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Kate Rusby Biography

Last updated: 05/16/2012 12:00:00 PM

Of all the stars in Folk Music’s wondrous firmament few shine as brightly as Yorkshire’s Kate Rusby.

A remarkable interpretive singer, Kate’s soulful vocals resonate with the wistful beauty of an earthbound angel. Inhabiting a lyric with unforced conviction – no matter how old or how modern – she has that rare ability to transport her audience, of touching them emotionally and making each tune live vividly within their experience and imagination. It’s a precious gift attained not by resource to decibel blasting or histrionics but through simplicity, understatement and faith in the narrative drive of the songs she chooses to sing.

No wonder then that even as early as 1999, aged just 26, Kate was named as one of the Top Ten Folk Voices of the Century. Everything she has done since has confirmed the foresight of those who bestowed that honour. From being a nominee for 1999’s Mercury prize – almost unheard of for a folk singer – for her stunningly assured and moving second solo album, Sleepless, to 2007’s captivating Awkward Annie, Kate has stayed true to her folk and acoustic roots. This despite the temptations such early recognition placed in her path: “Around the time of Sleepless various people waved contracts at me, all saying ‘Come with us, we’ll make you a star’. They wanted me to cut a ‘pop’ record, but I’d just reply, ‘you must be joking – why would I do another kind of music just as I am starting to succeed with I want to do?’ I’m from a strong, close family in a small village just outside Barnsley: that whole celebrity, music chart, be as famous as you can hullabaloo is so far from the things I care about in life. For me it was the worst idea in the world!”

Such resolution underlined not only Kate’s unwavering love of folk music but also her strength of character. Such clear-headed vision of what was important to her, of who she was as an artist and just where she wanted her talent to take her was, and is, rare in one so young. But as the years have passed the wisdom of her choice has been proven every time she has released a new record or set foot upon a stage.

Those close to Kate would not have been surprised by her determination to keep the faith. They would have pointed out that folk was in her blood from the moment she was born – that it was very much a family affair. Kate’s parents, Ann and Steve, from being teenagers had played in a ceilidh band while Steve was also a ‘sound man’ – a skill passed on to son Joe. Hence at weekends and holidays while her friends were off to Bon Jovi concerts or the local disco Kate, along with siblings Emma and Joe, would be packed into the back of the family car en route to a folk festival somewhere in the UK. To while away the time on the road Mum and Dad would lead the children in a family sing-song: “Us kids would sing along, making up harmonies before we even knew what the word meant…siblings have the same vibrato so the sound they make together is almost inseparable.”

Thus Kate’s love affair with folk and the Tradition had begun; she had been introduced to a wondrous treasure house of stories and tunes that have fired her imagination and proved a constant source of inspiration ever since: from the fantastic, through the romantic, humourous and – most especially the tragic – singing or hearing such ‘castle-knocking down’ tunes enthrals her: “What appeals to me about the old songs are the stories and the simple way they were written. Some are painfully sad and it is those that draw me in the most.”

The spirit, language and atmosphere of those old tunes have inevitably informed Kate’s own writing. From the start of her solo career she has not only been the interpreter and arranger of traditional airs – and of more recent tunes such as Iris Dement’s ‘My Town’ or Richard Thompson’s ‘Withered And Died’ – but she has also been the creator of new songs. Her writing is so finely attuned to the rhythms and cadences of the Tradition it’s sometimes comes as quite a surprise to discover that a song as transcendent as ‘Daughter Of Heaven’ is not a gem plucked from one of Kate’s treasured ballad books but indeed a brand new, achingly beautiful original.

From singing in the back of the car Kate was soon treading the boards herself: solo, as a duo with friend Kathryn Roberts plus stints as singer with Equation and the all-female Celtic folksters, The Poozies. Thus her arrival on the larger music scene in 1999 with her second solo release, Sleepless, was not a case of ‘overnight success’ but the result of many years previous spent learning and honing her craft.

In 2010 Kate’s career remains in the ascendant: surrounding herself with her beloved and trusted family (who run and administer Kate’s record label, Pure) and the UK’s very best folk musicians on stage and on record her career has gone from strength to strength. Four times winner of BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards (most notably, Folk Singer Of The Year in 2000 and Best live Act in 2006) she has recorded a dazzling, critically acclaimed series of albums that while remaining true to the Tradition have proved popular with audiences beyond folk’s remit (2008’s Awkward Annie climbed to number 2 in the Indie charts). Thus Kate has become a ‘star’ in her own right and – most importantly – on her own terms.

The crossover appeal Kate enjoys is unprecedented for a folk singer and has been achieved without resort to compromise. When Q magazine famously quipped, ‘Folk Music doesn’t get any cooler than Kate Rusby’, Kate was not fazed. She had no problem with the attention her Mercury nomination brought nor with appearing on ‘Later With Jools Holland’ or, in 2006, recording a duet, ‘All Over Again’ with Ronan Keating for each incursion into the mainstream has been done with no hint of sell-out and – much to her delight – has only served to broaden the genre’s appeal: “It’s brilliant to get the music out there. Folk music’s main problem is that it’s so hard to get people to hear it – there are so few opportunities to do so on UK radio. Controllers of radio stations are convinced that their listeners aren’t interested in it, that people have this huge stigma about ‘Folk’ but when people actually get to hear it they usually like it because there really is something in it for everybody. So going on those shows opened up my music and folk in general to people who would never have usually heard it.”

Kate’s collaborations with artists beyond folk – Eddi Reader, Blur’s Graham Coxon, Idlewild’s Roddy Woomble, Ronan Keating and Ella Edmondson have not been calculated career moves but naturally occurring consequences of being a working musician in the UK: “I quickly learned that the British music scene is a very small world, when you tour as much as I have done you bump into all sorts of people, some of them are musicians, some more famous than others. But be they famous or not, if something clicks and you would like to work with each other then that’s always an exciting thing.”

Alongside the collaborations have been enjoyable excursions into film (‘Heartlands’) and television (the BBC’s animation of ‘Jack Frost’ and recording Ray Davies’ ‘The Village Green Preservation Society’ as the theme tune for the series, ‘Jam and Jerusalem’): all the result of others being inspired by Kate’s singing.

In conversation Kate’s refreshingly forthright attitude to life underlines her Yorkshire upbringing: disarming and humourous in equal measure her on stage banter is endearing and cheeky, while offstage, in interview, she wastes no time in getting to the point. Her candour is as refreshing as it is rare.

Typical was her response to her collaboration with Ronan Keating and the eyebrows it raised among those known humourously within the folk community as the ‘Folk Police’. “I thought, why not? Ronan’s a lovely fella – clued up, hard working, polite, funny – with a cute little bum! What is there not to like? Plus it gave me a chance to look into that crazy world of pop music and was really good fun. And I got to be on ‘Top Of The Pops’ which I thought was quite cool really – something to tell the grandchildren! As for the couple of criticisms I heard, I don’t care. I don’t take direction from people I haven’t even met.”

Helping her to achieve all that she has Kate eagerly acknowledges the mighty support and love she has received from those around her: friends, fellow musicians, family near and far – “especially Mum, Dad, sister Emma and brother Joe”, her beloved nephews, Joshua and Jacob – “my sunshine!” and lest we should forget – Doris the dog: a never ending source of humourous anecdotes.

Kate is especially touched by the affection she receives from her audience – her ‘extended family’ – who will forever hold a special place in her heart: “I am always amazed at how many people turn out in theatres up and down the country to come and hear my music. They have chosen to get their tickets, have their tea, get dressed up, get in their cars and travel to come and see me. I have to stop myself thinking about it ‘cos I get a bit worried about the responsibility of making somebody’s night as good as I can.”

Such determination to give of her best is not lost on her fans and they and all who know and love Kate will have been thrilled to learn that she and her partner Damien O’Kane shared the greatest gift of all when, on the 15th. September, 2009, their new and beautiful daughter, Daisy Delia was born! Weighing in at 8lb 5oz Daisy has already, in the most blessed way possible, changed their lives forever.

Thus in 2010 Kate Rusby finds herself in a very good place indeed. At home there are the challenges and delights of being a Mum while professionally she has a new album and many gigs to play. Indeed, one thing that remains a given through all that happens is Kate’s passion for her music: fiercely proud to be called a folk singer, she recognises and appreciates the direction folk has given her life: “I play the music I want to play, work with incredibly talented musicians and make a living from doing something I love.”

And the great thing is – every time Kate Rusby sings the world is not only a better place but some of that love touches us all.