TO SUSTAIN A BLEMISHLESS UPWARD TRAJECTORY DURING A TWO DECADE CAREER IS QUITE AN ACHIEVEMENT – PARTICULARLY IN THE MUSIC BUSINESS. TO HAVE DONE SO FROM WITHIN A FAMILY RUN COTTAGE INDUSTRY, BASED AWAY FROM BRIGHT-LIGHTS HUBBUB AND WHILE PRODUCING SOMETHING OF A NICHE SOUND, IS WHOLLY REMARKABLE…
Yorkshire-based folk musician Kate Rusby – sometimes described as “the Barnsley nightingale”, and known to have modestly referred to herself as “only a front for the family business” – has managed it.
1999’s SLEEPLESS, her second album, was nominated for a Mercury Prize, and she’s won four BBC Folk Awards from six nominations. She’s performed on Later With Jools Holland, headlined the prestigious Cambridge Folk Festival on several occasions, and her regular tours play to consistently sold-out houses. Each of her albums tends to graze the Top 50 before continuing to sell steadily, reputation spreading mostly by enthusiastic word of mouth. She’s received Honorary Doctorates from both Sheffield Hallam and Huddersfield Universities, and is a patron of Yorkshire.
Despite occasionally stratospheric accolades and gradually burgeoning adoration, Rusby remains hard-working, sincere and distinctly down-to-earth. Very much “just get on with things”. Very much of her county. “I know the price of a bottle of milk and the paparazzi aren’t there when I go to buy it – and nor are they bothered!” she scoffs, when asked about fame. “I do my own make-up, cut my own hair, and make the music I want. Best of all, though, I’m still going strong.” She adds that “steady away” is her motto.
Today sees the release of new CD “20”, an overview of that even-tempered two decades in professional music making. Last night she performed a celebratory concert at Sheffield City Hall – not so many miles from her native town – and, a few days ago, a show played in front of a small audience at central London’s BBC Broadcasting House was transmitted live on Radio 2. The Mouth Magazine was in attendance at both of these performances, and has been regularly spinning the new two disc set over the last few weeks.
It’s a career-spanning Best Of collection with a difference, not dissimilar to Rusby’s 2002 album “10”, each of the tracks a retooling of something from the back catalogue. But, this time, the ace up her sleeve is that each recording features a special guest – from Paul Weller to Mary Chapin Carpenter to Stephen Fretwell, via Radiohead’s Philip Selway. “The guests are all people whose music has inspired me over the years,” she says, “so it’s been an incredible adventure making this album.”
A rowdily partisan BBC Radio Theatre audience was treated to an intimate but slightly truncated show, topped and tailed by broadcasting big-gun Jo Whiley, whose presence perhaps illustrated Rusby’s crossover appeal. Opening with the bride’s wedding-morning excitement of THE ELFIN KNIGHT (“Down to the church, then away we’ll go to bed!”), the set featured well-chosen career highlights and here-and-there cameos from folk stalwart Eddi Reader, Union Station’s Ron Block on banjo, Grammy nominated bright young thing Sara Jarosz (whose mandolin playing on AWKWARD ANNIE was a joyfully astonishing revelation), plus Devon-based five-time BBC Folk Award nominee Jim Causley. A string quartet marshalled by Donald Grant meant a lusher sound, particularly during I COURTED A SAILOR, and the blend of harmony voices added further layers.
Rounding up with WANDERING SOUL – featuring every member of the gig’s cast of thirteen on the tiny stage – Rusby, seemingly not an ounce of conceit about her, was clearly delighted to share some of the limelight with friends. There was time for an encore of THE WISHING WIFE, featuring a woman whose spell-cast desire for her malcontented husband to be turned into a companionable dog is granted (“a true story, it happened in Barnsley”), before Whiley signed Rusby off from the airwaves.
Block, Causley, Jarosz and Grant’s quartet also showed up for a warmly engaging evening in Sheffield, as did Liam Kelly, whistle / flute player with Irish group Dervish – though the top-billing guest was undoubtedly folk legend Dick Gaughan, himself celebrating 40 years since his debut release. His unerring presence as elder statesman, duetting with Rusby on JOLLY PLOUGHBOYS, lent the evening a resonance even the trad-folk authenticity curmudgeons in the crowd could not dismiss. An expanded set included welcome outings for THE FAIREST OF ALL YARROW and THE OLD MAN, with rarely heard SHO HEEN given a gorgeous dusting down, but it was the newly styled “20” versions which enthralled most, reaffirming the general notion that there is more inventive and more intricate musical interplay – something sparkier – going on in the band these days than ever before.
Clearly Rusby’s husband, band leader and comedic foil Damien O’Kane’s fluid and sharp-spirited musical dexterity has been an enormous influence during the last four or five years, particularly over the making of “20”. Supervised by O’Kane while she was in the midst of pregnancy with their second child, the album is as much his masterpiece of intelligent arrangement and curation as it is Rusby’s love-letter to the music she reveres and a handy note of her two professional decades in it.
Released on the family’s Pure Records, though for the first time with major label support coming through a specially resurrected Island Pink (home to Nick Drake’s FIVE LEAVES LEFT and LIEGE AND LIEF by Fairport Convention, whose legendary Richard Thompson also crops up here), “20” perfectly captures Rusby’s peculiar talent for translating traditional folk music for an audience which might otherwise be dismissive, without compromising the integrity, while also gently moving its form forward.
Tastefully recorded with a crisp clarity courtesy of engineer brother Joe – who has a wonderful knack of positioning his sister in the mix so that she sings right into your ear – on Rusby albums it’s as much to do with the inclusive quality of the playing as it is the strength of the songs or the warmth of the melodies. Exceptionally well-played acoustic guitars, banjos, violins, accordians and the like bob-and-weave around each other with genuine bonhomie and, crucially, without excessively elaborate or self-indulgent ornamentation. Rusby – that magnificent voice as untarnished and luminous as a newly forged bell – rings out across the top of the whole lot.
So endearing has this straightforward recipe proved that Rusby was asked to cook up the soundtrack for light on its feet Britcom HEARTLANDS, which starred Michael Sheen, and Jennifer Saunders commisioned some songs for BBC TV comedy JAM AND JERUSALEM. An effervescent nod-and-a-wink cover version of The Kinks’ VILLAGE GREEN PRESERVATION SOCIETY, itself a folk song of sorts, was used as the show’s theme, gained a fair amount of national radio play and perfectly illustrated how sense of humour has a distinct and important place (alongside the usual folk stalwarts of tragic death, mourning ghosts and unrequited love) in the Rusby canon.
The opening track on “20”, sprightly AWKWARD ANNIE (originally from the 2008 album of the same name, though arranged differently here), plays like a sitcom, as do several of Rusby’s songs, and is far funnier to the ear than it might seem on paper – the tale of a young man driven to give a potential girlfriend what he presumes are ever more impressive presents (in typical land girl Rusby fashion, animals), only to find that she kills almost all of them – while THE GOODMAN (originally from 2003’s UNDERNEATH THE STARS) appears to be a love-triangle revolving around good sex and bad eyesight.
Recurring lyrical metaphors or references on previous Rusby albums have often been sky-based. Perhaps it’s to do with an accessibility to picturesque wide open spaces where she lives, but the astronomical or the avian have featured time and again.
SUN GRAZERS, the only previously unheard song on “20”, sees Paul Weller a few years off the back of his 22 DREAMS fascination with the pastoral, but clearly still relishing the opportunity to lend his reedy tones to a song calling for “a quiet life”. UNDERNEATH THE STARS (same, 2003) and banjo-driven PLANETS (AWKWARD ANNIE, 2008) feature the polished brass work of Grimethorpe Colliery Band and Sara Jarosz respectively, while THE MOCKING BIRD (MAKE THE LIGHT, 2010) has Nickel Creek’s Sara Watkins beautifully complementing Rusby’s mournful lead line.
THE LARK (from THE GIRL WHO COULDN’T FLY, 2005) here features hugely respected folk figure Nic Jones. “It’s well documented that Nic is my all-time musical hero, and his 1980 album PENGUIN EGGS is one of my favourites” says Kate. The pair’s voices work extremely well together, suggesting huge mutual admiration and a natural respect for the material.
Elsewhere on “20”, an impromptu snatch of BAA BAA BLACK SHEEP from three-year-old daughter Daisy is a poignant reminder that Rusby herself had something of an unconventional childhood as part of a folk-scene family. “Yes, my kids are having a very similar upbringing to mine, which I’m over the moon about.” says Kate. “Damien and Daisy and I have a game called Family Chord,” she goes on, “where we all find notes that sound nice together. Daisy loves it when they lock-in. People think kids as young as her don’t understand music, but given the chance they just feel it.”
In a playful moment that had potential to have been rather mawkish had it cropped up during a gig by any number of disingenuous others – and so which made absolute sense in the context of this unpretentious celebration and Rusby’s deeply grounded family roots – Daisy herself toddled out onto the stage early on at Sheffield, and charmed everyone in the room with a brief and shy burst of her signature song, before skipping off. Rusby and O’Kane looked proudly on, and it seems a fair bet that the couple’s second daughter – Phoebe, born in April this year – will also fit in fine with the musical atmosphere at home. Through default she’s had some involvement already: “I had a C-section with Phoebe, but we had to keep going because we had a deadline to meet with this album,” laughs Kate, “so I was sat in hospital with my laptop, e-mailing musicians and singers about recording dates and lyrics.”
“Well, you just get on with these things if you have to, don’t you?”