‘I think it’s more accurate to simply say that Molly was a shit hot songwriter!’
Adrian McNally, multi-instrumentalist, arranger and producer with The Unthanks, is discussing his band’s new album, The Songs and Poems of Molly Drake, the fourth instalment in their inspired, unconventional Diversions series. I have suggested that Molly, mother of cult singer-songwriter Nick, was something of an enigmatic songwriter, not fitting in to any traditional definition of folk music, and perhaps ahead of her time. For McNally, the truth is simpler than that:
‘Stylistically, the first thing you hear is the mannerisms of the time. The Noel Coward, Ivor Novello-esque hallmarks of the era are there in her piano playing, and a stiff, properness in the voice. But then, in stunning contrast and contradiction, her softness, her emotional intelligence, her sensual and radiant artistry, start to reach out to you. Hearing a woman, a mother, from that time, expressing her personal, melancholic, philosophical thoughts, so beautifully, with such guile and confidence, and yet kind of from behind closed doors, is as compelling a listen as I’ve ever experienced. Musically, there is far more to Molly’s piano playing and musicality than the styles of the day. Beneath the mannered parlour room vernacular is a brilliant musical deviant who has tied me in knots, trying to work it all out.
‘I don’t think it’s helpful or interesting to wonder whether her work relates to folk music at all, given folk music’s inherently shifting and ultimately unimportant forms. We’re more interested in the function of music than the form, which of course shifts all the time too. The function for Molly was perhaps a cathartic form of self-expression. Certainly she had a predilection for nature-based metaphors and a philanthropic disposition from which she delivers pragmatic advice, but even as someone highly prone to overthinking and intellectualising, I feel that contemplating her relationship to folk music is a blind alley.
‘Much as been said about Molly’s artistry with matters of the heart, and how relatable her emotionally intelligent and empathic words are. But this is a description that fails to set her apart or define her, because surely to some extent, that is what all artists are attempting – to be understood and to hope that the audience will relate.’
This is the point where he comes to the conclusion that Molly was a ‘shit hot songwriter.’
‘The sheer quality of her poetry – her ability to split the pin of the point down the middle with concise and shattering precision – is exhilarating to me. Frequently she brings me to tears, and explosions of laughter, and in both cases, the reason is the same. Whether I relate to her point or not (which usually I do), it is not the truth itself but the beauty and skill with which she expresses it, that makes me gulp hard or exclaim with joy. She is quite brilliant and I am fully in awe of her!
‘In terms of being ahead of her time, certainly there isn’t a huge amount of work from that time, especially from women, that is so emotionally candid and confessional, but there is a danger of underestimating and caricaturing societies from the past, especially women. Molly, after all, did not perform publicly beyond family and friends, and for all we know, there may be many great works of all types from all periods that were written privately, and ahead of the time at which a given art form or style became commonplace.’
It’s clear that McNally and his bandmates’ relationship with Molly and her songs run deep. So how did they discover those songs, and what made them want to create this album?
‘When Molly’s daughter, the actress Gabrielle Drake, made the decision to release her mother’s work, we were already acquainted, Gabrielle having been to see us live, having approved of our reading of Nick Drake’s River Man on the debut Rachel Unthank & The Winterset album, Cruel Sister. Earliest talks of our involvement in a Molly album go back three years or so, during which time, trust and like-mindedness developed, with Gabrielle and also with Cally [Martin Callomon], the man she runs the Drake musical estate with, and who was instrumental in Nick’s music becoming more widely known during Cally’s time at Island Records, before he left to focus more exclusively on all things Drake. A conceptual artist himself, but (he will say) as an Unthanks fan himself first and foremost, Cally art directed both our recent Memory Box and Book, so the relationship has been burgeoning all the while. It wasn’t until I suggested that Gabrielle read her mother’s poetry on our album however, that their insistence on not being seen to aid or abet the project, was compromised, and even then and throughout, Gabrielle has insisted on our total artistic control and freedom with her mother’s work. It didn’t stop us seeking her approval of course, and her energy towards providing information, words, photographs and fact checking has been vital and confidence giving.
‘The suggested link between her songs and Nick’s is well documented, and you can certainly hear a kinship, yet in Molly, while there is wonder and introspection, there is also flamboyance, playful naughtiness, and at points, a more inclusive way of articulating the human condition.’
Gabrielle’s contribution to the record can’t be underestimated: her readings of her mother’s poems, both unaccompanied and set to music, are beautiful, polished gems, and provide further evidence of the range of Molly’s talents. I suggest that it must be daunting to work with someone else’s material, particularly when one of their family members is on board.
‘Of course,’ McNally replies. ‘Always! But no more so than with traditional music, with which there is an even greater implied responsibility. Our readiness to deviate away and add new colours might give the impression that we are carefree about it, but nothing could be further from the truth. The more love and belief you have in the work of another, the greater the self-pressure is to communicate your own love for it, because the goal is to have others feel for it the way you do. In some ways, I feel it gives opportunity for the more sincere performance. If you’ve written a song yourself, you’re subject as its owner to obsession and insecurities. If you are merely the vehicle, hoping to bring another’s message to a new audience, or to have an audience see beauty or truth not hitherto recognised in the work, you can express that wholly and without fear of ridicule, with a true, generous, altruistic love for the work and it’s writer.’
The new record certainly and unfailingly expresses the love that Mcnally talks about, but as he says, the band are not afraid to deviate, to experiment. They have made something that sounds new and fresh, but that newness, that freshness, is a result of the sincere respect they have for their material.
That readiness to deviate, as McNally puts it, has always been part of the way The Unthanks work. They are willing to draw inspiration from the ancient and the new, from traditional ballads to modern composition. I ask him about his love of the music of Steve Reich and Robert Wyatt, and whether it is important for folk music to embrace new forms and to keep evolving, and his answers provide a rich insight into his own working process:
‘It isn’t important at all. As Bjork once said “I always know what my next album will be emotionally, but most media people don’t think emotionally, they think in style terms. Style is just a tool to be used, like clothes. If you meet a person and you like the person, it doesn’t matter if they wear green socks or pink socks. Musical style is just the same. It’s just a tool to express yourself.” I love and identify with her magpie-like approach to style, and her readiness to pick up and lose fans all the time as a result of having scant regard for her music’s form. Being untrained, Rachel, Becky and I each see music making as an adventure and journey, which makes the desire to keep moving a genuine instinct and not a thought out decision.
‘I find the repetitive patterns in Reich’s minimalism to have a lot in common with the modal, drone based facet of folk music, and the two are interchangeable, but Chris Wood and probably others, worked that way before I did, much to my annoyance, as it was only subsequent to my own experimenting in this area that I realised Chris had been doing it for years. Similarly, Denis Cahill’s accompaniment to Martin Hayes is founded in contemporary minimalism, and yet sounds perfectly natural and not at all a ‘fusion’. Rather than trying to modernise or innovate, his attempt is to find ways to support, without getting in the way of the tune at all. Finding ways in fact to become so invisible that Martin is given as much freedom as if he was playing unaccompanied, or at least to give that impression. My motives are the same – to create sound worlds that point squarely at the beauty in the melodies and words that has always been there – not to innovate but to seek out and accentuate an absolute essence – either by being sensitive enough to let it shine or by offering a music counterpoint that reveals new depth in what previously seemed simple and humble.’
The conversation returns to the subject of the new album, and in particular how some of Drake’s poems are left to stand alone while others are given a musical backing. I am keen to know how the band decided to treat each individual piece:
‘Gabrielle recorded her mother’s poetry for us separately, remotely from us, so they all landed in my inbox together, and stayed there, unheard, until we had finished making the music for the album. This was quite a risk. I had identified certain songs as having the potential for having poetry within them, but only notionally and mainly because the musical backdrops to those particular songs were atmospheric enough for me to imagine spoken word over them, but I didn’t have particular poems in mind. So in those songs, I just made sure they had instrumental passages on which I could potentially lay spoken word but with nothing to base length or expression on. When I eventually got to Gabrielle’s performances, I was blown away by how good they were, and started experimenting and finding common themes between the poems and songs. It was purely trial and error to start with, and I was just extremely lucky and grateful to Gabrielle that her performances worked so well with the music. It was really only at this point that we felt we had something really good, because until then it had been quite a torrid test of our nerve to tackle music and songs of a vernacular that wasn’t common to our musical vocabularies.’
And just how prolific was Molly Drake? Was there a great deal of material to choose from?
‘Loads, yes. I don’t know how prolific she was. Only that she wrote for much of her life, which adds up to fair amount of work. Choosing was hard, which is clear from the fact that we have also released another eight tracks of songs and poetry as a supplementary release called ‘Extras’ (which you can only buy from our website). There were obvious standouts that I thought Rachel and Becky would try and beat each other to having first dibs on! But there were other priorities too – recording songs that had only survived in Gabrielle’s memory (passed on to us orally) such as the very folky Bird In The Blue, and making sure we represented Molly’s more playful songs, some of which she wrote for her children (Soft Shell Crabs is both an example of this and of a song that had only survived in Gabrielle’s memory).’
Much of the Unthanks’ previous output has had a strong political and historical identity. Sisters Becky and Rachel were steeped from an early age in the politically conscious working class folk songs of the north-east of England, while McNally grew up in a mining village in Yorkshire. Does he think that folk music can still play an important role in the political narrative?
‘Yes, absolutely. Any art form can. All art is a reflection of life, and vice versa, to paraphrase a great, gay Irishman. We prefer to tell stories that let people make their own mind up, though if you tell tales that illustrate the devastating affects of capitalism on working people and communities, it’s pretty clear what side you’re on!
‘My own big eureka moment with folk music was hearing as a teenager, the Ed Pickford song Farewell Johnny Miner. Music was never the same again and I was changed. This music was about where I was from. Until then, I thought the only people who could write about where they were from had to be from Detroit Rock City, or Panama, or Paradise City. This was about my granddad, and half the adults of the village I grew up in. Never had it occurred to me that you could write about the dole, and the pits of Northern England, in your own accent, let alone that it could sound electric, let alone that anyone would want to listen. The idea that the communities I belonged to could have a voice, a vernacular, and a say, was super exciting.
‘We’re big admirers of Kate Tempest and of poet Holly McNish. And Billy Bragg has become such a devastatingly effective orator that his role as a speaker is almost eclipsing his music and becoming super important to the country. It goes to show that the facility for art to speak for and of the people is not the exclusive property of folk music. Everyone from Ian Dury to Johnny Rotten, to Suggs, Terry Hall, Paul McCartney, Mike Skinner and today, Kate Tempest – they’ve all written insightful and influential work about our times, to the extent in fact that there have probably been more effective political voices in the rock and pop world than there have been in the folk world over the past 30-40 years, which is not a criticism of the folk world – it’s just a desire to see a more inclusive attitude towards the power possible within all music genres and art forms – the genre being the least interesting and significant element of that power.’
It is refreshing to hear a musician speak with such passion and intelligence about music as a whole, rather than attempting to defend or promote their own little niche in the musical world. It is this passion, perhaps, that leads The Unthanks to seek out and record music of such breadth and variety, and that drives them to create their ‘Diversions’. On this subject, I ask McNally if there is anything else in the pipeline? Is there a Diversions Vol 5 round the corner, perhaps? The answer is both reassuring and tantalising.
‘Yes, there will be more, I’m sure. The Diversions series is a great tool for us to, well, divert, and explore something different, and to make it clear that it is only a diversion, and not to be seen or judged by fans or critics as the New Direction. It also shows I hope, that for all our side projects, there is a main agenda, to which we continue to return.
‘We plan for Diversions Vol 5 to be a release of the two orchestral performances we did last year, and we hope to mark the release with a handful more orchestral shows. Then, there’s a good chance we may come full circle and release an entirely unaccompanied record.’
And, finally, what of the current music scene? What’s floating the Unthanks’ boat right now?
‘We think the new Lisa Knapp record is great. She’s coming to perform at our Newcastle festival, Home Gathering in September (as are Chris Wood, Julie Murphy and Daoiri Farrell). We find kinship with The Gloaming, with Twelfth Day, with the Furrow Collective, Marry Waterson and The Young’uns. We continue to learn from and aspire to the likes of The Wilsons, The Keelers and The Elliotts of Birtley.’
Diversions, Vol. 4: The Songs and Poems of Molly Drake is Out Now.
Order it here: http://www.the-unthanks.com/
Find out more about Home Gathering – 15-17 September 2017 (Hoults Yard, Newcastle)