The Unthanks - clog on the Tyne

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The Unthanks - clog on the Tyne

The Unthanks - clog on the Tyne

Posted: 08 Oct 2009

Tyneside folk star Rachel Unthank - the new Unthanks album is called Here's the Tender Coming and they play Stockton Arc on November 28 - talks about her music, clog dancing and motherhood

By Michael Hamilton

Rising North East folk sensation Rachel Unthank is the talk of the Tyne - but her big burning ambition is to be a mum.

Rachel’s brother Matthew and partner Jo are proud parents after she gave birth to a little boy Joshua last year. And now Rachel is broody.

‘I want to have babies. My brother has just had a little boy making my sister Becky and me aunties. We are all very excited and it has made me clucky myself,’ she confesses.

Rachel, 31, and her husband Adrian McNally – who is also the band’s manager and sound engineer – share a cosy farm cottage near Corbridge in the Tyne Valley.

‘I don’t know how we will fit it all in with our music careers but we’ll cope somehow. People do. We definitely want to have kids but we don’t want to give up the music’ she says.

Singing and clog dancing sisters Rachel and Becky, 24, form the core of the Unthanks who have set the North East folk scene alight.

Their first album Cruel Sister released in 2005 won them instant and widespread acclaim. They picked up live performance of the year in 2006 at the Cambridge Folk Festival. 

2007 saw the release of their second critically-acclaimed album The Bairns and they picked up the Horizon Award for best up-and-coming group at the BBC 2 Folk Awards the following year. And although they didn’t win the Mercury prize in September, to be nominated for one of the UK’s top 12 albums of the year is achievement in itself.

The Bairns with its dark subject matter – including tales of dead babies, domestic abuse and drunken depravity – is certainly bringing them a wider audience away from the often cosy world of bearded folkies in Arran sweaters. 

But the darkness in tracks like Blue Bleezing Blind Drunk and the harrowing Whitethorn – recounting an Irish grandmother’s struggle to survive – is also tempered with light touches and infused with humour in the great story-telling, time-honoured folk tradition.

Indeed Rock'n'Reel magazine dubbed The Bairns ‘possibly the folk album of this generation’.

Music is in the girls’ blood.

The sisters come from the former Tyneside pit village of Ryton. Dad George sings with folk group The Keelers (after the boatmen who sailed up and down the Tyne) and mum Pat has sung in choirs all her life.

‘Singing and dancing would always have been a big part of my life whether I made a career out of it or not. But it’s wonderful getting away with not having a real job,’ she jokes. ‘I’ve grown up with this stuff but never thought I’d be earning a living from it.’

‘When we play in London they go mad for the clog dancing stuff. It goes down really well.

‘My dad always wanted us to have a family band when we were younger because my brother played the fiddle and guitar but he went off to be a chemist and do something sensible unlike Becky and me.

‘We were into all sorts of music growing up apart from folk. When I was a teenager I was into grunge music and loved bands like Nirvana and Metallica. Becky was into indie music.

‘We are just massive fans of any music whether it be popular, jazz, classical or whatever. We’ll give anything a listen.’

Rachel read history and theatre studies at Glasgow and Becky has taken a couple of years out from doing history of art and design at Manchester to concentrate on their burgeoning musical career.

Rachel started performing solo at 17. When she was 21 Becky joined her and they remained a duo for a while. But it was after meeting producer Adrian – who now plays keyboards in the band – that things really took off.

They recruited pianist Belinda O’Hooley who grew up in the traditional folk scene in Sligo playing music with her Irish Catholic father. And violinist Niopha Keegan completed the line-up on The Bairns. They found her in Newcastle at the performance-based folk music course at Northumbria University – the only one in England.

Inevitably there was a bit of bad blood after Belinda left the band.

‘When you are in a band together you do spend a lot of time living in each other’s pockets and become ridiculously responsible to each other.

‘Belinda enjoyed being in the band and we had a great journey together but she got to a point where she didn’t want to be away from home and that’s difficult if you’re in a touring band.

‘It just became unviable. There’s always a bit of upset when these things happen but we’re over it all now.

‘Stef’s great. She’s technically fantastic because she’s classically trained but she also plays piano on The Bairns just like Belinda on the album.

‘Niopha’s from St. Albans but she came to Newcastle to do the folk degree course and she has stayed in the North East because she loves it so much.’

Apart from the band bust-up, 2007 was a tough one emotionally for the sisters. An aunt died while they were busy making the album and they also fell behind with their projected release schedule.

‘It was a bit of a mad time and a sad time. It got to the point that Adrian was staying up all night recording the album and we were sleeping in shifts just to get the thing finished in time.’

After graduating from university Rachel worked at the Gateshead Sage as a community musician and taught singing and clog dancing in local schools.

It also brought her weirdest assignment to date as she and fellow rising folk star Katie Doherty got roles as real-life Angels of the North at the switching on of the Christmas lights in Middlesbrough!

‘I don’t know how we got roped into it but we were on these ten feet tall frames on wheels in full angel make-up. And there were these lads pushing us around Middlesbrough shopping centre.

‘It was quite dangerous. I remember bits of the shopping centre coming far too near my head for comfort on more than once occasion. I’m not sure the lad pushing me around had much experience in the job either,’ she jokes.

The band has a hectic touring schedule. The girls played Australia earlier this year and are currently in the States before more UK dates before Christmas – including a concert at Durham Gala Theatre on October 19.

‘We enjoy the touring and it’s wonderful to visit new places. It gets tiring of course and it’s not always as glamorous as it sounds when you have to spend hours sitting in a van.

‘But we just feel lucky to be getting away with it, making a living as a musician and not having a proper job.

‘And of course although we get the chance to visit all these great places it’s always nice to come home to the North East and see our friends and family.

‘Whenever I feel I’ve been stuck in the van too long on tour I dream of coming home, going to Newton-by-the-Sea in Northumberland and having a nice pint in the pub, The Ship.’

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