On the line from her flat in West Yorkshire, Becky Unthank is genuinely happy to be talking about her music. Though not hers by pen, there are few more stunning expropriators of songs than her and her sister Rachel in their group The Unthanks. Even legendarily blunt British experimental folk-rocker Robert Wyatt favours their versions of his songs over his own. “That’s the great thing about folk music,” says Unthank with a disarming Northumbrian burr, “is it’s all about songs and the windows they open. We originally did Robert’s Sea Song on our second album and fell in love with his music. A good song is a good song and I wouldn’t be worried about singing a pop song or anything really. We did a concert at Union Chapel last month of just his and Antony Hegarty’s songs - I’m in love with Antony’s music - we did For Today I Am a Boy of his for years and years and we never thought we’d do a set of just their songs. I did wonder for a while: ‘he’s such an amazing artist, what are we trying to achieve anyway?’ But we just had an incredible time exploring the ins and outs of the music. It was a brilliant experience for us and hopefully everyone else.”
With this, their third Australian tour, three sold out shows in Sydney, a Mercury Music Prize nomination and their most recent albums charting in the UK, people thinking their music is brilliant has become an increasingly common response. Since 2005, The Unthanks have gone from being a regional, familial project to an English music institution. “I think after the Mercury Music Prize…being put in that context, you’re visible to a lot more people and they remember your name. It was a great opportunity and very exciting. The family were pleased but mostly it was my friends getting excited. It gave them a context for what we're doing, it’s just our folk music to them I think and sometimes, it just doesn’t click that it’s not just a family thing, and it’s dead exciting.”
English folk music, especially English traditional folk music, long held as the infinitely less cool uptight brother of its American counterpart, finds its origins in tales of working-class celebrations and hardship. Springing up in areas removed from political centres and cultural hubs, traditional folk music saw its heydays during cultural revolutions and many songs fell into obscurity, even if their sentiments are timeless.
With little in the way of competition, The Unthanks have spent the last five years becoming one of the finest, most successful and most respected bands drawing from this fathomless well. Their interpretations of lost or barely remembered folk ballads and shows full of stories of how their rediscoveries occurred can result in songs some find squeamishly twee (particularly when the clog dancing kicks in), but lends an infusion of realism and honesty many bands would kill for. Unthank however, doesn’t see it in such a serious way. “We’ve always done music in our family really for fun,” she says brightly. “On our way to festivals and at parties, our parents got into it in the sixties from going to folk festivals in the summer and they took us too and it was so fun to meet other young people in such a relaxed environment. We’ve always been involved in it and I never thought it was unusual until we became teenagers,” she says with an embarrassed laugh. “I went through a boy band phase and Rachel went through a metal phase and of course I didn’t go around telling everyone in Newcastle I was into folk music, but I never lost interest in it. It’s such a great social life and the songs and the stories are something that you can really become involved in. They’re about life at home, love, hope and death; things that matter to us and to everyone I think. We’re not singing from our voice because these songs don’t belong to one person, they’re someone’s testimony. We’re passing on the stories and I like that part of it. This isn’t all ‘this is the way the world should be’, you can take from them whatever you want to and it’s not dictating our view.”
Though most of The Unthanks previous albums (when they were known as Rachel Unthank and the Winterset) comprised of songs unearthed in their local Northumberland in the north of England, recent years and their forthcoming album Last have seen an expansion of source material. “When we do an album we rack our brains for what songs we’ve been singing for years, our dad’s brain, songbooks...we pick up songs at folk clubs and old records of our parents, it’s an ongoing trawl," she continues enthusiastically. "What captures us is a story really, something we can empathise with, a song that touches us and makes us think ‘I want to sing that to a lot of other people’. The family do it as a whole, it’s the way we socialise, we become more like friends, some people dread family parties, we can’t wait.”
Happily, media attention brought about a change in the typical audience demographic for an Unthanks gig, i.e. not just myopic 40-year-old folk-festival stereotypes. “I find more and more teenagers do come to our shows,” she counters. “It’s not our typical audience of course, but a lot of younger people don’t necessarily know they have their own folk music but when they do, they’re interested. England’s not like Scotland or Ireland where there’s definitely been a history of that.”
The ‘that’ which Unthank talks about is not just musical, but a deeply entrenched, centuries-old cultural pride, something anathema to many British and Australian sensibilities. Besides music and stories there lurks that mercilessly parodied and laughably antiquated bugbear, folk dancing, something the Unthanks do with a gravity many find hilarious. “Oh I know!” Unthank says with mirthful glee. “Rachel and I have both been clog dancing since we were five. We didn’t realise everyone else didn’t do it until we were much older, and after we did some dancing on Jools Holland were asked to do a TV show on folk dancing [Still Folk Dancing After All These Years]. We wound up going around the country and filming different traditional dances, some which we’d heard about and others which were totally new to us. It was a blast. We always bring some of that dancing to our shows and it doesn’t seem funny when you’re so used to it.”
The live shows, the natural home of traditional music, see the now-five-piece band switching between instruments. “The new album in coming out in March, there’ll be a couple of things from that at the Australian shows, maybe some Antony songs too. We thought about doing a live album in Melbourne for a while because we loved the sound at The Toff in Town, then it became talk of a live album with an orchestra back home, but it just hasn’t been the right time,” she says slightly despondently. “It’s hard to capture a live performance when you make an album, though we did record the Union Chapel shows and I know I’m really happy with it and I’d like to do another live album.”