As Kate Rusby gears up for Underneath the Stars Festival in her own hometown, Bethan Andrews chats to her about celebrating 30 years in music and her love for the county
She’s known all over the world as the first lady of folk, but despite her international success and life on the road, Barnsley’s Kate Rusby always returns home. In fact, she’s never left and, as we speak, she’s revelling in normality and smiling over having a day to wash the school uniforms for her two daughters, catch up on the ironing and return to the cocoon of her happy place.
“You can write songs and all sorts when you’re ironing,” she smiles. “I love returning home and doing normality, doing the mindless things. This side of Barnsley going up to Peniston, the countryside is just beautiful and I’ve lived in this corner of the world all my life so I’ve walked all the fields and forests.
“I love travelling, but I’m an absolute homebird,” she enthuses. “I can never wait to get back to this patch of beauty where the people are like me. Someone once told me that Yorkshire has the highest percentage of people who are born here that stay here, and it’s not hard to see why.” The landscape and people of Yorkshire have inspired many of Rusby’s most famous songs. “My family on my mum’s side were all coal miners and we have a big link with the brass music scene here, too, so I’ve written a lot about that. The lay of the land, the wildlife and the people of Yorkshire have all inspired me.”
It’s no surprise, then, that her appearance at Underneath the Stars Festival in her hometown of Barnsley is so special to her – made even more special by the fact it was set up by her brother Joe, who was Rusby’s sound engineer, and older sister Emma, no doubt. Having grown up following their sound engineer dad around festivals, the family were bursting with ideas of how they would present their very own.
So, what is she most excited about? “I absolutely adore the festival, and people can understand me much easier at this one,” she laughs. “I’m so proud of my family. It’s just the loveliest festival and all takes place in Big Tops so that people are always safe from the elements, and there are seats to make the audience comfy. There’s also loads of workshops for kids to pass on traditional skills. It’s got a really safe family feel and it’s set in the beautiful countryside. I’m excited for Imelda May and Suzanne Vega. It makes me so proud to welcome international artists to this tiny corner of Yorkshire countryside.”
Underneath the Stars is one of many festivals for Rusby this summer, from Glastonbury to The Sidmouth Folk Festival, and she’s particularly humble and excited by the hectic nature of the gig season after the pandemic. “We had two years when we weren’t really musicians at all, so it’s nice to be back at it,” she beams.
And, as well as getting to perform at home, this year is particularly special because it marks 30 years of professional performing for Rusby. Earlier this year she released her album, 30: Happy Returns, which celebrates 30 years of music and features collaborations with artists such as KT Tunstall, Richard Hawley and Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
But where did it all start? “In 1992, I walked on stage at Holmfirth Folk Festival,” smiles Rusby, as she remembers. “I could hardly walk and I was nearly sick with nerves, but I hid behind my massive guitar and afterwards there was some little thing where I felt that music had chosen me.”
Rusby is remarkably humble, exudes modesty and has a down to earth nature that beams out of her. As she talks me through how her love for music started from playing in the family ceilidh band and mastering the fiddle from a young age, it’s clear that her Yorkshire roots, family and life in the countryside are incredibly important to her. “Looking back at what we’ve achieved over the last 30 years is amazing, and the music scene has completely changed in that time. For people who didn’t know what we were doing, we’ve done alright,” she laughs. “And we’ve made a living for everybody in my family all these years with the music my folks gave to me, which is really lovely.”
What have been some of the highlights over the last 30 years. “I toured all over the world,” she says. “I went all over the place to India, Malaysia, Turkey and all sorts of places. To get to travel so much has been such a highlight. I was just this small girl from Barnsley!” Rusby remarks fondly on her time playing gigs in Edmonton, Canada, and in Winipeg, as well as having the opportunity to meet other amazing musicians. “I’ve played at the Albert Hall in various different gigs, and most recently I played at Richard Thompson’s 70th birthday celebrations there with lots of other musicians. When I first started out, he asked me to support him on tour, so it was lovely to come full circle and sing with him.”
Rusby’s music made it onto the latest series of Ricky Gervais’ highly acclaimed After Life, and I wonder how it feels to hear her music played across the globe. “Oh, it’s just totally amazing,” she smiles. “Music has the chance to filter out further with streaming and downloads, now. But to hear that Ricky Gervais likes my stuff, that’s amazing!”
So, what’s most important to Rusby with her music? “The reason I love folk music so much is that it is so emotive,” she says. “Folk music is the music of the common man. We’re still doing everything that folk music is all about, falling in and out of love, going to war (sadly), making peace, working, losing jobs and the trials of life. I find it so visual, too, I’ve always thought of them as mini films. I like being able to give people a space to just be human in.”
Always looking to the future and smiling, Rusby is looking forward to the next 30 years of her career, doing what she loves and encouraging the next generation of folk artists out into the world. Her biggest advice to budding Yorkshire singers? “Be kind,” she says. “Be kind to everybody you meet, be humble and try to cling on to your own music.”