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Kate Rusby
Singer Kate Rusby was born in Yorkshire, England, and spent her childhood traveling to folk festivals and listening to traditional music with her family. She became a teen star with Kathryn Roberts in The Equation, then a member of The Poozies, before launching her solo career to great international acclaim.

(This interview was recorded in Edinburgh by Lucy Newman for The Thistle & Shamrock in 1999.)

Lucy:

Okay, Kate, now for listeners that don't know you as a solo artist, they might know you for your work with The Poozies, they might know you for your work with Kathryn Roberts, but do you want to just bring us up to date a bit, going back to the earliest roots, tell us about how you started playing, how you started performing and singing.

Kate:

Right then, I started singing from when I could talk really, because both my parents have always been involved in folk music in one way or another. Like my Dad does sound at lots of folk festivals, so from being really young we've been taken along to bizarre folk festivals in weird places like Cleethorpes, which is a really weird place up on the East Coast of England.

You know, it's really kind of strange, with a beach that goes on for miles, so we would always kind of go and play on the beach really, and not take much notice of the music, but I think it all kind of seeped in really.

Both my parents sing, and my Dad plays banjo, my Mum plays accordion, my sister plays fiddle, and my brother sings and plays fiddle when he wants to. So it's kind of quite a musical family really, and there's always been music and instruments all around the house.

So, I've kind of been singing from being really, really small and just kind of roped into it... well not, dragged. I was never kind of dragged in and said you were going to do this, and I never really thought at any point in my life "I want to be a folk singer", you know.

It just kind of happened all really, and I started playing violin when I was about seven, and I only really wanted to do that because my older sister had started playing and I was always like, "I want to do what she does, give me a fiddle." So I was always kind of following in her footsteps really, but she was a lot brainier than me so she went off to do Math degrees at Cambridge and stuff, and I was left with my guitar and my songs and I was quite happy, so that was quite good really.

Yeah, and it just kind of went on from there. I started playing guitar when I was, let me think, about fifteen I think. My Dad taught me some chords to just play along to some of the songs I was doing, and then I started playing piano.

We had this old piano thing in the house that we just got given from somebody so I started kind of playing away on that as well and that's how I learned to play that as well, but in the end, it began to smell too much so we had to put it in the garage and I'd like shut myself away in the garage for ages playing all songs and stuff, and learning how to play that. I've just been brought up in it really so I've just been brought up in it really so no, it's been nice.

Lucy:

And your family are all still quite involved in your career aren't they, your Mum and Dad. How does that work?  And your family are all still quite involved in your career aren't they, your Mum and Dad. How does that work?

Kate:

Oh yeah, it's absolutely brilliant because, coming from Yorkshire, we're kind of a race that trusts nobody and want to keep control of everything all the time, you know. So it's really, really nice, because my Mum and Dad run our own record company called Pure records which is what we bring the albums out on over here, and my Dad's my agent as well, so he gets all the bookings and stuff, and my brother is my sound engineer, live sound engineer, so it's kind of, it's really great.

You can trust everybody that's involved in it and you can just go around to the house, where the office is, and raid through everything and see what's happening and what's up to date, and all that stuff. It works out really, really well.

Lucy:

Now, I suppose folk music in England has a bit of a reputation of being a bit dead compared with the folk scene elsewhere. How do you find it? Has that been your experience?

Kate:

Well, no, because, as I say, I've been going to these festivals and things for like, well since I was three or four or something like that, so I've always been involved with some kind of folk scene, whether it's kind of a lot smaller or not than up here in Scotland or in Ireland you know.

So I've always kind of been in the middle of it really where there's been lots and lots of music happening. But recently there's been kind of a surge in it again, you know, because of all the youn g people, like my age...well, I say young, I'm like twenty-five now! We're all the kids of the people that kind of revived the folk thing, way back in whenever it was, I won't talk of then, it was so long ago!

But we're all the kind of kids from that era now and old enough to kind of take it up as a thing to kind of do. So I think that's what's happened for it which has been a really good thing. So it's kind of getting back on its feet now and getting more trendy as well in England as it is in Ireland and Scotland.

Lucy:

And have you found that that's sort of focused in small little pockets or is that just generally across the country?


Kate:

Yeah, I think so. It's really happening, all over. These festivals I keep talking about are made up from lots of the folk clubs and they're just all over the place, you know, all over the country. So it's kind of there, but whether you look far enough in to find it or not, yeah, but it is there.

Lucy:

Now a lot of people, as I've said, will know you for your work with the Poozies. How did you get involved with them?

Kate:

Well, em, let me think. I used to be in a band with Kathryn Roberts called The Equation, and The Equation got offered a big record deal from a big company to make it more commercialized and more poppy, and I wasn't really into that because this kind of music is my first love really.

So I kind of thought about it long and hard and thought that I wouldn't really want to do that and to be doing that kind of music, so I chose to opt out of that. So I left The Equation back then which meant that me and Kathryn had to stop working together as well because she wanted to concentrate on that as well, and they'd kind of heard that I'd left and their singer, Sally Barker, was just leaving to her first child. So they phoned me up and said, "Do you want to come and join us?" and I went, "Yes please, that would be really nice."

So they came up and we had a good old singsong in the back garden one summer and kind of thought, yeas, this is really nice. It kind of all blends quite nicely, so they said, "Yes you can come and join us." So in I got, into the car, and off we went on tour. It was great, good fun.


Lucy:

And that must mean that things are quite busy for you. How do you fit everything in?

Kate:

Well, tour time is kind of split in half. I'll only kind of tour for half the year, in blocks. Like I'll have a month on and a month off, and a month on and a month off, and like I'll do one month with The Poozies, or two weeks with The Poozies and two weeks solo touring, and it just all kind of gets evened out really, over the year.

So it's split down the middle really. It gets a bit manic sometimes trying to fit in all the different dates, because all the members of The Poozies are all in different bands as well, so trying to get everybody together and say, well hang on, because I'm touring with them there and we'd like to do this and so, I'll tell you what, we'll work here then. So it gets a bit kind of mad sometimes. But it all gets worked out.

Lucy:

You can choose to ignore this question, or to answer it on a personal or professional level, but you do lots of work with John McCusker from The Battlefield Band. He's obviously very busy as well. How do you manage to make that work?

Kate:

Well, we kind of sit down with diaries and say, "So you're touring then, so right then I'll..." It's kind of another thing that gets taken into consideration when I work out when I'm touring really, so we can have some time off at the same time to do whatever we're going to do, make albums or whatever. It's nice!

Lucy:

Now, you write quite a lot of your own material as well as doing a lot of traditional songs and covers.

Kate:

Yeah, I think I do actually do more trad stuff than I do write actually, but I don't know if that's just because I don't get enough time or I don't know. I don't kind of view myself as a songwriter yet really. Although I've written a few, most of them just go in the bin really and I go, "That's awful, chuck it away!"

But sometimes John says, "That's really nice. We should record that one," and I kind of get bullied into it, to kind of put it on. But I'm a bit shy about that sort of thing really.

Lucy:

With the songs that you write, they obviously sound quite traditional as well. Do you make an effort to write them like that, or is that just how it happens?

Kate:

Yeah, I think that's just how it kind of happens, because that's what kind of music I've known for years, you know, I wasn't really into pop music until I was, I don't know, seventeen. Everybody was walking around with Bon Jovi on their walk-mans and I had some old fiddler from England or something on my Walkman and everyone was going, "She's weird."

But it was kind of, that's what kind of music I've always listened to and my first love, so I think it must come out like that just because that's what I've listened to.

Lucy:

And with your accent as well, I mean, you sing in a very broad Yorkshire accent. Is that just natural?

Kate:

Yeah, it is. I've never kind of thought about that either and it wasn't until I'd made that first record with Kathryn that people were saying, "Gosh, it's really weird. You sing like you talk," and I'm thinking, "Yeah, well what am I supposed to sing like?"

It was just because all the people I was influenced by as well at that time, like there's a guy called Dave Burland, who also comes from Yorkshire, who's been singing for years and years and he was always around, and he was somebody that I would watch and think he's great, you know, I would really like to sing and play like that some day. And he sung like he spoke, you know, so it was never kind of an issue for me.

If I was listening to an American singer, they sing in their own accent, but kind of, from a folk scene, everybody was just singing in their own accents really, so it was never a conscious thing really, it just kind of happened.

Lucy:

You've done some British Council Tours, in Malaysia, India, Egypt, Turkey. How did that come about?

Kate:

Well, The British Council used to send big opera packages and orchestras out to these countries and kind of cottoned on that it would be a lot cheaper to send a folk band of four people I think, and a bit of British culture as well thrown in. So they started finding tapes of people and listening out for folk and phoning us up and said, "Do you want to go out and do this thing in Egypt?" and we were all like, "Yeah we'd love to, we've never been there before!"

So it's great. You get a chance to go round and look at all the sights as well. They give you days off and you can go and ride on camels when you're supposed to be working. It's really nice. It's great fun that -– a totally brilliant thing to do.

Lucy:

Now, I know that your albums are distributed in The States on Compass, but you've not actually been out. Do you have hopes to travel out that way?

Kate:

Yes, yes. In the bag. Or not, in the bag, but in the sack and just waiting to peep out and get confirmed is a tour with me and John McCusker from Battlefield Band and Andy Cutting as well, an accordion player from over here. We're kind of thinking to come out in December and do a small tour over there, so hopefully that should happen.

Lucy:

Tell us a bit about the new album.

Kate:

The new album, it's called Sleepless and it's coming out May or June and it's very much like Hourglass but it's kind of a bit more grown up, I think, and there's a bit more of a weird aspect as well. Every now and then there's little quirky things on it that we really like and have kept in.

All the same crew are on it as well: Michael McGoldrick, the flute player and John's playing on it as well, and Andy Cutting and a guitar player over here called Ian Carr. So it's kind of the same crew who did Hourglass, so we've just kind of got back together and had a nice chat and a nice play and we've got an album out of it as well so I'm really looking forward to it coming out and seeing what happens.

Lucy:

That's the nice thing isn't it, I mean about the folk music scene, that it is very much that there are friendships that develop and people are very generous with their time and playing on other people's albums.

Kate:

Yeah, it's great. I'm kind of still in awe that people like that want to come and play with me. You know, like I keep going, "Ha, there's Ian Carr on my record over there. He's brilliant!" It's really nice.

Lucy:

Now, I read somewhere that you do a bit of step dancing and clog dancing.

Kate:

Yeah, yeah, I do, but I don't really get time to do that any more. I went Irish dancing when I was, I don't know, about six 'til I was about ten, I think, and kind of entered those competition things, but I always got second place and never first because I didn't have the right socks!

So I kind of fell out with that after a bit for being told off for not having the right socks. And I've always done Clog Dancing as well, because my Mum does that, you know, so we were always like, "What's that you're doing Mum?" And you know, we got a little pair of clogs and off we went dancing, so yeah, I used to do that.

Lucy:

Are your parents from Yorkshire originally? They haven't sort of come across from Ireland?

Kate:

No, no. They're both definitely from Yorkshire.

Lucy:

You talked a bit about the folk scene in England, how it is at the moment and the fact that there's all these young people, up and coming young people, who are kids of people who maybe back in the '60s or '70s were really going for it. Where do you see folk music going?

Kate:

I'm not sure, you know. Even in my kind of time that I've lived, I've noticed that folk music surges up to the kind of commercial level almost. Like the media kind of sit up and start to take notice and you'll hear bits of folk music in the pop music that's in the Top 10, you know, there'll be a fiddle in there or, there'll be, I don't know, a whistle or something, and it kind of comes up to the surface and then it all kind of dies back down again and it's not trendy any more.

And then in another five years it kind of comes back again and everyone goes, "Oh, folk music's really good," and they're trying to seek it out and go see it. So I think it'll kind of dip quite soon and I know that's a pretty pessimistic view on it really but I think it'll have a dip and then again have another big thing, and I think it will just kind of carry on like that. But it will always be there because it's just been there for so long now. There's always people that have kind of be en involved it and who love the music. And I'll be doing it forever as well, so yeah, it'll always be there.

Lucy:

You think you will be doing it forever? I mean, you don't seem very concerned by the fashion or the trendy side to it.

Kate:

No, because I kind of really, really love the music and love the songs really, which is what it is, and the scene is just great. The people who play, you know, it's just really, really nice, and I'm sure it wouldn't be like that in the pop scene or in a different scene of the music so no, I just love it and I think I'm going to stay put.

Lucy:

Coming to your songs, your individual songs, what inspires you to write, the songs you actually have written yourself, what inspires you and where would you hope to be taking your song writing, I mean, do you want to become a songwriter? You don't consider yourself one yet.

Kate:

No, I don't really. I kind of don't really want to be known as that either, because like I keep saying, the trad stuff is what really gets me. Only every now and again do I come across a modern song that'll have that same effect on me, you know, like that heart wrenching, "Oh, that's really sad and tragic," thing.

My songs, are kind of written in two ways. One side of my song writing is just made up of lots of different bits of old folk songs that have got stuck in my head from years ago and I've out them together in a little story and made a tune up and then there's a song, you know.

And, on the other hand, like the song "Old Man Time" that was on Hourglass, that got written because, I don't know, I was just in my house on my own one night and I thought, bloomin' heck, I'm not nineteen anymore, I'm twenty-three, what's happened, where's it all gone, and I've not seen my family for ages, and all that kind of stuff.

So that just came out of that really, because I'm always playing and my instruments are always out in the house, so if I'm in, I'll always have a little plink and a play, and if something comes out of it, that's how it comes really.

Lucy:

And how do you go about selecting which traditional songs you're going to put on your albums?

Kate:

It's mainly the words really, that kind of really get me. If I read it and I go, I would really, really love to do that, that's a really beautiful passage or great chorus or something, I'll try to work it out so that I can do it.

And lots of things that I do, some of them anyway, I've put tunes to because they haven't had tunes in the books that I've found them in, because I do find a lot in books as well as learning lots and lots from my parents, I've learned loads from them so, I kind of put my own tunes to some and kind of craft them and make them my own really. So, just kind of like that really. If it gets me, and it makes me want to cry, then I'll do it really.

Lucy:

So it's very much about communicating an emotion. Is there anything else you would particularly like to talk about, that you would like to get across to an American audience?

Kate:

No, I don't think so. We've covered it all really…

Lucy:

No great hopes for the future? Five year career plan?

Kate:

Five year plan, I don't really have one, because we have this kind of saying in Yorkshire, "Steady Away." You know, it's just kind of rolling on. We're not kind of setting big targets to reach by a certain time, because most likely we'll never reach them, so what's the point in kind of doing that, you know.

But at the moment, just having a really nice time playing with lots of people that are great, that I really admire so yeah, just going on from there, and I hope I'll put lots more albums out at some point in the future and it would be really nice if anybody wanted to sing my songs as well. That would be a nice thing. But I've got no major hopes or targets really. I'm just having a really nice time doing it.

Lucy:

That's great. Thank you very much.

Kate: Thank you very much.