Meet the Folk Idols from Corbridge Who Have Had Their Records Played on Radio 1
The Unthanks are a folk band from Corbridge. Celebrities love them, major labels court them and they’ve toured in America and Australia. What’s the secret of their success? Living North spoke to band members Rachel Unthank and Adrian McNally
So you might be surprised to learn that they’re also Mercury Prize-nominated darlings of the music press. Their records are played on Radio 1. Their celebrity fans include Elvis Costello, Dawn French and Ewan McGregor. Colin Firth once personally asked them to perform for him. They’ve toured America and Australia and released albums through EMI, and their 2007 record The Bairns was listed among the best albums of the decade.
Now their new record Mount The Air is coming out and The Unthanks will soon be embarking on their biggest ever tour of the UK, meaning that once again rival bands and promoters will be scratching their heads and wondering how to jump on the Northumbrian folk bandwagon. It turns out there’s a lot of hard work involved.
Originally known as Rachel Unthank & The Winterset, the band has been fronted by Ryton-born sisters Rachel and Becky from the beginning. Rachel is seven years older than Becky, so the band took Rachel’s name while Becky was working out whether she wanted a career in music. Now they’re The Unthanks – the two sisters and producer, arranger and pianist Adrian McNally are joined by Chris Price on guitar and bass, and Niopha Keegan on fiddle.
Their most recent album, Last, came out in 2011, which was when the hype was at its greatest. But with typical Northern modesty (and just a dash of Geordie canniness) they decided to avoid the limelight, slip off home and set to work making a decent follow-up, while also making three ‘project’ albums (two live albums and a soundtrack), featuring on Sting’s latest album and presenting a documentary on BBC Four about England’s winter customs and dance traditions. As Adrian explains, ‘We felt we ought to bugger off before folk got sick of us!’
Their music is usually labelled folk, but the band are a little resistant to the label. ‘Me and my sister grew up in the North East and we’re very much influenced by the singers, songs and stories we grew up with from this area,’ says Rachel. ‘But it’s quite hard to say that it’s folk music because we embrace lots of different styles. We’re a bit magpie-like.’
The ever-adaptable band occupy a curious position between being an obscure, cult, word-of-mouth act from the North East and being popular with radio DJs and the sort of people who read music blogs and obsess over the next big thing. ‘You’re not in control of it really,’ says Rachel. ‘Obviously it’s wonderful when people pick up on music. Communicating through music is what we’re trying to do, so the more successful the communication the better. But in reality we are family people from the North East who enjoy singing in the pub and we wouldn’t ever want that to be infringed.’
Nonetheless, the glitzy celebrity moments stick in people’s minds, not least when they were invited by Colin Firth to take part in a star-studded charity bash in 2012 (also attended by Sir Ian McKellen and Keira Knightley). Did they get starry eyed? ‘A little bit!’ laughs Rachel. ‘He’s just… he’s Mr Darcy isn’t he? You can’t get away from that.’ The band appreciate the nods from celebrities for what it says about them artistically. As Adrian puts it, ‘It’s extremely gratifying not because they are celebrities but because they are all fellow performers or writers or artists.’
In this down-to-earth spirit, the band have followed their heart in professional decisions, including not renewing their three-record deal with EMI. They are currently self-managed and self-releasing through Adrian’s label, RabbleRouser. ‘We’ve got no pretentions of remaining fiercely independent or being indie in attitude,’ Adrian adds. ‘I’m not anti record label. We need record labels to invest in new talent. We went to EMI because we make music to be heard and we want as many people to hear it as possible.’ But the band eventually decided that going it alone is the best route for them, and it certainly hasn’t done them any harm.
The Unthanks have a good sense of what their mainstream audiences want. Although their music is accessible and their image stylish – the girls’ wardrobe is influenced by vintage 1940s and ‘50s fashions – there is an air of authenticity about them. ‘Because folk music is traditionally a cottage industry, it has a preoccupation with making everything look professional,’ says Adrian. ‘Sometimes the consequence is that things are over-glossy through fear of looking the opposite. I think our side of the tracks has missed that opportunity to engage with an audience that’s ready to be interested in more traditional forms of music.’
Authentic touches in their recording process also give them a unique appeal. Mount The Air was made in a makeshift studio in an old granary building in Corbridge, down the lane from Adrian and Rachel’s house. ‘It’s surrounded by stone farm buildings and beautiful Northumbrian countryside,’ says Rachel. Previously, their studio was their own home. ‘There were wires running down the stairs and the under stairs cupboard was a vocal booth!’
The band’s winter singing weekends also help them keep their feet on the ground. Every year they take groups of 50 people to a reclaimed former farm building in Northumberland, 10 minutes from the fishing village of Seahouses, for singing lessons, scenic walking and (of course) visits to the pub. Adrian even dons the chef’s apron and cooks for everyone. ‘We were touring an awful lot and we sat and thought about the things we missed – spending time with your family, those key times when people get together at annual events and sing in the pub,’ says Rachel. ‘It’s amazing singing on stage just me and Becky, but singing in a group is a completely different thing – we find it really uplifting.’ The singing weekends have accidentally become a bit of a tourism boost (some people have even moved to the area as a result) but they’re also a unique example of band/fan bonding. How many bands can claim they cook dinner for their fans?
Come February, however, it will be goodbye rural idyll and hello tour bus. It won’t be a very rock and roll tour, particularly since Adrian and Rachel have had two kids since the last album. ‘Before children, Becky and I used to hunt out vintage clothes shops in whichever city we were in,’ says Rachel. ‘But in some ways it’s quite good having kids because it makes us go and do different things.’
The new album is likely to keep the critics happy, and the tour will probably garner the usual round of glowing reviews in the newspapers. But the appeal of The Unthanks – for everybody it seems – is that they come across as ordinary and they recognise their roots. Why is this little folk band from the North East so popular? Because they really are a little folk band from the North East.
Mount The Air is released on 9th February 2015. The Unthanks play Newcastle City Hall on 14th March and Middlesbrough Town Hall on 19th March