The Unthanks

Who Are The Unthanks? A Bluffer's Guide

The who? The Unthanks? That's a funny name?
Unthank is the real surname of sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank. It goes back to the border reiver times when the border between England and Scotland was a bloody and lawless place. There is still an Unthank Hall in Northumberland, though sadly nothing to do with this Unthank family. Rachel and Becky grew up in a village on the south bank of the Tyne called Ryton, in the borough of Gateshead, just next to the border with Northumberland, where Rachel now lives with husband, pianist and producer Adrian McNally.

Oh, so it's not a made up stage name?
If they were looking for a cool stage name, do you think they'd have chosen Unthank?

Do they know there's an Unthank Road in Norwich, and an Unthank Hall in Northumberland, and an Unthank village in Cumbria, and an Unthank Park in Portland, Oregon?
Yes, yes, yes.

The name rings bell.
Before they were The Unthanks, they were Rachel Unthank & The Winterset. Their debut album Cruel Sister got Mojo Folk Album of the Year in 2005, and then the 2007 album The Bairns got nominated for the Mercury Music Price and was the only British folk album in either the The Guardian and Uncut's best albums of the decade, worldwide, all genres.

So why the name change?
Rachel's sister Becky, co-fronted the band from day one, and her name was only omitted from the original name because she was just 17 at the time, about to go to Uni to study art, and not at all sure whether she wanted a career in music, unlike her sister, who was 7 years older and ready to go. It also marked the point at which they parted company with Belinda O'Hooley and Jackie Oates, and Adrian McNally, who was arranging and producing from the very first album, took to the piano stool.

There's a 7 year gap between the sisters?
Are you saying the youngest looks old or the oldest looks young?

Just saying. So they're a folk band, right?
Label at your peril. Certainly, the Unthank sisters were brought up by folkie parents on a diet of folk clubs, festivals, clog dancing and singarounds. Their repertoire consists partly of traditional English folk song (especially from the North East, and especially stolen from The Keelers - a four part male harmony group that Rachel and Becky's dad, George Unthank, sings in) and folk songs by writers little known beyond the North East, such as Graham Miles, Joe Wilson and Alex Glasgow. But they also have a reputation for reimagining songs from unlikely sources, such as Robert Wyatt, Antony & The Johnsons, King Crimson, Tom Waits and Nick Drake. Rachel and Becky, like most siblings brought up with folk music by 60's and 70's revivalist parents, did not grow up in a folk bubble, and furthermore they have a writer and arranger in pianist and producer Adrian McNally who grew up with his parent's records - Wyatt, Crimson, early Genesis, Miles Davis, Steve Reich, Joni Mitchell, Penguin Café Orchestra etc, as well as Radiohead, Tortoise, Jim O'Rourke, Tindersticks and Sufjan Stevens from his own generation. Rachel and Adrian, who have 2 children now, also share a dodgy rock past, which Becky disapproves of.

So it's folk music with a modern twist?
Oh no! Er, well sort of.. no, definitely not.. hmmm. The notion of bringing folk music into the 21st century is a spurious notion, in the Unthank way of thinking. Rather, they are simply searching to bring out the beauty and truth in a song that was there all along. The Unthanks are not so concerned with the form of folk music, which has always changed as it's function has changed, and more with the humanity captured in stories told. The Unthanks are philanthropic minded, and don't even necessarily believe that a story has to be one that a modern ear can identify with. Much is said of how folk songs have timeless themes that are still relevant, which is true of course. But surely we don't have to directly experience something ourselves in order to understand, empathise and be touched by it. Whether something relates to our own lives or not, the idea of humans experiencing empathy together, perhaps a thousand people in a room, touched simultaneously by the same tale, has to be a positive experience. Even if a story is dated, perhaps about an industry or community which died years ago or a war long forgotten, doesn't the past help us to understand the context and perspective of our own lives better?

Deep. So who likes them?
The celebrity fan list is well documented. Martin Freeman is the latest, which causes some blushing with excitement. Others include members of Radiohead and Portishead, Nick Hornby, Elvis Costello, Ewan McGregor, Ryan Adams, Paul Morley, Ben Folds, Al Murray, Rosanne Cash and Dawn French! The one that probably means the most to the band is Robert Wyatt.

Who doesn't like them?
They're still waiting for their first bad review (no rush!), but they've certainly drawn controversy on the messageboards of the folk world. But the folk world is like any other – not everyone in it agrees with each other! The genre of folk music has always been at it's most splintered when at it's most proactive – Bob Dylan, Fairport, The Bothy Band.. and if you're going to collaborate with German improv pioneers one moment and with traditional Irish artists like Martin Hayes and The Voice Squad the next, you're going to lose and pick up admirers all the time. But astonishing things have been assumed about them - when the band was The Winterset, it was claimed they were a manufactured girl band, put together by EMI in response to the resurgence of folk music, that they made them wear dresses, and that manager and producer Adrian McNally is the Machiavellian Svengali manipulating the young girls in the foreground. The insult here of course, is not to McNally or EMI, but to the Unthank sisters – the natural patriarchal assumption that two young women couldn't possibly know what they were doing themselves, or couldn't possibly be responsible for the master plan.

Hey, you should see some of the stuff that people write from the anonymous comfort of their computers. And because The Unthanks aren't too easy to label, so many factual mistakes and absolute nonsense has been written about them in the media, which hasn't helped the controversy. Even stuff in quotation marks that is the exact opposite of the truth. Phone interviews are the worst. Most don't use dictaphones you know, and end up coining a version of what you said that morphs into something quite different - usually closer to what they think or their preconceived idea of you.

How come in photos there are just five in The Unthanks and yet ten on stage?
The Unthanks do have a bit of an identity issue. Since 2009 they've had a core, creative five - Rachel and Becky Unthank, Adrian McNally as writer, producer and pianist, Chris Price on guitars and bass, and Niopha Keegan on fiddle. Price grew up on the same street as McNally in a mining village near Barnsley, South Yorkshire, while Keegan was born to Irish parents and grew up in St Albans on the London Irish scene. This five are The Unthanks, yet since 2009, only twice have they toured as a five. More commonly, they have toured as 10 piece, adding drums, a string quartet and trumpet to their ranks in order to bring their expansive album arrangements to the stage in the full glory. So pictures of the five of them give a misleading impression of what to expect live, and so frequently they keep it simpler by just having Rachel and Becky Unthank in press shots. But that creates a bit of a lie, because the musical director and creative nucleus of the band is McNally, but a shot of the trio would deny Chris and Niopha, while a shot of the 5 of them denies their physical reality as a 10 piece on stage, which can't be photographed with any meaning because the add-on 5 are composed of session musicians who are rarely the same twice, even though a few have become valued regulars. It is just another respect in which The Unthanks are hard to label or pin down, and why they're unlikely to win any band or duo awards because no one knows what they are!

Sounds like even they don't know who they are.
This is true. It's probably what comes of being self-managed. 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. There are no easy one-liners to capture who or what The Unthanks are, or much point in guessing what they'll do next. There was a time when the industry model wouldn't have allowed for a band to behave in so many contradictory ways, both those days have gone.

Let's finish on something a bit Smash Hits. Which sister would win in a fight?
With who?

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."

'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"

"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