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Kate Rusby in conversation with Mel McClellan - Issue 21 May/June '97




Kate Rusby

"...a wonderful traditional singer. Really, really fantastic. I think she'll be here to stay." Richard Thompson - Hokey Pokey.

It seems Richard Thompson is in company with most of the folk circuit, both at home and abroad. Kate, with a strong presence on several CDs over the past couple of years and now with a new solo album, this 23-year-old singer and musician from Barnsley is making a successful career doing what she loves best - performing traditional music. Her new album, Hourglass, is receiving national airplay (even by Wogan on BBC Radio 2), and has sold out of its first pressing within three weeks of its release.

Mel McClellan interviews Kate at her home in Cawthorne. Settled comfortably with tape recorder, lashings of tea and the promise of a Chinese takeaway later, they begin at the beginning ...

Kate, when and where did you first start performing?
The first thing I ever performed was a song called Our Cat's No Hair On, on a table with my sister at some festival or other ... I think it was Whitby and I was about four. Something happened to the ceilidh band, I think, so I ended up singing that song, and a hat went round and I got lots of pennies to go and spend at the arcades!

The first thing I actually got paid for was a gig at Holmfirth folk festival. I must have been about fifteen and I can remember singing one song in particular, a Tanita Tikaram song called It's a Good Tradition. I was playing guitar and singing and my sister was playing fiddle and banging her foot on a tambourine ... lovely ... that was the first thing I got paid for!

Was that the start of your performing career?
I think that probably is what got me started off ... I played another concert at Holmfirth at that same festival. Then I went to college in Barnsley to do a BTEC in Performing Arts and got very confused as to whether I was going to do the technical side or music or drama or dance, so I did drama 'cause that's the thing I knew least about!

I was going to go to university but couldn't decide what I wanted to do, so I had a year out to think. I started doing a couple of gigs at festivals now and again and it just went on from there. Then I had another year out and Kathryn (Roberts ... childhood friend and musical collaborator) was having a year out at the same time, and we just kind of got together - we've still both of us not been back and I don't want to now, actually!

What was your first recording?
The first time I was in a studio was about four years ago. I was up in Scotland and was asked to sing on the Battlefield Band's album Quiet Days. I've known Alistair (Russell) for a long time - he lives quite near us - and he knew I was around and they needed a female vocalist, so they asked if I'd come in and do it while I was there.

Did you get paid for that?
Well, I did get paid for it, and it was the first recording thing that somebody had given me money for - but I had no pockets on me whatsoever so I snuck into the toilets and hid the money in my sock ... it was in my sock all day till I got home!

After that came an album called Intuition, which was John Leonard's idea, to get six young traditional performers together and make an album. I had to do four tracks and Kathryn was asked to do it, and Kathleen and Rosalie Deighton. Some other people were asked as well but they couldn't manage it for various reasons so it turned into a Women-Singers-from-Barnsley album with the addition of Pat Shaw and Julie Matthews.

It was also then that me and Kathryn started working together, because John asked if Kathryn would sing on a couple of my songs and vice versa. We did that and both sets of parents kept saying, 'Go and work together, it'll be brilliant', so we did. That led to making our first album as a duo, just called Kate Rusby & Kathryn Roberts because we couldn't think of any names that we agreed on. It was quite successful for a folk record. It was album of the year in Folk Roots ... we got some stickers made and stuck them on and that sold it a bit more!

And you actually toured with Intuition, didn't you?
Yes, we did about four gigs, one of them being Dranouter - a huge festival in Belgium. We had a mainstage spot in a huge long tent with a big video screen. Me and Kathryn just sat and giggled - the thing was: 'Right, we've come from Barnsley and got in a car and now we're up on a huge screen in Belgium!' - but it was great fun and we sold lots of albums and had a lovely time. Then me and Kathryn were booked the following year so we must have done all right.

So as Intuition came to an end, you and Kathryn as a duo took off ...
Yeah, we toured together for a couple of years. We got lots of gigs and lots of offers. We went to Malaysia 'cause Kathryn won the BBC Radio 2 Young Tradition Award and various things came out of that. We did Pebble Mill at One, which was nerve-wracking. We were sitting in the makeup department and they just caked us in makeup!

The Equation ... what was that all about?
We joined up with the Lakeman Brothers and called ourselves the Equation and tried to get some bigger gigs, because they didn't have a singer and we wanted to make a bigger sound. It was a good setup but after a while we were offered a deal from a major recording company. I didn't want to go into pop music but they did, so I left.

And then you joined the Poozies?
The Poozies, yeah. They heard that me and Kathryn were winding up as a duo and their singer, Sally Barker, was about to leave to have a baby so they phoned me up at the end of summer '95 and said, 'What do you think about joining us?' They came up for a day and we sat out in the garden - it was really hot weather - drinking tea and singing our heads off to see if all the voices blended. The neighbours thought we were mad but they're used to all the music that goes on here anyway! So I joined them and it's just been growing and growing ... the band has really come together now and it's got a new feel to it.

Did you have to change a lot of the material?
Yes, we did. Every now and again people come up and ask for Another Train, for instance, or other songs of Sally's, but we feel they were her songs, that she sang them really, really well, and if we tried to rearrange them with me singing, there'd be a whole comparison thing ... so we just don't do them, we use my songs instead.

Where does working with the Poozies take you?
The first gig we did was in January '96 at Celtic Connections in Glasgow - a big festival in the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, which holds about 2000 people. Again, thrown in at the deep end, but it worked really well. Then we did a tour to Egypt with the British Council. We had a wonderful time, saw the pyramids and got suntanned and bought lots of stuff. Our sound man was seen with the four of us walking down the street and people thought we were all his wives; somebody offered a hundred camels and two donkeys or something, for me ... it was very embarrassing!

We've been to Germany a lot, and Switzerland and Austria, and we went on tour to Denmark last summer, which was just fantastic. We all fell in love with Denmark and wanted to live there.

We tend to tour in blocks because we all do lots of other things. Karen (Tweed), the accordion player, plays in a duo with a guitar player called Ian Carr and in a band called SwOp with two Swedish players, and the two harpists (Mary McMaster and Patsy Seddon) work together as a duo called Sileas and in a big Scottish band called Caledon, and I also do solo stuff, so it's a nightmare trying to get everybody together. We all have to sit down at the beginning of the year and say right, let's tour these three weeks, these three weeks, these three weeks and then the rest of the time we can do what we want ...

So when do you fit rehearsing in?
Er ... not very often actually! Once we've put the Poozies' dates in, it's really rare that we can all get together.

No Poozie album yet, since you've been in the band - is that due to lack of time?
Yes, completely! We need to scrape time together to rehearse and then scrape more time together to record and we have to rehearse before we record or it'd be a mess, really! Then organising it - who we want to produce and engineer it, deciding on a studio - we've all got different opinions of how it's going to be ...

Okay, let's move on now to Kate the soloist. Have you any musical influences, any personal heroes?
Yes, I have. I'm very heavily influenced by Nic Jones. I've listened to him from being very young. I never got to see him, which I'm very, very sad about, but I've listened to a lot of his songs and do two - not that he's written, but that he's collected and changed to his own style. I also like a female American singer called Nanci Griffiths. I've been a fan of hers for about five years and the reason I got into her is actually a big secret! (Kate, at this point, gets rather pink.) It's because I had my eye on a boy that I'd fancied for ages and somebody told me that he liked Nanci Griffiths, so I went to one of my friends and said, 'Have you got any Nanci Griffiths tapes I can listen to?', so next time I saw him I could say, 'I hear you're into Nanci Griffiths, so am I ...', and I was lying!

Somebody else I've been listening to a lot recently is Annie Briggs ... a great traditional singer, she's brilliant.

Do you listen to any other revivalists (for want of a better term)?
Yeah, I do. I listen a lot to Dave Burland ... I remember one birthday my mum and dad were away at a festival and bought me a copy of his album Willin', and he signed it and it was the best thing that I'd ever had. I played it to bits and wore it out. And I still do listen to a lot of really old stuff, we've got lots of old Topic albums that are just fantastic. I've been listening to a bloke called John Maguire, this man in Ireland that's full of music and songs. And recently, I've been tramming up and down the country listening to Peter Bellamy songs.

Just lately you seem to be doing almost exclusively traditional material, hardly anything contemporary at all - is that deliberate?
That's the music that I really want to play and now that I'm playing solo I can make my own choices, whereas when I was with Kathryn she liked other types of music as well. I like other types of music too, and I do do a couple of contemporary songs in a set, but now I'm on my own I can just rehearse with myself and sit for hours looking through books and finding lots of different songs, because there's hundreds and hundreds out there. I've not been that inspired by any contemporary stuff really, apart from Nanci Griffiths and I don't want to do any of hers 'cause I don't want to ruin it so I've really just been doing trad stuff.

And writing some of your own, too ...
Oh, yeah. Another secret! I've written a couple of songs that are on the album. One's called Old Man Time and I wrote that because I was feeling really old - at the grand age of 23 I'm an aunty and have to be responsible all of a sudden - then there's another song called A Rose in April that I wrote in a very traditional style. It's about two lovers getting stabbed through the heart by the girl's father 'cause he didn't like her boyfriend. It just kind of came out one night!

There's a couple of other things that I've written ... the first track on my album is called Sir Eglamore, which I found in Frank Kidson's Songs of the British Isles. The words really made me laugh. I'm not really good at reading music but I struggled away on the piano and found the tune for the song and didn't really like it ... so I just made up a little tune to go with it and it seemed to work.

You've brought us nicely into what was going to be my next topic - the new album. What's it called?
It's called Hourglass - that's Hourglass with an 'H' - and that's taken from a line in the song I just mentioned, Old Man Time. It's on Pure Records, our own label, which put out mine and Kathryn's album as well.

Was there any particular reason for forming your own label?
Yes, a very good reason ... we're from Yorkshire, we don't trust anybody else! (laughter) We kind of learnt the ins and outs to see how easy it would be to do it ourselves. It's all a big adventure really. We seemed to do all right with the first album, it got quite a lot of publicity for me and Kathryn and sold quite a lot of copies in folk music terms. We're still learning with this new one.

Who else is on the album?
Lots of great people - eleven musicians. There's Ian Carr, a great guitarist; Tony McManus, another brilliant guitarist. There's John McCusker, fiddle player with the Battlefield Band, who's fabulous - he produced the album as well, and also produced mine and Kathryn's; Andy Cutting, the brilliant box player; Michael McGoldrick on flute. Eric Rigler plays Uillean pipes on a track called Annan Waters - he did all the pipes for Braveheart. Conrad Ivitsky, the bass player with Shoogleniftly, came and played some bass; there's also Donald Hay, a percussionist from Edinburgh; Davy Steele; Alan Reid and Alison Kinnaird, who plays cello.

People asked me why I didn't do my own fiddle on the Kate and Kathryn album, and now with this album people have asked why I didn't do my own guitar. It's because I decided I should try to make the album as good as possible and get somebody else in who can do it lots better than me, so that's why we got Ian and Tony to come in. As for the fiddle playing - my fiddling really just comprises of playing tunes in sessions every now and again. With the Poozies I do play fiddle on songs, but it's completely different to playing tunes - I never think I'm good at that. John was just fabulous and put all the fiddle on.

Is there a band evolving out of this, or is it just pure session work?
I've been offered Cambridge Festival, so Tony McManus and John McCusker are coming to do that with me as a trio. We were trying to organise a few gigs in July to promote the album, but it all fell through because everybody's so busy, which was really sad. Maybe by next year we'll be able to plan everybody's diaries better.

In October I'm actually working with John McCusker and Andy Cutting. We're going to do a trio tour which I'm really looking forward to, and getting into the bigger venues - arts centres, places like that. The thought of playing with another couple of musicians is really nice.

Compared to the majority of albums coming out now under the folk banner, there are very few that are purely traditional and in many respects, I think what you've done with yours is quite brave. Do you think that there's a receptive young audience out there that's hungry for this, or is it going to come as quite a shock?

I'm not actually sure what's going to happen. I just made the album with what I'm playing at the moment - strong traditional stuff. On the first track there's a chorusy bit that goes 'fa la lanky down dilly' and I was wondering if that should be the first track - you know, when people hear it they might think, 'Bloomin' heck, what's that, I'm not having all that folky twiddly stuff!' - but it seems to have been received all right so far. We've tested it on our neighbours across the way, who aren't folkies and they really, really like it. Even though it's very trad it seems to have an appeal for other people as well.

I've heard John Peel and Andy Kershaw have both been playing it on Radio 1 ...
Yeah, there's been a lot of feedback from that, and loads of orders. It's so jam-packed full of brilliant musicians it just couldn't be a bad album. I don't want to sound arrogant, it's just that the people on it are so fantastic it all came together and worked out right. I'd hate people to think that I thought I was the be-all and end-all of this new generation of folk artists that everyone's going on about. There's loads of young performers now who are all brilliant musicians and singers.

Tell us about the involvement with Sharpe.
Two songs that I do are from Napoleonic times, one called The Recruited Collier and another called The Bonny Light Horseman. John Tams who did the music for the TV series Sharpe, was asked to make a CD of music from the series, plus related music; he knew that I sing these songs, so he asked if I would record them for the album. It was TV advertised and was a brilliant thing to be involved with, and I think it's a great CD.

What's next on the agenda?
I've got a few solo gigs shortly, then off to Germany, Denmark and Switzerland with the Poozies and then along come the festivals. We're playing quite a few this summer ... Saffron Walden, South Petherton, Cambridge, maybe Dranouter, maybe Redditch, Beverley ... I think that's about it.

Before that, though, in May, I'm doing a project with two duos, Show of Hands and Chris Wood & Andy Cutting, which is called Five Days in May. Its aim is to put English music on a different step, because it's so frustrating to go into a record store and only find Irish and Scottish represented under folk music. People just ignore all these English songs and tunes ... so this project is to address that. We're playing in quite big venues - the Barbican at York, Shepherd's Bush Empire, Colston Hall, Bristol ...

What about longer term things? I understand you've had offers of film work?

There's been two film things I've been offered. I was asked to go to Ireland and work on a film called Driftwood with Clannad's Paul Brennan. I worked on a song with him, but I think they ran out of funding so that fell through. But I've also had another offer from Barry Dransfield - a brilliant musician, again from Yorkshire. He's in touch with people in Hollywood who've expressed an interest for a traditional-style ballad singer and he put them in contact with us. We're just waiting to see what'll happen. If it comes off, it should be in October, but we'll see. I would like to do more of that stuff, I find it really interesting. I'd still want to keep in the same style, though - I wouldn't change my voice to fit in with anything. It'd be great if more work like that came in.

You mentioned something earlier about women collectors. Can you fill us in on that?
We had an idea to get some people together and make an album of various songs that have been collected by women. The male collectors get recognised, but the women get left out of the public eye - women like Lucy Broadwood, who did loads of brilliant work. It's just finding the time to get people together. Hopefully I should have some time next year to get on with that.

On the home front, Kate, will you stay in Yorkshire, or have you any plans to live elsewhere?
I'm planning to stay very much put in Yorkshire because I get really homesick when I go anywhere else. It's also a brilliant place to be in terms of travelling. In Barnsley we're right next to the M1, you can get to the A1 and go up to Scotland ... we're in the middle of the whole stretch of the British Isles. I'm just buying a house at the moment not far from here.

(At this point, takeaway in sight, things degenerate.) Kate Rusby, thank you very much for those insights. Pass the crispy seaweed, please.

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