The Unthanks – Interview 2015

“We always enjoy coming to Brighton so much, the audiences are so warm and supportive, and also because there are such great shops! We need time to go shopping between soundchecks!” laughs Rachel Unthank, who along with her younger sister Becky, have been enjoying the fruits of a tremendous surge in interest in recent years for all things folk; for the unadorned, unadulterated pure essence of music that these two singers impart, who along with Rachel’s husband, Adrian McNally, the sister’s producer, arranger and composer, are the core of the band. Their music is released on a label Adrian set up, Rabblerouser.

Adrian is well and truly part of the family now; he’s married to Rachel, and together they have a pair of very young children, who, one imagines, will develop into singers in their right. On the new album, Mount The Air, there’s a lovely instrumental called ‘For Dad’, which features Rachel as a toddler, in 1978. ‘What have you got to say to that microphone’? asks Dad, unwittingly painting a vivid picture of his daughter experiencing the wonderful world of singing and music making. In fact, how does she cope with the rigours of touring with both a three and a half year old, and one year old in tow? “They are coming with us,” she says. “George, even when he was a baby, pretty much came on tour straight away, bless him. It was part of his life and he soaked it up and enjoyed it. He had his mama and his dad all the time, and the band, who are his extended family. We went on a tour recently and he’d get really excited about the bathrooms in hotel rooms, and which bed he was going to sleep in. The little one, it’ll be a new experience for him, but he’ll have his family around, so it’ll be OK.”

Experiencing many a folk festival from an early age, and from a family that only started to fully embrace folk during the folk revival movement of the 60s, Rachel and Becky became clog dancers from an early age, and it proved to be their passport to the folk festival circuit, which even back in the 80s was still strong, albeit then largely kept alive by the folk traditionalists, and bands who had already made their mark in the 60s and 70s, such as Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span. “We grew up going to folk festivals. Me and Becky first started singing together at family parties, and then we thought maybe we could get some free tickets by going to folk festivals, get a few songs together, and doing some dancing. Warwick and Whitby folk festivals were an inspiration.”

It wasn’t until the 90s that the emergence of new folkies such as Eliza Carthy and Kate Rusby injected some badly needed new blood into folk music, a trend that continues to gain momentum to this day, helped immeasurably by the distinct pining for some clarity as to our roots, and a strong move away from the clinical digitalisation of our world. Witness the tsunami of records that are being recorded in the ‘old fashioned’ way, the revival of analogue and vinyl, and the embracing of ‘real’ instrumentation, too. “It’s not a dirty word anymore,” says Rachel, about folk music. “I think it’s partly been a response to our spoon-fed culture and people wanting something more handcrafted and honest, and to see where it has come from. I remember five years ago seeing a slogan: folk is the new disco. You know what, I knew it would fashionable again if I waited long enough! Pop songs taking on the vernacular of folk, with guitars and fiddles. It’s OK, its alright to be into it. And that’s great.

“It’s always been a massive part of our lives, growing up, surrounded by singers from the North East. We are still looking for those songs, we still talk about those songs, and singing with those people… but our parents weren’t precious about that. When we had a sing-a-round, they encouraged us as teenagers to sing songs we liked, just songs we were interested in, and their stories. I remember having an interview once when someone really wanted me to say I had grown up singing to just folk songs. He insisted that that must have been the case! We were teenagers, and our parents always encouraged us to have freedom of expression, and to be inquisitive about everything in the world.”

Their open-minded approach has seen them guest on Paul Hartnoll’s (aka Orbital) new album 8.58, singing a cover of The Cure’s A Forest, a song that Hartnoll felt would work in the hands of the sisters…. “He came up to our studio here. My son handed him a shaker and said, ‘you can be in my band’! laughs Rachel. He just had this idea when he was driving one day. Obviously, it’s (electronic dance music) for us a different genre to work with, but we were really pleased with the results.”

In between releasing Last and Mount The Air, The Unthanks had pursued their interest in the work of other singers and musicians via three albums, all released under the Diversions moniker. Volume One was a live recording of them performing songs by Robert Wyatt and Anthony & The Johnsons, while Volume 2 was another album based on live recordings that they undertook with folk-brass legends Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band, performing Unthanks songs from their back catalogue. Volume 3 – Songs from the Shipyards – is a studio album, based on songs, traditional and contemporary, from a soundtrack compiled by The Unthanks which was performed as an accompaniment to a documentary film by Richard Fenwick about the history of shipbuilding on the Tyne, Wear and Tees.

They also organise singing weekends every year, time permitting. “They are in a house by the sea, people come up and do harmony singing. We just decided to organise a couple and see how they went, and they sold out in 24 hours. We have juts open it up to our mailing list. They are such fun. We really enjoy them, we do all the things we miss when we are touring, singing in big groups, walking on the beach, and singing in the pub, drinking nice beer. Really, really nourishing,” laughs Rachel.

They were also the presenters of a pair of documentaries, shown on BBC Four: Still Folk Dancing… After All These Years and A Very English Winter, exploring England’s folk customs and dance traditions throughout the seasons; Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter.

All this, and the voices… It’s what has helped to set them apart, as well as this fusion of timeless folk music and singing, with a contemporary, cinematic sound, a sound that is largely the work of Adrian McNally, a man who grew up listening to modern rock and pop. “We bonded over music,” says Rachel of her relationship with Adrian. “When we first started together we were a bit tentative. He might say, “I’m going to play you some early Genesis now, and he went very quiet, and I realised I would have to listen and not talk over it, which is a tendency of mine to do,” laughs Rachel. “We went to many festivals, and heard music from all over the world.”

Rachel and Becky Unthank first made a big impression with their Mercury nominated The Bairns album of 2008, an album that was, like their debut album Cruel Sister, released as Rachel Unthank & The Winterset. Importantly, it featured several original compositions by Belinda O’Hooley, the pianist (and vocalist) within the group, as well as a Tom Waits cover (Sea Song). And it was here that the dramatic and cinematic qualities of Mount The Air first bore fruit. Sensual and melancholy, with hints of jazz, blues and vaudeville, The Bairns was a triumph.

With O’Hooley’s departure in 2009, Rachel Unthank & The Winterset were reborn as The Unthanks, and Adrian became not just the group’s producer, but also the composer and arranger, the music becoming less folk, even more cinematic, and imbibed with an unwavering sadness and melancholia, as heard on 2011’s Last album, and this year’s Mount The Air, which was recorded in a converted granary, just down the lane where they live.

But it’s the singing and the lyrics that remain the primary draw, Rachel and Becky’s voices working on their own but also in unison. And it’s the voices and lyrics, which remain largely drawn from traditional sources, that root the music as folk, first and foremost. “We always approach it in the same manner; me and Becky go off and look for songs… Becky went to Cecil Sharp House – home of the English Folk Dance and Song Society – they have a great library, and she did a bit of research, and found lyrics for Mount The Air, which she found in a Dorset song book, and that was a great platform. Just that one verse, which has turned into a ten minute opener (the title track of Mount The Air). Becky and Adrian wrote extra lyrics for it and Adrian went on a musical journey with it. Some of the other songs came out of that Dorset song book, Madam, for instance. Hawthorn is from a singing session Becky used to run in Manchester; it’s from a poem by Charles Causley. Magpie is by a man called Dave Dodds, but we learnt it from Jim Mcgeean, who sings with my Dad and his singing group (The Keelers). Died For Love is from a version by Isla Cameron. it’s quite magpie-like, the way we collect material.

“Occasionally, songs strike you and you think ‘maybe I could tell that story, sing that song’. When it strikes a chord, it depends on the subject matter, and if you can add to it. All five members of the band have contributed something new with the album. Adrian usually writes something for the albums, but it was the first time for me and Becky. Becky’s song Flutter has just been playlisted for Six Music which is very exciting, the first time we’ve been playlisted.”

With a seven and a half year age gap between the pair, it’s a wonder that they were able to get it together, knowing what such a gap could mean for, say, a 14 year old, having to deal with her sister, half her age…. “It feels that we have always done it. If we have a family party everyone comes with a party piece, so you’re expected to sing. Becky started singing only when I would do it with her… We have family in Australia, who filmed us once, and they sent it to us and Becky was only about five then: ‘C’mon Becky, sing us a song’. ‘I’ll only do it if you do it with me’. So we sang a little nursery rhyme together. Singing was always a massive part of our relationship. Even when I went to university we used to sing to each other over the phone. Which we can’t do any more on mobile phones, I’ve only just discovered. There is a slight delay, so if you try and sing together you can’t do it! You have to use landlines!”

To Southern ears, The name Unthank seems unusual, weird even. But around their neck of the woods, it’s relatively common. It’s this rootedness that has been another factor in the interest shown towards them… “At a certain time in history this whole area (an area that crosses the borders of England and Scotland) was called the Debatable Lands. It wasn’t ruled by anybody, it was ruled by the families that lived here. A bit like the wild west, but colder,” laughs Rachel. The Unthanks were supposed to be a border weaver family. There are places dotted across Northumbria and Cumbria that are called Unthank; farms and hamlets… unthanks means to go on common land and decide to live there, like a squatter. Very glamorous!” So, you come from a background of squatters? “Yeah, basically. Yeah, we’re having this land!”

Jeff Hemmings