What The Folk: Sisters who brought English music out of the shadows

Having brought traditional English music out of the shadows, the Unthanks talk to Sarah Freeman about the great folk revival.

The Unthanks.

There’s something wistfully idyllic about listening to Becky and Rachel Unthank describe their early years growing up in the North East. While their school friends were obsessing about boys and make-up, the sisters, who are now one of folk music’s most recognisable names, were wandering barefoot around music festivals, singing sea shanties and learning to clog dance. It’s the kind of childhood that seems to belong to a different, more innocent age.

“We didn’t think there was anything particularly odd about our upbringing,” says Rachel. “But I do remember going back to school after the summer and thinking we’ve just had the most amazing six weeks going from one music festival to the next. By comparison, everyone else’s holiday seemed a little boring. Everything Becky and I have done stems from those days. Dad is a brilliant singer, so is Mum and listening to people play was our apprenticeship.

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“Not that it stopped either of us being rebellious and we had our fair share of moody teenage moments, but music was always there in the background. I’ve got a little boy of my own now and sometimes I think: ‘Am I doing enough to ensure that he’s ingrained in the world of folk the same way we were?’ Sometimes I think I really must try harder.”

It’s a pretty safe bet that Unthank junior will most likely follow in his family’s musical footsteps. It’s 11 years since the sisters released their debut album, Cruel Sister, initially performing as Rachel Unthank and the Winterset before changing their name to The Unthanks and recruiting Rachel’s husband Adrian McNally into the fold.

“After I finished university I knew that I wanted to be part of a band. Becky’s a few years younger than me and while singing together has always been a big part of our relationship, I didn’t want her to feel pressured into performing. It somehow felt easier if the focus was on me, but pretty quickly it became clear that this was going to be a joint project. As as soon as we changed our name to the Unthanks it just felt right.

“As for Adrian, let’s just say he was a bit more reluctant. He was already producing our records and when our piano player left a few years ago, we both said to him: ‘Come on, why don’t you play?’ He wasn’t entirely convinced that he wanted to share the same stage as us, but eventually we wore him down.”

The threesome has proved to be a winning formula. As the Unthanks they have released seven albums in seven years. All have been critically acclaimed and if one exists at all you’ll have to look hard to find a bad review.

“I am sure we have had a few bad ones, but I choose only to read the good ones,” laughs Rachel. “We’ve always just played the music we love. That’s what makes us happy and if other people like it then that’s even better. Our first couple of albums were recordings of songs that we had grown up singing, but in more recent years we’ve been able to experiment a little and that’s been incredibly rewarding.”

It has also led to a number of interesting collaborations, from an album of songs written by Robert Wyatt and Mercury Prize winner Antony and the Johnsons to another which saw them record with the Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band.

“Those were some happy times,” says Becky, who has returned to the North East after living for a spell in Hebden Bridge. “When we decided to link up with the brass band, I’m not sure any of us knew quite what to expect, but it was a perfect fit. The brass bands were born out of the mining industry and a lot of our songs have their roots in the shipbuilding industry of the North East. There’s a certain truth and honesty to both and the power of that sound was really something to behold.”

The Unthanks’ latest album, Mount the Air, recently won BBC Radio 2’s Folk Album of the Year award. Like much of their back catalogue, it’s a blend of traditional music and their own contemporary arrangements which in part explains why the sisters are often seen as being at the helm of a more general folk music revival.

“We’re probably the wrong people to ask if or why folk has become more mainstream,” says Becky. “It’s the music we have always been surrounded by, but yes our audiences have grown and if you look at something like the Whitby Folk Weekend, where bands take over the entire town, that certainly has never been bigger. Folk music is part of the English DNA and what I really love is being able to dig out old songs and bring them to a brand new audience.

“Before we went into the recording studio for the last album, I went down to Cecil Sharp House, which is home to a vast archive of folk songs. The first thing I picked up was a little book of traditional Dorset songs. I spent hours rooting around, but I kept going back to this little book with a bird on the front and it ended up giving us the title track for the album.”

Recording with the Unthanks is a largely democratic process. While it might have been Becky who brought back new material from the archive, the sisters work on their distinctive harmonies together and then Adrian experiments at the piano. It’s a process that means each band member has a sense of ownership over each and every song.

“If our critical acclaim and famous fan count was mirrored in our sales, we’d be platinum sellers, but the lack of sales keeps us grounded,” laughs Adrian. “We do enjoy sales greater than most performers of traditional music, but having a 10-piece band means that the success doesn’t go far, financially. Rachel and Becky would probably be financially better off if they sacked the band and went to sing unaccompanied in the folk clubs, but we do what we do to push ourselves and the music creatively and to communicate traditional song to a wider audience.

“And it seems to be working – we are a pretty broad church. There are young women who identify with Rachel and Becky, old men who identify with the size of my record collection, trad folkies who have spotted the root of our truest love and motivation, listeners of experimental, jazz and neo classical music who can hear the leftfield influences that our much more accessible music only hints at… and of course, the young men with beards, but they’re everywhere now, right?”

Adrian might be right about the sisters being more financially stable were they to go it alone, but it’s not all hard work being in the Unthanks.

“We’ve got quite a few tour dates coming up, both here and abroad, but in the middle of it all we’ve been booked to host some singing masterclasses in Italy. It’s just for a week, but I can hardly believe it. We’re getting paid for singing in the sunshine, that’s not bad is it?”

• The Unthanks play the Crucible, Sheffield, May 7 (0114 249 6000, sheffieldtheatres.co.uk)and Harrogate Royal Hall (01423 562303, harrogateinternationalfestivals.com) on July 22 as part of the Harrogate International Festivals programme.