Damien O’Kane: 'I knew Kate's music way before I knew her ... I love the passion in her vocals'
A mutual love of folk led Co Londonderry singer/songwriter, Damien O’Kane to his future wife. Ahead of his Belfast concert he tells Una Brankin that marriage to fellow musician Kate Rusby is always in harmony.
Damien O'Kane has gone from performing as a teenager in his family band - dubbed the Von Trapps of Coleraine - to writing, singing and playing with one of England's most successful traditional musicians, Kate Rusby. The beautiful Kate has an captivating voice reminiscent of Suzanne Vega, and also happens to be Damien's wife.
The couple met through the folk scene after Damien graduated, 10 years ago, with an honours degree in music from Newcastle University. Since then, the youthful-looking 37-year-old has released five critically acclaimed albums, the latest of which - Areas Of High Traffic - is receiving rave reviews across the water from Radio 2 and Radio 6, as well as a five-star rating and album-of-the-week slot in the Sunday Express.
As with the film adaptation of Colm Toibin's Brooklyn, the album's pervading theme of emigration and homeland nostalgia is timely.
Refreshingly rendered with the edge of electric guitar and bluegrass banjo, the tracklist includes well-known folk songs such as The Blacksmith, and I Am A Youth, sung in Damien's distinctive voice - very warm and rich, with his north-west coast accent fully intact, despite his 15 years away from home.
Lauded by Radio Ulster's Lynette Fay as "a triumph from one of Ulster's finest", the rather urban title of Areas Of High Traffic and the cityscape on the cover was inspired, unusually, by a bad bout of the flu in the O'Kane-Rusby's south Yorkshire household last Christmas.
"It was so bad that on Christmas morning, Kate and I were smiling at our daughters (Daisy and Phoebe) opening their pressies, both of us lying on the floor, not an ounce of energy and the sweat blinding us," says Damien.
"We remedied it on Christmas Day with a few sherries. You know that feeling when you have the flu, where it's uncomfortable even putting a jumper on, as it irritates your skin. Kate said, 'It's always on those areas of high traffic that your skin hurts' - your waist, neck, arms and thighs, where you pull your clothes on and off.
"I instantly thought that was a great name for my album, as the music is quite busy, but then it's slow for a bit, and it's quite industrial-sounding and there's lots of noises in among the 'traffic'.
"Life in the music industry, being on the road a lot and having children, all make life very interesting, beautiful and busy - I could see all the metaphoric traffic in my mind both on the album and in life. I also thought the sentiment was ridiculously hilarious, which got me through another day of the flu."
As a vital member of The Kate Rusby Band, Damien is also an outstanding banjo and guitar player.
His influences range from Paul Brady to Radiohead to dance music, and his previous incarnations have included the duo partnership with accordionist Shona Kipling, and membership of Anglo-Irish band Flook. On Areas of High Traffic, he takes songs from the bedrock of Irish music and revisits them in an unconventional but empathetic way.
"Songs like The Blacksmith and I Am a Youth are so iconic, I had avoided them like the plague," he admits. "But I've always loved them and I decided I had to overcome this fear of the 'don't touch' songs. Singing them takes me back home."
His favourite new track, Don't Let Me Come Home A Stranger, reminds the Coleraine-born singer/songwriter of emigrating to England in 2000. He says: "It is a very emotive song lyrically; it recalls strong emotions I felt when it sunk in that that was it: I was away from my homeland and my family. Thankfully only a short flight away, though.
"I don't get home as much as I'd like and as the title goes, I'd hate to be a stranger. I am always welcomed home, though, with open arms by my gorgeous family, a big plate of spuds by mum Colette and a big kick up the 'bangle' from dad Joe - the thought of not having that family unit is unbearable."
Damien has been busy since releasing his first well-received solo album, Summer Hill, with its evocative title track, in 2010. He got married and had two daughters with Kate, and has toured, recorded and co-produced with her, as well as touring all over the world with his own band.
He also released a fully instrumental album, a banjo and guitar project, The Mystery Inch, with Sheffield guitar whizz David Kosky, in 2011.
"I've been steeped in music since childhood but, in all honesty, I had no aspirations at all of becoming a professional musician when I first came to England," he recalls.
"But I was lucky enough to play with and meet some great people along the way, most notably my incredible, beautiful and talented wife."
Friendly for several years with Kate's brother and sound engineer Joe, Damien was the natural choice when they needed banjo on a track Kate was doing for the comedy TV series Jam and Jerusalem, with Jennifer Saunders (who encouraged her to write a solo album), Dawn French and Pauline McLynn.
"It was the first time Kate and I met properly - you could say my banjo sparked the relationship there and then, though I was also bringing on whatever charm I have to the best of my ability," Damien laughs.
"In terms of first impressions, I have always had huge amounts of respect for Kate and her music. I knew her music way before I knew her and I loved how moving and passionate her vocals were and still are, of course."
As her evidently proud husband points out, Kate Rusby is one of the only folk artists to break through the folk genre into a wider audience and to win a Mercury Prize.
"She never fails to deliver and, most importantly, she is one of the most amazing friends I've ever had," he adds. "Kate also respected me as a musician - well, so she says anyway. She was aware of my work; music does bring people together.
"We both come from great, close family units. We come from good stock, we were taught manners and we both loved music. It was wedded bliss from the outset."
Damien had co-produced three of Kate's albums, including her first wholly self-penned one, Make The Light.
As she recalls, the couple would sit and work on arrangements every evening, after putting their eldest daughter to bed: "Not once did he complain about being bossed about by the missus - not that he said, anyway. Damien is just so fantastic to live with. He's also a gorgeous singer who is very sympathetic to the story. It's very rare to find musicians who love songs as much as singers."
Damien O'Kane plays Belfast's Duncairn Arts Centre tomorrow. See www.birminghamtradfest.co.uk,http://damienokane.co.uk, www.twitter.com/DeeOKaneBanjO, www.facebook/damienokaneofficial