Kate Rusby heralds Christmas tour with York Barbican opening night and Light Years album as she turns festive 50

Kate Rusby: Playing Yorkshire concerts in York, Bradford and Sheffield on her Christmas tour. Picture: David Angel

BARNSLEY folk nightingale Kate Rusby marks turning 50 on Monday with the release of her seventh Christmas album, Light Years, and an accompanying tour that opens at York Barbican on Thursday (7/12/2023).

In the company of her regular band, coupled with the added warmth of “the Brass Boys”, Kate combines carols still sung in South Yorkshire pubs with her winter songs and favourite Christmas chestnuts, whether It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year or a seamless mash-up of Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree and Sleigh Ride. As ever, look out for the festive fancy dress finale.

Here Kate shines a light on Light Years, Yorkshire pub carols and Christmas festivities in discussion with CharlesHutchPress.

How did you approach making your seventh Christmas album, Kate? Were you looking to add new elements to your successful format?

“Light Years has the sound and feel of my last two ‘normal’ albums, Hand Me Down (August 2020)  and 30: Happy Returns (May 2022). I’m loving experimenting with sounds, Moogs, layered banjos, low subs, effects etc, all things we have to hand these days as I’m blessed to have the most brilliant musicians around me.

“Produced by superbly talented Damien O’Kane [Kate’s husband, by the way], whose stunning playing also grounds each track musically. These are sounds I have wanted to achieve for so many years of my recording/touring career and finally at the age of 50 we’ve achieved that sound on a Christmas album. Happy birthday to me!”

How come you have made so many Christmas albums, whereas Michael Buble keeps re-releasing one?! 

“Ha! I have the whole treasure chest of South Yorkshire carols to delve into! There are so, so many to go at, with over 30 different versions of just While Shepherds Watched sung in pubs every winter. Don’t tell Michael though!”

What were the circumstances behind writing Glorious, perhaps the most glorious title you could give a winter song?

 “Glorious was written by me one cold February evening, after standing in my garden, snow-laden trees and warm glow of the evening sun illuminating only half of the world. While it was so still and beautiful, I was longing for spring and for the daylight to return.

“As I stood there an image of a lost and broken angel appeared in my head, just sitting there in one of the trees, wandering and waiting to heal and return from where he came. And so the song was born. I can’t wait to do this song live!”

Happy 50th birthday on Monday, Kate. You must have been delighted at having the early birthday present of Alison Krauss and Ron Block working with you on The Moon Shines Bright. How did that recording come to fruition and why that choice of song?

“Thank you! I’ve been celebrating all week and intend to for the rest of the month! The Moon Shines Bright features Alison’s gorgeous singing and Ron’s singing and string banjo; they’re both musical heroes of mine.

“I first sung it back when I was 15 as part of a theatre production of The Mystery Plays, and the song stayed with me all these years. The year after, when I was 16, my dad was a sound engineer working at Edale Bluegrass Festival.

“I was sat beside him when on to the stage came Alison Krauss and Union Station, including Ron Block, who still plays banjo, guitar and sings with Alison after all these years. I was completely blown away and my love of bluegrass began there.

“I’ve been a fan of Alison and Ron for all these years and Ron has become a dear friend and recorded on my last few albums, so it feels like we’ve completed a circle somehow, and needless to say, it’s such an honour and a dream come true to have Alison sing with us. Again, happy birthday me!”

What drew you to A Spaceman Came Travelling: Chris de Burgh’s 1975 gem of a Christmas song that failed to chart in the UK but topped the Irish chart?

“I went on a little road trip with my older cousin (now a brilliant artist called Marie Mills, check her out!). She had Chris de Burgh cassettes in her car, so we listened to his music all weekend. It was the first time I’d heard his music and really loved it.

“Since the first of my Christmas albums I’ve wanted to do a version of Spaceman but it never quite fitted in with the rest of the album…until now.”

The snowy cover for Kate Rusby’s seventh Christmas album, Light Years. Artwork design by Martin Roswell at Simply Marvellous

Where did you discover the Chris Sugden (aka Sid Kipper) parody Arrest These Merry Gentlemen?

“Chris was one half of a folk comedy duo called The Kipper Family, a parody in itself of the famous folk family The Copper Family. They were absolutely hilarious! They wrote parodies of famous folk songs so everyone in the audience at festivals got the jokes.

“Chris later went on to do solo gigs as Sid Kipper, again, totally hilarious. I was brought up at folk festivals as my dad was a sound engineer so we went to many every summer. I’d heard Arrest These Merry Gentlemen way back then, and also The Ivy And The Holly, which we covered on an earlier album. I love them both and love to be introducing his songs to people who’ve never heard them. He’s a proper genius!” 

Always room for another version of While Shepherds Watched! What’s the story behind Rusby Shepherds on the new album?

“There has been at least one version on each one of my Christmas albums. I was deciding which version to put on this one when I accidentally wrote a new tune for it! So I called it Rusby Shepherds, so there’s one more now!” 

Aside from songs and Carols from Light Years, what will be new in the latest round of Kate Rusby At Christmas concerts?

“We have a new set design this year, I can’t wait to see it all on stage for the first gig in York. I know what it is and have seen elements of it, so I’m really excited to see it in situ. It’s going to be so beautiful.” 

What will be the band line-up for this winter’s tour?

“My lovely, brilliant gang of band, brass and crew! Damien O’Kane, guitars, electric guitars, tenor guitar, electric tenor, banjo and vocals. Duncan Lyall, double bass and Moog synthesiser. Nick Cooke, accordions and electric guitar. Josh Clark, percussion and drums.

“Sam Kelly is with us for Christmas for the first time; he’s been in my regular band for a couple of years and we’re pleased to have him along for the Christmas tour this year on bouzouki, guitar, electric guitar and vocals. And of course my lovely brass lads, Gary Wyatt, Mike Levis, Chris Howlings, Robin Taylor and Lee Clayson.

“The most amazing crew is behind us all making sure it all sounds and looks beautiful and that it all happens as smoothly as it can. Alison Povey, Pete Sharman, Zak Nicholson, Harry Le Masurier, David Bower and Asa Duke. I’m blessed to have each and every one of these marvellous humans with me on tour.” 

Roast turkey or goose for the Rusby-O’Kane household on Christmas Day?

“Ooh, now then, we’ve had a goose for so many years but last year we went back to having a turkey from a local farmer, as was the goose, but we loved it so much we’re going turkey again this year. With all the trimmings, including Yorkshire puds gravies, bread sauce etc.”

Which album would you recommend giving as a Christmas present this year?

“Damien O’Kane and Ron Block’s latest album, Banjophonics. I may be a little biased but it’s sunshine in a bottle music. Just what we need in these murky winter days!”

Kate Rusby: Light Years Christmas Tour, York Barbican, Thursday (7/12/2023), 7.30pm. Box office: yorkbarbican.co.uk. Also playing St George’s Hall, Bradford, December 8 (01274 432000 or bradford-theatres.co.uk) and Sheffield City Hall, December 14 (0114 256 5593 or sheffieldcityhall.co.uk) . Light Years is out now on Pure Records.

Track listing for Light Years: 1. Spean; 2. Glorious; 3. It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year; 4. Rusby Shepherds; 5. The Moon Shines Bright (feat. Alison Krauss & Ron Block); 6. Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree/Sleigh Ride; 7. Nowell, Nowell; 8. Arrest These Merry Gentlemen; 9. A Spaceman Came Travelling; 10. Nothin’ For Christmas; 11. Joseph.

Holly Head: Kate Rusby in Christmas headgear on the cover of her 2019 album of South Yorkshire pub carols and winter songs

South Yorkshire pub carols: the back story

FOR Kate Rusby, abiding memories of childhood at Christmas are full of carols in the tap room of many a Yorkshire pub, surrounded by family, community, warmth, happiness, colouring books and crisps.

The tradition of singing carols in South Yorkshire pubs grew out of the original versions being banished from churches by the pious Victorians, their “happier tunes deemed too raucous for choirs”. Instead, they moved to pubs to accompany the beer, the banter and the bunting.

Carols are sung from the weekend after Armistice Day to New Year’s Day. Colloquially known as the Sheffield Carols, they will be sung in the Steel City this winter at The Sportsman, Redmires Road, on Mondays; the Crown and Glove, Stannington, Tuesdays; The Stocks, Ecclesfield, Thursdays; The Travellers Rest, Oughtibridge, Saturdays; and The Royal, Dungworth, The Blue Ball, Worrall, and The Wharncliffe Arms, Wharncliffe Side, on Sundays.