Illustration by Rob Fuzzard
They are wearing dresses that look like fresh versions of the past. And their hair is worn long and embracing of its natural waves and kinks. Rachel is pregnant and vibrant. The Unthanks are wholesome and true. True to their families, friends, dear home and folk music. Their Northern roots infiltrate everything from the lilt of the pronunciation of lyrics; ‘luvley’, to the songs they choose to sing. My image is of them as land girls, wearing cream wooly jumpers, dresses and wellington boots. In the evening they sit around the fire of a single glazed, rambling cottage, singing from right within. Where the truth lies.
And indeed, growing up in their Northumberland home, the Unthank family would partake in group singing. Their father George, is part of a folk group called The Keelers that specialised in sea shanties of the north-east, their mother is a member of local choirs, and they always attended festivals and folk clubs. Rachel, the older of the two sisters, who looks like peace personified said: “This is amazing, a privilege and an honour, to be up here singing like this. Of course. But there something about singing with lots of people, that’s just… good for the soul.”
Rachel’s speaking voice is high, full of character, vibrancy and northern accent. Her eyes close as she sings and sways, stroking her baby bump to the instrumental breaks. She loves music and singing for its remedial, loving, relaxing, spiritual and bringing together prowess. As does Becky, her sister. Recently engaged we are told, she is funny, lower toned in voice and smoother. More of the honey to Rachel’s jam. Homemade and paired with the band (butter and bread… this metaphor accidentally went further than anticipated), they are your next level folk. Playing the piano, violin, fiddle, viola, cello, double bass, drums, guitar and ukulele, they are all stunning, and together make for a polished and encompassing sound. The beauty and love of the music they’re all creating, their sole focus. Not lumberjack shirts and shiny belt buckles.
The girls themselves don’t hold an ounce of arrogance, and are both entirely likeable, modest and genuine in their performance and stage presence. The confidence that’s so rosy, and tangible seems to be from deep within, from a stable and unmoving place.
But they could be all over themselves. With a Mercury Award Nomination in 2008, being named as one of Best Albums of The Decade in Uncut and The Observer for The Bairns (out on EMI), as well as BBC Folk Awards and many others. Why didn’t I know of them before? Or my evening’s accomplice. As the evening went on, I found myself increasingly mesmerised and indadvertedly swaying in a progressive daze.
They sing of drunks, pubs, Newcastle Brown Ale, men, sweat, bosoms, daily life and poverty – STORIES of England of the North, the land, the people, the past. With the strings behind them, they sing everything tenderly, slowly and with an enormous wedge of sadness. But it’s hard to feel sadness with them, it’s more that they disarm you and fill you with beautiful sounds and truths. Things aren’t and never have been idyllic for everyone, forever.
Between tracks they chat leisurely about where they found their songs, and banter with the piano player, and husband of Rachel, Adrian McNally. Rachel talks of the need we have now for music that strikes chord and brings people together. Such as the North East mining songs, full of trouble, strife and heartbreak. There is a comradery in folk music, and a wholesome edge that is inescapable. It’s English summers, rolling hills and blustery mountain tops. It’s reality and being unafraid of it. It’s the soundtrack to what we discover when we experience something that flicks the deep, dark switch. One weekend, after trundling out of our home and switching the telly off, a walk by the ocean, some awful news, a baby’s birth, right then and there we see and feel light and free. We vow to repeat our actions again asap; “we should do that again darling.”, or never take things for granted, because we’ve realised what life is about. They know, The Unthanks. They get it.
One song featured the two girls singing unaccompanied, Rachel giving ‘advice’ to Becky on marriage. “You’d better be a maid all the days of your life, Better me a maid as a poor man’s wife.” They laughed about it, and smiled broadly to each other and then out to the audience. Another track; The Gallowgate Lad, is about a girl crying alone in Newcastle. Someone asks her; ‘What’s wrong?’ A mistake, as it can be. The piano dancing notes, paired with the story telling Becky, alone on stage, is a tremendous mix, full of drama, reviving the angst of past encounters. A number of other songs also featured the use of mighty clog dancing by Becky. Whilst Rachel sat on a chair for a mini rest, Becky tapped and stomped on stage. This was delightful and served to enhance my own desire to own clogs. Excellent skill! They also treated us to a song from the soundtrack of archive footage of Newcastle, they had performed at the Tyneside Cinema recently. They sang of the docks, the ale and the banter in their hauntingly joined voices.
Becky and Rachel put on a superb show, and yet it didn’t even feel like a *SHOW*, it felt as if we were in their living room, by the fire, with knitted cream jumpers and hot toddies, all singing together. It was warming to the heart and soul. Incidentally The Unthanks run weekends of singing in Northumberland, so perhaps check them out if you want some of your own sing song jubilation. For now check out this video. You can buy all their albums now; The Bairns and Here’s The Tender Coming are both out on EMI, and Last, on Rabble Rouser.
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