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

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The Unthanks have never been an act to shy away from a challenge, especially in their occasional Diversions releases, which so far have seen them work with a brass band, soundtrack a film about the shipyards and interpret the work of Robert Wyatt and Antony & The Johnsons to singular and powerful effect. So it should come as no surprise that the latest Diversions volume, The Songs And Poems Of Molly Drake, is not only one of their most intriguing releases yet but also, according to their musical director and pianist Adrian McNally, might even be their best work.

So can I first ask how the idea for the Molly Drake project arose? Was it on the back of the 2013 album or had it been on your minds beforehand?

“Our relationship with the Drakes goes back beyond the release of Molly’s work in 2013. The actress Gabrielle Drake, Molly’s daughter and Nick’s sister, had already been to see us perform years ago, having been made aware of our readings of Nick Drake songs, by the man known only as Cally, who runs the Drake musical estate on behalf of and alongside Gabrielle. They’re sweet, smart, brilliant people. Both of them. From time to time, Gabrielle tours around with Cally, talking generously to those of us still engaged with the enigma of her brother, who in his lifetime, she was at least if not more famous than. Cally sent us the Molly Drake record when it came out, but it wasn’t the first music he’d ever sent us. He’s sent us lots of bits and bobs. Had we known each other twenty five years ago, I’m sure we might have sent each other compilation tapes. We’re all music mad, and he is music madder. So whether he meant to plant a seed by sending us Molly, I don’t know, but I don’t think we got through our first listen without that feeling that would have to do something with these songs.”

Hearing a woman, a mother, from that time, expressing her personal, melancholic, philosophical thoughts, so beautifully, with such artistry, confidently, and yet kind of from behind closed doors, is as compelling a listen as I’ve ever experienced. The suggested link between her songs and Nick’s is well documented, and you can certainly hear a deep kinship, yet in Molly, while there is wonder and introspection, there is also flamboyance, playful naughtiness, and at points, a more inclusive way of articulating the human condition. She is quite the fullest and realest of deals and I am quite in awe of her!”

The album sleevenotes contained in the press release see you being very frank about some of the issues you had to overcome to make this record, not least the fact that Drake seemingly never intended these poems and songs for release and that’s something you need to handle respectfully – could you talk a little bit about that? Presumably involving Gabrielle in the project must have felt like an approval of sorts?

“Molly’s approval isn’t available, but yes, we have her daughter’s, who of course knew her, loves her, and loves her songs and the role Molly’s songs played in family life. Certainly, without Gabrielle’s enthusiasm and approval we wouldn’t have done this. The most important thing for us to get across however, is that we have absolutely no delusions or pretensions of developing the songs on Molly’s behalf. We can hope and imagine that Molly might have been intrigued and delighted to find that others were interested in her work, but there is no sense in which we might be realising her unfulfilled dreams of being more widely heard. As far as we know, Molly played only in private or to friends, so we cannot assume that Molly had any further ambitions for her writing. The role of songwriting and poetry in her life may have been no more or less than a private form of self-expression. Nor is there anything unfinished in her artistry. It is only the quality and age of her recordings that could in anyway be described as less than fully realised. Her songs and performances themselves are wholly realised, beautifully accomplished, in a way that we cannot even hope to match, let alone develop! Our only ambition is to bring them to more people, because sadly but realistically, the technical quality of her recordings will limit the audience and airplay for them.

Ultimately, our main motive in the project is simple and the same as always – to engaged with, understand and shine a light on great writing. That has been more of a challenge than we expected.  The first thing you hear with Molly is the mannerisms of the time, which makes it sound simple and formulaic. The Noel Coward, Ivor Novello-type stylings of the era are there in her piano playing, and a stiff ‘properness’ in the voice. But there is far more to Molly’s piano playing and musicality than the styles of the day and it’s driven me nuts, trying to work out what she was up to. Some of stuff she throws in is downright avant garde. Molly was a brilliant musical deviant masquerading as mannered parlour room parlance of the day. There are things in her playing that if I replicate ad verbatim sound completely wrong, but she gets all kinds of musically wild stuff past our ears by gracing crazy notes quickly and surreptitiously!

We have both followed and moved away. On some songs, we have been quite faithful and sympathetic. With others, we have created fairly different chordal and arrangement structures, retaining Molly’s story, sentiments and tune, but removing the vernacular of the time she wrote them in, to present them in a way that hopefully shows the quality of the song as being completely independent of the music of the time. Some of the creativity that produced those results was born out of necessity. As a piano player, I do not have Molly’s chops. I am not versed in the styles and ornamentations of her day. In most cases, my starting point, which is a common one in The Unthanks, was to get Rachel or Becky to do an iPhone recording of themselves singing a song unaccompanied. I work to that alone, so I am free from and not influenced by the song’s original chords and voicings, which often results in a completely different sounding song, because of course, a melody can be given even a totally different emotion resonance, if it is set to different chords or rhythms. Only in instances where that route proves to be a dead end, do I then go to Molly’s originals. This is not a hard and fast rule. There are some instances when just through listening, a decision is made to remain faithful, or that an alternative idea is instantly recognised. In all cases, it is the song that comes first. If we rework, its because we can see another way of capturing or putting a different spin on the sentiment of the song, or if we don’t, its because we cannot see a better way of expressing the sentiment of the song.”



Did you always intended to involve Gabrielle in the project or was that something that  happened once you’d decide to make Diversions 4? And did she come up to work with you or was it done remotely?

“Initially, the project was going to be one on which I would curate a bunch of performers, with me producing and arranging the music, using The Unthanks sort of as house band, but having a different voice for each piece, much as we were asked to do with Harbour of Songs for The Boat Project. We had grand ideas and big names in mind! But the more we discussed it with the Drake camp and the closer it got, we talked about just wanting Gabrielle and they about being happy with just us. In many respects but quite unwittingly, Gabrielle has become the star of the show – her performances are so striking. Obviously as her daughter, she gets the writing, but of course she’s a great actress too so maybe we shouldn’t have been so surprised! As soon as I started adding the poetry to the music, it transformed the record.”

A couple of the songs were never recorded by Molly and were constructed from Gabrielle’s memory of them – that must have been especially difficult, and not a little moving for you all?

“Not at all! Well, not difficult anyway. For us is was sheer delight to get little recordings from Gabrielle of her memories of her mother’s songs. I’m sure perhaps it might have been emotional for her, and certainly extremely generous but I rather think that Gabrielle’s altruistic sense of responsibility to handle the legacies of her mother and brother, closely, personally and with love, means that she is used to being close to them in order to facilitate others who want to be close to their work. While it is sad that both are gone, I think that Nick and Molly are extremely lucky to have a family member who both protects and promotes their work with such integrity and good judgement.”


The plans for the forthcoming tour sound fascinating, can you tell me a little about them? And although Gabrielle Drake will feature via recordings, are there any plans for her to actually perform at any of the dates?

“We couldn’t possibly say! What I will say is that having made the record remotely, with Gabrielle sending the recording poetry down the wire so to speak, it will be a great shame if we don’t occupy the same stage at any point to perform and experience the work together.

The show will have a set, projection, recorded voice and live song, so it probably classifies as an audio visual work, if you go in for that sort of talk. We’re very much looking forward to performing it live, and expect it to be an emotional experience for all. We’re very excited about it just now, because having only just finished the record, we’re shocked and confused to find that we may have made our best record yet. Its a surprise because the process was a tough one this time for all kinds of reasons. Ultimately, if it is in our best work, I think that’s because it is perhaps the best work we have ever worked on. Molly’s writing and Gabrielle’s performances are sharp and precise tools to play with, like driving a Ferrari – you’re all over the road until you learn how to harness its precision and power.”

This comes after previous ‘cover versions’ Diversions with Antony & The Johnsons and Robert Wyatt. Does approaching other people’s work throw up its own set of challenges?

“I don’t like the term ‘cover version’, especially now it is tarnished with a cheap way to market for talent contest winners and their investors. Back in the day, there were brilliant writers and brilliant performers, and both were considered to be as important as each other in terms of making contact with the listener. And brilliant writers weren’t expected to be performers and vice versa, just like an actor paid millions to communicate a story emotively, isn’t thought of as a lesser player for not having written the script. We do write, but we’re equally motivated by interpreting other writers, especially if we feel that the writer’s work may receive a new audience if presented differently. I could put a folk spin on that too of course, in terms of how great work stands the test of time through being passed on and on, but I think the sentiment is universal across song of all kinds. That’s how music becomes folk music in the first place. Any type of song can become folk song.

The Diversions series allows us to go off at a tangent in a way that is hopefully less confusing than releasing our disparate adventures willy nilly. We have our main agenda, but a desire to explore, which our Diversions allow us to do without clouding that main agenda. Non of us are musically trained, and we just see every project as a learning process, a journey. It’s only when you’re prepared to throw yourself at something you don’t know how to do, that you truly create. Learning in public. Is that what art is perhaps?! Our next Diversion is hoped to be out before the end of the year and we’ll be announcing very soon!”

Last year you staged the second Home Gathering project (hurriedly but successfully shifted to Hoults Yard). Are there plans for a third edition this year, and if so are you allowed to tell me about any plans already in place?

“We hope to stage Home Gathering again this year, yes. Plans are taking some getting together, but its taken us a long time to get this far with it, and we want to make it an annual event now. Last year, we had the sublime Richard Hawley, anarchic post rock jazz from Get The Blessing, a major neo-classical treat in a rare performance of Steve Reich’s Different Trains, peerless maverick Richard Dawson, folk royalty in the form of the otherly Marry Waterson, those fearless musical maidens, The Moulettes, and some serious swinging and jumping from Kitty, Daisy and Lewis, interspersed with flash mob dancing and just mob singing from our carefully planted singing weekenders.

At so many festivals these days, the poetry is in the poetry tent, the comedy is in the comedy tent, the big bands are on the big stage etc. Its great that there’s such diversity of art form and genre to be found, but we can’t help thinking that it’s like the live equivalent of the internet, with people gravitating to what they know they already like. We would like to see festivals curated and billed more confidently, mixing the content of stages up so that good times end up full of enriching surprises. Having covered a lot of musical ground ourselves as The Unthanks, we know we are very lucky to have an open-minded and venturesome audience, ready to trust and join us. We have treated the chance to host our own festival with the same multifarious, magpie-like approach. Home Gathering is a bit like our weather – if you don’t like it, just wait a few minutes.”

And finally, whilst not to diminish Diversions 4 as not being a ‘proper’ Unthanks album, has any work started on the next one?

“The next one will be Diversions Vol. 5! Out before the end of the year. We’re not sure what we’re going to do after that. It might be an entirely unaccompanied song record. It might be a folk-opera-ballet with clogs on.”

I know you were disappointed that your Newcastle show clashes with Iron Maiden at the Metro Arena. Do you think you’ll fit in a show somehow?

“Iron Maiden are playing on the same night as us in Leeds, Newcastle and London. Chris and I are devastated we can’t go see them, and obviously we’re a bit worried for them what impact our presence in town might have on their sales! Maybe we will land up in the same hotels and dream up Diversions Vol. 6 with them. Maybe they don’t stay in Travelodges though. Oh wait, neither do we!”

Diversions Vol. 4 – The Songs And Poems Of Molly Drake will be released on Rabble Rouser on May 26th. The Unthanks are currently on a tour which will bring them to Stockton Arc on May 13th and Newcastle Theatre Royal on May 14th.

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