BARNSLEY folk nightingale Kate Rusby has released her fifth album of South Yorkshire carols and original winter songs, Holly Head, so named on account of her love of Christmas music.
As with her fellow festive collections on her Pure Records label, 2008’s Sweet Bells, 2011’s While Mortals Sleep, 2015’s The Frost Is All Over and 2017’s Angels And Men, it is being promoted by a Kate Rusby At Christmas tour with Kate’s regular band and brass quintet.
Songs range from the Rusby original The Holly King, to a cover of John Rox’s novelty Christmas number Hippo For Christmas, via the carols Salute The Morn and Kate’s sixth version of While Shepherds Watched and God’s Own Country variations, Yorkshire Three Ships and Bleak Midwinter (Yorkshire).
Now part way through her 14-date concert series, Kate answers Charles Hutchinson’s questions ahead of Yorkshire Christmas shows at Leeds Town Hall on December 13 and York Barbican on December 18.
Five Christmas albums, Kate. Five! That must surely be a record? What keeps drawing you back to make another recording for the Yule season?
“I know, five albums, how on Earth has that happened?! It’s also album number 18 of mine, which I can’t believe either. Where have all those years gone? I still love making music and touring, so that time has whizzed by in a flash.
“The Christmas side of things began for me in the ‘pub sings’ around South Yorkshire. We were taken along as kids; our parents would be in the main room singing away, while us kids were sat with the other kids in the tap room, colouring and drinking pop, unaware that the carols and Christmas songs were seeping into our brains!”
What happened next?
“It was only when I’d started touring around the country, I realised the ‘pub sings’ are quite specific to South Yorkshire and people were unaware of these amazing songs we have.
“They’re mostly songs thrown out of the churches by the Victorians as they were thought to be far too happy! Ha! Those who loved singing them took them to the pubs, where you could combine a good old sing with beer and a natter, and there the songs have remained and kept alive, being passed down the generations.
“I decided to start the Christmas tour to take the songs out around the country to show them off and share them out again. It’s just perfect when we go back to a town again and they’re singing the songs back to us. It brings me such happiness. Like, ‘my work is done here’!”
And the Christmas albums keep coming too…
“There are so many songs still to go at, I’ve no idea how many I’ll end up doing. I am a Holly Head, after all!”
What’s the story behind Hippo For Christmas, the quirkiest song on Holly Head? One for the Rusby daughters, no doubt!
“Aw, it’s such a brilliant song! I came across it while I was researching for the album. I love how it’s the magic of Christmas through the child’s eyes, ‘cos why on Earth would Father Christmas not be able to bring a hippo? He’s magic, right?
“But, of course,, once it’s there, how do you look after it? The brass arrangement on that track is just a delight; you can’t help but smile as they play it. It’s a big tuba moment! They don’t get many moments, tubas, do they? Well, it does on this song!”
While Shepherds Watched is the Christmas carol that keeps giving! Another one has popped up on the new album…
“Well, there’s over 30 different versions of While Shepherds Watched that get sung in the pubs here in South Yorkshire, so I’ve still got a lot to go at! This one is actually to the tune of a different song that I also love, but I wasn’t that keen on the words, then realised it went with the While Shepherds words, so yey, another has now been invented.”
What is a Holly Head exactly, Kate?!
“Ha ha!! Well, I decided anyone who adores Christmas music is called a ‘Holly Head’. You know, like car fanatics are petrol heads. I thought it was the perfect title for such people, and I’m a fully paid-up member of the Holly Head club! ”
What is the most significant Christmas song on this album for you? One of your own compositions?
“Oooh, am I allowed to choose one of my own? Well, OK, I will, I’ll choose The Holly King. It celebrates the more pagan side of Christmas. I wrote it after reading about the winter king, The Holly King, and the summer king, The Ivy King.
“Legend has it that the two met twice a year and had almighty battles. Going into winter, the Holly King would win and reign for the winter months. Then the Ivy King would wake and overthrow the Holly King and reign through the summer months, and on they went in a perfect cycle.
“I just loved the images that it conjured up and a song came flowing out. I gave him a wife, The Queen of Frost, who creeps across the land to be with him for his time. In fact, I’m writing her song at the moment, so she will appear on the next Christmas album, I’m sure!”
How will you be adorning the stage for the 2019 Christmas shows? Maybe a new reindeer?
“Ooh yes, I can’t tell you too much or it won’t be a surprise. What I can confirm, though, is Ruby Reindeer will be taking her place on stage again; it’d be too strange without her now.
“We have a completely new set this year…and there will definitely be sparkles.”
Who is in your Christmas tour line-up this time?
“Ooh, this year we have me, hubby Damien O’Kane on guitars and electric tenor guitars, Duncan Lyall, double bass and Moog; Stevie Byrnes, bouzouki and guitar; Nick Cooke, diatonic accordion and sleigh bells (ha!); Josh Clark, percussion, and our lovely, fabulous brass boys, Rich Evans, Gary Wyatt, Robin Taylor, Mike Levis and Sam Pearce.
“So, 11 of us altogether on stage, and six crew, I think, and of course not forgetting Ruby Reindeer!”
What do you most want for Christmas, Kate?
“A big lump of Cornish Kern cheese – it won best cheese in the world last year and is just gorgeous – and a bottle of Bread and Butter white wine to go along with it. It’s a big creamy white; just love it.”
Kate Rusby At Christmas, Leeds Town Hall, December 13 and York Barbican, December 18. Box office: Leeds, 0113 376 0318 or at leedstownhall.co.uk/whats-on/; York, 0203 356 5441, yorkbarbican.co.uk or in person from the Barbican box office.
On a separate note
ON December 4, Kate Rusby received the English Folk Dance & Song Society Gold Badge, in recognition of her 25-year contribution to folk music.
Among past winners were Cecil Sharp in 1923; Ralph Vaughan Williams, 1943; Ewan MacCoIl, 1987; Peggy Seeger, 1987; Shirley Collins, 2003, and Eliza Carthy, 2007.
Congratulations on your Gold Badge, Kate. What does this award mean to you? Just look at the names that have gone before!
“Aw, thank you. Goodness me, I still can’t believe it. It’s just amazing to be considered for this award as it’s recognition of my work from the massive organisation who work to preserve and document folk music and dance.
“I’ve done various gigs at Cecil Sharp House over the years, the building where they’re based in London. One time, they let me use the library as a dressing room and, oh my word, I was like a child in a sweet shop with all the ballad books. In fact, I think I may have been late on stage due to reading the books.
“But, yes, a real honour to be added to the list of Gold Badge winners. My love of the music has kept me entranced all these years, so to be given this award is just incredible.
“It was presented to me at our gig at in Sheffield City Hall, when it was also my [46th] birthday that day; what an amazing birthday present.”