When Island Records opts to resurrect its cherished ‘Island Pink’ label, you know something special is afoot. This October, the imprint behind such cornerstones of British folk as Nick Drake’s ‘Five Leaves Left’ and Fairport Convention’s ‘Liege & Lief’ will join forces with Pure Records to release ‘20′, a beguiling new album that sees Kate Rusby celebrate 20 years of music-making.
“It’s a real honour for me, and the Pink label is a very special touch”, says Kate. “I always loved listening to ‘Crazy Man Michael’ from ‘Liege & Lief ‘ when I was growing up.”
On ’20′, Kate and her core band are flanked by a who’s who of British, Irish and American folk / bluegrass as she revisits key songs from her back catalogue. Fittingly, former Fairport guitarist and English folk luminary Richard Thompson is among the many guests (he duets and plays electric guitar on ‘Who Will Sing Me Lullabies’). Elsewhere, Paul Weller clearly relishes duetting on ‘Sun Grazers’, an ace new Kate song that beds-down nicely alongside 20′s tasteful glances backward. Other guests from the rock world include Stephen Fretwell and Radiohead’s Philip Selway.
A exercise in who-shall-we-ask wish fulfilment the record may have been, but it was also a huge logistical challenge. Though Kate and her husband / co-producer / go-to guitarist Damien O’Kane laid much of the groundwork at their rural South Yorks studio, recording musicians and singers on both sides of the Atlantic was a balancing act of pre-planning, happenstance, goodwill and file-sharing.
To complicate matters, Kate and Damien were expecting their second baby, and when little Phoebe arrived on April 30, 2012, it was just days after Kate had finished recording her lead vocals. “I had a C-section with Phoebe, but we had to keep going because we had a deadline to meet”, laughs Kate. “I was sat in hospital with my laptop emailing musicians and singers about dates and lyrics. You just get on with these things if you have to, don’t you?”
Given the sizeable pool of guests on ’20′, we’ll forgo a full role-call here. Suffice to say that many are household names (Paul Weller, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Eddie Reader etc.), while others (e.g. flautist Michael McGoldrick, dobro ace Jerry Douglas and folk singer Nic Jones) are hugely respected figures in the world of trad music.
“It’s well documented that Nic is my all-time musical hero”, says Kate of Jones, whose 1980 album Penguin Eggs is rightly revered by folk fans. When he recorded with me on ‘The Lark’ I felt I was going to be presented with a Jim’ll Fix It badge at any moment. Other people like Bob Fox [guest vocalist on 'Annan Waters'] I’ve been a fan of since I was a teenager. Bob sings in the stage play War Horse, so he had to get up to Yorkshire, record with us, then get back down for the theatre show in London that same night. He made it – just!”
Kate has sung some of these songs for many years now, but a great folk song evolves with its interpreter, the singer’s life-experience eking out fresh nuances of import and understanding. That’s clearly what has happened on 20′s re-workings of ‘Planets’ and ‘Annan Waters’. “That song’s still one of my all-time favourites”, says Kate of the latter. “It’s so very beautiful and tragic and the way the tune flows always makes it a pleasure to sing.”
Another of the selections that continues to resonate deeply with her is ‘Bitter Boy.’ Now re-recorded with her husband Damien on guest vocals, it first appeared on Rusby’s acclaimed 2007 album, Awkward Annie.
“I wrote ‘Bitter Boy’ just after my Uncle Stan died”, she explains. “I was absolutely broken to pieces. My nanan [Stan's mother] had passed away two weeks before, but Stan’s passing was unexpected and wrong. He had never married and he had promised to look after my Nanan when my granddad contracted emphysema from working down the mine. Even though the song sounds like an unrequited love song, the grief and lamentation is for Stan. The whole family still misses him.”
Ah yes, family – the thread that binds on ’20.’ Whether it’s the wider, fraternal family of like-minded musicians, the extended family ties that led Kate to write ‘Bitter Boy’, or her own strong nuclear set-up, family runs through ’20′ like lettering on a stick of rock. That’s why it was made in and around ordinary life. That’s why it sounds unforced and real. That’s why the album includes a snippet of Kate and Damien’s three-year-old daughter Daisy Delia singing ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep.’
“Yes, my kids are having a very similar upbringing to mine, which I’m over the moon about”, muses Kate, who together with her sister Emma was part of her mum and dad’s ceilidh band from an early age. “My parents always had musical instruments lying around the house, and I knew so many songs by the time I was 5 it was unreal. “Now, Damien and Daisy and I have a game called Family Chord”, she goes on. “We all find notes that sound nice together and Daisy loves it when they lock-in. People think kids as young as her don’t understand music, but given the chance they just feel it.”
Kate feels it too, of course, and the astonishing pool of talent she has drawn to ’20′ speaks volumes about the esteem in which this quietly soulful, wonderfully engaging singer-songwriter is held. Not that the 4-time BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards winner, Honorary Doctorate of both Sheffield Hallam and Huddersfield Universities, and patron of Yorkshire will let that go to her head. Asked how being “a superstar of the British acoustic scene” ( The Guardian) differs from being a superstar of the pop scene, she laughs and responds thus:
“For starters, I own all my own music and I think tour buses are a silly waste of money; only for boosting egos and showing-off. I like good red wine, not alcopops, and my entourage consists of a sound-engineer who is my brother, a tour manager, and a babysitter.
“I know the price of a bottle of milk and the paparazzi aren’t there when I go to buy it and nor are they bothered! I do my own make-up, cut my own hair, and make the music I want to. Best of all, though, I’m still going strong after 20 years!”