A song only becomes a folk song when people start singing it. Rachel Unthank

The Unthanks are an English folk band from Newcastle formed in 2004. Originally an all-female quartet, Rachel and Becky Unthank with Niopha Keegan (violin & voice) and Belinda O’Hooley (piano & voice) recorded their début Cruel Sister (2005) and The Bairns (2007) as Rachel Unthank and the Winterset. From 2009 onwards, the band became known as The Unthanks with Belinda O’Hooley leaving while Rachel’s husband, pianist and producer Adrian McNally and Chris Price on bass joined the line-up.

Drawing inspiration from nursery rhymes learnt at school, songs learnt from their father or from other singers at various folk clubs, from the wealth of Geordie song collections or historical anthologies like The Northumbrian Minstrelsy for instance, from the traditional repertoire of neighbouring Scotland or Ireland, The Unthanks also integrate songs from contemporary singer songwriters as well as their own compositions in their repertoire.

Always hinging on the arresting voices of Rachel and Becky, The Unthanks have assembled over the years an impeccable repertoire of eclectic and original songs wonderfully arranged with percussion, brass and string sections and recorded 8 albums to date.

Rachel Unthank & the Winterset - The Bairns (2007)
Rachel Unthank & the Winterset – The Bairns (2007)

While it is difficult to single out a particular album, their 2008 Mercury Prize nominated The Bairns provides a great introduction to the impressive scope the band’s music. Revisiting the myths, stories and lore from the North-East of England through the prism of contemporary folk music, the recording is a remarkable collection.

Selected excerpts:

Felton Lonnin

Opening the record and set to the rhythm of Becky’s foot percussions, the rural Northumberland song about a child getting lost and not returning to the home farm soon turns into a superb and hypnotic lament arranged for double bass and a string quartet.

My Donald

Often melancholic, sometimes bleak, a lot of the songs covered by The Unthanks reflect the universal trials and tribulations of ordinary working class people, soldiers, political activists or small farmers. A song like My Donald evokes the bygone era of the Arctic whaling trade which operated from North-East England between 1750 and 1850 and echoes the lives and “the sorrow suffered by the women whose husbands went to sea for long lengths of time.” (Becky Unthanks – cover notes)

Sea song

Prog rock singer, songwriter and composer Robert Wyatt has been a huge influence on the music of The Unthanks and The Bairns features a stunning cover of Sea Song which originally appeared on the musician’s 1974 opus Rock Bottom. The sisters revisited the repertoire of Robert Wyatt (as well as songs from Antony Hegarty) in The Songs of Robert Wyatt and Antony & the Johnsons – the first volume of “Diversions”, a trilogy of live recordings published in 2011 and 2012.

If I had to take a single summary of what Alfie and I have being doing over the years to the proverbial desert island I wouldn’t take one of our own records. I’d take the crystal clear interpretations of The Unthanks.” Robert Wyatt