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

Narc. Magazine Online

Reliably informed

Image by Ivan Jones

After five years on the back burner, a gap in The Unthanks and Maxïmo Park’s respective schedules has finally seen Rachel Unthank and Paul Smith lift the lid on their best kept secret…

“It still feels new because we’ve not been out and toured it yet. I can’t believe it’s been that long!” Rachel exclaims, discussing the pair’s magnificent collaborative album, Nowhere is Everywhere.

“Our management kept saying ‘put it out, get it out of the way,’ but we wanted to do it properly,” Paul recounts. “We think it’s a really good record, and we wanted to give it its time in the sun – to play it to people and not do things half-heartedly.”

The seed of this unlikely collision between two of the North East’s most recognisable voices was sewn as far back as 2013, when the pair met backstage at an Africa Express event at Middlesbrough Town Hall. A half-decade later, the first shoots surfaced when they performed together as a duo for the first time, as part The Great Exhibition of the North. “Tamsin [previously at Sage Gateshead, now Sunderland’s Fire Station] asked if there was anything I’d like to do for the festival, and I said I’d love to work with Rachel,” Paul recalls. “I’d always wanted to work with her in the back of my mind, but it never seemed like a possibility; our paths had crossed over the years, but we didn’t really know each other. Singing together in such an intimate way felt quite daunting – but I had a love of folk song and a number [The Natural Urge] which didn’t fit with anything else I was doing, so at least we had something!”

“Singing in harmony with somebody other than Becky was nerve-wracking for me as well!” responds Rachel. “It was trial-and-error, but that’s how we work in The Unthanks too. Paul and I lot of chatting which helped, and I think we realised quite quickly that we were coming from the same place. He got the stamp of approval from my Dad too, which is what matters!”

I love the fantastical side of folk as well as the social and political aspects – it helps us explore feelings and topics which are difficult to explore in human nature

Indeed, despite spending the bulk of his musical life “jumping around, trying to make the best alternative pop in the world” with Maxïmo Park, Paul’s passion for folk stretches as far back as his teens, when he first became infatuated with the work of Nick Drake, Bert Jansch and Anne Briggs. “The real catalyst came when I started singing some of the traditional songs,” he explains. “I felt comfortable doing them, and Rachel must have felt comfortable on The Natural Urge. It had an energy to it which made us want to do more.”

Produced by Field Music’s David Brewis, with added contributions from clarinettist Faye MacCalman (Archipelago) and drummer Alex Neilson (Trembling Bells, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy), the resulting record is a timeless snapshot of the pair’s mutual passions – for traditional song and writers such as Lal Waterson, Tom Pickard and Graham Miles; but also for the rich history, cultural heritage and linguistic diversity of their native region. “I live in Northumberland, I’ve lived in Newcastle and my family is from Teesside. Paul lives in Newcastle, but is from Teesside. Dave who produced the album is from Sunderland…” Rachel muses: “We didn’t necessarily conceive it to be that way, but we both love the whole of the North East, so it felt quite natural.”

For Paul – a graduate in linguistics – the various accents and dialects at play presented an opportunity to pursue a long-held fascination: “I’ve always sang from the heart, but it’s something I think about a lot as well as having that instinctive quality. When I first began singing with Maxïmo Park in that flat in Fenham, I realised I was Americanising my vowel sounds, and it didn’t feel right. There’s a pureness of intent and spirit to a lot of the singers I look up to – like Robert Wyatt for instance – and anything which got in the way of that felt wrong to me.” Even so, several songs adapted on Nowhere is Everywhere presented a distinct challenge; one he hopes opens the eyes and ears of outsiders prone to presenting North Eastern language as a single analogous mass. “For this record I had to separate from that usual mindset – that if I wouldn’t say something, I won’t sing it,” he reveals. “For What Macs Mackems for example, I didn’t even know what half of the words were about! There’s slang terms in there, double meanings and all sorts of stuff. We had to do research into shipbuilding, which made me feel more comfortable, as that’ the kind of thing I’ve grown up with, and you have to respect that heritage when you’re dealing with these older songs.”

Another clear standout is Seven Tears; a rare Unthank original on which the album’s core elements are supplemented by a hint of mythological flair: “I love the fantastical side of folk as well as the social and political aspects – it helps us explore feelings and topics which are difficult to explore in human nature,” says Rachel. “Seven Tears is about selkies, and was inspired by a time I saw a bob of seals off a Northumbrian beach. Selkies have roots in Scottish, Irish and Scandinavian mythology – they’re seals which remove their skins to take on a human form. I was doing some research, and one theory was that ‘if you cry seven tears, your selkie lover will come back to you;’ I’ve always been fascinated by those tales, and I like the specifics of them. Songwriting’s a new foray I’ve been trying to push myself into recently, so that became a bit of a vehicle.”

For all its marvellous arrangements and instrumental flourishes, the true heart of Nowhere is Everywhere perhaps lies in its trio of a capella numbers: Captain Bover, Red Wine Promises and The King. Showcasing the duo’s chemistry in its purest form, each nonetheless comes wrought with imperfection – the kind of raw charm that’d be all too easy to forfeit in multiple takes or bouts of studio trickery. Moreover, they document a burgeoning friendship being forged through the medium of song – a sound sure to delight both fanbases, and warm folkie hearts of any generation.

Unthank:Smith release Nowhere And Everywhere on 17th February. Unthank:Smith play Wylam Brewery, Newcastle on Sunday 2nd April.


Like this story? Share it!

Subscribe to our mailout