INTERVIEW: The Unthanks | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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For a band that built much of its formidable reputation through touring, being off the road for the last couple of years has been hard for The Unthanks. “Obviously it has meant a massive change for us as musicians, as it has lots of other people.” Rachel Unthank points out. “Music is a way of forming strong connections with people, and that is what we have missed the most, interacting and being a part of a musical community.”

One way the band coped with the lack of audiences and incomes was through their Onliner events, which took their renowned residential singing weekenders and turned them into elaborate and successful online weekend mini-festivals. “The Onliners were a huge learning curve for us,” admits Rachel. “Rethinking how to make music and find a way to reach our musical communities was a challenge. Although we are going to relaunch these in-person events, we wanted to try hard to reach those communities as well as people who come to our gigs. It was a lot of hard work doing things we had never done before, making podcasts, content and online workshops, but it was so rewarding. We also asked people to film themselves singing while out on their allowed hour of freedom, out on a walk, or in their gardens. The response was overwhelming and so heart-warming, it made us feel really connected to others again. A real boost. We followed the same basic format in the second year of our Onliner, with the addition of Becky’s Art Club inspired by Grayson Perry‘s TV programme, and interviewing a wider range of musicians and collaborators.”

I remember stepping onto the stage for the first time and thinking ‘stop looking at me!’ I then gave myself a quick mental pep talk and felt very grateful to be back doing a job that I love

That’s what the Onliner is meant to be about,” adds Adrian McNally. “Yes, there are exclusive concerts, podcasts, Q&As etc, but mostly it’s about creating opportunities for interaction, participation, community and creativity. In this way, it feels like we’ve maybe created something that will last beyond lockdowns – a way of connecting fans, of creating and communicating together in ways that don’t overlap much with our live shows or even our singing weekends.”

The Unthanks have played just a couple of shows since lockdown ended so their imminent three-week tour (performing as an eleven-piece band) is both exciting and alarming for them. “You get out of practice,” explains Rachel.I remember stepping onto the stage for the first time and thinking ‘stop looking at me!’ I then gave myself a quick mental pep talk and felt very grateful to be back doing a job that I love.”

Sorrows Away, the long-awaited follow-up album to 2015’s Mount The Air, has been delayed for various reasons – COVID, working remotely – but some of the material will be making it into April’s setlists (alongside songs from their lauded contributions to Worzel Gummidge). “We found ourselves reaching for songs that bring us comfort, like old friends. There is also new material written by Becky, Adrian and myself, as well as plenty of traditional songs including some classics from the North East. For an Unthanks album, this is definitely a more warm, and dare I say it, more joyful, album. Although there is still a reasonable dose of heartbreak, but no deaths!”

The Unthanks play Middlesbrough Town Hall on Friday 22nd and Tyne Theatre & Opera House, Newcastle on Sunday 24th April.


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