Sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank have already beguiled audiences far beyond…
- Posted on Apr 19th 2011 5:00PM by Steve Hochman
The singer, who alongside her sister Beck fronts inventive English folk band the Unthanks, chortles when Spinner says that the songs on their new album, 'Last,' are rather bleak.
"Well, yeah!" she says, giggling in her distinctively Northern burr. "I've grown up with it. We've all heard these stories and they don't scare us off really, been in our consciousness for such a long time. That's the great thing about traditional and folk songs -- they don't shy away from the dark and bleak. They explore aspects of life, love and life lost, hardships. Make for a good story."
As she says, it's completely a reflection of their environment.
"We grew up in a village in Tyneside, not that far from Newcastle," she explains. "On our doorstep is Northumberland, which in English terms is vast and empty and wild."
She laughs at that statement too, noting that due to travels with the band to such places as Australia, she's come to realize that there are much more vast and empty and wild places in the world.
"This is the northeastern corner of England that is rural and it's cold -- and beautiful," she says. "You get from that a history of industry in that region, coal mining and shipbuilding and fishing, and Newcastle is a port as well. Also because it borders with Scotland, all the heritage of battles and being a wild kind of place that got violent. A very strong sense of identity still in the northeast."
It may even be genetic. In this gorgeous clip of the Unthanks performing 'Starless,' which originated with King Crimson, Rachel is clearly moved by her sister's rendition of the stark, despairing song. Rachel, who is married to Unthanks pianist-producer-arranger Adrian McNally, was some seven-months pregnant at the time of that performance.
"I think our baby's going to be brought up the same way we are," she says. "So hopefully [it] won't be afraid of dark songs. Kicks at 'Starless' every night on stage, so likes those ones!"
'Starless' is a bit of the wild card on 'Last,' the fourth album by the group, which was originally known as Rachel Unthank and the Winterset. Overall, the musical selections and approaches have had the sensibilities and, to some extent, sound of such predecessors as Anne Briggs, Shirley Collins and June Tabor, all of whom simultaneously honored English folk traditions and expanded the concept -- with emphasis on these muted emotional tones.
'Last' mixes traditional songs from the home region -- in local dialect, no less -- with some more recent compositions from the area (including McNally's lovely title song) and such interesting choices as Tom Waits' 'No One Knows I'm Gone.' It's an approach that's subdued but seductive, the voices attractive in their natural unaffectedness, the arrangements spare but layered, dimensional. It's won the group great acclaim, including a Mercury Prize nomination for the 2007 album 'The Bairns,' and nothing short of adoration from traditional folkies and adventurous listeners alike, including a roster of such notable fans as Robert Wyatt, Radiohead, Elvis Costello, Ewan McGregor and Nick Hornby.
But even in that context, reaching to Robert Fripp's edge-pushing King Crimson for material for this mid-'70s selection (originally sung by John Wetton and featuring an extended instrumental flight sparring Fripp's icy electric guitar and Ian McDonald's blaring sax) is an unexpected turn for Rachel and Becky.
"It's not music that me and Becky were grown up with," she says. "It was Adrian's idea. He got into his parent's record collection, wide and varied and included a lot of prog-rock. King Crimson's 'Starless' was such a beautiful song, and because the melody is so beautiful. When he played it to me and Becky, we fell in love with the melody. Becky loved the words and wanted to sing them. Adrian turned it into a string quartet song. It's something we've enjoyed singing onstage. John Wetton came to see us as well. He was very nice about it, very generous, though his singing is slightly different from Becky," she says with another laugh.
A mention of the song 'Give Your Heart Away' does not elicit chuckles from Rachel, but evangelical delight instead.
"That was written by a man called Jon Redfern," she says, with reverential tones about the artist also from around their parts. "When we first started out he supported us a few times and we played with him. His album is absolutely beautiful, arrangements and singing so beautiful and heartfelt and interesting."
Obviously, the song is perfectly in line with the Unthanks' aesthetic. The song is arguably the album's bleakest, with its trudging delivery of the repeated phrase "disappointment is everywhere" and utter sense of defeat.
"We thought it was just a love song," she says. "[It] could be seen as that, but it's actually about his reaction to the Iraq war. The story is that he was living in Manchester at the time and there was a protest march going past his window and he questions why he wouldn't go to war for his country. He felt it wasn't the right thing to do."
As Rachel reveals, the Northumbrian traditions are present in everything they do, regardless of the source. Their parents, she says, were folk fans in the '60s who became interested in exploring the music of their home area. Their father was on a local folk-dance team and the girls also were on a clog-dancing team as kids, a skill they still perform at some of their shows.
"We would go around to the clubs and listen. As children, the stories of the songs drew us in and we felt we were in this adult world hearing these stories," Rachel says. "That carried into adulthood, wanting to tell the stories."
By the time Rachel, now 33, was a teen she was performing, first in a failed attempt at a grunge band, then in folk clubs. Becky, now 26, joined shortly and their path was set. Such local acts as the Wilson family -- Rachel describes them as "older than us, kind of the next generation, tall, red hair, very hairy, all sing very powerfully" -- had a big impact. In fact, the songs 'Close the Coalhouse Door' and sad tale 'The Gallowgate Lad' on the new album came to the Unthanks via the Wilsons.
For the album, the group returned to its original recording method, working at Rachel and Adrian's snowbound farmhouse rather than the formal studio setting in which the previous album, 'The Tender Coming,' was made. A crucial element to the album is that the local dialect figures prominently. It's at the forefront right with the album's first song, 'Gan to the Kye,' which will probably befuddle anyone from elsewhere.
"Kye is cow and gan means go," Rachel translates. "It sounds like it should be pretty, but it's actually about the times when the English-Scottish borders were debatable and run by local families, lawless. I love that it makes you think it's going to be a nice little ditty and the rest of the song comes out and it's darker."
That ought to make her baby dance.