Kate Rusby - Yorkshire-born folk singer on fame, family life, her musical inspirations

Kate rusby with curly hair and red dress

Kate Rusby - Barnsley's very cool nightingale - Credit: David Angel

The traditional music superstar Kate Rusby talks to Tony Greenway about fame, family life, her musical inspirations — and why she would never want to be anywhere else but Barnsley

She's been at the top of her profession for 30 years, but down-to-earth folk singer Kate Rusby is still nonplussed by her fame and good fortune, and amazed that big crowds turn up to see her play live. Which, when you think about it, is a typically Yorkshire attitude. 

'When we're doing gigs and I'm backstage getting me lippy on, I can hear the hum of the audience, and I have to pinch meself,' she admits in her broad Barnsley accent. ''Cos I'm thinking: 'Do they realise who they've come to see?''

Well, yes, they definitely do — but in case they (and Rusby, for that matter) need reminding, here's a potted version of Kate's extraordinary CV. Over the last three decades she's recorded 19 acclaimed albums, headlined major venues and festivals around the world, been nominated for the Mercury Music Prize (which doesn't often happen to folkies), had two honorary doctorates bestowed on her and won various Radio 2 Folk Awards and a prestigious English Folk Dance and Song Society Gold Badge Award. Her celebrity fans include Matt Lucas, Stephen Fry, Brian Cox, Paul Weller, Jennifer Saunders (who used lots of Rusby's music in the BBC sitcom Jam and Jerusalem) and Ricky Gervais (who featured one of her tracks — Who Will Sing Me Lullabies — in his Netflix TV series, Afterlife).

Kate's USP is her amazing singing voice, which is dipped in honey yet as clear as a bell. Even if you don't like folk — which still gets a sneery press in some quarters — it's hard not to be totally captivated by the purity of her sound and beautiful flat vowels. It's why she has been nicknamed 'the Barnsley Nightingale'; and, perhaps, why folk music has grown in popularity over the last 30 years. 

'It's nothing to do with me, I'm sure,' she says. 'But the folk scene has got so huge. When I first started playing there was a handful of young performers — the likes of me, Kathryn Tickell and Eliza Carthy — going 'round folk clubs playing to older audiences. Now you only have to go to a folk festival — any folk festival — to see people of all ages and from all walks of life sharing this amazing music.' She pauses. 'I still think folk doesn't get the coverage on mainstream radio stations that it deserves. But it's a lovely little gem that you can surprise people with. You know: 'So you think you don't like folk music? Well, listen to this...''

Rusby was born in 1973 into a family of musicians, and folk and traditional songs were part of the fabric of her life. Yet it's weird how things turn out, she says: some of the artists she used to listen to as child are now in her contacts book. 

'I'm such a music fan and I always have been,” says Kate. 'Rewind 35 years and I used to go on the bus into Barnsley with me pocket money, because at that time if you were under 16 you could travel anywhere in South Yorkshire for 2p. I'd visit Barnsley Library, where they had this amazing music section upstairs. It's where I discovered the music of the late Nanci Griffith. I'd take out all her albums and also cassettes by the likes of Beth Nielsen Chapman, Lyle Lovett and Suzanne Vega. Now I'm working with (some of these people and their musicians), so I absolutely do have to pinch meself.'

Suzanne Vega, one of Kate's musical heroes will perform at Underneath the Stars this summer 

Suzanne Vega, one of Kate's musical heroes will perform at Underneath the Stars this summer - Credit: SHolz

On Kate's latest album — called 30: Many Happy Returns — she has re-recorded selected songs from her back catalogue with the help of her musical heroes. These include Nielsen Chapman, Richard Hawley ('I fully expected him to say: 'I can't, cocker — I'm too busy.' But he was like: 'Right: you're on!'), Darlingside, KT Tunstall, Sarah Jarosz, Sam Kelly, and Dan Tyminski (from Alison Krauss's band). Most joyously, South African choral group Ladysmith Black Mambazo open proceedings with the magnificent We Will Sing. 'They are sunshine in a bottle,' beams Kate. 'You can't listen to them without having a smile. I'm just this tiny lass from Barnsley, but they checked out my music and said they'd love to do it. There was a lot of jumping around in my house for days when they said 'yes'. I'm utterly, utterly delighted.'

Children in a huge deckchair at a festival

Kate Rusby's excellent family friendly folk festival is back with an all-female headliner line-up - Credit: Underneath the Stars

This month also sees the return of Kate's family friendly Cawthorne-based folk festival, Underneath the Stars, where she will be headlining alongside Imelda May and Suzanne Vega. She met Vega years ago, backstage at Glastonbury, very briefly. 'I was very young and I'm such a fan that I might have gone: 'Ooh... er... hi Suzanne — I love you!' and that would have been it. But I'll take great delight in telling her about getting her music out from Barnsley Library when I see her at Underneath the Stars.'

Kate remains firmly rooted in Yorkshire. Her record label is family-run, and she still lives in a village outside Barnsley with her musician husband, Damien O'Kane, and their two daughters. When her surroundings are this good, she says, why would she go anywhere else? 
'The countryside 'round here is stunning,' she says. 'When I'm touring and tell taxi drivers where I'm from they say: 'Oh... it's right grim up north, in't it?' And I'm like: 'NO! It's really nice. You should come.' Wherever in the world I am, I always tell audiences: 'Come to where I'm from. Don't judge it before you get here because it's absolutely beautiful.' And Barnsley, crikey, has got such gorgeous architecture. Yes, it has been down, but it's amazing! And the people! They're just so humble and I'm so proud to be from here. I wouldn't have it any other way. People used to say to me: 'You'll be moving to London now because you're getting bigger on the music scene.' And I go: 'No. I'm still in Barnsley, absolutely lovin' it.''

Kate credits her daughters — now 10 and 12 — with broadening her musical horizons. 'They're bringing different music into the house,” she smiles. “They're electing to play the likes of Dua Lipa, which I might not otherwise have found.' 
Still, folk and traditional music will always be her first love. 'I walk around singing those songs, so they're a really important part of who I am. They're ingrained in my every pore. And hopefully I'm passing that love onto my daughters. So I turn off Dua Lipa sometimes and say: 'Right, girls. Let me sing you this 30-verse ballad. You're gonna LOVE it...''
July 29-31
Underneath the Stars