The Unthanks - it’s a family affair

RACHEL UNTHANK admits to being “very excited” and it’s not surprising. She and her husband Adrian McNally are expecting their first child.

Rachel is seven and a half months pregnant but does not know the sex of the child yet. However one thing is certain, with ‘bun in the oven’ she won’t be doing any clog dancing at The Unthanks’ show at the Róisín Dubh this Tuesday at 9pm.

“The clog dancing is the thing that often goes down best,” Rachel tells me during our Thursday morning interview, “but I won’t be dancing on this tour, as Becky said I have to hang my clogs up and have a sit down.”

Rachel Unthank and her sister Becky, Adrian, Niopha Keegan, and Chris Price make up The Unthanks, one of the most exciting and talented modern English folk groups to emerge in years. As prog-rock legend Robert Wyatt said: “They are like the morning dew that hasn’t steamed off yet, they are fresh and new and I really don’t think they know how good they are.”

Having a baby is a life changing event in anyone’s life, but how will the new baby affect the band, will it lead to Rachel taking time off, or will she pursue the path of being a ‘working mum’?

“We won’t be playing many festivals in the summer but we’ll still be touring in the autumn,” she says. “Mum has offered to be granny to help with the child as I hope to keep going. We’ve still got to pay the rent!”

Rachel and Becky grew up in Newcastle surrounded by music. Their father is a member of the folk band The Keelers while their mother sings in folk choirs. The parents encouraged their daughters to sing and took them to music festivals around England. Indeed that strong sense of family remains a big part of the culture of The Unthanks’ band.

“Most of my family sing on ‘Troubled Waters’ from our first album Cruel Sister,” says Rachel. “There’s my auntie, who’s no longer with us, my brother, my uncle. It’s nice to have them on there. Becky and I do residential singing weekends and afterwards we meet up with dad and his mates and Adrian will cook up something nice for us...you never know, there might be a family band one day.”

Songs in the unique dialect of their native Northumbria; saucy ditties; and epic, melancholy ballads are all part and parcel of an Unthanks show. Clog dancing may only be a small part of the gigs, but it does stand out for audiences as English folk dancing is not as widely known or as widely practised as the traditional dances of Ireland and Scotland.

“People world-wide are aware of Irish traditional dance but they don’t know clog dancing,” says Rachel. “It’s quite technical dancing and comes from the dances men on the ships used to do. Becky and I grew up doing it and entered competitions in the area.”

The Unthanks are nothing if not champions and advocates for English folk culture, music, and traditions and it led them recently to make Still Folk Dancing for BBC4, a documentary which examined various styles of traditional English dance. For Rachel the most intriguing was horn dancing in Staffordshire (See www.youtube.com/watch?v=p2ewx4sojBY ).

“It was fascinating finding out about the horn dancers,” she says. “They dance with reindeer horns, but reindeers were not indigenous to England, but the horns have been carbon dated and they are about 1,000 years old and have been passed down through families.”

The Unthanks are currently promoting their new album Last (EMI ), the follow up to the Mercury nominated The Bairns (2007 ) and Here’s The Tender Coming (2009 ). Like its predecessors it features a mix of traditional and original material, and, as is often noted by the group themselves, it is infused, musically and lyrically, with a sombre melancholy. One of its stand-out tracks, ‘Give Your Heart Away’ is dominated by the refrain: “Disappointment is everywhere” .

Yet the band are not sorrowful or grim individuals, the exact opposite as anyone who has seen them in concert will testify. So what accounts for the contrast?

“The better stories and the more complex ones are the sad stories sometimes,” says Rachel. “Growing up with this type of music you can’t be afraid of dealing with subjects that are tragic and are the facts of life. People have sung these songs for hundreds of years and I love songs that don’t shy away from that and deal with situations that are difficult to talk about - either that or we’re miserable at heart!”

Say ‘folk music’ and people think of Ireland’s rich tradition of music, dance, and song as Gaeilge and in English; they will think of its offspring, Scottish folk and trad; and how both those forms of Celtic music gave birth to American roots, bluegrass, and hillbilly.

English folk played a role there too and it has a rich tradition of its own. Yet it has arguably the lowest profile of these musics, and neither does it enjoy the high level of visibility among English people that say Irish music enjoys in Ireland.

The Unthanks however are fiercely proud of their traditional music and culture and more than any other act of the last 10 years, have been bringing an awareness of English folk music, not only to audiences outside England, but to the English themselves.

“I think English people struggle with their own identity,” says Rachel. “Celebrating being English could be seen as being colonial or right-wing which is the opposite of what folk music is all about.

“Folk music is about working men and women and their lives and troubles. These traditions, dances, and songs just happen to be English but they are something English people can say are our own and are a way of saying ‘I am proud to be English’.”

Support is from Trembling Bells. Tickets are available from the Róisín Dubh and www.roisindubh.net

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