“The Unthanks are capable of such beauty that sometimes I can hardly bear to listen to them.” Martin Freeman
Concise descriptions of The Unthanks range variously from “music that asks you to consider everything you know and un-think it”, to “a take on tradition that flips so effortlessly between jazz, classical, ambient and post-rock, it makes any attempt to put a label on them a waste of time”.
Much more than a band
Using the traditional music of the North East of England as a starting point, the influence of Miles Davis, Steve Reich, Sufjan Stevens, Robert Wyatt, Antony & The Johnsons, King Crimson and Tom Waits can be heard in the band’s 14 records to date, earning them a Mercury Music Prize nomination and international acclaim along the way.
They have one Mojo Magazine Folk Album of the Year twice, they were the only British folk representation in The Guardian’s and Uncut’s Best Albums of the Decade (worldwide, all genres), and count amongst their admirers, artists and storytellers including Elvis Costello, Maxine Peake, Rosanne Cash, Martin Freeman, Robert Wyatt, Martin Hayes, Nick Hornby and Dawn French.
But The Unthanks are much more than a band…
There is more to music than just artist and audience.
The Unthanks exist to explore ideas, journey through music, share stories, to connect and participate, as well as to perform. Music is viewed as adventure, stories as learning, audience as friends and equals. Self managed since they started in 2004, The Unthanks have journeyed though an extraordinarily range of musical forms, and lead the way in finding new ways to engage with audiences.
For ten years, they have run annual residential singing weekends on the coast of Northumberland, during lockdown down they staged an online 23 hour weekend community participation event that now looks set to become annual, they’ve collaborated with Maxine Peake to make ground-breaking site-specific theatre, they run their own festival, their own record label, and have recently created soundtracks for six hours of Mackenzie Crook’s beautiful BBC adaptation of the Worzel Gummidge books.
“It’s quite a rare thing now. They’ve really got everything you could want from music. And I’m very fussy!” Robert Wyatt
At the nucleus of a constantly evolving unit is the traditional upbringing of Tyneside sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank and the arrangements and writing of bandleader, composer, pianist and producer Adrian McNally.
Brought up by folkie parents on a diet of Northumbrian border ballads, shanties brought up the Tyne and political and industry-based song, Rachel and Becky have a strength and authority in their singing and storytelling that allows McNally to venture musically in many directions, knowing that wherever it goes, the vernacular of Unthank sisters will predominate and ground the music.
The Unthanks band
Rachel and Becky Unthank have become synonymous with sibling harmony and the North East tradition and have presented both TV and Radio shows for the BBC. Barnsley-born pianist Adrian McNally is self taught and doesn’t read or write music, but despite that has been able to compose scores to accompany The Unthanks that have been performed by Brighouse & Rastrick Brass Band, The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Charles Hazelwood’s Army Of Generals and for The BBC Proms, the BBC Concert Orchestra.
The core band is completed two more musicians of diverse influence and upbringing. Niopha Keegan is a singer and fiddle player brought up in the London Irish tradition, recruited by The Unthanks before she could leave Newcastle after completing the Folkworks Folk Degree, while the multi-talented and multi-instrumentalist and singer Chris Price, grew up three doors from Adrian McNally in the same Yorkshire mining village, together absorbing the influence of vast parental record collections that informs their stamp on The Unthanks sound today.
“They run from the very root of folk music to the very tip of the branch.” Elvis Costello
This core five is the creative identity of The Unthanks, though on record and stage they are more frequently a ten or eleven piece ensemble, with McNally writing for the band’s string quartet and trumpet, and mainstay band members including Martin Douglas on drums, Lizzie Jones on trumpet (right), Becca Spencer on viola and Kath Ord on violin.
“The Unthanks have covered a lot of ground in the past decade and watching them evolve over this period has been truly inspiring.” Phillip Selway (Radiohead)
If Art rock aspires to elevate rock from entertainment to an artistic statement, it the could be said that The Unthanks make Art Folk. Their approach to storytelling that makes easy bedfellows of polar opposites such as staunch traditionalism and sonic adventure, sophisticated harmony and direct social commentary, glacial minimalism and heartbreaking empathy.
“The honest and heartfelt way in which they deliver their music is a true inspiration to me.” Martin Hayes
The Unthanks have a reputation for projects! Their Diversions series is a record label ident that allows adventure while still under the banner of The Unthanks. In addition to film soundtracks and brass band commisions based on the shipbuilding and coal mining industries, they have devoted entire albums to interpreting the work of Robert Wyatt, Molly Drake and Antony & The Johnsons, while more recently, the Lines Trilogy include a song cycle of Emily Bronte’s songs, written in the Bronte family home on her original piano. Browse the music or shop pages for more details!
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