The Unthanks on Cambridge Folk Festival, their inspiration and their Lines trilogy
I chat with Rachel Unthank, by phone, one morning just as she is arriving back from tour. Busy catching up with “washing and things like that – exciting, glamorous things!” while her two small boys are at school, she takes some time out to talk me through the fascinating series of projects The Unthanks have been working on and what we might expect from their imminent Cambridge Folk Festival appearance, her warm Northumbrian accent punctuated by laughter and gentle hesitations as we speak.
Her band The Unthanks (originally known as Rachel Unthank and the Winterset) were formed in 2004, with Rachel and younger sister Becky at the group’s core. They’ve always seemed more than just a traditional/conventional “folk” band, so I ask Rachel how she would describe their music to someone who hadn’t heard them before.
“Our music is grounded in the traditions of the north east of England,” she says. “Me and my sister grew up listening to folk songs. But I think that although that’s kind of the heart of our music, we’re also just music lovers, so our sound is influenced by lots of different kinds of music.
“At its heart it’s definitely folk, but it’s influenced by classical and jazz and popular music too. I feel like it’s misleading sometimes if I say: ‘Oh, I’m a folk singer,’ but that’s what I am!”
Folk band or not, The Unthanks are certainly an outfit with a wide scope of interests. Witness their most recent project, a trilogy of albums, Lines.
“It’s three different projects that we’ve worked on, all inspired by someone else’s words,” Rachel explains. Part one, The Last Testament of Lillian Bilocca takes the words that actor Maxine Peake wrote for a play about the Hull trawler disaster of 1968 and puts them to music.
“It was inspired by a group of women who did really amazing things, and helped to change the laws and safeguard fishermen in Hull – well, it was for everybody really. We were in Maxine’s play as musicians [for Hull City of Culture in 2017] and as a band, so we wrote the music to her words.”
Part two is a first world war project from 2014, a collaboration with folk singer Sam Lee that takes words from poets like Siegfried Sassoon, “but also other poets, women’s voices as well” and puts them to music.
Most recently, part three, Emily Brontë, came about when they were approached by the Parsonage at Howarth, birthplace of the Brontë sisters, to set Emily’s poems to music for the bicentenary of her birth last year.
“Adrian, our piano player, had the privilege of being able to go and actually sit on her piano, to write the music on Emily’s piano. And then we got to go and record the songs there as well – in The Parsonage – so that was a real treat.”
Did Rachel always love the Brontës? “Well, I think everybody is a bit of a Brontë fan, you know? You can’t really pass them by, can you? It’s such a big part of our literary history and culture. But I wouldn’t say that I was an expert.”
She continues: “This is what I love about doing different projects. It gives you a reason to delve a bit deeper into something that you maybe hadn’t thought to do yourself. We really enjoyed it and tried not to get too bogged down. We tried to treat it just like we would any other material – which is quite hard! So we read the poems and the ones that we felt drawn to, or connected to, then those were the ones we chose to make into songs.”
It’s a fascinating combination of topics and words, and each part of the project has the perfect musical setting – sometimes warm and soft, sometimes stark, sometimes bracing and surprising.
From a musical family (Rachel and Becky’s dad George sings semi-professionally in a well-known Northumbrian folk group called The Keelers), Rachel and Becky always sang together “because we’re sisters, and for family parties and things like that.”
And despite studying History and Theatre Studies at Glasgow Uni, Rachel’s secret ambition was always to become a singer. Her connection with Cambridge Folk festival dates back to a time before the band was successful when she would earn her ticket by running workshops on the campsite.
“That was my work at one point. I used to come and we’d do music, dancing and singing with whoever turned up on that day.”
When she and Becky were singing together as youngsters, they always thought: “if we got a few songs together, maybe we’d get in to folk festivals for free – that was our plan.”
So nowadays: “We just really enjoy playing festivals. Whenever festival season comes around Becky and I are really excited, like: ‘Yeah, it worked! The plan worked!’”
And Rachel also feels that “Cambridge have really supported us throughout our career. The first time I played, me and Becky just sang as a duo, unaccompanied, in the Club Tent. We always really love coming to Cambridge because we’ve had a really long relationship with them, so it’s really great to come back and play again.”
So what can we expect from this year’s Cambridge performance? Well, it’s going to be two performances, actually.
“On tour at the moment, me, Becky and Niopha Keegan – who’s actually our fiddle player, but is also a great singer – are doing an unaccompanied tour, just singing without any instruments at all. So we’re going to do a set of that, but also play with our ten-piece band, taking things from our back catalogue. A festival set! So we’ll have strings, a trumpet, a double bass, drums and piano and the full shebang. And clogs – there will be clog dancing!”
And it is perhaps that eclectic mix of sounds – pure unaccompanied voices and then a riot of instruments, melodies and dancing – that best sums up what to expect from this wonderful, uncategorisable band of English (folk) treasures.
If you are at the folk festival this year they are not to be missed. If not, they are as fascinating on record as they are live, and well worth seeking out. We’ll see you soon, Rachel!
Cambridge Folk Festival runs August 1 to 5 at Cherry Hinton Hall. See cambridgelive.org.uk/folk-festival for more.