The Unthanks: '˜We're known for not shying away from dark material but we've been completely out-darkened by Emily Brontë'

Folk group The Unthanks are a band who seem to thrive on doing the unexpected. Where their early albums sprinkled songs by Robert Wyatt, Tom Waits and King Crimson in with traditional numbers from their native Northumbria, latterly they have focused on more project-based work.

The Unthanks recorded their Emily Bronte song cycle at the Bronte Parsonage Museum.
The Unthanks recorded their Emily Bronte song cycle at the Bronte Parsonage Museum.

In 2012 they made Songs From The Shipyards to accompany a documentary film about the history of shipbuilding in Tyne, Wear and Tees; last year came The Songs and Poems of Molly Drake, mother of the singer-songwriter Nick and actress Gabrielle, plus songs to accompany Maxine Peake’s play The Last Testament of Lillian Bilocca, about the 1968 trawler disaster in Hull.

The last is due to form part of a trilogy of albums, called Lines, to be released in February 2019. The second record will focus on First World War letters, while the third consists of 10 poems by Emily Brontë that have been set to music by Adrian McNally – a project commissioned by the Brontë Society to mark the 200th anniversary of the Wuthering Heights author’s birth.

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Tomorrow they will perform the song cycle live at Leeds Town Hall.

Adrian McNally of The Unthanks plays the piano that belonged to Emily Bronte at the Bronte Parsonage Museum.

“I think we operate in a different music industry environment now,” reflects McNally. “Maybe once upon a time bands used to have hits; bands don’t have hits any more because nobody buys recorded music and no one cares about singles. Whereas once a band on their eighth or ninth album with people still coming to see them their audience would be wanting the hits that were perhaps on the first couple of records. OK, so they might tolerate the new album but really they’re there to hear the hits.

“Now, because we don’t operate in that kind of music industry, if you want people who might have five records on their shelf to come and see you they’re thinking, ‘Do I really need another album by that band? Do I really need to go and see them again?’ I think the onus really is on illustrating to your audience that this will be completely different to what they’ve seen us do before; they really do need to hear this and know it’s not just another record or just another tour.

“So whereas once a band who’d had hits might have been petrified to play their new music, I think now it really is the thing that’s necessary in order to make people want to come again is to convince them no, we won’t play anything you’ve heard before, in fact. We’ve tested the loyalty of our fans many times doing project-based tours where we really are saying when you come tonight we won’t play a single thing you’ve heard before, and on occasion we’ve done that three times in a year and we are very lucky and grateful that we do have an audience that trust us in that way and are on board with the idea of us being on a musical journey.

“None of us are trained as musicians and we constantly look for and relish new stimulus and new places to go both with regards to storytelling with social history and with musical flavours, so this project fitted right in with that.”

The Emily Brontë song cycle is however a departure in some respects, Barnsley-born McNally feels, “in that [the Brontës’] story is perhaps so unique that it doesn’t really fit anywhere”. The band didn’t seek any guidance from the Brontë Society in which of Emily’s poems to set to music. “We were sat looking at the complete works of Emily Brontë and there are rather a lot of poems in there,” McNally says. “On closer inspection a lot of the poems fit into maybe half a dozen categories and that many of them are almost like practice runs for her ultimate poem about nature or whatever, so the object really is to find the best one of that genre. She had so few poems published in her lifetime [under the pseudonym Ellis Bell] that I’m sure she would probably be horrified if she could imagine that one day all her poems would be read. I’m sure some of them weren’t meant for prying eyes at all, they were just missives to herself or in preparation for the poem she was really going to write, so I think the standard goes up and down but we are privy to every word she ever wrote and what writer would want us to see everything they did, whether they were intended for our eyes or not?

“It was fun looking through them. Certainly we weren’t Brontë aficionados in any shape or form prior to this project; I think that stood us in good stead, had we been so and been aware quite how highly she’s regarded, she’s still revered internationally and people are still fascinated by her to such an extent, that I’m sure had we been conscious of that in the beginning I’m sure we would probably have been frozen within the creative process with fear and intimidation. I think it’s helped us that we’ve been able to come and look at her poetry afresh.”

The idea was that McNally would compose on Emily Brontë’s five-octave cabinet piano, which sits in the Brontë Parsonage in Haworth. Because the parsonage is a working museum, he had to work after it had closed for the day. He found it an atmospheric experience, “not least because the house is silent and because it’s full of stone walls and open doors the sound of the piano really rings around the place”.

“The people that were with me for security reasons and spend all of the day in there at work were really quite taken with it, I think it was probably more atmospheric for them than it was for me to hear what I was playing ringing out around the place. It was a bit of a challenge for me in having to create in their presence as well; I was monitored constantly because everything in there is so valuable, it was for my own interest that were anything to go missing or get broken that week that they’d know it wasn’t me.

“Mostly I’m arranging traditional songs, with this I was actually tune-writing which meant I had to use my voice which is not something that’s easy when you’re first starting the creative process in front of other people. But I was given a bit of a way out of that in that I wrote all the music in the song cycle in my first night on the piano. I came completely unprepared with a blank page because I wanted to be informed by the instrument, and limited by it. On the first night I came away with about 20 iPhone recordings, just of music without trying to put any of it to poetry, then I spent the rest of the week trying to find which poems that we’d shortlisted would go with which bits of music.

“I did a lot of that at a different, Brontë-related house, Hummanby Hall, a couple of miles away, which is now run as a B&B and was where I was staying. They put me there because it was where Emily based the other house in Wuthering Heights on, Thurcross Grange, and they happened too have a beautiful German upright piano which I was able to work on during the day and try to put some of Emily’s poems to the piano then I’d go back into the parsonage in the evening and road-test what I’d worked on during the day.

“I was also staying in a room with a replica of the box bed where Emily and her sisters used to scribble their thoughts away when they went to Ponden Hall which they used to do because apparently the library there was superior to their own. That was atmospheric too because when you pull back one of the panels it reveals a tiny window that looks out onto the reservoir and which was the window that Emily was supposed to have been inspired to write the bit in Wuthering Heights about Cathy’s ghost coming through the window to visit Heathcliff in the night. It was not the most restful night I’ve ever had but I was glad to have had the chance.”

Emily Brontë was herself a music teacher and McNally believes there’s a musicality in her writing. “There is an amount known about her love of music and folk songs. Her poetry is extraordinary, it does feel with some of her poems that they were either intended to be songs or that she imagined that they might be. With some of her poems she sticks so religiously to rhythm; some might say in a modern poetry context it’s kind of childish or basic because poetry now takes so many different forms and we’re encouraged to think that rhyming is not necessarily the right way to go, it’s all about breaking the rules.

“Some of Emily’s poems conform so rigidly to the fluidity of the rhythm she’s using that they’re ideal for turning into songs and it’s almost like she was mindful of that in the way she wrote.”

McNally is sceptical about attempts to lionise Emily and her sisters Charlotte and Anne as heroes for the modern age. “We deal with a lot of folk song and the perception is that we’re trying to modernise them and bring them into relevance to today, whereas more often than not we’re only looking to pinpoint and bring out the truth and beauty in a piece of work that was there all along and is universal. It’s not to be modernised, it’s just that it’s timeless,” he says.

“It takes a little while to see because a lot of Emily’s work is so entrenched in the language of its day, that takes a bit of getting over, certainly when I read Wuthering Heights it took me 50 pages to get used to the language before that stopped being the most overtly present thing to me, so you need to settle with that. We tried to find poems that weren’t as entrenched in the language of the time for them not to feel like museum pieces.

“I think the most enduring thing about Emily’s poetry is how little moral compass she offers the reader, it’s so devoid of moral compass that it’s really quite brave and refreshing to read her work, perhaps because she didn’t expect some of her poetry to be read by other people. She wrote with such an honesty. We’re known for not shying away from dark material but we’ve been completely out-darkened by Emily. She’s so relentlessly dark that it seems to me that she had no self-consciousness about that and no concern for the reader whatsoever. That’s really quite refreshing and brave and why I think her work will endure.”

The Unthanks perform the Emily Brontë Song Cycle at Leeds Town Hall on Friday December 21. The album is available from the band’s website or the Brontë Parsonage Museum.