Empathetic stories of love, loss, birth, death, brawls and booze make for a rollercoaster ride through the human condition, as Rachel and Becky’s folk-club unaccompanied singing upbringing is set against otherworldly musical pictures, arranged by a band with influences from Steve Reich to Miles Davies, Martin Hayes to Robert Wyatt, Portishead to Sufjan Stevens, Penguin Cafe Orchestra to Antony & The Johnsons. It’s hard to conceive how music could sound so traditional and adventurous at once. It is a spell that has earned them fans as disperate as members of Radiohead and Portishead, Elvis Costello, Robert Wyatt, Ewan McGregor, Ryan Adams, Colin Firth, Ben Folds, Rosanne Cash, Nick Hornby and Dawn French! They have no bigger fan than in Britain’s leading music journalist Paul Morley who has described them as “two of my favourite singers of all time.. music that is both supernaturally ancient and defiantly modern, as coldly desolate as achingly intimate”.
Siblings Rachel and Becky were born and bred in the North-East, and on the Tyneside and Northumbrian traditions of sea songs, border songs and clog dancing. Influenced less by fantastic female folk singers like June Tabor and Eliza Carthy, The Unthanks grew up around the impassioned, bawdy harmony singing of male North East bands like The Keelers (of which dad George is a member) and The Wilsons. Their style of projection and communication also owes much to their formative years of singing without accompaniment or amplification.
An initial spell as an unaccompanied duo gave way to the birth of Rachel Unthank & The Winterset in 2004, a band name chosen to free sister Becky at a tender 18, from restrictions to choose her own path; a freedom that perhaps led to her committing to the band so fully. Belinda O’Hooley and Jackie Oates were recruited on piano and 5 string viola and debut album 'Cruel Sister' was a success. Phil Jupitus said was one of the first to pick up on it, saying that “one day all music will sound like this”, and Mojo Magazine made it their Folk Album of the Year.
After two years of hard touring, a licensing deal was struck with EMI and The Bairns was released in 2007 after a personnel change on violin from Jackie Oates to award winning 30 year old second generation Irish fiddle player Niopha Keegan. Recorded at home in Northumberland, 'The Bairns' was peerless, empathically striking and wholeheartedly brave. While it topped polls and led to a Mercury Music Prize nomination alongside Radiohead and Robert Plant at the time, perhaps it’s most enduring accolade was to feature in the Best Albums of the Decade in both The Guardian and Uncut; the only British Folk Album to appear in either list. 'The Bairns' featured an interpretation of 'Sea Song' by legendary eccentric musician and singer Robert Wyatt, who said of them “They are like the morning dew that hasn’t steamed off yet, they are new and fresh and I really don’t think they know how good they are.”
Meanwhile, Paul Morley was moved to write, "They might not end up being the best-selling British all-girl group of all time, but they’re well on their way to being the most charismatic and imaginative”. Belinda O’Hooley left and the band toured 'The Bairns' in Europe, Australia and America with stand-in pianist Stef Conner, who also recorded with them briefly on the Winterset’s last recording before they became The Unthanks – an unlikely cover of 'Sexy Sadie' for Mojo Magazine’s re-working of 'The White Album' by The Beatles.
The transition to The Unthanks (a name change to reflect the reality that Becky Unthank had always co-fronted the band with sister Rachel) marked the emergence from the shadows of producer and manager Adrian McNally. Having met Rachel romantically in 2002 and after a brief determined spell by the couple not to become professionally involved; in spite of McNally already being a music mongrel of a musician / producer / manager / label /agent; Adrian used his all round aptitude and belief in both Rachel and Becky to give them the confidence they were lacking to make that first record. He put them together with pianist Belinda O’Hooley, for whom he had already produced and released a solo album for, and informed much of the initial and on-going musical direction.
McNally would go on to manage, produce, and arrange much of the music for the Winterset, but never as an on stage member until Rachel and Becky bullied him out of the shadows to take the piano stool on 2009’s 'Here’s The Tender Coming'. The album was met with universal praise, featuring in countless end of year polls, and heralded a new sound, with McNally’s string arrangements predominating, and a kaleidoscope of unlikely instruments such as dulcitone and marimba played by McNally and childhood friend Chris Price; the latest new member. Price plays guitar and bass, though found himself playing allsorts, as did the 10 piece live band that The Unthanks became when they toured 'Here’s The Tender Coming'.
2010 saw long tours of Europe and America, soundtracks for theatre and soon film, exploratory concerts of music by Robert Wyatt and Antony & The Johnsons, collaborations with Charles Hazelwood, Adrian Utley and Paul Morley, visits to Africa with Damon Albarn, Flea and Joan Wasser, presenting TV programmes for BBC4, theatre shows with Colin Firth and Keira Knightley, Rachel Unthank is now pregnant, expecting a baby in June with husband and band mate Adrian McNally… and all along they were plotting and making their most ambitious music to date…
New album 'Last' is the next chapter in the story of The Unthanks. The title refers to the title track, which is a ‘big picture’ comment at the past and future written by McNally. Last is the most ambitious album by The Unthanks so far - atmospheric, powerful and as ever, quietly subversive.
'Last' is released on March 14th 2011 and UK album tour dates begin March 19th. Details at www.the-unthanks.com
Unthanks on the individual tracks:
1. Because He Was A Bonny Lad (trad / arr. The Unthanks)
I played in a concert for school children at Beamish Museum with Northumbrian piper Anthony Robb. He played this beautiful Northumbrian pipe tune. When I got home I noticed the lyrics in Northumbrian Minstrelsy, a fantastic source of songs and tunes.
2. Felton Lonnin (trad / Johnny Handle / arr. RUTW)
I first heard this song sung by Carolyn Robson and fell in love with its hypnotic rhythm. The tune is an old pipe air. The first verse is traditional Northumbrian and Johnny Handle wrote the second. The Northumbrian Minstrelsy says that it was a ‘popular nursery rhyme’, but the menacing undercurrent of the song reminds me of the violent history of the region. The words in the first verse are slightly different to the ones in the Minstrelsy as I misunderstood when I heard Carolyn sing it. Oops, part of the folk process my dad’s always telling me. We got carried away with this one, adding some Bond-esque strings from four members of the Northern Sinfonia and double bass from Neil Harland. The ‘percussion’ is Becky in her high heels. Glamfolk all the way!
3. The Testimony Of Patience Kershaw (Frank Higgins / arr. The Unthanks)
I love the painful mix of polite tone and harsh reality in this song. It is based on the real spoken testament of Patience Kershaw, aged 17, to the Royal Commission on Children’s Employment, 1842. I first heard local singer Joyce McLeod singing it with engaging gritty gusto, and then rediscovered it recently in a book called Your Song Is Your Own given to me by Sandra Kerr for my 18th birthday, a long time ago!
4. Blue Bleezing Blind Drunk (trad / Belle Stewart / arr. RUTW)
This song portrays the complexities of domestic abuse with equal doses of vulnerability and venom. I learnt it from the recorded singing of Sheila Stewart (part of the renowned travelling family, the Stewarts of Blair). Sheila’s mother Belle learnt it from an old ploughman and wrote the first verse herself. It is apparently one of the first Scottish songs depicting a drunken woman! The arrangement came about after a manic evening of music making and a few glasses of wine in Rachel’s kitchen.
5. Blue’s Gaen Oot O’the Fashion The Wedding O’ Blythe / When The Tide Comes In / Blue’s Gaen Oot O’the Fashion / The Lad With The Trousers On / The Sailors Are All At The Bar (all songs trad / arr. RUTW)
I found these snippets of songs when exploring the Northumbrian Minstrelsy. They are all fragments of longer songs that were popular at different times. We played about with the timing of Lad With The Trousers On and attached the second half of The Sailors Are All At The Bar, mixing the two up. The songs provide a snap shot from a period of history when the shores of the River Tyne saw the hectic comings and goings of press gangs, soldiers, sailors and tall ships.
6. Fair Rosamund (trad / arr. R. Unthank / O’Hooley)
I learnt this song after ransacking my parents’ record collection one afternoon, and hearing an American singer Hedy West’s version, which you can find on her collection Hard Times (Topic Records). I’ve slightly anglicised and slowed down this peculiar story, which is about the concubine of King Henry II and an implied incestuous undercurrent emanating from her protective brother “young Clifford”. The vivid imagery really stands out to me and I love telling this mysterious tale.
7. Annachie Gordon (trad / arr. The Unthanks)
This is a song I’ve loved for years. The words are just heartbreaking and it’s one of the stories that captured me growing up listening to Nick Jones. I got this version from him.
8. Lucky Gilchrist (Adrian McNally / arr. The Unthanks)
I’m very grateful to Adrian for writing this song, as a celebration of the life of a lost one. Gary Gilchrist was one of my dearest friends. This song is for him. Lucky Gilchrist was his nickname.
9. Here’s The Tender Coming (trad / arr. The Unthanks)
A song we have sung for years. I remember singing it with Sandra Kerr at the Folkworks Summer School and also listening to our Dad singing it with The Keelers. Also the title of this song seemed to encapsulate for us the feeling of our new album, which is perhaps calmer and a little warmer in contrast to the stark bleakness of The Bairns. Although the Tender in this song refers to the boat that is on it’s way to press the men to sea.
10. Bonny At Morn (trad / arr. R. Unthank)
The tradition of passing songs down through the generations seems to this day to have found it’s most comfortable place in the back of the car. A favourite in Northumberland, We learnt this song in the best of traditions; in the car on a long journey, where our parents, in an attempt to keep us quiet for more than 5 seconds, taught us many a good song.
11. Fareweel Regality (Terry Conway / arr. RUTW)
Thanks to Northumbrian songwriter Terry Conway for writing such a beautiful song. It makes us tingle when we sing it. The Regalities and Liberties of Hexamshire were areas of local jurisdiction that were given to the powerful few. They passed between the Archbishops of Durham and York, with special privileges attached until the properties were finally transferred to Northumberland.
Lead Voice on 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 11
Cello on 10
Feet on 5
Lead Voice on 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 9, 10, 11
Feet on 2
Pianos on 1, 3, 7, 8, 9
Chime bars on 1, 7, 9
Autoharp on 1
Marimba on 7
Wu-Han tam tam on 7
Chinese temple gongs on 7
Tubular bells on 7
Drums on 8
Backing Voice on 8, 9
Violin on 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, 9, 11
Accordion on 9
Backing Voice on 1, 7, 8, 9
Acoustic Guitar on 7, 8, 9
Electric Bass on 8
Dulcitone on 7
Marimba on 7
Backing Voice on 8, 9
Piano on 2, 4, 5, 6, 11
Cello Solo on 9
Violin on 1, 3, 8
Violin on 1, 3, 8
Viola on 1, 3, 8
Cello on 1, 3, 8
Double Bass on 2, 9
Trumpet on 8
Trumpet on 8
Trumbone on 8, 9
Backing Vocals on 9
Backing Vocals on 9
Subscribe to Society of Sound to download high-quality albums from Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios and the London Symphony Orchestra. All available in Apple Lossless and glorious studio-master quality FLAC.
Find out what Bowers & Wilkins customers and audio enthusiasts are talking about on our blogs, and read in-depth articles in the Sound Lab.