Kate Rusby’s third album of Christmas songs sees the Penistone folk singer once again draw inspiration from the South Yorkshire tradition of locals gathering in pubs to sing seasonal carols. She tours venues around the north from 9 Dec.
This will be your third Christmas album. What inspires you about the season?
I adore Christmas, I really do, and I can’t really think of having it anywhere but at home in Yorkshire. I haven’t lost my childhood excitement about it. Now I have two children of my own it’s even more exciting. It’s a time when the community gets together and everyone is so smiley and happy. People who you haven’t seen in a while come back to the village to see their folks and catch up. As for the new album, I have utterly adored delving into the South Yorkshire carols again for inspiration. It’s been a huge part of my life so it’s always a pleasure to get stuck into the song books and recordings of the sings at the pubs.
Tell me about the South Yorkshire tradition that inspired the album.
The South Yorkshire carols are still sung every year, starting the Sunday after Armistice Day and continuing until New Year. They are sung in a certain select few pubs in South Yorkshire. My favourite is the Royal in a little village called Dungworth, I was taken there as a child and even though we were in a different room playing and drinking pop and eating crisps, we were all the while soaking up the songs. So learning them through osmosis really. Thankfully the tradition is showing no signs of dwindling. You only have to go to one of the sings for proof of this. It’s an incredible experience, as the carols are sung with such passion and gusto!
The carols are ones you may not know. They 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 instead. That way they could drink beer too! Some have words you may recognise but a different tune, so there are many different versions of the same carol. There are about 30 different versions of While Shepherds Watched, with each tune having a different name, usually named after a road or place. Some versions have choruses and some don’t. There are also carols that are sung as solos, and they are sung by the same people every year. I suppose it’s a bit like a rite of passage – if you’ve been going for a long long time and a slot becomes available you might be asked to sing one of the solos. Even the positions in the room – such as prime spots by the piano player – are earned by longevity. It’s a fantastic thing to witness and hear of course. It’s such a powerful thing when so many voices are singing in harmony all united in a small room, all smiley and moved by the sound they are making. It really is very special.
How will your tour get people into the Christmas spirit?
I think it’s a great excuse for people to get their vocal chords warmed up and pile in to the songs. People don’t get much chance to sing together anymore so it provides the perfect setting to have a good old sing. We have our Brass Boys along with us again of course, and even when they are just tuning up they sound like instant Christmas! Not forgetting of course there will be tinsel and tunes, Christmas trees, stars, fairy lights and a liberal sprinkling of brand new tracks from the new album for good measure. I am also working on a wheeled vat of mulled wine but I don’t think it will be ready for this year! We even had some snowfall during gigs last year, so when the audience left at the end of the night it was really special. I hope that happens again.
Will you get time to relax over the festive period and what will your Christmas involve?
Yes, I hope so it will have been a long tour so we will all be ready for some relaxation and family time. We will be having Christmas at home. My immediate family all live here 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 will have the main course at someone else’s house, then a few hours and sherrys after that we have pudding at someone else’s house. It’s really lovely as one person doesn’t have to host the whole day and you get to have a walk and socialise in between courses. I love it, ho ho ho!
“The only thing that the ‘commercial’ market offers these days is a very, very slim chance to be very famous for a year or so.”
One of the best times to go for a walk with my lovely little dog, Doris, is on Christmas Day. It always seems to be the calmest of days and so, so quiet. Not many people are out in the fields on Christmas Day, but anyone who is is in such a great happy, smiley mood that it makes the world such a bright, colourful place. Even the birds have a kind of reverential quietness, as if they know it’s Christmas. It really is magical. This is where the title track from the new Christmas album The Frost Is All Over stems from.
Indie folk became really popular a few years ago but you’ve remained consistent before, during and since. What did you make of the scene and were you tempted to try and capitalise on it?
Well, it’s a very exciting time for the folk scene in general, festivals are incredibly popular and there’s a lot of young people playing too. I think that’s the thing that brought people back to folk music – 15-20 years ago there was the first influx of young people, who were children of the people around in the folk revival in the 1960s. I was one of them. We all reached an age where we could start gigging on our own and off we went. There was only a handful of us back then, but it caused a bit of a fuss in the media, as they were intrigued more than anything as to why we would be interested in this music. We made CDs (and tapes!) and set off round the folk clubs and toured and toured and toured. Along the way, we saw an influx of younger people in the audiences and on it went. It seemed to go that the younger people playing folk music brought in younger people (and the usual crowd) to come and listen to it, which in turn led to more and more young people playing it and it just seemed to grow and grow. Folk music is kinda cool again, which is absolutely great. It is safe and will continue going forwards. It has to keep evolving as each generation make it their own, or it will become stagnant and only fit for a museum. That’s why I love it when you get the crossover indie-folk and the like – it keeps the scene fresh and on its toes. The more the merrier, I think. It makes for a colourful and vibrant scene that we are all lucky to have.
I have never been tempted to capitalise on it though. The only thing that the “commercial” market offers these days is a very, very slim chance to be very famous for a year or so. There’s not many artists in that scene who are still there year after year – you can count them on one hand – and hopefully, because we have been steadily building over the years, I can keep playing this music I love for years to come” 23 years so far! Besides, I am not someone who craves that type of success, fame, fortune, and bright lights. I have never strived for that, and will never achieve it playing this kind of music and this is the music I love. I am not under any false impressions at all. Steady away!