Kate Rusby, English singer and songwriter chats with Kevin Cooper about working with her family, her ideal Christmas, her latest album Angels & Men and her forthcoming Christmas tour of the UK.

Kate Rusby is an English folk singer-songwriter from Penistone, Barnsley. Sometimes called the ‘Barnsley Nightingale’, she has headlined various British national folk festivals, and is one of the best known contemporary English folk singers. Having been born into a family of musicians, she learned to play the guitar, the fiddle and the piano as well as learning to sing.

In 1997, with the help of her family, Rusby recorded and released her first solo album, Hourglass. Since then she has gone on to receive acclaim in both her home country and abroad and her family continues to help her with all aspects of her professional career.

2008 saw the release of Sweet Bells, an album of traditional Christmas songs interpreted by Rusby. She has since released three more Christmas albums, While Mortals Sleep, The Frost is All Over and her latest album Angels & Men.

About to embark upon her Christmas tour of the UK, Kate Rusby took some time out to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what she had to say.

Hi Kate good afternoon how are you?

(Laughter) I am just warming my bottom on the radiator here. I am so pleased that you have called as that now means that I can stand still and try to keep warm (laughter). How are you today?

I’m very well thank you and let me thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.

Not at all, thanks for having me, that’s great.

And just how is life treating you at this moment in time?

Life at the moment is absolutely brilliant. Everything is just starting to wind up, so the handle is turning now getting ready for the Christmas tour which starts on Friday 1st December at The Sands Centre in Carlisle together with the album launch of Angels & Men which was released on 24th November 2017. So as you can see it’s a little crazy at the moment but it’s also fun. I love this time of year, it really is great.

You have mentioned the new studio album Angels & Men, well I have to tell you that I have been playing it for the past few days and I love it.

Thank you so much, that’s great.

Are you happy with it?

Yes I am, I really am. I often get asked “what’s your favourite album that you have ever made” and for me it is always the most recent. That is because your last album is always the one that you are the most excited about. Having said that, in all honesty I feel that Angels & Men is by far the best Christmas album that I have ever recorded and it is Christmas album number four. However, Life In A Paper Boat is my favourite album that I have ever recorded because you are always evolving in certain subtle and small ways so yes, I am very happy with it.

Would I be right in thinking that the title, Angels & Men is a lyric in the first track on the album Hark Hark?

(Laughter) yes you would, that is perfectly correct. Those lyrics are actually contained within verse two, ‘Angels & Men with one accord, break forth in song to praise the Lord’. I do like to have album titles that are song lyrics. I will often just sit down and pick out different lines and lyrics, try them out on other people and see just what they think. Angels & Men was the one that me and everyone else agreed would be quite lovely. And I got to wear a pair of massive wings on the cover of the album so woo woo (laughter). My Angel Gabriel moment has finally come true. Don’t tell anyone but I have kept the wings and they are now safely in the loft (laughter).

I have to tell you that I love Deck The Halls. That track always makes me smile and immediately think of Christmas.

That’s brilliant. A lot of the songs on there are Christmas Carols that I have learnt whilst singing in the pubs in and around South Yorkshire. I always think that it is really important to have some songs on there that people will instantly recognise, simply because they are such an important part of everyone’s Christmas. I love doing songs like that which I know have been done and done whilst trying to think of a different way of doing it. I’m so pleased that you like that one.

Do you still enjoy touring?

I have to tell you that absolutely love touring. Whenever I am in the studio recording an album, I literally can’t wait to get back out on the road and tour. I love sharing the new songs with people all over the country. So when it actually gets to that point, I absolutely love it. However, having said that, when it gets to the end of a really long tour I am starting to be creative once again. There is a flickering in my brain once again and I can’t wait to get back into the studio (laughter). So for me each thing kind of leads onto the next really naturally for me so yes, I am really looking forward to touring the UK once again this year.

I have managed to catch you live twice now, both times at Christmas, and I have to say that it is a fantastic way to start the Festive Season.

That really is brilliant. We are starting the Christmas tour quite early this year; we actually start on the 1st December and I think that is the earliest that we have every started it. The Christmas tour is also great for us, because each year that is the only time that we get to see our ‘brass boys’ really at Christmas, and for us to be able to catch up with them really is lovely. I have now been working with some members of the brass section for seventeen years so yes, it is just great. We all embrace Christmas so much, get our Christmas jumpers on and we now have a Christmas jumper competition within the band (laughter). Everybody goes out of their way to find all sorts of stuff; it is such good fun to do the Christmas tour, and I really can’t wait.

Are there any thoughts as yet regarding a new studio album?

Yes there are and we are intending starting work on it early in the New Year. Having said that we are not looking to release it until spring 2019. The reason for that is that we are having a bit of a change round at Pure Records. My dad, who has been the Manager of Pure Records since we set it up twenty odd years ago now, is actually going to take a step back this year. He has just turned seventy so we all thought ‘okay then, why don’t you retire a little bit’ (laughter). So my sister Emily is going to be at the head of the record label and in order to give her a bit of breathing space to get to know everything that she needs to know, we intend to release the new album in spring 2019.

I am still going to make it next year because I really do like making a new album every year. Also because we have the Christmas tour that I love to do, if I record an album every year whilst alternating them, then both of them only go two years before it is totally turned around and refreshed. So if I don’t make an album in one year then one of them is waiting for three years which makes me feel like ‘oh come on you’ve got to get a move on’ (laughter). I think that keeping things fresh is really important.

You have briefly mentioned your dad and your sister. Has that been a nice fit for you having the family totally immersed into what you are doing?

Oh yes, it has been amazing. You know, everybody knows that working within the music business can be so cut throat, you can’t quite trust people, and people simply don’t do what’s best for you as an artist I sometimes think. Everyone has always got an ulterior motive for business or something else. So right from the word go; right from my first album, we set up our own record company, because we were asking around a few people who at that time were playing in and around the Folk scene, asking them how they made an album and just what did they do. People were telling me “well you can go with a record company but be careful because you will sign your life away” and I naively thought ‘this is blackmail, surely this can’t go on’ so I asked around and it was exactly like that (laughter).

At that point my dad was lecturing at the Leeds College of Music in brass instrument repair, and was looking for something new to do. So I had a chat with him, and we both thought ‘right, let’s see if we can set up our very own record company’, which we did. We called it Pure because that is the Greek word for Kate I am reliably informed. So we called it Pure and yes, all the way along we came across decisions where we were thinking ‘crikey, what do we do now’. So we chose a route and went down it (laughter). The whole thing has just grown and grown organically and we then put on our own gigs, we put out all of my own albums which means that I own my own work as well. Especially with me having two kids now as well, it means that I have the flexibility to choose when I am going to work and when I need to be back at home and all that stuff.

My younger brother Joe does all of my sound for me. He has done live sound and studio sound for me, crikey, since he was fifteen and that is twenty odd years ago now, and my mum up until recently always used to take care of my record company accounts. So yes it has been family all the way but also it’s been absolutely brilliant. We have all earnt a living from the music that my parents have passed onto me, and I can’t think of a better way to have done it, I really can’t. I have been ever so lucky.

You mention owning your own back catalogue. I was shocked recently when I found out just how many of the so called ‘big artists’ do not own one piece of their previous work.

I know, it really is frightening. I think that we must have been quite wise back then without ever realising. (Laughter) I don’t know if it is because I come from Yorkshire where we don’t trust anybody with any money (laughter). One of the things that we all thought was really important was to keep control of the music that we make. I can remember seeing an interview with Dolly Parton a while ago now and she was saying that she owned all of her music, she always has and she says that is the best thing that she has ever done. There are sometimes when people will come along and promise you the world, but the bottom line is that you have to share your ownership of your music.

I just thought ’no, it’s not yours, it’s ours’ and that is what I have always stuck to throughout my career. The journey has been great all the way along. We are not after fame and fortune, we just love the music. That is why I feel so lucky and privileged to have been doing this for the last twenty-five years and I am still able to go out touring and people still want to come and see what we are doing. It shocks me every time whenever I walk out onto the stage and see a room full of people. I always think ‘are you sure that you have come to see me’ (laughter). So looking after ourselves really was the best choice that we could ever have made all of those years ago now. I am so pleased that we did.

I personally find it amazing that artists today do not own their own back catalogue. It’s slightly different now in that I don’t think that the major labels can have that hold on artists because there are many other ways of putting an album out nowadays especially with the internet, and this now enables you to sell your own music. It is far easier now for you to set up your own record label in order to get your music out there. However, a lot of the major labels back then really did have a tight hold on both the artists and also their output. A lot of the artists back then unwittingly signed all of their publishing rights away which effectively meant that they were unable to make the album of their choice. It was purely and simply down to the choice of the record label. They really did find themselves being over a barrel.

The tour hits Nottingham on 19th December, what can we expect?

Well there will be lots of songs from the new album, and to be honest, I really can’t wait to come and play them all to the audience up there in Nottingham. We all love playing at the Royal Concert Hall in Nottingham. You mentioned earlier that you thought that the tour really was a part of Christmas, well it is part of Christmas for all of us as well to be able to play in Nottingham. We have played Nottingham every year now on the Christmas tour, and if I am correct it will be year ten this year. We were in the other hall before but we have been in the Royal Concert Hall now for the past four years now. So Nottingham really is totally part of Christmas for us now. I always make sure that I make the time to be able to do a little bit of Christmas shopping in Nottingham as well which is brilliant.

So as you can imagine there is going to be lots and lots of new songs; there is going to be a whole new set, but there will also be lots of the old songs as well which the audience now know and sing along with. Hearing people singing the songs back to me brings me so much pleasure. For me to be coming back to a place like Nottingham with these songs from South Yorkshire saying “right, we are going to do this one now” and you can hear people saying “oh yes, I love this song” (laughter). They all join in the choruses and it brings me so much pleasure to be sharing these songs with the audience; it’s just lovely.

So am I to take it that you like our fair city?

Yes, I absolutely love Nottingham. There are only a handful of halls across the country that as a singer, and when I bump into other singers, are always the hot topic of conversation (laughter). Whenever I ask anyone where they have sung recently and where is their favourite place to perform in, everyone will always say that it is the Royal Concert Hall. It is such a wonderful hall to sing in. You just can’t fail to have a great gig in there. Also the audiences up there in Nottingham are so keen and vocal, joining in with the songs, so I absolutely love it.

Five years ago now you released the album 20 which celebrated your twentieth year as a recording artist. The album features re-recordings of previously released tracks each of which features guest vocals from the likes of Nic Jones, Paul Weller, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Eddi Reader and Sarah Jarosz to name but a few. Is there anyone who is not on the album who you would particular like to record with?

That’s easy, I would love to record a duet with Dolly Parton. Without hesitation I would have to say Dolly Parton. I have admired her work for years and years and I love the fact that she is really into Bluegrass music. I have got a Bluegrass side to me as well (laughter). When I was growing up my dad was a sound engineer at lots of festivals and one of those was the Edale Bluegrass Festival which took place in a cowshed up in Edale and was absolutely beautiful. I just have such fond memories of them getting a big band over from the States every year, and so I managed to see artists such as Allison Krause and Del McCoury performing at the Edale Bluegrass Festival.

Ever since then I have just been such a massive fan of Bluegrass music. So Dolly Parton has always been up there for me. When I was recording the album 20 I actually did ask Dolly if she would like to perform with me on the album to which she replied with a lovely handwritten letter telling me that she loved the album but she was just snowed under and unfortunately she couldn’t do it for me. Despite that I really did get to sing with lots of people who I had always wanted to sing with, but alas Dolly Parton hasn’t been done yet, but hopefully one day.

You have briefly mentioned that you have now been in the business for twenty-five years. Are you going to be celebrating that in any way?

It’s funny that you should mention that (laughter). The final gig of the Christmas tour is going to be at The Sage in Gateshead on Wednesday 20th December, the day after the Nottingham gig. For the people who cannot get to the show we are going to be streaming the whole gig live. That will be the last gig of the twenty-five year celebrations. I personally think that is going to be a pretty special gig for everyone.

Testing your memory, what was the first record that you bought?

The first record that I actually bought myself was Bon Jovi’s second album, 7800° Fahrenheit. There used to be a shop in Barnsley where you could go in every week and pay a little bit off the record that you wanted. So I used to get the bus into Barnsley every week and pay a small amount off until it was finally mine (laughter).

Who did you first see performing live in concert?

You will think that this is a cop-out but I can’t remember; I was so tiny. I had been taken to live gigs for many years as both of my parents sang and played. As I said earlier, my dad was a sound engineer so I have always been around live music since the word go. So I’m sorry to say that I can’t remember.

What was the last song or piece of music that made you cry?

Oh let me think. Now then I was crying at something the other day, what was that. I’m sure that you will know the song Hallelujah, well whenever I hear that song it never fails to make me cry. I always weep whenever I hear that song.

What is the best Christmas gift that you have ever received?

Damien, my lovely gorgeous husband actually proposed to me on Christmas Day eight years ago now. That was the best gift that I have ever had.

And on the other side of the coin, what is the worst Christmas gift that you have ever received?

(Laughter) you can’t do this to me (laughter). That would most probably a pastel drawing of me from somebody who came to a Christmas gig years and years ago, with a pastel drawing of me as a shopkeeper. It was part butchers shop and part shoe shop and it had my brother Joe in the window as a pig with a microphone up his bum (laughter). So there you go, that was the worst Christmas present and I still to this day do not understand it. I don’t quite know what to do with it so it is up in the loft as we speak. Thank you anyway to whoever it was that bought it for me because, as you know, it’s the thought that counts (laughter).

I can’t believe that you haven’t got it hanging in the kitchen (laughter).

(Hysterical laughter) I couldn’t do that, Joe would kill me (laughter).

What would be your ideal Christmas?

For me, my ideal Christmas is just how it is. Because we all live in the same village, we will have starters at somebody’s house, then we will go to the pub, we will have main dinner at somebody else’s and then go to the pub, and then pudding at somebody else’s then off to the pub, and then back to somebody else’s to watch some telly and over indulge (laughter). It really is just brilliant. There will be songs being sung all day, because we are, of course, a family of singers. We are always singing as we are walking around the village; I suppose that we must look like The Von Trapp Family in The Sound Of Music (laughter).

Kate on that note, let me once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me today, it’s been delightful.

Thank you so much for your time Kevin, it’s been great. Bye for now and I hope to catch up with you in Nottingham.