Folk star Kate Rusby celebrates 30: Happy Returns at New Theatre Royal, Portsmouth | Interview

When Kate Rusby wrote We Will Sing for her 2014 album Ghost, the folk star had the acclaimed South African choral group Ladysmith Black Mambazo in her head singing it alongside her.

Thursday, 12th May 2022, 4:18 pm

So when the singer-songwriter, known as ‘the Barnsley nightingale’ for her own impressive vocals, was putting together the wishlist of acts she wanted to work with for her new album, 30: Happy Returns, they were at the top.

The album follows in the path of albums to mark her 10th and 20th anniversaries as a performer. It takes songs from throughout her career and reworks them with a stellar cast of guests, including in this instance Richard Hawley, Darlingside, KT Tunstall, Sarah Jarosz, Sam Kelly, Dan Tyminski and Beth Nielsen Chapman.

Kate tells The Guide how working with the South African group has been a long-held ambition: ‘I call them sunshine in a bottle. I've been a fan of theirs since [Paul Simon’s 1986 hit album] Graceland – that was the first time I'd heard them.

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‘It's been a dream for so long to have them on that song. When I first recorded it, when I was doing that vocal I could hear them in my head singing along.

‘Whenever I've performed it over the years, I've always said to the audience: “Can you sing along with me on this song? It's in B-flat, and can you sound like Ladysmith Black Mambazo, please?” So we've had some fun with it.

‘I was talking with a great friend of ours, Eddie Barcan who runs Cambridge Folk Festival – probably one of the most well connected chaps I know. I was chatting to him about what songs were on 30, and he said, “We Will Sing, it's your dream to have Ladysmith Black Mambazo on that, isn't it?”’

Eddie put her in touch with their management, and after hearing the song were keen to be part of the project. They recorded their parts in South Africa and emailed the sound files over to Kate.

Kate Rusby is at New Theatre Royal, Portsmouth on May 25, 2022. picture by David Angel

‘When I heard what they'd done, I just burst into tears going: “Oh my word, I am the luckiest girl in the world – this is amazing!”

‘I even opened a bottle of Champagne and jumped about, it was absolutely brilliant, I love it.’

Rusby’s recording career stretches back to 1993, when she was part of a six-singer collaboration on the album Intuition. A duo album with Kathryn Roberts followed two years later, before her solo debut, Hourglass, in 1998. She is now 19 albums into that solo career.

‘It feels quite crazy – I keep thinking, “surely I'm not old enough?” And then doing the maths,’ she laughs, ‘oh no, it's right!

The cover of Kate Rusby's 2022 album, 30: Happy Returns

‘When I came to 10 years I did an album called 10, and then one at 20, so 30 was on the cards anyway, it just came a lot quicker than I thought it was going to.

‘Each of those three albums has been a retrospective look at the songs we've done and an opportunity to take some of those songs and do a completely new version of them, to tip them on their head and treat them as a song as we would now.

‘Obviously technology has changed in that 30 years and the instruments we're using, the musicians we're using is so different. We're using all kinds of different stuff these days, so it's lovely to take some of those old songs and reinvent them and have guests on them as well – it's a good way to celebrate.’

And she kids that she was a bit miffed when one of the world’s biggest popstars used the same title a few months ahead of her.

Kate Rusby at Wickham Festival 2018. Picture: Sarah Standing (180618-1380)

‘People were expecting it, but then last year Adele went and stole it – I was going: “You are joking me!”’

When it came to putting together 30, Kate describes the process: ‘We did an album of covers called Hand Me Down and it was a bit the same – I had a massive, long list of my favourite songs and favourite songwriters and things like that which I had to whittle down, so I'd already practiced whittling when this album came along.

‘But I've done 19 albums over the years, so I couldn't even choose a song from each album.

‘Ultimately I needed a collection of songs which sat together really lovely for an album – they complemented each other, and also songs where I could think of a brand new way of doing it, that was another way of whittling.

‘And when it came to the guest singers, the way I start every album really is me, my husband Damien [O’Kane, a respected musician in his own right], who produces my albums and is also a multi-instrumentalist sit in the sitting room and we get the list of songs, we get all the instruments out and the amps and the pedals, and whatever we want to use and we choose a song and start working on it.

‘It's only when you start moulding and tweaking and pushing and poking and seeing where the song is going to go and how it looks and feels that I have a light bulb moment of: “Oh! I know who would be amazing on this!”

‘That's the other amazing thing about an album like this, having toured for that long and played so many gigs and festivals I've met so many amazing and talented musicians and singers over the years.

‘When you really connect with somebody, usually in the pub or at the bar at a festival, and you part ways going: “We need to sing something together one day!” A project like this is the perfect opportunity to pick up the phone or send an email and say: “How's it going? How's the kids? Do you fancy singing on this with me?”

‘And all of the guests on the album, apart from Ladysmith Black Mambazo, we'd had that meeting and that connection. It's so lovely, I feel dead chuffed.’

Rusby’s previous album was Hand Me Down, a collection of covers which came out in August 2020. Although recorded in lockdown, the project’s genesis went back way before the pandemic.

‘I had that album planned for about five years and we'd already started working on it at the end of the previous year.

‘We started properly rehearsing in February. Lockdown came just as we were going into the studio.’

The tracklisting includes a diverse array of artists, from The Bangles to The Kinks, The Cure, Cyndi Lauper and even here take on Maybe Tomorrow, the theme song to the 1980s’ children’s TV show, The Littlest Hobo.

‘It felt like serendipity somehow – those songs brought nostalgia to people and a bit of cheer. It all just seemed to fall into line.’

With lockdown preventing the use of regular recording studios, Kate and Damien soon adopted the musicians’ version of working from home.

‘It did change the way we were working – especially in 2020 when we we doing Hand Me Down. It changed the way we need to think about it. We usually have an engineer called Josh Clark with us, but thankfully Damien has been learning for the past few years, so when it came to lockdown and the Hand Me Down album, it was alright. We have our own studio and Damien said, “I'll engineer this one”, and he did a fabulous job.

‘We had our girls in tow for that one as well,’ the couple have two daughters, ‘because the schools were shut, so they came and sang with us on Hand Me Down which was really special.

‘Our bass player lives up in Edinburgh and he's become a dad recently, so it saved him the travel down. Because we've worked with each other for so long, we know what each other's after and how the feel will be, so we could send it to him and he recorded it in his studio at home and sent stuff back.

‘Of course there's a bit of toing and froing of “Can you do this bit on there?” or this and that, but that's how we worked on 30 as well.’

Kate and her husband also took to doing weekly online performances – The Singy Songy Sessions – early on in lockdown.

‘I've got this inbuilt thing that I've got to try and cheer people up. The expression “singy songy” came out of my mouth in the first one and it stuck – we even had a neon sign made for it.

‘We set up in the corner of the living room and each week we would do a song and say “hi”. It was a lovely way of keeping connected and people getting in touch with us and saying what that particular song means to them and their family, and stories connected with the music.’

She also managed to put on two full-band concerts, live-streamed from an empty Cast Theatre in Doncaster.

‘When it came to actually doing the streamed gigs it didn't phase me because I was already used to talking to people through the camera, and I knew they were there because we'd done the Singy Songys, but obviously it's nice to be back out touring again.

‘It's extra special this not only because we're celebrating 30 years, but also because we've not been touring for so long and people have not been coming out, so it's extra exciting and special.’

Kate Rusby is at New Theatre Royal, Portsmouth on Wednesday, May 25. Tickets from £23. Go to newtheatreroyal.com.