The Unthanks occupy a specific position in the nation’s musical hierarchy. At the risk of damning their next studio venture, they are, as Terence Trent D’Arby once proclaimed, neither fish nor flesh. They inhabit multiple world views, flitting in and out of whichever they choose, whenever they see fit. As I learn when they take time out after a Stage One set at Cambridge, they like it like that, though it’s not a construct of deliberate making. Instead, Rachel, Becky and Adrian would have us know they’re simply channelling their influences in the direction of the next interesting idea, and loving every minute of it.
In conversation, they are ridiculously humble given their achievements, and at times genuinely surprised that they might be considered aspirational for other artists. As Becky puts it later, that’s so funny!
Amusing or weird, I start by admitting that I had to avoid talking for a good ten minutes after their set for fear of crying. How was it for them? BU – We managed not to cry. RU – But I did feel quite emotional. We feel like we have quite a connection with Cambridge. We played here as a duo, in the Club Tent. They’ve supported us from early on, through Rachel and the Winterset, and with the Brighouse Brass Band. Adrian, whose ever-expanding role in the band also includes pinning down details in interviews, agrees, confirming That was in 2012, but we launched the Bairns (The Mercury nominated album) here in 2007 so they’ve seen us develop all the way through.
You’ll need a bigger stage next time then? RU – Oh, I don’t think so. (laughs) BU – It’s just a nice connection with the audience here because of our history.
It was a great response. AM – Yeah, but no amount of connection ever makes us less nervous about coming here, more so than other festivals we play, even though they might be bigger – it’s just our relationship with this place.
If it seems strange that such accomplished musicians can feel nerves anymore, it turns out to be a result of the fact that, Cambridge’s special history apart, The Unthanks consider themselves only truly at home with themselves, a condition that must see them continually on edge, never quite knowing whether the next turn is the right, or wrong, one. Adrian again, The way we drift between rock and folk festivals and don’t actually fully fit within either in the conventional sense… In recent times only? RU – We’ve always felt like that, I think. AM – Yeah. We played Latitude four years ago and Electric Picnic, Bestival…
BU – End Of The Road – To a similar response as you’d expect here? AM – I think we’re getting better at that, at knowing how to survive at different festivals. If we do something where we take the drums and bass out and 200 yards away there’s someone banging out rock music, we’re wasting our time. End Of The Road is so good for that because the stages are so far apart. That may happen here later when the Treacherous Orchestra get on stage. BU – We’ll be dancing!
Adrian warms to his subject, leaning forward across the table, We’ve always been more interested in preaching to the unconverted. Wherever we go now, we feel that we don’t quite fit in so everywhere feels like a challenge. I’ve spoken to people who were seeing you for the first time and they didn’t know what to expect. They had a perception of a ‘folk’ gig in their minds and seeing you shattered those perceptions – you broke their genre walls. RU – You’ve got to go with your gut instinct. All three of us have different influences and like lots of different music. At the core of it we’re still just trying to tell stories. AM – Absolutely. There’s no attempt to be different, no striving to meld different genres. Our musical vocabulary as listeners is wide and that comes out naturally.
I wonder what it is they listen to, and how wide that vocabulary is? What are they going to go home and listen to? AM – I was listening to some trombone improv yesterday afternoon. BU – We were listening to some Ben Folds Five on the way here. [starts singing] Love the harmonies. And the storytelling! RU – We toured with him in Europe and the States. BU – It was a brilliant experience to watch and take in rather than a good career opportunity. AM – My first performance as an on-stage Unthank was as support to Ben Folds. Our pianist failed to get the right visa to get into the States. Within twenty-four hours I had to learn the set and take the piano stool. RU – We’d started on a new album but it was in the early stages and we were all saying ‘You can do it!’ AM – I could have been the piano player earlier but didn’t want to be , then suddenly had to be.
Clearly still in thrall to music, whether it’s theirs or played by others, all three laugh as they remember how Adrian had to put up or shut up, knowing full well the outcome was never in doubt. They talk about other acts the same way teenagers do when they’re describing their favourite singers. How does it feel when they hear of people, audiences and artists, saying they look to The Unthanks as something to aspire to? BU – Wow, that’s amazing, to think anyone would be influenced by us. Of the five interviews I’ve conducted today, two of the artists have remarked on how amazing you are, and wonder how you do what you do. BU – No way! That’s so funny!
BU – Yeah!
I’ll be sure to tell them. [laughs all round]
RU – That is humbling really, to think that people think like that. Isn’t it a mark of where you’ve got to? AM – It’s still strange to hear, partly because we don’t feel like we belong to any world in particular, so we don’t get that feedback from our peers or the younger generation in any respect. We don’t really operate in a circle that includes that loop. You breeze in, you do your stuff… [Laughs all round] RU – We do have some amazing connections with people, especially with the singing weekends we run in Bamburgh. You get a real chance to talk to people, people who are really into our music or just because their friends like singing and told them to come along. You do make great connections and they mean everything to us. BU – And that’s our aim. We’ve done six weekends this year.
The conversation switches from the road and inspirations to their off-stage activities, in particular the aforementioned singing weekends. What emerges is the folk, or traditional kernel at the heart of The Unthanks. How on earth do you fit those in to your schedule? AM – It is getting harder. Rachel and I have two children under four now – RU – That’s harder than anything else! AM – But we’re self-managed, we self-release. We’re busier in non-artistic ways than we are artistic, actually.
And the cottage industry aspect is a link to your origins?
AM – I don’t think so, really. We’ve released three albums with EMI. Though we’ve gone back to own label status, we’re still pro-label in theory, but the climate’s just not right for it to be feasible. It’s with regret that we’re self-releasing at the moment. We need people to invest in new music and the facility for record labels to do so is becoming more and more difficult. It’s an interesting take on the major / independent argument, but back to the singing.
RU – I think the singing weekends reflect our origins more, how we grew up, and what we try and recreate is things that we miss when we’re on tour – singing around the house, sessions in the pub. On tour we miss that, being a small part of a bigger thing. On stage we’re the big thing, at the front and singing and that’s wonderful and amazing, but in a singing workshop, being a tiny voice in a whole chorus of voices is a completely different experience. It’s uplifting. It’s about shared singing and that is as important a part of us as the band and the touring. We still want to share that part of us and share in that experience. It’s very ‘home made’ – Adrian does the cooking, our parents help.
BU – We’ve been surprised by how overwhelming it is and how quickly people bond when they start to sing together. There’s a shared passion. RU – Yeah, it breaks down barriers very quickly. By the end, people feel like they’re part of a whole, part of a group and that they’ve shared something together. That’s very emotional. It’s a great sell, I think I might sign up. AM – You should! BU – Every time we’re caught out by it. Each weekend is unique and so much is invested in it. Adrian organises it so well. AM – I’m just a trier!
So. What’s next?
BU – We leave here at 2AM and we’re off to Port Eliot festival – it looks amazing. That’s the joy of this job, you end up somewhere you’ve never been before and each place is a new experience. And you’re touring again later in the year, including the Union Chapel and Scala in London? RU – Yes! AM – The Chapel is sold out now. It’ll be interesting because it’s a standing and seating show back to back. And then? Holiday? RU – Before that we’ve got a 5-piece tour to celebrate our tenth anniversary and then in the new year we’re working with the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Adrian’s doing some scoring for that… Because you don’t have enough to do?
AM – We like to say yes to things we don’t know how to do and then worry about it later – it’s the only way to learn!
The Unthanks first three songs on Stage One were Mount The Air, Flutter and Madam. Together with the rest of their latest album (read the FRUK review here), they are perfect examples of the band’s musical vocabulary; otherworldly and beautiful. Watching them perform, it’s hard to imagine such gracefully sad songs existing without something elsewhere in the universe tearing itself apart. At turns elegiac and bone-witheringly mournful, the contrasts are as stark as the easy bon-homie of our post-set conversation.
Live, they have so many gears it’s unlikely we see more than a few of them. You can hear the joy of singing in Magpie – the ability to sustain vocal control throughout this all but a-capella number is why Stage One’s crowd is pin-drop silent during their rendition. The music, expertly marshalled by Adrian, is almost baroque at times, and certainly a departure musically despite the retention of more traditional lyrics and stories. Their continued drive for new sounds and new structures ensures that they’ll not be found resting on their laurels, and enjoying every moment of each new direction, whether it works or not. For now, it’s hard to think of another band willing to push the envelope so far in pursuit of new adventures whilst being content to worry about the consequences later. Long may it continue.
Interview and Review by: Paul Woodgate