CAPE BRETON, N.S. – One of the great shining lights of the modern British folk music scene, Barnsley singer Kate Rusby has been high on the list of Celtic Colours International Festival attendees’ want list almost since the event began over 20 years ago.
Coincidentally, the year that Celtic Colours began also marked the start of Rusby’s solo career, when her 1997 album Hourglass brought her affecting, impossibly gorgeous lilt to the forefront, the first of 16 albums (four of them Christmas releases, and two compilations) that showcased a keen ear for updating timeless ballads, and an insightful songwriting talent as well.
Travelling long distances was never Rusby’s favourite activity, pointed out by the title of her 2005 album “The Girl Who Couldn’t Fly,” but she and her band take to the skies next week to help close out Celtic Colours, which begins Friday with an all-star opening concert at the Port Hawkesbury Civic Centre, opening the floodgates to a host of musical performances and community events across Cape Breton Island.
Rusby and co. perform on Friday, Oct. 12 as part of Fiddle and Folk Friday at the Membertou Trade and Convention Centre at 7:30 p.m. (with Jason MacDonald, Dwayne Cote and Ur: The Future of Our Past) and at The Grand Finale at Sydney’s Centre 200 on Saturday, Oct. 13 (alongside Mary Jane Lamond and Wendy MacIsaac, Phil Cunningham and Change of Step).
For the Yorkshire singer affectionately known as the Barnsley Nightingale, she feels it was only a matter of time until her voice rang out across the autumn-painted hills of Cape Breton in October.
“We’ve been hearing about it for years, mostly from friends who’ve been there when we meet up at other folk festivals, primarily our own Celtic Connections over here,” she says over the line from her home near the village of Penistone.
“They keep telling us, ‘Oh, you’ve got to get to Celtic Colours, Cape Breton is a fantastic place,’ and so it’s been on our radar for quite some time.”
The idea of a wide-ranging folk festival with strong community and artist involvement is right up Rusby’s alley, because she helped create a similar event herself, Yorkshire’s Underneath the Stars festival, now in its fifth year. The singer says the bulk of the heavy lifting is done by her sister Emma and sound technician brother Joe, and the event goes from strength to strength largely due to her past experiences of playing nearly every kind of festival under the sun.
“Even though my role these days is mostly just turning up and doing my bit when called upon, I still keep my eyes open when I play big events, and when I see a good idea that would work at Underneath the Stars, I keep it in mind and pass it along to Emma and Joe.”
Given the unique nature of Celtic Colours and its use of all of Cape Breton as its backdrop — the description reminds Rusby of the Shetland Folk Festival in the remote North Scotland archipelago — she’ll probably bringing home a new organizational idea or two, and possibly some musical ones as well.
Each one of her 14 studio albums show a marked progression from the last, a process she likes to refer to as moving the goal posts as she and her husband, Irish guitarist and producer Damien O’Kane expand the range of how a song can sound and still be considered folk music.
It’s a term Rusby considers to be a rather flexible one anyway; people — or folk, if you will — are constantly changing every day, faced with the ongoing barrage of sights, sounds and information that causes society to evolve, for better or worse. Folk music might be a respite from that, but it shouldn’t exist in a vacuum either, or shy away from reflecting the world around its artists.
“I remember when I was starting out, and I’d made a record with my friend Kathryn Roberts, we became quite aware of a certain type of listener we called the folk police, and they’d leave disparaging comments on articles and so on, with very specific ideas about how these songs should be sung,” she recalls.
“Never mind the fact that a song like ‘Dark Eyed Sailor’ has been constantly changing over hundreds of years, there’s also hundreds of versions of it out there, and who’s to say whether one performance of it is more authentic than another?”
On Rusby’s last release of new material, 2016’s “Life In a Paper Boat,” she wrote and sang the haunting title track after being moved by stories from the ongoing refugee crisis overseas. Like other songs on the record, it also featured the sound of a Moog synthesizer, used subtly to enhance the mood and provide some otherworldly atmosphere, but not employed to the point of distraction.
Another album is set to be released next year.
“It’s still early days for us yet, right now it’s just me and Damien in the studio working on the songs acoustically and seeing where we want to go with them,” says Rusby.
“We might want to do something more stripped down, or build the songs up depending on what musicians we call on to join us.
For more on her and her music, visit www.katerusby.com.
CUT: British folk singer Kate Rusby is part of the Celtic Colours 2018 lineup. Contributed.