Kate Rusby on her new Christmas album

Folk singer Kate Rusby has just released an album, Holly Head (photo: David Lindsay)

Folk singer Kate Rusby has just released an album, Holly Head (photo: David Lindsay) - Credit: Archant

Folk singer Kate Rusby is wowing music lovers with her festive tunes

Kate Rusby (photo: David Angel)

Kate Rusby (photo: David Angel) - Credit: Archant

Kate Rusby is an incurable Christmas obsessive. Her love of all things sparkly and seasonal has led her to celebrate this Yuletide with her 12th annual Christmas tour which comes to Norwich this month. She also releases her fifth festive album, called appropriately Holly Head.

It's one of the warmest Christmas albums you'll hear, full of joy and good cheer. She begins by imploring: "People awake; salute the happy morn" while the penultimate track proclaims: "I am warmth and I am light / And I am kith and kin / I am Christmas, let me in!" There's plenty of fun too with Hippo For Christmas asking Santa for a hippopotamus - and why not?

Dubbed the 'Barnsley Nightingale', Kate is one of Britain's best-known folk singers. Her love of Christmas music is steeped in South Yorkshire tradition. There, communities gather in local pubs to sing carols every December. These 'sings' are a custom that has been handed down the generations over hundreds of years.

Most of these carols were originally sung across the country in churches. You might recognise the words, but the tunes may not be what you expect. During the Victorian era many of the more uplifting tunes were replaced by more serious, reflective versions, while the originals lived on in the pubs of South Yorkshire.

"It's just amazing," says Kate, who still lives in the village where she grew up. "It's an absolute treasure trove, I love it. There are over 30 different versions of While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night. But most people just know that one which I've kind of half forgotten."

There is a version of While Shepherds Watched sung to the tune of On Ilkla Moor Baht 'at, a tune known as Cranbrook after the village in Kent where it was originally written for the carol by a 19th century cobbler. It features on Kate's 2011 Christmas album While Mortals Sleep.

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"People know both songs and it just takes them a little while to sing the words of one to the tune of another. It's like patting your head and rubbing your belly, but once you've kind of got your head around doing that, it fits perfectly.

"I don't know them all [tunes for While Shepherds Watch] yet. I think only when you've been going for at least 50 years can you sing all 30-odd of them really. We've done six over the years on those five Christmas albums so far. I feel a bit like a novice still!"

Christmas has always been a big deal in the Rusby family. Kate's own parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary last Christmas Eve. They were heavily involved in the local folk scene and instilled a love of music in their young family.

"Christmas was always such a fabulous time when we were young. We had no money. But my parents just made it really, really special and magical for us and the music side of it was always part of it.

"I was just always surrounded by music and it's them that passed it on. We were taken to the pubs. We would sit with the other kids in the tap room, colouring, drinking pop, eating crisps, but all the while those carols were going in. So, each year that we went we were relearning them and they just kind of seeped in by osmosis. We just picked it all up just from being there."

Meanwhile the adults were stood shoulder-to-shoulder, singing in the packed main room of the pub.

"The room kind of breathes as a unit each time everybody needs to take a breath in the song and it's just amazing that amount of human voices so close together. The vibrato kind of locks in with the next person as well and it's just fascinating. It's so beautiful."

Singing is still a focal point of Christmas Day for the Rusby family which now includes musician husband Damien and their two daughters.

"They're picking up the songs already. They both have great voices and fantastic rhythm. They've both started off on the little banjo. They can't avoid music really, just like I couldn't when I was growing up. It's just part of everyday life from birth."

Kate has been playing live for 27 years but began her annual Christmas tours when she realised that 'sings' were not commonplace. Only Cornwall boasts a similar tradition.

"It would get to that time of year and I would talk to people all over the country and say, 'but do you not know that version of While Shepherds Watched, and they were going, 'what on earth are you talking about?' 'Do you not go to the pubs here and sing carols?' Because it's not even a folky thing around here. It's just any people from any walk of life really that go along and sing. And they were like, 'no'!"

Realising that the Yorkshire carols were not well known, she decided to put a tour together followed by her first festive album Sweet Bells in 2008. Playing to full houses around the country every December, her regular touring band, featuring Damien on guitar, is joined by a brass quintet to add extra festive flavour.

There is no sign of running out of Christmas songs anytime soon. Not only is there a wealth of untapped songs still to be mined in South Yorkshire, Kate has been busy been learning the carols she has discovered in Cornwall.

"I just find it absolutely fascinating how they've changed and which ones have survived and which are the most popular in the pubs still."

Outside of the Yuletide season, Kate's career continues to go from strength to strength. She recently finished a tour to promote her 13th (non-Christmas) solo album Philosophers, Poets and Kings which garnered glowing reviews on its release earlier this year.

Kate Rusby released 'Holly Head' on Pure Records on 29 November and plays Norwich Royal Theatre on 8 December.

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