For a member of a band whose songs deal pre-dominantly with themes of loneliness, alienation and death, Becky Unthank is an extraordinarily bubbly character. Becky, who along with sister Rachel form the core of folk group the Unthanks, finds humour in pretty much everything, even their morbid fascination.
From the North-East of England the group have just released their fourth album “Last”, another critically acclaimed record to join, well, everything else they’ve released.
The songs are based firmly in the classic folk tradition, touching as they do on love, loss and - a theme so beloved of pop records - infanticide. They also like to do a bit of clog dancing. The latest Lady Gaga record it is not. So given the volume of acclaim thus far do they still get nervous as a release date approaches?
“Yeah definitely” she says in her thick Northern accent, “but really excited as well. I can’t wait to perform the songs live.”
The group made their debut performance back in 2004 and have been accumulating fans ever since. Thom Yorke is one as is Elvis Costello.
Not that they always thought a music career was an option. Initially the group was called Rachel Unthank and the Wintersest. The name change was inspired by Becky’s decision not to pursue a career in art and perhaps a realization that a musical hobby could be turned into a career.
“We originally called it Rachel Unthank and the Winterset because I was about to go to university and I was worried that if I was doing that I would leave the band in the lurch but it just never happened”
Another permanent member of the group is Rachel’s husband Adrian McNally. At first he was an arranger and producer for the band, before the girls decided to force him permanently behind the keyboard.
They were sick of him trying to explain his ideas to other people, she says giggling once more, “so why don’t you just play them?”
McNally also wrote the title track on their latest album and produced the record which was recorded in Rachel’s house. The girls’ vocals were recorded in a cupboard underneath her stairs.
“Which mostly has Rachel’s shoes in it”, laughs Becky, “so that was quite entertaining,”
The results have been another unqualified success, while there is no stylistic changes the group maintain the standard set with 2009’s “Here’s the Tender Coming.”
The material isn’t just drawn from traditional folk music with a cover of Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan’s “No One Knows I’m Gone” one of the highlights.
Diversifying for most musicians is usually a good thing but in groups classified as folk it can sometimes be rather unwelcome for their often precious authenticity-obsessed fans. For instance both women have seen criticism for everything from the material they choose to the way they sing to the clothes they choose to sing in. It must be pretty disquieting to have such impossible standards to maintain in a tradition that is after all supposed to represent everybody, not just self-proclaimed protectors of the flame. Becky rejects any notion of responsibility to the folk tradition outside of her own artistic muse.
“I don’t think you can worry about that. As long as you are being true to yourself that’s all you can do. There’s no point in trying to please other people.”
In another departure from traditional folk music the band performed two concerts at London’s Union Chapel in December 2010 consisting of material written entirely by Robert Wyatt and Anthony Hegarty of Anthony and the Johnsons, an experience which briefly terrified the younger Unthank sister.
“That was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done, we only did two nights and half-way through the first night I thought ‘you’re going to have to enjoy this because it’s not going to happen too often’.”
Of course having your sister beside you always helps and Becky admits that at her most nervous (like when before their performance on Jools Holland) she is always glad Rachel is there.
Those moments are few these days though with the group having developed into a considerable live draw. Throughout it all their love of singing and the songs they sing has remained absolute. Becky insists that while fame would be nice all they really crave is the opportunity to communicate their songs to an audience.
“I think from doing it from such a young age together it wasn’t like we were trying to achieve some big high goal. We’re not trying to be a world famous band. Any opportunity we’ve got to perform we’ll do it.
She takes particular delight in audiences who seem as rapt in a particular song as she is, admitting with admirable honesty that they are not cheeriest songs in the world.
“They’re not the easiest songs to listen to are they? Especially since some are 10 minute long, dark melancholy tales... but if we’re performing and I can see people really into a song I think, ‘you’re like me and you want to listen to this!’ It is an amazing feeling that people feel the same as you about the songs”
Notably it is the songs that Becky seems to believe hold the power to draw in the audience rather than the interpreters of them. Their modesty and self-deprecation are just some of the qualities which makes the group so inherently likeable and perhaps partly why their approach to folk music is so refreshing.
Over the decades and probably centuries many people have sung folk songs such as theirs which lay bare the isolation and desperation of everyday life but it takes a special group to make it so easy to listen to.
The Unthanks with support from Trembling Bells play the Riverbank Theatre on April 13. Tickets are €16 from 448327 or from riverbank.ie.