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

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Image: Rachel & Becky Unthank by Sarah Mason

The Unthanks have teased us recently with talk of their upbeat, pop album, but to some extent it’s true. “It’s more hopeful and warm, less melancholy, which isn’t to say there’s no deaths! But I think we were drawn to songs that gave us comfort and made us feel more hopeful.”, explains Rachel Unthank. “There’s not quite as much outright despair.”

Rachel is open about finding lockdown difficult, the isolation and the lack of opportunity to sing communally. All of this fed into the developing of songs for Sorrows Away. “We were really drawn to songs that gave us comfort or reminded us of singing with other people, that’s such a big part of our lives. We’ve run singing weekends on the Northumberland coast for the last ten years and we’ve sorely missed those, so some of those songs like The Great Selkie of Sule Skerry, we’ve sung on the beach with lots of people, and recording it reminded us of that. Or Waters of Tyne, I never really thought I’d put that on an album but I live right near the Tyne and in lockdown, the kids would go and explore the river and I’d be thinking about how it connected me to friends and family further down in Newcastle or my mum on the coast, and it took on new resonances. Sorrows Away is the sort of thing we’d normally sing together in a pub, with the line “since we’ve learned a new song to drive sorrows away”. When we decided to record it, it made sense of all the other songs.”

Although Sorrows Away is as ambitious and lush in its arrangements as Mount The Air, it didn’t start that way. “It always come from the songs. We actually always think we’ll not use a massive band because it’s ridiculous to tour! Really fun and really expensive.” she explains. “Becky and I would get together and practice our harmonies in the woods! Then we’d usually bring those songs to Adrian, and he dreams up all sorts of wonderful arrangements.”

Adrian McNally is the first to admit that he has to rein in some of his more ambitious tendencies when it comes to arrangements, but approaches it all with a level of consideration and thought that’s refreshingly clear-sighted and informed. “I have to work myself down sometimes! The first draft of Mount The Air was 17 minutes long and I was proud to get it down to ten! I’m increasingly conscious of trying to be briefer, being aware of being self-produced, being as tight as we possibly can. Because a lot of what we do is based on traditional music, it comes from a deep love of that material – the story, or the tune. Ralph Vaughan Williams and others like him explored folk tunes, elevating what were called ‘local tunes’ into music as worthy of consideration as more elitist forms of music. The tendency is to show those tunes you love from all sides, to convey their depth. I try to do that but we’re also trying to make ‘pop’ music. If one person doesn’t understand the music, I feel like I’ve failed. Commercialism to all of us is a compromise, but being understood is an absolute goal and any artist‘s first motive should be to be intelligible. So – I try to be brief but I don’t always succeed!”

We were really drawn to songs that gave us comfort or reminded us of singing with other people, that’s such a big part of our lives

McNally goes on to explain some of the modus operandi behind his arrangements, explaining that “on the surface, a lot of folk music – because it comes from those unaccompanied voices -might appear to be simplistic, but often the message in them is anything but. So a lot of folk songs are traditionally performed in a very throwaway style, in a jolly, high tempo, when the song might actually be about something like being pressed to war. So when we add layers musically, it’s also to add more layers in terms of the storytelling.”

The band, and McNally in particular, had to get used to new ways of working over lockdown. “Almost every note was recorded here in our new studio – we lost our old studio over lockdown, I had to move to a bigger house and go back to doing it from home, which is not easy with three kids.”, he explains. “There were a few bits and bobs recorded by Chris (Price, Hitchin-based guitarist) at home, we’ve worked out a remote way of working now, we did the same for the Wurzel Gummidge soundtracks, sharing ideas online. Growing up on the same street together, we trust each other to get what each of us means quickly.”

Although there have been lots of Unthanks releases in the nearly eight years since Mount The Air, the band do consider Sorrows Away to be the next ‘proper Unthanks album’. “We’d consider Mount The Air and Sorrows Away as studio albums, albums that go back to our mission statement, almost, where we sit and think about songs that we want to sing and the stories we want to share with people, and connect with people, and that’s quite different from when we’re doing a project album. So something like the Songs Of Molly Drake is very specifically what it says on the tin. When we were setting Emily Bronte’s poems to music, that had a very specific outcome. And that’s why we call them our Diversion albums, we love doing them, where we’re given a brief, almost, and have a very clear sense of what that is. Whereas a studio album comes much more from us and we think about where we are in our lives and what we’ve been inspired by.”

One of the really impressive things about The Unthanks is their flexibility as a unit – they can perform or tour as the full 11-piece band, a core five-piece, or just an acapella vocal trio. McNally admits that this is driven by pragmatism as much as art. “You want to be able to do what you want to all the time but it doesn’t make any financial sense having such a big band, it’s crippling. And we like to tour as a five because we don’t like saying no! We can do as we please, it’s enjoyable to be able to play in different forms and spaces, both in more evolved and then more intimate ways.”

The album includes a couple of songs that have been part of Rachel’s life for a long time. The Sandgate Dandling Song appears in a gorgeously arranged form: “Adrian says it’s the first song he ever heard me sing, he’s always been a bit obsessed with it, and I’ve always sung it unaccompanied.” McNally admits that song in particular was a challenge. “I’ve been trying to take it on for nearly twenty years, I kept picking it up and putting it down and I’ve never been satisfied with where I’ve been at with it. There’s so much that can be done with it, there’s so much musical information. I’ve thought about a whole record of versions of it, or a folk opera with someone like Richard Dawson as Johnny! So it’s quite a relief to get something down at last. I think it’s one of the best things we’ve done… And it’s being performed live so much better than it is on the record. “

And there’s Sorrows Away, which on their recent tour elicited an audience singalong reaction that felt to Rachel like “an incantation… we were all singing our sorrows away. And people really meant it as well. People are looking for that, audiences are coming with open hearts and wanting to connect. The first couple of times we did it, I burst into tears and couldn’t sing any more.“

The Unthanks release Sorrows Away on 14th October. They play The Fire Station, Sunderland on Wednesday 12th and Queen’s Hall Hexham on Sunday 23rd October. Adrian McNally has also recorded an essay for BBC Radio 3 about Ralph Vaughan Williams which is broadcast on 12th October and expands on some of the ideas alluded to here.


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