Kate Rusby - the Barnsley Nightingale returns to the Underneath the Stars festival

Kate Rusby (c) David Angel

Kate Rusby (c) David Angel - Credit: Archant

Barnsley’s Kate Rusby will be shining Underneath the Stars, her annual music festival, this August. She tells Hazel Davies why one of her new songs will be particularly poignant

I was a student the very first time I heard Kate Rusby's voice. Browsing in a record shop I heard this unearthly sound floating through the speakers. 'What is that?' I asked the store assistant. It turned out to be Rusby's Mercury Award-nominated album Sleepless. I instantly bought it and have been following her career closely ever since.

That was 20 years ago. Wait, WHAT? Rusby and I are in the sitting room of her Sheffield studio mulling over the surprisingly lengthy career that more or less began when she was a teenager and a family friend asked her to play a festival (via years of going round folk clubs with her parents as a child).

Since those early beginnings the so-called Barnsley Nightingale has released 17 solo albums, completed sell-out tours, won several Radio 2 Folk Awards and appeared on TV soundtracks (notably Jennifer Saunders' Jam and Jerusalem). She's even sung on a Maura O'Connell album with Dolly Parton, though, to Rusby's sadness, not at the same time. 'I did write to her and sent her a track. As our tour manager says, 'Shy girls get nowt' so I thought, 'Why not?'. She sent me a really lovely handwritten letter saying she would have loved to do the song but she couldn't find time in her schedule. She might have been lying but you never know.'

Rusby is shy (but she laughs a lot and readily), though she says years of socialising with musicians has made her able to talk to people. On stage she's quietly witty, with a gentle presence. Her voice never wavers from its clear, bell-like tone and her songs are all unmistakably Rusby, whether they've been unearthed from old ballad books, written by her or Noel Gallagher (there's an Oasis track on her latest album Philosophers, Poets and Kings). This is something she says she's attracted flak for. 'I get criticised by the press for doing the same thing I've always done but I also get people who say, 'You've sold out and you just make music for Radio 2'. But I just make the music I want to play. You just have to make the music you believe in.'

Other people's opinions aren't something that Rusby cares that much about. Years ago she was offered a five-album deal along with some other musicians she was playing with at the time. 'I sat and listened to this guy who wanted to sign us. I was sat thinking 'Oh no' while he talked about touring with Bjork and all the plans he had then I reached around in my pocket for 50p to call my dad and tell him I was feeling really uncomfortable.'

She adds: 'I've never had time for...what's the word?' she asks, as we both mouth a phrase that can't be printed here, 'so I said no and I've never looked back.'

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This DIY ethos, which she claims is 'just typical Yorkshire', is clearly typical Rusby. Her dad, an electrician and sound engineer by trade and her joiner uncle built the studio and the family set up its own record label, Pure. 'My dad was looking for something new and my mum came on board to look after the accounts and then my sister started working for us.'

When Rusby talks about her career she uses the word 'we' a lot. She grew up in the folk clubs and begged her family for a piano: 'It was old and stank and got moved out to the garage'. Out there she would noodle and sing until the aforementioned family friend heard her and said: 'You're actually pretty good'. Festival appearances followed, then people started being turned away from folk clubs having travelled to see her, and it became clear that a village hall might be better. Village halls turned into town halls, which turned into a faithful national following.

'It all happened very organically,' Rusby says, though it's clear there is complete control over every step. She's married to fellow folkie Damien O'Kane and they have two daughters. 'We always think 'What is it that you can offer us that we can't do here?'' she says. 'so we always say, 'No, you're alright, but thanks for coming'.'

The Rusby family is also behind the annual Underneath The Stars music festival in Barnsley (2-4 August). It's run with typical Rusby attention to detail and has garnered accolades for its smooth running and careful consideration of artists and audience (minimal crowding, maximum activity for children and 'very nice toilets'). This year's event - Rusby is keen to refer to it as a music festival and not a folk festival - features The Proclaimers and Billy Bragg as well as actor Ruth Jones and, of course, herself. Rusby is keen to champion local music. Barnsley Youth Choir usually make a festival appearance and this year Rusby's booked local singer Lucy Booth, who she saw locally and loved.

Halt Your Wagons, the heartbreaking final track on Philosophers, Poets and Kings is all about getting voices heard too. Last year was the 180th anniversary of the Huskar Pit disaster, where 26 children working in the mine lost their lives when a freak storm flooded the mine shaft. Rusby was asked to write a song to commemorate the disaster and on the track are 26 members of Barnsley Youth Choir, all the same ages as the Huskar children. 'Doing the research was harrowing', she says, 'but we wanted those voices to be recognised and for people to know the enormity of what happened.' u

Philosophers, Poets and Kings is out now on Pure. Kate Rusby is touring nationally from May - October 2019.

She headlines Underneath The Stars - the family-run independent arts and music festival held in Barnsley, South Yorkshire - from 2-4 August 2019.

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