The Unthanks: interview with Becky Unthank for Mill
The Unthanks are folk troubadours in the classic tradition. We spoke to Rachel about keeping the flame alive.
Since The Unthanks released their first album in 2005, Tyneside siblings Becky and Rachel Unthank have accumulated a barrage of awards and critical acclaim.
Their restless musical journey has involved collaborations with Sting, Paul Hartnoll from Orbital, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and the Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band.
They’ve also interpreted songs by writers as diverse as Rudyard Kipling, Robert Wyatt, Anohni and Molly Drake, mother of the late Nick. Since 2009 they’ve expanded their sound with a full band.
The constant beating heart of these wide-ranging escapades are The Unthanks’ terribly sad, utterly gorgeous vocals and their commitment to preserving real-life tales.
You’ve performed in large venues all over the world, but your current tour involves a visit to Paisley Arts Centre. What brought you there?
We’re always keen to go to places we haven’t been to before. On this tour it’s just the three of us, me, Becky and Niopha [Keegan] singing unaccompanied, so that allows us to go to some smaller venues. It’s easier to travel, although saying that the girls are now bringing babies along!
You enjoy stretching yourselves?
We just love music and we’re always looking for different ways of telling stories through music. When we started it was just me and Becky singing unaccompanied.
We’ve always thought we should do that again as a project, and it felt like the right time to do it now. You never know what’s going to come up, we really thrive on having new experiences.
“With siblings you don’t need time to get into a comfortable zone, you’re already there”
Your latest release is a trilogy of albums titled Lines (Parts One, Two & Three). What can you tell us about that?
The first one is the First World War project we did in 2014, part of which was using lots of poetry, especially women poets. We put tunes to those words.
The second was when we worked with Maxine Peake on a play she wrote called The Last Testament of Lillian Bilocca. That was about Lillian and the women who campaigned and successfully changed the law for safety at sea after the 1968 Hull Triple Trawler Disaster.
We got to write the tunes and actually be in the play as well, which was a dream come true because we had to wear ‘60s hair and get-up.
What does the third part of the trilogy involve?
The Bronte Society wanted to mark Emily Bronte’s 200th birthday, so they commissioned us to look at her poems and write songs. We got to actually go to the Bronte’s parsonage home and record there.
Adrian our piano player, who composed the tunes, actually composed them on Emily’s piano, so that was quite exciting for him. We had to go there when the museum was shut at night, which was very atmospheric, there’s a great big churchyard outside.
Storytelling is a huge part of the folk tradition, isn’t it?
We think of ourselves as storytellers. We were brought up in the folk scene and went to lots of folk clubs and festivals, so we were lucky enough to hear all these sing-arounds where adults told each other stories in the form of song.
I think that magical world always captured me and Becky and that’s what motivates us to sing, to tell those stories and pass them on.
When harmonising, do you think siblings have a unique advantage over singers who aren’t related?
It’s all about time spent together. You develop something instinctive which isn’t a magical thing, it’s just that you can anticipate feelings, thoughts and musical movements. It feels comfortable to try out things.
Obviously, there must also be something in your voices coming from the same DNA, you can’t replicate that. With siblings you don’t need time to get into a comfortable zone, you’re already there.
What do you remember of your time studying at Glasgow University?
Quite a lot of beer passed my lips! I’m extremely fond of Glasgow, I absolutely loved living there. When you’re that age it’s a seminal experience, it really imprints upon you. In a way I’m always trying to get back to Glasgow.
I’ve never been to Paisley, but you never know. I may have ended up at a party there, but I think I’d remember that!
The Unthanks performed at a sold out Paisley Arts Centre on 10th May 2019. This feature was published in Mill issue 5, May/June 2019. For more music features, click here. For updates on The Unthanks, visit their website.