Kate Rusby: her rise to the forefront of folk music

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The Independent Culture

Somewhere near Barnsley, in a quiet village centred around a country pub and a handful of antique shops, an independent record company that sells thousands of CDs a year hold their headquarters. Pure Records is the home of Kate Rusby, one of folk music's most respected and successful artists, whose work over the last decade has helped to reinvigorate the genre and bring it to a wider audience.

Kate's father, Steve Rusby, worked in the Seventies and Eighties as a sound engineer. Steve and his wife Anne would take their three children, Emma, Kate and Joe, to ceilidhs and folk events around the country, and the children learned to play at an early age. In 1977, when Kate was just four years old, she found herself with her sister Emma, standing on top of a table in a pub, singing a song called "Our Cat's Got No Hair On It". Laughing about it now, Kate says, "Me and my sister stood on a table in a pub and then a hat went round. I think we got 50 pence each and we felt like millionaires. So it was worth doing."

Reflecting on her experiences, Kate is full of enthusiasm. "It was a fantastic childhood," she says, "and I wouldn't want to change that. Music is a fantastic way to unite people, especially families. It's funny - most youngsters will rebel against what their parents are listening to. But it was never forced on us. It was just always around the house, with Mum and Dad singing and playing, and other people singing and playing. We didn't even realise we were being taught, it was such a natural thing. When I was 15 I was thinking, "What shall I sing?" Then I realised that I already had all these songs in my head."

Steve's work as a sound engineer meant that he'd spent a lot of time with professional musicians, and had developed an understanding for their concerns. "I'd travelled all over the country with bands for years," he explains. "You get to hear all the gripes and you get to know all the pitfalls of being a musician. You also find out how the job fits up - an artist will have a manager, and the agent will see the promoter about putting on gigs."

Steve used what he knew when Pure Records began in 1995, launching Kate's solo career with an album of duets with Kathryn Roberts. She had already had success in folk band The Poozies, and as part of an all-female project called Intuition. She also performed with the inordinately talented Equation, alongside Kathryn Roberts and Seth Lakeman, both of whom have since gone on to have successful solo careers. By the time of her first album, Steve wasn't daunted by the prospect of starting a record company from scratch.

"You just need to pick a name and away you go," he says, cheerfully. "It's not difficult. When we realised that people liked what Kate was doing a lot, we knew we could do it. By that time I had talked to a lot of people and knew how it all worked. People on the folk scene like Roy Bailey had been running their own record company for decades. Also, we were very fortunate in that we had a friend called Bryan Ledgard who did marketing and graphic design, and he printed some A5 flyers telling people that an album was coming out."

The results were quick in coming - the first album was partly financed by pre-orders, and Hourglass was released in 1995 to favourable reviews. Rusby's career was underway, and her mixture of narrative ballads, good looks and Yorkshire humour began to win over audiences across the country. In 11 years, with the help of her family, she's gone from playing folk club audiences of 50 to selling out large theatres. A recent ballad with ex-Boyzone heart-throb Ronan Keating has done her career no harm at all, and she has recently been involved in preparing music for Jennifer Saunders' next TV series.

Her songs are often told as stories, miniature narratives of love, loss and battered optimism. "I've got this huge collection now of all the ballad books that I've picked up from second-hand shops in bizarre towns," she says. "Audiences respond to that. That's what folk music is really, it's all about telling stories. People will sometimes say, 'I don't like folk music,' but it's because they have a funny idea of how it is. I do find the murder ballads appealing. Especially the ones with 90 verses, they are like mini films. You get really involved in the song. I think that is its beauty. It's a simple form of music; it's for everybody to share. They didn't have newspapers then, people went from village to village and sang songs to tell you about Jim's cow who'd disappeared from the farm up the road. That's how it evolved."

Meanwhile, Pure Records has gone on to release 22 albums. Whilst Kate Rusby is by far its most important artist, it has also successfully produced albums by Kate's husband, producer and gifted multi-instrumentalist John McCusker, who's worked with Eddie Reader, Boo Hewerdine and others. Pure has also released albums with Maggie Boyle, The Poozies, and ex-Idlewild singer Roddy Woomble. The only thing the company doesn't take care of is the distribution. Everything else - the bookings, PR, recording and management, are all run from the family's base in the hills near Barnsley. They also have their own studio, which is hired out to other bands and artists, as well as a PA hire division. What is admirable is that the Rusbys have built up this little musical empire with little more than talent, time and hard work.

How do they handle the challenge of managing a small label and maintaining Kate's profile ? "You certainly fill a working day," says Steve. Steve handles the bookings and recordings, Anne takes care of CD sales, and Emma handles promotion, PR and tour logistics, allowing Kate the time to concentrate on writing, recording and performing. Kate's younger brother, Joe, runs the sound at gigs. "Rather than Kate having a manager, an agent and a promoter, we take care of it all," says Steve.

Pure Records has gained a lot of respect from the wider public. "People really like what we do," enthuses Steve. "Everybody's fascinated about the set-up and how it operates. The downsides of working as a family? There can be tensions. But we do resolve things, we talk things through and come to a consensus that works."

Kate endorses this view: "We're such a close family, if we do fall out, we're the kind of family that go our separate ways for half an hour, then come back and say, 'I'm sorry about that,' and then we'll make a decision about how we're going to approach something. The positive side is that I have a brilliant team behind me. If it weren't for them, I wouldn't be able to do what I do. My job is to go and do the concerts, write songs, learn songs and be in the studio."

Pure is regarded by the public as being folk based, but the recent inclusion of Roddy Woomble suggests that they may yet expand into other genres. "The label is seen as a folk label," agrees Steve. "That wasn't put on by us, although we are proud to carry that flag. We'll tell anybody that Kate is a folk singer. There are other people who aren't into folk music who would come and see Kate. But we're so busy at the moment that I'm not sure we could take on anything else. Not yet, anyway."