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

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As success stories go, the Unthank Saga is quite an unlikely one. Sisters, Rachel and Becky follow in the footsteps of their father George, singing folk songs that were long forgotten, breathing life into a form that most people would file under mustyjumper/dankstragglybeard.

In 2007 with Adrian McNally at the helm of their second album The Bairns, they achieved something quite remarkable. They crossed over, and came a very close second to Elbow’s Seldom Seen Kid at the Mercury Awards.

What had been a bit of a special North East secret, suddenly became public knowledge, The Unthanks were go – and boy did they, releasing five albums, presenting shows on the telly, singing songs for shipyards, getting wed and having bairns. And then it all went quiet over there. Now after a two year hiatus they’re back with a splendid new album Mount The Air, and a single of the same name – a Miles Davis-tinged lament to love and devotion, that carries you away in its warm embrace. Producer, composer and Mr Unthank, Adrian McNally told me how the new album came into focus: “We had been quite prolific with our output and felt we needed some space between our last releases otherwise no bugger would notice. We needed time for people to miss us. Right from the start we’ve always been short of time when it comes to making an album. I work from instinct, it’s written and the following day a string quartet comes along to record. I’ve now had more time – which can be a luxury – but I also found that I managed to get it wrong more times than I eventually got it right. Maybe with this extra time I’ve ruled all the diversions out and gone back to my original instinct.”

To these ears, the album sounds a little more – dare I say it – commercial – was there a worry about upsetting the traditionalists? “No. Simply, because I don’t feel that we’ve moved away from the tradition. There are as many, if not more pieces – or sources – of traditional music as there have ever been. I think it’s our treatment of that music that informs the question. I wouldn’t be making an album with a ten minute opening track if I was just interested in making commercially accessible music. My personal listening habits are far more leftfield than our music. It’s taking those influences and making the ideas far more listenable and accessible. It’s a language – and it’s only successful if it’s well communicated. If there’s one person in the room who doesn’t get it, then I feel like I’ve failed.”

“Those stories are really important to us, it was the way we were brought up, to honour where they came from, who gave you the song. That’s part of the tradition.” Says Rachel, who is equally as passionate about the source of the band’s sound and lyrics, although Adrian’s approach is a progressive one: “If folk music didn’t carry on and develop, it wouldn’t be folk music because it wouldn’t still be here. The vocabulary that we use to bring this music is much more accessible to a wider audience than maybe the traditionalists use and is perceived as more commercial, but the form our music takes invariably isn’t. Mount The Air was a one verse little ditty from Dorset, what it has become is fundamentally a love for that source material and a desire to bring it to a wider audience.”

the unthanks

“There are as many, if not more pieces – or sources – of traditional music as there have ever been. I think it’s our treatment of that music that informs the question”

At the core of The Unthanks are Rachel and Becky, sisters with voices that do that wonderful sibling harmony voice thing – and yet their individual styles are quite opposite. Becky has this breathy, church organ-enveloping hug, whereas Rachel is so sweet, precise and warm. When they sing together it’s a unique and beautiful sound. For the new album, both Becky and Rachel have written lyrics and Rachel told me how it all came together: “We both always find the songs, looking in old books, listening to lots of singers, talking to our parents. Gathering those songs that we have a connection with and whose story we can tell. Becky went down to Cecil Sharp House in London and came back with some songs we hadn’t heard before. We would take the song, see how we could sing it, tell its story and then show it to Adrian and he’d take it and disappear down a hole, return with a different take on what it was, another way to tell the story. The song can go down a whole new avenue. Becky and me love that.

“This is the first time we’ve written for an album; I’ve used Golden Slumbers, the song The Beatles used on Abbey Road, Becky found some old lyrics for it, we sat around singing it, harmonising and it gradually came into being. I went off and wrote an extra verse, which has become the song The Last Lullaby. Being a singer from the folk tradition, there’s always so many songs to sing, I’ve never really felt the need to write, now there’s something of me to pass on.”

The band are taking the album on the road in the New Year, with two dates in the region at Newcastle City Hall (Saturday 14th March) and Middlesbrough Town Hall (Thursday 19th March), something Rachel is looking forward to. “It’s two years since we were last on the road, we’re all animated by the album, excited to sing the songs and tell those stories, hear those arrangements surrounding us. Me and Becky are very lucky, stood in the middle with all the music going on around us.”

Afterwards Adrian took me down to the studio at the bottom of the garden. In a tiny hamlet in darkest Northumberland the wonders of Mount The Air unfurled. Hearing it in the place it was created was a marvel. A record that demands to be listened to rather than shuffled, it’s both charming and bewitching.

The Unthanks play Newcastle City Hall on Saturday 14th and Middlesbrough Town Hall on Thursday 19th March.

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