing’ comes through again and again in Rusby’s work and whenever she speaks about her influences and inspirations. Why does this part of the world mean so much to her?
“It’s where home is first and foremost. I live in a small village where Rusbys have dwelt for centuries, so as you can imagine that there are a lot of my family who live in the same village too. Apparently, Yorkshire has the highest percentage in the country of people born in the county who stay in the county. Some big-wigs think it’s because we are narrow-minded and untravelled but that’s not true. It’s because it is so very beautiful and full of the kindest, most hilarious goodhearted folk. I have toured all over the world and seen some incredible places but none are as stunning as the place I call home. We are just on the edge of the Pennines here, so we have the luxury of open countryside and moorland to one side and Yorkshire’s best towns on the other.”
It’s amazing,” says Rusby. “I’ll tell you what it’s going to be like. It’s going to be blooming gorgeous. I’ve met The Proclaimers a couple of times over the years and they, like us, are down to earth, they’ll fit right in. And of course, they put on such a brilliant show that makes you smile from ear to ear. We also have Billy Bragg who I’ve known for years. I supported Billy on a tour over 20 years ago and I learned so much. Now we can host a gig for him. Oh, there’s so many to mention. I need to get a wall chart sorted so I don’t miss anyone.”
Rusby’s sister, Emma, is leading on the festival now, but does that give our Sunday night headliner more time to enjoy the atmosphere, or is she every bit as involved as she’s always been? “Em is just the most amazing organizer. I’m always so proud of what she achieves. She rightly says the festival is a real team effort. It takes all of our family, friends, acquaintances, so many people, both before and after the festival. We have a totally fabulous build crew and of course all the lovely volunteers I’ve mentioned.
“It really is quite humbling. I’m always doing lots of bits and bobs on the weekend, so it does fly by, but I make sure I do get time to enjoy the festival. Everyone just mucks in and gets involved. It’s a very exciting time.”
But once the festival is done and dusted for 2019, what’s next on the Rusby agenda? “We’ve actually just put the finishing touches to a new Christmas album to come out this December. We released a new album back in May, which we’re very proud of, called Philosophers, Poets and Kings, so we’ve been out touring and promoting that album. It’s been a pretty full on year so far. On top of that, we’ve had lots of great festivals in the UK and Canada through summer. Then it’s the autumn tour and, before we know it, it’ll be time for our lovely Christmas tour with our brass lads which we all adore. I can’t wait to take all the new songs out. Then come January, a little sit down and a cup of tea.”
Underneath the Stars Festival runs from August 2-4, 2019. For full line-up and info: underthestarsfest.co.uk
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