Rachel and Becky Unthank may have grown up steeped in the folk songs of their native North East of England, but across the course of their career they’ve regularly dipped their toes in other musical genres.
Having previously covered numbers by Robert Wyatt, Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, The Beatles and Antony and the Johnsons and worked with the Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band on a live album that was partially recorded at Leeds Town Hall, their latest album and accompanying tour focuses on the songs and poems of Molly Drake, a woman whose creative talents might have been overshadowed in her own lifetime by her singer-songwriter son Nick and actress daughter Gabrielle but have finally found a cult audience 24 years on from her death.
Rachel explains she and Becky discovered Molly Drake’s work via their fascination in her son. “We were already fans of Nick Drake’s music and my sister Becky sang one of his songs, Riverman, on our very first album,” she explains. “Through that Gabrielle, who’s Nick’s sister, and Cally [Callomon] who runs the Nick Drake estate, came to see us and we made friends.
“They recently put out an album of Molly’s recordings, which were never meant for public consumption but her husband [Rodney] was an enthusiastic recorder and used to sit down and record her singing. We were totally bowled over by it and thought it might be something interesting [for us to explore] in reflection to Nick Drake’s work maybe, but actually she is an amazing artist in her own right.
“Her songs and her poems there’s so much in them, they’re so interesting and emotionally intelligent and philosophical and witty and also dark and just wonderful, really. We were really excited by them.”
Listening to Molly’s songs such as Poor Mum and Do You Ever Remember?, it’s easy to detect the connection with her son. Both share a deep sense of Englishness and gentle melancholy.
“There’s an introspection there and a thoughtfulness that they definitely have in common,” Rachel notes. “It’s interesting talking to Gabrielle, she was saying her mum was really happy and full of life but obviously she did have this extremely melancholic, thoughtful side as well. I can see that in Nick’s songwriting.”
Molly Drake’s life provided an interesting background to her own songs. Born in Rangoon, Burma, she was educated at boarding school in England before returning to Rangoon and meeting her future husband Rodney. When the Japanese invaded Burma in 1942, Molly and her sister Nancy were evacuated to an uncle’s home in India. Finally reunited with her husband two years later, she gave birth to Gabrielle in 1944 and Nick in 1948. In 1952 the family moved to the Warwickshire village of Tanworth-in-Arden, where Molly remained for the rest of her life.
She is said to have often written songs for her children and her later work reflected the struggles of a mother dealing with her son’s depression. Nick died of an overdose of antidepressants in 1974.
“I can’t presume to know her really but you draw your own conclusions by exploring somebody’s art and by listening to their thoughts,” says Rachel. “She was a really interesting woman. Her and Rodney lived in the Far East and her and her sister were radio DJs [in India]. When Japan attacked Burma they had to escape and walked this horrendous journey through mountains to the Indian border that a lot of people didn’t survive, and they had to leave their husbands behind, they didn’t know if they’d see them again. So she was an really interesting character.
“You can think she lived in a nice place in the south of England but actually she had a really interesting life and there is a certain strength in her songwriting and her poetry and you can see that in her life maybe.”
Music seems to have played an important part in social occasions at the Drake household. It’s something that Rachel can relate to, having parents who were both Northumberland folk musicians. “My mum and dad love music, particularly folk music, and there were always people playing instruments in the house or singing and the family parties you had to come with your turn. I think part of the reason me and Becky started singing together was because she’s quite a lot younger than me and she didn’t want to sing on her own so I would sing with her and you’d start to think about the next party that you had to have a song for so me and my brother played instruments and we played together. Definitely it’s a way we’d celebrate together and also commiserate – at a funeral we’d have a sing afterwards. It’s kind of how we deal with life.”
Although The Unthanks are one of Britain’s most popular folk bands, on their latest tour they have chosen to play at the kind of venues that best fit Molly Drake’s songs. Becky says: “It’s like somebody is talking to you or giving you advice or telling you a secret. There is a certain intimacy about her songwriting style that I think will lend itself to a more intimate venue. Certainly for us, we’re in a more pared down line-up from that of our last tour where we had a ten-piece band and brass and drums and a string quartet.
“This is just me and Becky with lots of harmonies and vocals, piano and double bass and fiddle and also clarinet, which we’ve never worked with before. It felt like there was a soulfulness in the clarinet which might work well with her writing – and hopefully that is true.”
Rachel puts the band’s willingness to explore music beyond the traditional folk boundaries down to the fact they are “just music lovers, all of us”.
“With Adrian [McNally, Becky’s husband] as well, we come from musical backgrounds and we all have different interests. Although we were brought up with folk music it wasn’t a strict thing. Our parents were children of the 60s and they loved The Beatles so there was that kind of music in our house. Also when I was a teenager I was into grunge music. Although they didn’t particularly like that style, there was a freedom and an expectation that we would follow our own interests. When we picked songs we were always encouraged to pick ones that we connected to and we wanted to tell the story of, whether that be from the folk vernacular or other places as well and I think that’s continued on.
“Different musical styles excite us and interest us and keep our minds alive. I think the Diversions [series] label for us is a way of documenting projects that we do – the brass band or just for our own self-indulgence exploring Robert Wyatt and Antony and the Johnsons. Hopefully later in the year we’re going to bring out an album of the orchestral work that we’ve been doing, we recorded some live shows.”
Rachel envisages “loads” more Diversions albums. “I’d like to do an unaccompanied one, and a children’s one, and a winter one. I wouldn’t have anticipated that we’d do a Molly Drake album but we discovered that music and fell in love with it and wanted to explore it. You kind of never know what’s going to happen next.”
The Unthanks perform at Leeds City Varieties on May 11 and 12. Diversions Vol 4: the songs and poems of Molly Drake is out on May 26. www.the-unthanks.com.