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Kate Rusby

Born 4 December 1973, Pennistone, Barnsley, Kate is a rare breed of folk artist that has a Mercury Prize nomination to her name. Growing up with her talented musical family from South Yorkshire, it’s no doubt that this English folk singer and multi-instrumentalist has made some of the best folk music since SINEAD O’CONNOR’s earlier releases; there’s no doubt that she paved the way for the likes of The UNTHANKS.
At the age of twelve, RUSBY had formed a band with her older sister Emma, playing fiddle, guitar and stretching her vocal talents to maximum effect. She unleashed her predisposition at the Holmfirth Festival when she was only fifteen and made friends with rising folk star and fellow “Barnsley Nightingale” KATHRYN ROBERTS.
The two began recording together – including time spent with INTUITION – releasing much of their material on KATE RUSBY & KATHRYN ROBERTS (1995) {*7}, an album which was issued to much acclaim and a winner of the fRoots Album of the Year. ROBERTS’ vocals had a mature sound rather than her sidekick RUSBY’s, who was at this stage, thrillingly raw and in development. RUSBY’s debut solo set, the underrated HOURGLASS (1997) {*6} saw her taking an independent stance when the album grew extremely popular on both sides of the Atlantic. She’d already guested on the BATTLEFIELD BAND’s `Across The Borders’ set (1997) and The POOZIES’ `Come Raise Your Head’ (1997) plus `Infinite Blue’ (1998), marking her out as a much in-demand lady.
SLEEPLESS (1999) {*7} was to follow as RUSBY’s sophomore solo album. Setting an equally more mature tone, the Mercury Prize nomination included covers of IRIS DeMENT’s `Our Town’ and trad numbers `I Wonder What Is Keeping My Love True This Night’, `The Unquiet Grave’ and `The Fairest Of All Yarrow’.
With another session cast list comprising IAN CARR, DANNY THOMPSON, ANDY CUTTING, EDDI READER, Ewen Vernal, Tim O’Brien, Michael McGoldrick, Malcolm Stitt, John Jones and of course, her producer/husband JOHN McCUSKER (of BATTLEFIELD BAND), et al, LITTLE LIGHTS (2001) {*6} was as bright as the title suggested, although traditional fare was slightly overshadowed by her RICHARD THOMPSON recital, `Withered And Died’; 10 (2002) {*5} was basically a stop-gap collection of new re-mastered recordings and live cuts.
Twinning some of the best previously-recorded songs by RUSBY with new material by her professional and domestic partner at the time, McCUSKER, the HEARTLANDS (2003) {*6} soundtrack was a wee gem that sparkled quite independently of the movie that shaped it. The pair were already the golden couple of folk, individually and collectively trailing a bag-load of acclaim and awards, this set made it easy to see why: “the album itself is both vibrant and soothing, and a beguiling demonstration that less is more” was how one critic put it. Almost simultaneous, and with more or less the same back-up, UNDERNEATH THE STARS (2003) {*6} saw her pick out her best trad cues, including her own personal favourite `The Blind Harper’.
Flying was a misnomer for Kate, her fear apparent in the title of her next set, THE GIRL WHO COULDN’T FLY (2005) {*7}. Although not in the plethora of usual suspects on the session guest list (which counted RODDY WOOMBLE, KRIS DREVER and KELLIE WHILE), ex-BLUR man GRAHAM COXON got his two-pennorth in by way of the simplistic sleeve artwork; the record also featured a cover of the old showtime nugget `You Belong To Me’.
Having now parted company with McCUSKER domestically, AWKWARD ANNIE (2007) {*6} was her first self-produced effort; `Bitter Boy’ was the pick of her own compositions while `John Barbury’ (aka `Fause Foodrage – Child Ballad 89’) made the set a worthwhile buy; an interesting bonus track was her reading of The KINKS’ `The Village Green Preservation Society’, the theme to TV sitcom Jam & Jerusalem.
A bastion of every folk artist around the globe, festive albums were not everyone’s cup of tea, but SWEET BELLS (2008) {*7} was a beautifully free-flowing set, noting that Yorkshire carols had pride of place. Subsequently suggested by “Ab Fab” actress Jennifer Saunders (whom she’d worked with on the aforesaid J&J), Kate took on the dubious task of solely writing her next solo work, MAKE THE LIGHT (2010) {*7}. Co-produced with her brother Joe Rusby, and highlighting another array of talented musicians that included her new hubby Damien O’Kane (their daughter was born in 2009), the album showed an eclectic approach from the Celtic-tinged `The Wishing Wife’ to alt-country dirge `Lately’.
Glazing over the wintry festive sets such as the South Yorkshire-inspired WHILE MORTALS SLEEP (2011) {*6} and THE FROST IS ALL OVER (2015) {*6}, the business end of her lilting music world came through the celebratory, stellar-casted 20 (2012) {*8}. The Top 30 double-album cherry-picked her favourite 20 songs to re-record alongside famous folk friends and others that she’d been guided by over the two decades – hence its simple title. A fresh song of some note, `Sun Grazers’, added another feather to the boa of PAUL WELLER (and Gregory Liszt), while the likes of RICHARD THOMPSON (and Philip Selway), NIC JONES, EDDI READER, DICK GAUGHAN, Ron Block, Jim Causley, BOB FOX, PAUL BRADY, CHRIS THILE, DAVE BURLAND, STEPHEN FRETWELL, MARY CHAPIN CARPENTER, among others, completed a who’s who of contributors.
An almost impossible task to follow, KATE RUSBY and co-producer Damien O’Kane (along with string arranger Donald Grant, flautist Michael McGoldrick, and electric guitarists John Doyle and Steven Iveson) created the atmosphere and the setting for 2014’s GHOST {*7}. Featuring all fresh material, the sparse arrangements by Grant – especially on the piano-led title track – had folk music’s most worthy singer-songwriter excelling once again. Frantically fishing through her songbooks from the attic, there was treasure in the `Bonnie Bairns’ and jaunty `Jolly Fisherman’ tracks, and with an austere atmosphere set in the studio, Kate and Co came up trumps with `Magic Penny’, `The Outlandish Knight’ and `Martin Said’.
Remarkably, her fourteenth! album surfaced in October 2016. LIFE IN A PAPER BOAT {*8} only made small ripples in the Top 100, but as with the majority of her catalogue, it was an ocean apart from most of the day’s contemporary folk music. Once again produced by her other half (plus arrangements down to Josh Clark), KATE RUSBY and her band of Iveson, Nick Cooke, Steven Byrnes and Duncan Lyall had the perfect musical symmetry to approach songs old and new. Seasoned Americana folk banjoist Ron Block was again elected, this time to perform on a few cues (`The Ardent Shepherdess’ a star track), whilst his ALISON KRAUSS band compadre Dan Tyminski deserved some plaudits for his homely, acoustic guitar backing on `Only Desire What You Have’ and `The Mermaid’. The album stretched folk music in a way SANDY DENNY once guided bed-sit listeners way back in the 70s, and with `Benjamin Bowmaneer’, `Hunter Moon’ and the dreamy title track, Kate deserved better global recognition for her efforts.
Glossing over the seasonal ANGELS & MEN (2017) {*6} – regarded by some as one of the best of its kind – 2019’s PHILOSOPHERS, POETS & KINGS {*7} kept Kate’s career in the pink. Her 17th album in total, the introspective record recounted her days growing up in Yorkshire, and the musical heritage weaved by her parents and her environs. Songs such as `Jenny’, `Bogey’s Bonnie Bell’ and `Crazy Man Michael’ (borrowed from FAIRPORT CONVENTION), sat well within the foundations of her own self-penned cuttings like `Until Morning’, `The Squire And The Parson’, `The Wanderer’ and an OASIS cover: `Don’t Go Away’.
The almost obligatory festive-period HOLLY HEAD (2019) {*6} was as pure and simple as the driven snow from whence it descended; a Christmas cracker in most fans’ eyes and ears and one to air as one served up the perennial pudding. From `Salute The Morn’ to the `B.B.B.B.’ (aka “Big Brave Bill from Barnsley…”) – and a playful `Hippo For Christmas’ – the soft-shoe Yorkshire shepherdess was again in her element.
On the other end of the spectrum, Kate’s appropriately-titled covers set HAND ME DOWN (2020) {*7} almost reached the echelons of the Top 10. It’d been a quarter of a century since her delightful introduction accompanied by the equally outstanding Kathryn Roberts, so RUSBY was probably better than most to transform a quintessential classic into a modern-day masterpiece. The mere mention of `Days’ and `Manic Monday’ obviously conjured more from KIRSTY MacCOLL stall or BANGLES angle than The KINKS or PRINCE, whilst COLDPLAY’s `Everglow’ and The CURE’s `Friday I’m In Love’ pushed her into alt-rock territory. Whether her wispy renditions of CYNDI LAUPER’s `True Colours’ and BOB MARLEY’s `Three Little Birds’ truly supplanted the necessary earworm effect, that would be in the eye/ear of the beholder, The banjo-enhanced `Shake It Off’ (from the pen of TAYLOR SWIFT), meanwhile, was indeed a bold choice having already selected standards such as `Carolina On My Mind’ and `Love Of The Common People’, alongside good ol’ LYLE LOVETT’s `If I Had A Boat’.
© MC Strong 2008-2011/LCS-GFD2 // rev-up MCS Oct2016-Aug2020

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