BIG INTERVIEW Kate Rusby: ‘It’s been about achieving things we never thought we would’

Kate Rusby live.
Kate Rusby live.

By the time Kate Rusby gets to Wickham Festival, she’ll be done with her own annual festival back in her home of Barnsley, Underneath The Stars.

It’s the fifth year of the Yorkshire-based event, which is run by the folk star and her family, and features such big names as Steve Earle and The Dukes and Lau – as well as Kate.

The Guide caught up with Kate just as they were finalising plans for the festival, which takes place this weekend.

‘We’re all buzzing with excitement, I can’t wait.

‘It just seems to be going from strength to strength with audiences coming from far and wide. It makes your heart glad that people want to support something like this because it is a family-run affair. When it first started, it was my brother Joe and sister Emma who really got it off the ground, and another guy, Pete, who is our tech guy who does all the infrastructure.

‘When the site is empty the day before and you’re just going: “Wooah! Are the people going to come?”’

And she admits that as much as she loves Underneath The Stars, it’s nice to ‘just’ be a performer.

‘At our festival we’re always doing little bits of other things, like I’m doing a couple of songs with Barnsley Youth Choir, and me and my best friend Sally, we’ve grown up together at festivals, we do this hour of chat with stories about mischief we got up to and things from our youth,

‘So when we just go to another festival we only have to do our own gig, and not worry about everything else, the pressure is off.

‘I’m really looking forward to Wickham, and we’re doing Cambridge and Cropredy this year too.’

Born into a musical family, Kate was used to performing from a young age. In the ‘90s she joined the all-female folk group The Poozies, and was also a member of Equation with the Lakeman brothers. She released her solo debut album Hourglass in 1998, and released her 14th, Life in A Paper Boat in 2016.

As is typical, Kate has several other projects going on, but she is already laying the groundwork for album number 15.

‘We’re going to go in to the studio in September, so we’ve already started the writing for that. And I’ve been working on a couple of other projects, one is for a water fountain on the Tyne as part of the Great Exhibition of The North, and the Northern Sinfonia played on that, and then I’ve written a song for the 180th anniversary of 26 children getting drowned at a coal mine that was here, which is a bit harrowing.

‘There’s all sorts of bits and bobs, so there will be a couple of new things in the set at Wickham.’

Paper Boat saw Kate introduce electronic textures to her more traditional folk stylings. It’s encouraged her to experiment further on the next album.

‘I’ve really been enjoying working with the Moog [synthesizer] and the depth you can get going on it, both at the high end and the low end. I’ve gone along for so many years thinking I don’t want to clutter the songs, because they are story-based –  whether it’s songs I’ve written, ones I’ve found in books, or one’s I’ve got from my family, so I felt that the words of the story were the most important thing - because that’s where your ear goes. But working with the Moog and has given it a whole other depth for the song to sit in. It’s not been clouding the sound, it’s just been like moving the goalposts, so I’ve been loving that.

‘My husband, Damien O’Kane, he produced the last couple and he’s got all of these amazing ideas for the tech in the studio, like delays and reverb and experimenting with weird bits and bobs, Even though he grew up in folk music, in Coleraine – all his family sing and play like mine, we had a very similar upbringing – he used to go to a lot of dance music clubs when he was growing up, so he’s got that in his head somewhere and he’ll have this little spark of: “Oh, we should try this or that”.

‘Sometimes I’ll go: “Oo, that’s too far”. But mostly, it’s: “Ah, yes, that’s a lovely idea”. We spark off each other so well.

Do they ever have problems balancing their working and personal relationships?

‘The rule is, when it’s my album, the final decision is mine. If it’s his album and I’m singing on it, or if he’s asking me something, then the final decision is his.

‘We have a line that runs through the recording process. If I’m going: “No, no, no”, about something he’s really enthusiastic about, I’ll tell him to save that for your album.  But it works really well, and on most things we agree – we’re on the same page.
‘The fabulous thing about working with Damien is that he’s there from the very, very, start, when I’ve written a song, or found something, if we get 10 minutes around the kids, we’ll get the guitar out and have a play.’

While it’s not uncommon for veteran acts to start up their own record labels, Kate has released all her work on her own label Pure Records since the start.

‘Yes, we were thinking we should make an album, and it was an album with my friend Kathy Roberts, we were looking into how to do it. At that point my dad was a lecturer in brass instrument repair at Leeds College of Music, but the politics of the whole thing was getting him down, it was one of those situations where they wanted you to work twice as hard for half of the money, so he was looking for something new to do.

‘We asked around, and friends who were already playing were saying: “Be careful, don’t sign anything.” We thought it’s folk music, people don’t rip you off or make you sign your life away in folk music, but…

‘We tried setting up our own record company, keeping control of everything, and owning our own music, and it’s been like that since day one. It’s been 26 years now and my dad’s still at the helm. He’s threatening to retire, but he can’t help it. He’s always working on something or other.

‘My sister is taking over everything he did – she’s worked for us for 18 years and my brother Joe is our sound engineer.’

Have they found adapting to the ever-changing nature of the music business difficult – particularly in the uncertain times of the 21st century?

‘Crikey, yes, that’s been one of the hardest things for us as a record company, to keep up with the changing technology and how you reach people.

‘It used to be that you put some ads in some magazines and you did some radio shows and you reached some people. We had a paper mailing list with some 60,000 people on it. But then it all shifts and moves and you’ve got to work out how to use that new thing, and keep up with the social media. It’s still basically a family business, it’s only a lady called Joy who works in the office who’s the only non-family member.

‘Some of it you’ve just got to go: “You know what? I haven’t got time to deal with that”, and you concentrate on something else. But it is exciting  – when you come to a fork in the road, which way do you jump? Sometimes it works out great, but sometimes, it’s: “Oh no!” And you back up.

‘But onwards and upwards is the family motto, it doesn’t matter.’

The course of Kate’s career has also mirrored the rise of folk from a niche, somewhat mocked genre, to one that rubs along nicely in the mainstream.

‘I never thought that we would be where we are, playing the theatres we are and headlining festivals and things like that. I think I might be the only musician and singer who’s not ambitious. Our family, we thrive on the exciting things, the opportunity to do something new, like when someone’s called up and asked us to do this, and we go: “Ooh, we’ve never done that before”. It’s felt like it’s been a real organic thing.

‘When I first started out, I had no dreams of where it would go, I was just  delighted that someone would give me a gig. I remember when I was touring with Kathryn, the first gig where they gave us some money, it was £40 we were jumping around the room with excitement. I’ve never been driven like that by money and success. We have actually come away from gigs and forgot to get paid! That’s just the way we’ve always felt about it –  it’s about achieving the things we never thought we would, not how much is it for.’

‘When the folk clubs started to sell out, and back then you couldn’t buy tickets in advance, we’d get 20-30 people still trying to get in, and they’d travelled for miles, we’d feel really awful. So the next time we’d go to that folk club, or they’d invite us, we’d ask: “Is there somewhere else like a village hall or something, where we can do it?” And each time we went back it grew a little bit, and it’s been like that for 26 years because too many people came to the last one.

‘It’s always shocked me. And even now when you’ve got the speakers on in the dressing room so you can hear the stage, and you can hear the hum of people coming in – sometimes I just have to shut it out. I’m just this very small lass from Barnsley, and all these people have bought tickets, they’ve come home from work, had their dinner, got dressed up and driven to see you. It does feel quite strange.

‘Folk music has completely changed from when I first started. There were no young people playing folk music, you could probably count us on the fingers of one hand.

‘But then with young people starting to play it, young people started to watch, and then they thought, I can do that, and on it went like a snowball. I’ve never known so many festivals, and people doing all sorts with the music now. It’s astonishing and it’s so vibrant – it’s amazing.’

Wickham Festival runs August 2-5. Kate Rusby plays the mainstage on Friday night. Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel headline the opening night. The South, Show of Hands, Squeeze and The Richard Thompson Electric Trio are also performing. Weekend ticktes £160, day tickets £35-50. Go to wickhamfestival.co.uk.