Aug 20 2011: Three Chords and a Twisted Heart: An Interview with Kate Rusby (Big Issue in the North, 2000)

This interview was done at a hotel close to the BBC’s central London studios (possibly the Langham Hilton, but my mind won’t quite retreive the information) and it’s one I certainly recall covering more ground than is represented here, and consequently one I regret I don’t have a fuller version or transcript of to post here (this version restores a few sub-edited parts, but no more). The occasion was a couple of dates – at Buxton Opera House and The Brewery Arts Centre, Kendal – scheduled during July and August of 2000, as part of a larger tour by The Kate Rusby Band. Her two albums at that point, Sleepless and Hourglass, were (and I assume, still are) available through Pure Records, while John McCusker’s Yella Hoose had just been released on Temple Records at the time we met. Reading the piece now, it’s strangely reticent about the potential appeal of folk to our general readership – a situation that seems all the stranger for folk undergoing a major revival within a year or two of its first appearance, as first American ‘freak folk’ types like Davendra Banhart, Espers and Joanna Newsom began to emerge, followed quickly by a fresh wave of British artists like Sharron Kraus, Alastair Roberts, Trembling Bells and The Unthanks. That revival continues, and the past year alone has seen two substantial histories of the genre and its development appear, in Jeanette Leech’s Seasons They Change and Rob Young’s Electric Eden. At the time of this interview, however, that revival was still a few years away, and while Rusby was clearly an obvious successor to the lineage of English folk represented by Maddy Prior and June Tabor, that summer it still seemed necessary to ‘dispel the stereotypes’ before attempting to describe her music.

If you were going to meet a folk singer, what would you look for? When I spot Kate Rusby she’s in a black vest, jeans and her trademark two-tone corkscrew-curled hair. There isn’t an Arran sweater or beard in sight. I’d been warned Rusby is no good at mornings, but it’s lunchtime and she’s a ball of enthusiasm, laughing and complaining about the price of a cup of tea at the central London hotel where we meet, keeping up a banter with her partner, producer and long-time collaborator, Scottish fiddler John McCusker, which defies her claims of hunger and lack of sleep.

The music press always make a big deal of her not looking like the archetypal folk ­songstress but, Rusby reckons: “It’s mainly because most people haven’t listened to folk for about 30 years, so they still think its the same, with the sweaters, tankards and beards and men with fingers in their ears. Because I don’t look like that it surprises them. I was brought up with folk music, so to me it’s never had that image anyway. It’s always been just normal people like me and John here playing and listening to folk music.”

By now, McCusker is hiding behind his newspaper, keeping quiet, but his black T-shirt and jeans bear no more resemblance to the media’s folky stereotype than Rusby’s outfit. They could just as easily be a couple of DJs or indie musicians – a point which comes to mind with something of a jolt when Rusby describes her solo guitar-playing as a disconcertingly punk rock style three chord trick.

“Absolutely – three chords. My dad taught me three chords and I’d sit for hours trying to fit as many songs as I could to them. I got my first proper gig after somebody heard me bashing things out at this stinky piano in our garage and wailing at the top of my voice, and she offered me a spot at a festival in Holmfirth. It was the worst experience of my life, ever, and afterwards I vowed never to do it again… But I did do it again, obviously.”

Rusby’s introduction to the scene came early, then, more or less at birth according to her. “I were dropped out into a family of it, really,” she says, in the Barnsley accent which runs through her singing and conversation like lettering in a stick of rock. “My dad had a PA company that specialised in hiring out equipment for acoustic music, so we used to get taken round all the festivals with him, getting into all kinds of mischief. Thing was, me and my brother and sister would fight like cats and dogs, like kids do, so my parents would try and keep us quiet by having us all sing in the car. Those songs we did on the back seat are songs I’m still using in my sets now.”

Rusby also reckons she was singing as soon as she could talk (“possibly even before”) and playing in the family ceilidh band was all part of normal life. “My dad played banjo and guitar, my mum plays the accordion, my sister and brother both play fiddle and we all sing as well, so we’d do the dance music, then when people got tired we’d sing songs, four and five-part harmony things…”

“In a way, that grounding has been the foundation of what I’m doing now with the label, which is very much me working with my family,” she adds. “I know I wouldn’t have had anything like the same freedom I’ve got now if I’d done this on my own. I’d much rather we all did it together, because it means I’m in a position where I’m working with people I trust, who I love being around.”

The cottage industry has so far resulted in two acclaimed CDs, and Rusby’s last album, Sleepless, was shortlisted for the Mercury Music Prize in 1999. For Rusby, it’s gratifying, but was never a certainty.

“We’ve been lucky,” she reckons, “because when we put out Hourglass, the first CD, it just happened to be one of those times when the media was having a little look at folk music, as they do every few years, before they forget all about it again, and we just happened to be there with a new CD out, going ‘Hiya’. After Sleepless came out and got attention as well, I was waiting for somebody to clobber me on the head with a big stick and go: ‘only joking – your luck’s run out’. They haven’t yet,” she adds. “Touch wood.”

Then again, despite her modesty on the subject, it’s not quite so surprising Rusby has remained on good terms with Lady Luck when you hear her singing: As I Roved Out and I Am Stretched on Your Grave, from Hourglass, take a pair of traditional songs first written back in the mists of time and make them seem as immediate as a cold shower, in much the same way that Sandy Denny or June Tabor did during the 1960s and 1980s. On Sleepless, the songs Rusby has gathered might feature a resolutely traditional cast of cobbler’s daughters and unquiet graves, but her versions ring as true to experience now as the songs did in their own time.

“The thing about the songs I love – and so the songs I tend to sing – the thing they all have in common is that they’re songs about people,” she explains. “I mean, the class of people who made this music originally weren’t your lords and gentry – they were sat sewing or summat in their big houses instead, doing whatever it was that lords and gentry did – and what we now call folk music is from a very different place. Folk has always been something the servants did, the farmers and the factory workers, and even today, hundreds of years later, it’s usually found at its strongest in working-class areas, where it expresses something that’s still true to a lot of people’s experiences.”

If that suggests her songs are all earnest numbers about fishing and factories her most recent recording, Night Visiting Song – a contribution to John McCusker’s solo album Yella Hoose – ought to be enough to wave away those expectations. On records and in performance Rusby can cover a wide range of moods, but this latest performance is another of the haunting ballads of lost love that seem to stand out in her repertoire. When I tell her it’s these songs of heartbreak and doomed romance that seem to stick in the mind and mark her strongest work, she’s more than happy to concede the point.

“Yeah”, she laughs, looking about as un­heartbroken as anyone could. “I do really love music that grabs me, and twists my heart, and those are the songs I think I’m happiest singing, even though there’s likely something odd about somebody being happiest when they’re doing the saddest songs. Give me a choice, though, and I’ll nearly always pick the ones about heartbreak and loss and the like. Not because of the subject, but probably, if I think about it, because those are often the songs with the most beautiful words and tunes. So, yes, there’s a grain of truth in that. I only do the happy songs when I have to. There, I’ve admitted it!”

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