The Barnsley Nightingale: in conversation with Kate Rusby

Many singer-songwriters feel compelled to move away from their familiar homeland in order to reach for the stars, striving for national and international recognition. Folk singer Kate Rusby’s perspective is different; she is grounded in the South Yorkshire region and in the old ballads and traditional songs she grew up with. After 30 years of performing, her music still reaches out to followers all over the country, and on 9 December she and her band come to the Forum for her annual Christmas concert. Expect Hippo for Christmas and B.B.B.B. (Big Brave Bill from Barnsley), both numbers that have been added to Emma Clegg’s Christmas playlist…

Folk music is woven into the very fabric of Kate Rusby. In 1999 at the age of just 26, she was named as one of the Top Ten Folk Voices of the Century; now celebrating 30 years of touring, and with 19 albums to her name, folk and acoustic influences remain rooted in her music. Kate is known as the ‘Barnsley Nightingale’ and one YouTube comment I came across describes Kate as having “a voice to melt concrete” – having listened to many of her songs in recent weeks, I couldn’t phrase it better.

The folk roots do go deep; with both parents folk singers and with a childhood surrounded by music, perhaps the folk tradition was an incontestable destiny. “I was brought up in a musical house; my folks both sing and play, that’s how they met, so that’s how I got into music. My brother, sister and I all started playing the fiddle when we were six or seven. There were always instruments and music about and my parents taught us folk songs. We learnt so many travelling up and down in the car – my dad was a sound engineer and had to travel to festivals. So we were taken on lots of long journeys and they would sing us songs and get us singing harmonies, so I had this whole wealth and knowledge of folk songs.”

Kate Rusby is coming to Bath Forum on 9 December to perform one of her much-loved Christmas concert tours. This time of year brings out the folk music more than any other in her South Yorkshire home, where the tradition is to sing carols in the crowded pubs. “Where I live in Barnsley, there is this whole history of South Yorkshire carols that are sung in pubs in these parts. They used to be sung in churches up and down the country, but when the straight-laced Victorians came along they threw out a lot of the happy versions of these carols. So people that loved to sing them took the carols to the pub, where they could combine a good old singsong, a catch up with their mates and a pint of beer. These songs have been passed down the generations and they have remained a special little nugget of gorgeous treasure in this region.”

I can sing a song and pass on that human connection and emotion on to other people. And that’s what folk music is, isn’t it?

Every year the songs start the weekend after Armistice Day and go on until New Year’s Day. “It’s only certain pubs that do it, but people have started to travel from miles around. And it’s people from all walks of life, not just a folky thing. Usually there is a brass quartet or quintet playing and there are many versions of the same song – there’s over 50 versions of While Shepherds Watched their Flocks by Night.”

That’s a lot of versions. But that means there is an endless supply of songs to which Kate can apply her particular brand of folk music alchemy. “It’s been fabulous to do this tour for so many years, but people keep saying to me ‘Surely you are running out of Christmas stuff!’ Then I say that we’ve only recorded six versions of While Shepherds… so far, and so we’ve got a long way to go. One of my favourite versions is called Sweet Bells – it’s got a huge singalong chorus that people wait for in our gigs now. When we perform it, you see the faces in the audience light up, the adults who have passed this song on to their kids.

Five out of Kate’s 19 albums are Christmas ones; the latest, Holly Head, released in 2019, includes songs such as The Holly King, Yorkshire for Christmas and B.B.B.B. (an acronym for Big Brave Bill from Barnsley, a miner and ‘hero’ who loves drinking tea).

Kate’s December gig is made up of traditional Yorkshire carols, standard carols that people will recognise, and some more unusual ones like Santa Never Gives me a Banjo, and Hippo for Christmas. Check these out; I’d say they are essential additions to the festivities. “One year I made our tuba player dress up in a big hippo costume, and he had his big grumpy face on, but he loved it really. It’s the end of the year for us as a band, and we all love playing these songs, and the audience come with a different expectation and atmosphere because it’s Christmas and they are letting their hair down.”

Kate’s most recent album, Hand Me Down (2020) includes songs that reinterpret relatively recent hit songs, such as Shake it Off (Taylor Swift), True Colours (Cindi Lauper), Friday I’m in Love (The Cure) and Manic Monday (The Bangles). “My husband Damian and I love working together and experimenting with songs and I have favourite songs that are outside the folk theme as well, which was why it was so lovely to do that covers album. We had to keep the original gorgeousness of the song, but also make them our own, dress them up in a different outfit. For me it was a celebration of the songwriters who have written some of the songs that have been with me through my life and the musicians and singers that have performed them.”

Above photograph: by David Lindsay

Kate is markedly modest about the enchanting quality and tone of her voice. “When I look back, I had no idea when I started that I was going to end up being a singer. I firmly believe at this end of my career that music chose me, and it wasn’t the other way round.

“When we were choosing subjects at GCSE I just had no idea. And then when I was 17 a friend of ours who was running Holmfirth Folk Festival called in. I was sat in our garage on the piano that my dad had got from this pub that was throwing it out and it stank of cigarettes and booze, so my mum banned it to the garage, but I loved it in there, because the reverb was so much better. So I’d sit there and I’d work out chords to accompany songs. Our friend stuck her head in the garage and said, ‘Oh, you are getting quite good at that; you should come and do a slot at the festival, do you fancy it in a couple of weeks?’ My head nodded, but straight after she had left I said to myself, ‘What on earth are you doing, I don’t want to sing in front of people, this is crazy!’. I was nearly sick beforehand because I was so nervous. But that was how it started, and then it grew organically.”

Kate went to a performing arts college in Barnsley, majoring in drama, and over this period she was being asked to sing regularly at festivals and other gigs. Then, unsure of what to study at university, she took a year out. “My dad was looking for something new to do at that time and we decided to set up our own record company, and record my first album.”

When Pure Records was set up, it was 100% a family affair, with Kate’s dad Steve at the helm, her mum doing the accounts, her younger brother Joe as sound engineer and her older sister Emma in a marketing role. When her dad officially retired at the beginning of lockdown, her sister Emma took over. And Kate’s husband Damian O’Kane is now guitarist and producer.

“It’s not all been smooth – there have been points where we’ve disagreed,” says Kate. “We’re a family where if we do have an argument over something we all go our separate ways and come back together and say, ‘Right I’m sorry for shouting, and how are we going to get round this problem?’ And I do think we have this closeness, this bond, that grew out of the music when we were kids. We were a really tight family unit going to all those festivals.”

“I am so lucky that I go along to a venue like the Bath Forum and people come along,” says Kate. “That’s all I can do. I can sing a song and pass on that human connection and emotion on to other people. And that’s what folk music is, isn’t it? The music of the people.”

Kate Rusby – Christmas 2022, 9 December, The Forum, Bath, doors 7pm; show 7.30pm, £30/£20 under 16s;;

Featured image credit: Mike Ainscoe