The Unthanks
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The Unthanks

There are no easy one-liners to capture who or what The Unthanks are.

You might find them singing in a Tyneside folk club one night, and playing to 2000 Londoners the next, having performed to a primary school in the afternoon. You might find them collaborating with Adrian Utley (Portishead) one moment, and writing the score to an archive film about shipyards the next. Or visiting Africa with Damon Albarn, Flea and Joan As Policewoman and then presenting a TV programme for BBC4 about traditional dance. Rubbing shoulders with Robert Plant, Adele, Elbow and Radiohead at the Mercurys, or in a bunkhouse on the coastline of Northumberland cooking for 50 fans on one of their residential singing weekends. Running singing sessions in the back of a pub on a Monday before heading off to tour America or Australia on the Tuesday. Signing licensing deals with EMI while continuing to record vocals in broom cupboards under the stairs. Spending 9-5 managing their own careers without agents or labels, and heading down the studio in the evening to write scores for a project with a symphony orchestra. Collaborating with Orbital while championing songs from the folk club floor singers of the North East and re-presenting them to anyone who wants to listen. You'll find them played by the folk show on BBC Radio 2, but equally by cutting edge BBC6 Music, Radio 3 and Radio 1 DJs. You might find them on the cover of a folk magazine like fRoots or in the pages of NME. Definable only by their restless eccentricity, there are no easy one-liners to capture who or what The Unthanks are, or much point in guessing what they'll do next.

This goes part way to explaining the depth and breadth of their many notable fans - Martin Freeman, Elvis Costello, Robert Wyatt, Ben Folds, Ryan Adams, Rosanne Cash, Dawn French, Paul Morley, Al Murray, Ewan McGregor and Nick Hornby, to name a few.

Colin Firth was recently added to that list when he personally invited The Unthanks to perform at a theatre show alongside himself, Keira Knightley, Sir Ben Kingsley, Sir Ian McKlellan, Kelly MacDonald and Laura Marling. The televised event called The People Speak was a celebration of those in history who have spoken up and made a difference, as a reminder in our times of apathy that we all have a voice.

Their is a socially conscious heart to much of The Unthanks' work. The Unthanks see folk music less as a style of music and more as a oral history that offers perspective on our own time. Their approach to storytelling straddles the complex relationship between modernism and learning from the past. Staunch traditionalism and sonic adventure may seem like polar opposites, yet they are easy bedfellows in the gentle hands of The Unthanks.

Nominated for the Mercury Music Prize and the only British folk representation in The Guardian's and Uncut's best albums of last decade (worldwide, all genres), The Unthanks is a family affair for Tyneside sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank, with Rachel married to pianist, producer, arranger and composer, Adrian McNally. Even though McNally has scored symphony scale arrangements for The Unthanks, all three are musically untrained, and put their collective musical vocabulary down to the music they grew up listening to, rather than playing, for which both McNally and the Unthank sisters have parents to thank for. Using the traditional and folk music of the North East of England as a starting point, the influence of Steve Reich, Miles Davis, Sufjan Stevens, Robert Wyatt, Antony & The Johnsons, King Crimson and Tom Waits can be heard in the band's 7 albums to date.

In 2012, The Unthanks released 3 project albums in 12 months, under the banner 'Diversions' - a reimagining of the work of Robert Wyatt and Antony Hegarty, an orchestral scale adventure with National Champions Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band, and a live soundtrack to a film about the shipbuilding industry. Since then, they have been quietly working on an ambitious 8th album, due in early 2015, but have also found time to collaborate with Orbital, Sting, Adrian Utley (Portishead), Martin Green (Lau), Martin Hayes, The Voice Squad, Charles Hazlewood, The Moulettes and German composer Werner Cee.

For a more irreverent, blagger's guide to The Unthanks, read Who Are The Unthanks.

Quotes & Awards

"All I can say about the Unthanks is that they make my heart beat faster, or smile a lot, or cry. They mean it. And not in some dreary 'authentic' way that feels like a penance for the listener, but just natural. They sing and play what the hell they like, and if you've heard nicer harmonies this year, I may call you a liar. I'm glad to be around at the same time as them."
Martin Freeman

"The Unthanks seem to regard folk music the same way Miles Davis regarded jazz: as a launch pad for exploring the wider possibilities."
Uncut

'Intimate, epic, overflowing with feeling and musical intelligence'
The Independent

"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

"Rachel and Becky's voices are one of the true wonders of 21st-century music"
NME

"It is their ability to pare back extraneous matter and to stare unflinchingly into the very soul of a song that makes them a spellbinding experience"
BBC Music

"Just beautiful"
Lauren Laverne

"Haunting, original and magnificent"
The Guardian

"Music as tough as it is gentle, as ancient as it is modern, and as coldly desolate as it is achingly intimate.. a sensationally graceful sound that can be epic and subdued, dreamy and specific, as well as supernaturally ancient and defiantly modern".
Paul Morley, Observer Music Magazine

  • Best Albums of The Decade in Uncut and The Observer (The Guardian) for The Bairns
  • Nationwide Mercury Award Nominees 2008 for The Bairns
  • Uncut Inaugural Music Award 2008 Nominees (Fleet Foxes won)
  • Mojo Magazine Folk Album of the Year for Here's The Tender Coming and Cruel Sister
  • Uncut Top 50 Albums of the Year for Here’s The Tender Coming
  • Guardian Top 50 Albums of the Year for Here's The Tender Coming