Kate Rusby was born with a voice made for singing. Its timbre will touch the hardest of hearts and its authenticity is as pure as the hard lands she grew up on. The famous folk singer delivered her finest album this year – but is still about to set off on her traditional victory lap of the nation’s theatres and arts centres to sing the Christmas songs of South Yorkshire to anyone who’ll lend an ear. Is there any singer more suited to winter-song? By Alan O’Hare.
Christmas carols are a lot like folk songs. I know, we’re only two days into December, but stay with me. I’m chatting to the delightful Kate Rusby about her annual Christmas tour of carols from (mainly) South Yorkshire. “They are songs about a story… like most folk songs,” agrees Kate. “That’s the lovely thing about the carol singing sessions in the pubs around where I live – it’s not a folky thing, nor is it a religious thing – it’s just people gathering together for the love of singing great songs.”
If you told me how a conversation with Kate Rusby might go, this is pretty much how I’d have guessed it: songs, singing, folk music, South Yorkshire… it’s just the Christmas carols thing that’s different. But not for Rusby: “The Christmas tour is something I look forward to every year. I’ve made three Christmas albums now and toured them loads,” she reveals. “These are songs that have been passed on down the generations and you can still hear them in heaving pubs full of people singing at the top of their voices. It really is an amazing thing to witness.”
It sounds it. Let’s find out more, then, as Rusby and her band prepare to hit the road to spread the word of these winter’s tales, landing in Warrington on December 16th…
December is here… you in the mood for the festive tour?
Absolutely! I adore it. We’ll have a brass quintet with us, too…
How did this tradition start for you?
I was taken along by my parents as a child, with my siblings, and we would sit in the tap room with the other kids colouring and eating crisps, not realising that the songs were seeping into our brains all that time. I realised a while ago that people around the country had never heard these carols, so a few years ago we got the Christmas gig together and off we went around the country… now people all over the place are singing along to these songs from South Yorkshire. I totally love it!
Where do the carols that make up the set originate from?
There are loads of carols that are sung in certain pubs around the place that were thrown out of the churches by the Victorians for being too happy! But the people who loved singing them took them to the pubs, to combine them with beer, and there they have remained…
We’re guessing it’s not all Santa and Rudolph?
There are carols that are not about the Christmas story. A very good friend of mine is a devout atheist, but goes every year to the ‘sings’ as she loves the songs and seeing everyone… I think that’s how it is for most people that go, really. In folk music there are millions of stories told, some more believable than others, the carols are all just songs to me – and either I like them or I don’t.
Has anyone in the crowd ever been upset by the subject matter?
We did have someone walk out once because it was, and I quote, “too Christmas-y”! I think he was objecting to the “Jesus being born” reference in some of the songs – then again, he missed a song in the second half about a man who turns into a dog, so who knows what he would have made of that one! These carols from South Yorkshire are just great songs, you just have to enjoy them for what they are…
A lovely change, I guess. Is the tour like a ‘victory lap’ for you and the band?
Ha, ha, ha! I do approach it differently. Every year as it gets nearer I get more and more excited – I suppose you can liken it to the moment you climb into the loft to get the Christmas decorations out… that excitement in your belly at seeing it all and rediscovering things that you haven’t seen for a year! We also have our brass quintet with us, some of whom have been touring with us for fourteen years, and we only really see them at Christmas these days. It’s always such a lovely party atmosphere back stage, everyone is in a Christmas spirit, so it’s a tour I love so much.
You’re painting a Christmas village in my mind…
Traveling around the country with your best mates playing music – what more do you need in December?
Quite right! What Christmas carols do you remember hearing growing up?
My all-time favourite would have to be a song called ‘Sweet Bells’ – it’s a version of the carol ‘While Shepherds Watched’, but very different. It’s one of the South Yorkshire carols and a mighty one, with a fantastic sing-a-long chorus that’s so happy and bouncy – it never fails to make people smile. It’s like Christmas in a box!
Do you sing it at home with the family, then?
It’s been a favourite of mine from childhood and holds a special place in my heart, so it’s been sung every single Christmas Day in the Rusby household for as long as I can remember and I absolutely love it! We recorded it on my fist Christmas album and play it every year on the tour. It’s an audience favourite now, too!
Go on, Kate, tell us more about winter and Christmas in South Yorkshire…
We will be having Christmas at home. My immediate family all live in the same village, so we usually have starters at one house, then a couple of hours and a trip to the pub later, we’ll have the main course at someone else’s house, then a few hours and sherries after that, we have pudding at someone else’s! It’s really lovely as one person doesn’t have to host the whole day and you get to have a walk and a socialise in between courses. It’s also one of the best times to go for a walk with my lovely little dog – it always seems to be the calmest of days and so quiet.
That’s very true… a time to ponder, perhaps?
Not many people are out in the fields on Christmas Day, but anyone who is, is in such a happy, smiley mood that it makes the world such a bright and colourful place. Even the birds have a kind of reverential quietness, as if they know it’s Christmas, it really is magical…
There’s a song there, surely?
There are winter songs on each of the Christmas albums actually – the title track of ‘The Frost Is All Over’ is a song I wrote about watching the winter appearing on a little route I walk with Doris, the dog.
Great tune. Speaking of both, winter and great tunes, who would be the ‘Shane’ to your ‘Kirsty’?
My husband, of course, Damien O’Kane! He’s an amazing singer and his latest album, ‘Areas Of High Traffic’, is stunning. He’s Irish, too, so would make the perfect Shane… he does have all his teeth, though, so I hope that doesn’t matter!
I’ll let him off! After all, he produced your last record and I love ‘Life In A Paper Boat’…
It’s always great to get such positive feedback from reviewers and fans – especially knowing all the time, effort and love that has gone into an album – but ultimately it’s the artist who created it who has to be happy with the album.
Very true. So…
Yes, I’m delighted with how it turned out! My point is that it’s had great feedback and that’s really lovely – especially after all these years.
A quarter of a century on the road in 2017!
I can’t believe it’s been that long – I still think I’m just starting out and learning everything! We have a few different ideas to celebrate, but my lips are sealed for now! We’ll keep you posted, though…
Kate Rusby at Christmas
Friday, December 16th 2016, 7pm
Pyramid & Parr Hall, Cultural Quarter, Warrington
Pic courtesy Pure Records