Pop: Let me tell you a story

Kate Rusby is from Barnsley. She likes a good yarn and a nice tune. She also has one of the most beautifully pure voices in folk music.
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The Independent Culture
Kate Rusby, in a lilac cardigan, is being interviewed by a Woman's Hour presenter, who is also in a lilac cardigan. Rusby is peering over an acoustic guitar big enough to go to sea in. Sheila McClennon is nodding and smiling behind her great microphone. She's already asked Kate how she broke her foot; what her earliest folk memory is; why it is that Kate chooses to sing ancient folk songs; how she deals with the charge that ancient folk songs have no relevance in today's world; and how Kate responds to the acclamation of her tousled self as England's premier Folk Babe.

Rusby's answers have come whizzing back, not rehearsed exactly, but as shaped by usage as favourite clothes. She broke her foot Irish dancing for a laugh at a do. Her earliest memory is of going to sleep in the lid of a flight case under a table at a gig. She sings ancient folk songs because she loves nothing so much as a good yarn - and good yarns mean as much today as they did hundreds of years ago. And she giggles at being thought a Folk Babe, but it can't be what people really think because, well, if you come from Barnsley she doesn't think that you can be a Babe.

Everything in the BBC studio is lovely - lilac, even, half-unbuttoned and woolly. Then she sings a song and the atmosphere changes completely.

Context is virtually everything in pop music. In fact, pop wouldn't be pop if it didn't have its ever-shifting social, temporal, commercial and aesthetic contexts to endow it with excitement. Instead it would be folk. (Or, at least, it would be "All Around My Hat" by Steeleye Span.)

The big thing about folk is that it doesn't need to be steeped in a boiling social, commercial and aesthetic context for it to work (other than its own private and deeply traditionalist one, of course). That's one reason why folkies like folk music. Another, connected, reason is that the absence of such baggage in folk means that whatever it has to say comes through pellucidly and with all its vowels and consonants clearly audible. In fact, it's a fundamental principle in folk that too much embroidery on the basic pattern is a very bad thing. In folk, the idea is that you hear everything you're meant to hear; nothing more and nothing less.

In Kate Rusby's case you hear something that can be quite beautiful. She has the simplest, most unmannered way of singing you can imagine, even allowing for the tight little vibrato that sometimes makes her long notes a bit cakey. She sings in her Barnsley accent, to peeled-back modern- traditionalist accompaniment, and makes her tunes connect absolutely directly with the bits of you that like lovely tunes. The sheer textural loveliness of her voice does that.

She also likes a yarn, as we've heard. All her songs have stories to them or at least narrative elements. This is the important part, as far as Rusby herself is concerned. She is not a confessional singer-songwriter, or an emotional diarist. She says she likes nothing better than to dig up an old ballad from an old ballad book and include herself in its emotional world.

"I found it," she says of the obscure trad French number "The Cobbler's Daughter" which leads off her second album, Sleepless, "and I just liked it. I thought it was funny. It stuck in me head for about a week. So I just knocked it about and brought it up to date." Which essentially means that she wrote a tune for it, subtracted "about 95 verses" and distilled the residue into a morbidly sweet tale of maidenly deviousness (boy chases girl, girl isn't interested; girl falsely lures boy into clinch; girl screams for help; Dad appears, brains boy).

Does she sing it with passion, this unsavoury Freudian fable? Does Kate use her voice to express the vaulting nature of the protagonists' emotions with a vaulting performance? No. She just sings it through, much as children sing songs, only with a lot more technical control.

"I've been brought up to always put meself in other people's shoes," she explains, then points to her artfully tousled thatch. "The story actually goes on in there while I'm singing it. It's like I'm almost watching. So I just watch the story unfold and feel the emotion. It's like being in a movie, sat there in me seat, gripping on, being part of it."

Which is more or less what happens when you listen to Rusby sing. You enter a sort of spooky story zone in which this small vessel of well-brought- up Yorkshire prettiness conducts a seance with the ghosts of the unconscious - cobblers, sailors, brides, dukes, tinkers: social ciphers whose value is almost entirely symbolic in the modern world. In the control room of the Woman's Hour studio you could have heard a cardi stitch drop while Rusby sang a contraction of her own "Sho Heen". It's a song about an angel singing a distraught lover to sleep, which looks like nothing on paper but will change the temperature of any room that Rusby sings it in.

She's 25 and will not leave her home town. She co-owns her record label, Pure, with her parents. Dad "does me agent stuff" and little brother Joe does the live sound on tour. Her solo gigs are generally packed with tender- hearted folk, who no doubt spend a portion of the time mulling over Rusby's place in The Tradition, the cosy coyness of her inter-song patter and the nap of her authenticity, but who above all get off on a lovely tune beautifully sung. It's a pretty straightforward deal.

They will almost certainly also try to connect her voice with the other singular ones in folk history; maybe even with the late Anne Briggs, whose keening ultra-trad, nakedly solo performances marked the folk revival of the early Sixties with the stamp of deep "authenticity". What they're likely to conclude is that, although both Briggs' and Rusby's studiedly exposed voices are extraordinary and compelling, they are of different worlds. One is the slightly unstable, harshly romantic voice of post-war social idealism on the lam, the other is of a nice, uncontaminated young woman of the Nineties, who can sing the pants off an old English lament, partly because she's got the chops and the sensibility, partly because that's the way she was brought up.

Rusby likes the Cardigans, Teenage Fanclub and Radiohead, as well as Nic Jones and Anne Briggs. She's pleased with the way her hair is at the moment. And she sometimes finds herself on stage behind her galleon of a guitar to sing a particularly sad song of transportation to the colonies in the 18th century, and gets the heebies. "Sometimes I just sit there," she says, "and think: this is just so sad. Why on earth do I do this to meself?"

Kate Rusby plays the Cambridge Folk Festival on Sunday 1 August. `Sleepless' is on Pure Records