The dark side of family folk music

Rachel Unthank and the Winterset are shaking up this traditional genre, says Tim Cumming

Family has always been at the heart of folk music. Whether it’s the Watermans, the Coppers, the Clancys or the Carters, folk music worldwide is a family affair, mixing new blood with old and adapting the tradition for a new generation. Over recent years, English folk has been given its own familial shot in the arm...

... with the success of the Unthank sisters and their band, The Winterset, who topped off an excellent 2007 with four nominations in the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards.

The Unthank family name has a long and rich history in Northumberland. It meaning was “to go onto common land” – the old English word, “unthances”, dates from a 12th century map marking a squatters’ farm on the Northumbrian borders. The Unthanks were reivers –aclass ofScottish and English bandits who were both law bringers and breakers, “shaking loose the border” with a constant round of raiding, blackmail, robbery, kidnapping, killing, and arson – much of it conducted through the lean winter months.

It is the border reivers of the late middle ages who enriched and darkened the English language with words such as “blackmail” and “bereavement”. Words that aren’t too far from t h e dark, violent, visceral world of the Winterset’s repertoire. Fast forward from the 12th to the 21st century and it’s hard to think of a more apt name for a family of singers exploiting the rich common tongue of the English folk tradition.

“Our mum and dad have always gone to folk clubs,” says Becky, the younger of the Unthanks. “They met at a folk club in the Sixties, and since we were little we’ve spent every summer going to festivals, I’ve always looked forward to it, all the way through the school year, like ‘yes, it’s summer, the festivals are coming’.”

Rachel and Becky’s father, George Unthank, is a member ofTheKeelers, a rowdy, gusty Northumbrian group of shanty singers. “We’d go and sit in pubsandlisten to singers. Because dad was in a shanty group, we’d go to shanty festivals and listen to the shanty mensing songs. We just loved hearing all their stories and all their songs, and because there’d be long journeys to the festivals, our mum and dad would teach us songs in the car, and we’d make up harmonies just for fun.”

The Unthank sisters – Rachel, 29, and Becky, 22, recorded and released their first album, Cruel Sister, on the tiny Rabble Rouser label in 2005. “Basically, with the first album I think we just recorded the songs that we knew,” recalls Becky. “Me and Rachel had been singing together since we were young, and when we first started performing we just got a few songs together and made up some harmonies that we’d been doing around the house.”

Their first album includes the deeply mysterious “Fair Rosamund”, a tale of incest and concubinage from the court of Henry II, alongside whaling shanties from the West Indies, sword dances from the village of Greatham’s midwinter Mummer’s play, and an exquisitely realised cover of Nick Drake’s “River Man”, a vehicle for Becky Unthank’s amazing solo voice.

“I got a free CD in Q, years and years ago, and it had that song on,” remembers Becky, illustrating one of the more contemporary routes into the folk process of song-finding. “I loved it, and I started to sing it, I was singing it for ages, then when Rachel started going out with Adrian [the Winterset’s producer-cum-manager], he was like, ‘Aah, you know about Nick Drake’, and I said, ‘No, not really’, but he was a really big fan and like gave me lots of CDs, and we just put an arrangement together and recorded it the same day.” She laughs. “I love that, when you find a song that’s really special to you, that really gets to you.”

The Unthank’s repertoire ranges wide, but their inspirations are bedded deep in the traditions of their own backyard. “We liked a lot of female singers – June Tabor, Joni Mitchell, the Watersons, but we listened to a lot of male, big voiced singers, as well,” recalls Rachel. “There was a family in Teesside called the Wilsons. They did this powerful male harmony singing, and that’s a part of our upbringing. And our mum’s always sung in folk choirs, and we heard all kinds of traditional singing in folk clubs. That’s what we grew up with. I wanted to represent that to other people, to show the strong culture that we have.”

Whether they walk away from this year’s Folk Awards with a best album, group, live act and Horizon prize remains to be seen, but accolades aside, their second album, The Bairns, remains one of the year’s best and most widely acclaimed releases. Mixing a slew of songs from the Northumbrian Minstrelsy – from the opening, sinister nursery rhymes of Felton Lonnin through to the extraordinary vocal round of album closer “The Newcastle Lullaby”, The Bairns proves to be a vivid and haunting experience, its palette of traditionalsongs expanded with a scattering of contemporary numbers – Robert Wyatt’s beautiful “Sea Song”, Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s “A Minor Place”, and two outstanding originals from the Winterset’s pianist, Belinda O’Hooley.

O’Hooley was the first nonfamily member to come on board, her parlour piano an essential facet of the Winterset sound. While preparing to work on Cruel Sister as a duo, Rachel and Becky were introduced to Belinda by a friend.

“She played in old people’s homes,” recalls Rachel. “That was her main job, so she had all this repertoire of songs, everything from music hall and wartime songs to big band and Twenties jazz numbers. She did weddings as well, so she came armed with that kind of experience, which lends itself well to what we do. The core elements are the same. At first we thought, ‘Oh, she’s from a different background’, and wondered how it would work but when we had a go it was apparent that it was really working together.”

The quartet was completed with the addition of viola player Jackie Oates, replaced on The Bairns by fiddle player Niopha Keegan. Their repertoire may be full of misery and death but these girls know how to entertain. On stage the group exchanges rapid-fire inter-song repartee, often at one another’s expense – O’Hooley, in particular, could have a second career as a stand-up – while delivering songs of such violence and darkness (the likes of Scottish singer Belle Stewart’s “Blue Bleezing Blind Drunk” or O’Hooley’s tale of infant death, “Whitethorn”) that they could easily earn a parental guidance warning.

But like the Yellow Pages, folk’s not just there for the nasty things in life, and the beauty of the Winterset’s arrangements and close harmony vocals – especially between the two sisters – has drawn audiences to their feet all over the country, as well as bringing them a growing chorus of critical acclaim.

The elder (though not necessarily the crueller) sister, Rachel is also the nominal leader, with her name on the cover to ease the pressure of ownership from Becky, who was at college in Manchester and fighting shy of full-time commitment. “I was working in a nightclub and recording the album at the same time, and getting nervous of the responsibility,” she says. “So that’s why we made it Rachel Unthank and the Winterset, to give me the option of coming and going.

“And because I was given the freedom to go away, it let me do exactly what I wanted to do – which was completely to get more involved.”

The only non-instrumentalist of the group (aside from some nifty clog-dancing), Becky has an emotive and intimate voice that can lay claim to virtually any song it touches; one of the thrilling aspects of the group’s live shows are the organic harmonies that grow between the two sisters.

“When we first started Becky didn’t want to sing on her own, so we’d sing together and work out harmonies,” says Rachel. “And I love doing it. Because there’s only two of us, and we’re trying to work out where the voices go and we don’t have any classical sense of harmony, we just try to fill in – sometimes she’ll go low and then maybe she sings the tune and I sing harmony, we just try and fill the whole scope. It’s something we really love to do.”

Becky agrees, and it’s clear that singing is as natural and essential to her as breathing ordreaming. “No matter what I’m feeling – if I’m ever stressed out, or worried, or sad, or anything – it always makes me feel better, and my sister always laughs because I always forget, and afterwards I’ll say, ‘Aaah, I’m dead happy now’, and she’s like, ‘Yeah Becky, you’re always happy when you sing!’”

‘The Bairns’ and ‘Cruel Sister’ are on Rabble Rouser. Rachel Unthank and the Winterset play the Borderline on 8-9 February

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