The Unthanks are upping ante with unorthodox folk

BECKY UNTHANK is having an interesting summer. A month ago, she and her band The Unthanks opened Glastonbury festival in Somerset. They were the first act to play the event’s iconic Pyramid Stage.

The Unthanks are upping ante with unorthodox folk

“I couldn’t believe it,” she laughs. “It was exciting and amazing. Not long afterwards we were over for a show in Donegal. You end up doing all sorts in this business.”

The stereotype of folk music as the preserve of bearded bodhrán-bashers flies out the window with The Unthanks. Led by sisters Becky and Rachel (Unthank really is their family name), the quintet from the windswept reaches of Northumbria in the north east of England have worked hard to make the genre mainstream and fashionable — even receiving a Mercury Music Prize nomination for their 2007 LP The Bairns.

“Growing up, folk music wasn’t very well known where I’m from,” says Becky, the younger sibling by seven years. “Our parents were into it and we would attend folk festivals all around the UK. It’s what we did every summer. Since we were very young, it was part of our family life. At school nobody had any idea what we were talking about. It wasn’t that folk music was unfashionable in England — people just didn’t have a clue what it was.”

The Mercury nomination put The Unthanks on the map. The attention was, to a degree, unwelcome. They’d enjoyed blazing their own singular trail in the margins. The spotlight was not comfortable and after their 2011 album, Last, it was decided a rethink was in order. Rather than issue another straight-forward collection, The Unthanks came up with an alternative: a series of live covers records under the Diversions banner, which saw them tackle the bruised, complicated music of Robert Wyatt and Antony and the Johnsons and others.

“It was nice to do something that captured what it’s like to see us in concert,” says Becky. “Usually, when you give a performance, it’s gone after the fact. That’s a pity because you might put a lot of effort into it.”

After a hiatus from recording their own material, Becky was champing to get back into the studio. “We’d taken a little time out. Rachel had a couple of babies and we did the Diversions project. I was counting down the days to doing our next album.”

Working with producer Adrian McNally (also a band member), The Unthanks were determined to try something different. They assuredly succeeded with new LP Mount The Air, a collection that pushes at the limits of what can be considered “folk”, with lots experimentation and one track nearly 13 minutes long.

“Adrian always says we should let the songs dictate — do whatever they require,” says Becky. “I gave him this piece that was just one line long and had none of the usual melodrama. For instance, nobody died. It became a 13-minute epic. That is exactly the sort of surprise we love. Nobody wants to go through the motions. We are always looking for different ways of pushing it — different ways of exploring.”

As folkies they have long felt a connection to Ireland and are looking forward to headlining Folkfest Killarney this weekend. “We definitely have an affinity,” says Becky. “The audiences are so nice too — in a good mood before you’ve even started playing. You know you are going to get a great response in Ireland.”

The Unthanks play Folkfest Killarney, INEC, Friday. Other acts appearing over the weekend are Moving Hearts, Tinariwen and Mícheál O Súilleabháin.

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