top of page

In Interview with The Unthanks

Published on Folk Radio UK, 26th October 2022

It seems to me that over the last three years or so, you’ve been refining a sound akin to a post-rock style, akin to Sigur Rós. There are hints of it in The Lines, and you’ve leaned into that style on several of the tracks on this new album. Would you say it’s been a conscious decision to move in that direction, or has it evolved organically?

Rachel Unthank: I think it’s not a conscious decision. Do you agree, Becky?

Becky Unthank: I think it’s partly Adrian and Chris’ influences on the album. It’s their musical listening habits, and background has seeped into the arrangements. Which tracks did you have in mind in particular?

I was thinking in particular of Great Silkie of Sule Skerry and other moments in the album which become explosive and triumphant. It also happens on Old News and on Sorrows Away.

B: I think partly it’s to do with what dynamics we can use as a band. We both have quiet singing voices. Well, I wouldn’t call Rachel a quiet singer unaccompanied, but within the context of an 11-piece band, there’s only so much noise they can make while we’re singing. We’re so keen on our music being about the storytelling, and the words are so important to us. Adrian totally tries to accommodate that and to tell those stories through the music. So as soon as we’ve stopped singing it’s a chance for them to make some noise! R: I think it’s also that this album, although you wouldn’t say it’s cheerful exactly, does feel a bit more joyful and positive. Coming out of the pandemic, we’re really keen to be a bit more hopeful. So I think there are joyful moments in the music which have developed partly because of the material we’ve chosen and the vibe we were trying to create, of sending our sorrows away. I think that has been captured in the arrangements. We’ve gone back to our 11-piece band, which we haven’t done since Mount The Air, which is a broader sound with strings and trumpet, double bass and drums, and that affords us to have a more dynamic sound too.

I’m always interested in the role of women (and singers especially) in the production/engineering side of making records. You mentioned Adrian and Chris in the arranging side of things. To what extent did you get involved in the orchestration and production of this album?

R: The songs usually start with me and Becky, and we’re the ones who find them and develop them before they come to Adrian, who is the chief orchestrator of the band, and actually, we have very little technical knowledge when it comes to production. Although we always have a voice and a say in what’s happening, and if we don’t like it we’re very vocal about that. We talk a lot about the way things feel.

So you’re bringing a more emotional side to it?

B: I think, as you say, we talk about the mood. We’ll start with the song, and work out some harmonies, then we’ll talk about the mood and atmosphere, and then Adrian does all the arranging. Poor Adrian then has to come to us at the end for approval. We say, “We love it!” or “Not quite sure about this!” [laughs]. That’s probably quite a hard position for him to be in.

R: It’s got to filter through all of us, so we’ve all got to be happy with it.

Do you two ever fall out or disagree about decision-making throughout the process?

R: Very rare.

B: [Laughs] Me and Rachel are ridiculously cooperative with each other as sisters. Everyone in our band has such strong opinions, which is brilliant, and you know, sometimes it can get a bit tense, but essentially we’re all just passionate about the music, so I think that contributes to where we get to in the end.

The producer I work with says if two people really disagree about a decision, usually there’s a third way they haven’t explored yet.

B: I’ll take that back to the band [Laughs]

R: That’s very diplomatic. Well, that’s right, you do have to find another way rather than just banging someone over the head trying to convince them that you’re right and they’re wrong.

How did the process of making this record compare to making other albums?

R: Well, it was a little trickier because we were all in separate houses, and at certain times we weren’t allowed to be in the same one. [Laughs]

So you started making it right in the thick of lockdown?

R: Yeah, we were looking through material, and actually me and Becky started working on harmonies in the woods when we were walking. I’m a single adult too, so I could bubble with Becky, so we could work together. So yeah, it’s definitely been different. Also, having such a massive unifying event just affects your thought processes. We felt like it really affected the material that we chose.

B: It was a slow start for me; I really struggled at the beginning to think about what direction I wanted to go in. I did feel a bit lost. But it was a huge relief as soon as we decided to record Sorrows Away (the title track). I don’t know how much you’re part of the folk world, but if you’ve ever been to a folk session, everyone sings Sorrows Away; it’s just one of those songs. It’s everyone’s song, and it’s stood the test of time because it’s such a favourite. We never considered recording it before because it’s like… it’s like recording We Wish You a Merry Christmas or something; it’s like, why would you? But then the sentiment of it took on a new meaning really, singing the sorrows away; it gave us a path.

Obviously, as a band, you have built your career on reinterpreting folk songs. And there are a lot of moments over the course of the album which are much more stripped back, reminding your early fans of when they first fell in love with your music. Why do you feel that it’s important to keep the folk tradition alive?

R: I think it’s just… it’s almost not a conscious choice. It’s how we were brought up, going to folk festivals, to folk clubs, we were in a traditional dance team. We, as children, were drawn into that storytelling world, with adults telling stories around us, and it became a fabric of our lives. It’s a way that, as a family, we celebrate, well, everything really. If we’re having a family party, we sing songs; births, weddings, funerals. We have a deep love for those songs and a need to sing them to other people and tell those stories. What do you think, Becks?

B: Yeah, I totally agree. I think what I love about folk songs is that it’s just everyday people talking about everyday issues. I think that’s what gives folk the integrity that it has. It’s about love and loss and work and struggle. Also, finding out about where we come from, the place that we live helps us to get to grips with who we are. It helps us with our identity. And to think that there’s folk music all over the world, there’s something really connecting about that.

You’ve spoken about how you arrived at Sorrows Away. How do you usually collect folk songs? What draws you to specific tunes?

R: Sometimes you have a long journey with a song. Sometimes we go back to songbooks or talk to our dad and our stepdad, who are both folk singers, or we’ll listen to old records. But actually, the Great Silkie of Sule Skerry is a song that’s been in our life a long time. We used to hear it when we were younger, and then Becky arranged it to teach on our singing weekends. We never really planned to sing it ourselves. But then we sang it at the proms, Adrian did a full orchestration for it, and we felt like we wanted to put it to record as well.

B: We’re always trying to pick songs up along the way. The best way to hear a song is to hear someone singing it in the room. We’ve both got little kids now. so we don’t get out that much, do we Rach? [Laughs] We do take the kids with us sometimes though – we’re trying to indoctrinate them.

Important to start early! Of course, so much of the folk song tradition is about the lyrics. Do either of you have a favourite lyric or special, personal interpretation of a lyric from this record?

R: That’s a good question. I think a lot of the Sorrows Away lyrics found new resonance and hit me much harder in the climate that we lived in during covid. The lyric ‘I’ve learned a new song to drive sorrows away’, how true that felt. There’s another line in it that Becky sang on an online thing when we were in lockdown in separate houses. ‘With my bottle and friend you will find me at home.’ It really hit me in the heart and brought tears to my eyes. I thought to myself, ‘Gosh, that’s what we’re all doing, y’know?’ Well, maybe not everybody had a bottle of wine!

[Laughs] Maybe not everybody had a friend!

R: [Laughs] Exactly! What about you, Becky? What about your song?

B: Well, the first line of my song was like me trying to tell myself something. ‘Friends and lovers, among all others, you belong to the air.’ In our relationships, whether it’s family, friends or in a romantic relationship, we often try to hold on too tightly to each other, and it can stifle relationships. It can get you in such a state and doesn’t allow for relationships to grow. In writing that song, I think I was trying to tell myself that to try and make sense of something. In singing it, I still try to remind myself of it.

There are songs that take on a different meaning over years, whether that’s because circumstances have changed or my perspective has changed because I’m older and have a different experience. Actually, the ‘friends and lovers’ lyric is a bit like a song that my mum sings in her choir that she always tries to get me and Rachel to sing at family parties. It’s called On Children, and it’s actually a poem by Khalil Gibran, put to music by Sweet Honey on the Rocks. Do you know that song?

From the Prophet?

B: Yeah!

I’ve written a song based on that poem as well. I can’t believe you brought that up!

B: You wrote a song based on that phrase?

Yeah, it’s called Arrow.

R: How lovely! You’ll have to send us it!

B: Wow, I can’t believe that! I nearly didn’t bring it up as well! When I was younger and mum would try and get us to sing this song, I always felt a bit embarrassed, but now I can barely sing it without crying. Maybe because I’ve got kids. I mean, you don’t need to have kids to have that understanding, but maybe I did! [Laughs]

R: It’s about the same idea of setting people free and letting people be who they want to be. Is that what you mean, Becks?

B: Yeah.

R: Ahh, that’s nice. I didn’t know that either! Or if you did tell me, I’d forgotten. [Laughs]

Tell me about the lyrics in Old News. They slowly whittle down, so it just becomes Old News / Whole Truth at the very end.

B: I suppose all of my songs stem from being a bit lost and trying to work out how to move forward with something emotionally. I was looking for some answers and looking to nature, to my parents, and to my peers. Looking to people who know more than me. For example, nature. [Laughs] There’s something in that, the trees are wise, and they know what they’re doing. They’ve lasted all this time. I was looking to the past to try and find some answers. Looking for ancient truths. In some ways, you can view looking backwards as not being very progressive, but I think there’s wisdom there.

It ties in with the whole philosophy of the folk tradition, trying to learn from our past, from the stories of our ancestors. Trying to reflect and make our lives better today.

R: I think every generation probably thinks they’ve got all the answers. You know, like other people haven’t thought about it. But there’s a lot of inherited knowledge too.

So finally, what do you want people to take away from this album?

R: It’s a hard thing that, because I think in one way you just have to make your craft, and then set it free. The albums go off and have their own journeys, and they mean different things to different people, and actually, you can’t even imagine how people might interact with your music and what they might find in it. And I love it when people come up and tell us about relationships they’ve had with our music because sometimes you can’t imagine it yourself, and that’s brilliant. It’s like it’s got nothing to do with you in a way, y’know? And it hasn’t in a way. But obviously, you always want people, especially with this album, to find comfort and to find connection as well.

B: I want people to sing along to it. In the car. [Laughs]

In the car specifically? [Laughs]

B: Well, that’s where we did a lot of our listening, isn’t it?

R: Yeah. Or on a bicycle, if you’re gonna be a bit greener, Becky.

B: Well, there might be accidents if people are listening to music on their bikes.

R: That’s true. I’m not thinking this through. [Laughs]

B: In their car share!

R: In their electric car share. [Laughs]

B: And I think the act of singing makes you feel good. This is something we’ve thought about a lot over the years. Like when Becky was a teenager, if she was in a bad mood, I used to try and trick her into singing ‘cause it would be transformative. She would immediately feel better. She’d be so much calmer and happier. And also we run singing residentials for people to come on, and they come and sing, we sing with them. We walk along the beach and sing, we go to the pub and sing, and again it’s just so palpable how transformative it is. It makes people feel connected, and it makes people happy. It sounds a bit cheesy, but if people do sing along, that would be lovely.

Thank you so much; it’s been a real pleasure to talk to you. One last tiny thing (which is more about my ignorance than anything else). What’s a coke oven?

R: [Laughs] Brilliant! So around where me and Becky grew up, it was all mining communities (not while we were alive, a long time before that), and lot of places were named after the pit owner’s daughters. The Isabella Colliery Coke Ovens is just across the river from us. There used to be big round brick beehive kilns, apparently, there were sixty of them. Now it’s a wooded area by the river, and there are only ruins of a couple of them that are left.

Wow, fascinating. Well, thank you so much; it’s been a pleasure and best of luck with the album.


bottom of page